PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
October 13, 2023
I’m always a stickler for the underdog games. Those that people are largely naysayers of, quickly dismissing and never giving the game much a second thought. The kind that when I tell people I like said game they say “Really, that game?” Why? Because I like to find the good in media and celebrate their quirks and what they do well. The 2014 Soulslike Lords of the Fallen is one of those rare underdog games. Equally showing good ideas and potential while also having the unfortunate comparison of being one of the first imitators of Dark Souls. Rarer yet is that following a middling to poor reception, developer HEXWORKS are getting another stab at it with this new and original 2023 title of the same name.
With a mountain of doubt already going into the release, this new imagining deploys some teachings in the almost decade that has passed while also falling back into old habits.
Disclaimer: due to Lords of the Fallen’s difficulty, I was unable to complete the title, something we always strive to do with our review content. Instead, I bring you this review after spending near 20 hours in the game’s challenging world in the limited review time frame.
Lords of the Fallen is an action RPG with upwards of nine classes to choose from to go on your venture. A knight, a Viking-like brutish character known as a ‘werewolf,’ and a cleric are just some of these choices. What took my fancy however was a Ranger, which sports a similar hunter like fashion to the attire found in Bloodborne. This Ranger is a versatile build, equipped with both a bow and hunting axe, always allowing for one to keep their options open. Following that, you’re off on your venture into the broad fantasy lands of Mournstead. Your objective is simple: Conquer the great bosses of biomes on the gradual hunt of the ever powerful and evil god Adyr. Your journey? Well, it’ll be less straight forward and a lot more trying.
It doesn’t take long for Lords of the Fallen to eclipse its counterpart in visual variety and exciting biomes. What was once trepidatious steps through drab and tedious castle corridors becomes harsh and rocky cliffsides bathed in glorious sunlight, filthy and disgusting swamps, eerie jaunts through caves and a series of buildings mid burning down.These areas actually look quite gorgeous at times and are very engaging. I always enjoy even the most miserable of swamps in these types of games, and Lords delivers the good here, providing many swamp beasties to overcome and acidic status effects to avoid. Instead of being open world where players can walk off in any direction like recent blockbusters such as Elden Ring, it takes the traditional approach of smart level design where biomes are entertwined, snaking around and connecting together in clever ways.
Most creative is how the game manages to even mix up the environments without ever leaving them. The way it does this is via the unique mechanic of using a lamp to travel to the world of Umbral, a dead and decaying version of the environment you’re currently in. Raising this umbral lamp up provides glimpses into this other world, meaning you can still engage with the Umbral world (perhaps by walking through a path now only unblocked if in the lamp’s light) without ever fully delving in. Holding circle while raising the lamp fully transports you into this new Umbral world, where everything is dead and decaying. Skulls are littered about. The good, Giger horror stuff that also plays into navigating and solving puzzles not found in the normal world.
Undead will haunt you and become more aggressive the longer you spend in this state and the more you kill in it. The vibes are palpable but also terrifying, forever feeling like theres a bounty on your head. Contributing to this sensation is the fact that the longer you stay in Umbral your Vigor (the games’ equivalent of souls, used for leveling up and buying items) earnings multiply more and more.
Lords of the Fallen always delivers interesting and varied biomes, however that lets up with the way the game thrusts some of its challenge at you. I’ve been around the block and then some with Souls and Soulslike games at this point. What is lacking herethat is a feeling of balance and also self-improvement outside of levelling up. There are times when I’m in such disbelief that this appears to be an issue the game is repeating from its original entry. When an action RPG really sings and is teaching the player effectively, the player is often finding new tactics to overcome difficult areas. Maybe they’ll comb around corners, wary of anything that could come out at any moment. Enemies are often spaced out as such that you begin to find a rhythm, quickstepping and slashing away like its your own messed up, but delightful ballet. For a number of biomes, Lords of the Fallen is nothing like that, instead just throwing dozens upon dozens of enemies at you at once without much rhyme or reason. That’s the challenge. Good luck.
“…It becomes a slog and a painfully long cycle of loading in, making little progress, dying and then respawning. Repeat. “
This ruins the otherwise competent and good Soulslike that you could be in store for. Walking through striking environments and feeling the immersion… the good stuff that you come to these experiences for falls by the wayside. It becomes a slog and a painfully long cycle of loading in, making little progress, dying and then respawning. Repeat. This feeling becomes amost like a death by a thousand cuts scenario too with some of the technical issues found in-game. Namely, Lords of the Fallen has a memory leak issue where the game will start to well and truly chug and lose frames if you’ve been playing sessions that are too long. This could come with the day one patch but has yet to be proven.
Bosses also vary from entirely trivial to unfair and unbalanced depending on your build. Each exciting fight, whether that’s toppling a gigantic flesh amalgam or noble armored knights bathed in blood, feel like they’re over in a flash and just a little bit too breezy. Juxtaposing this are heavy hitters with a hard to telegraph attack that are just a little bit too brutal. Let me put it this way, if Lies of P, a game I consider to be incredibly well balanced had some rebalancing post launch, Lords of the Fallen definitely will.
For a game that in its builds and classes indicates a level of versatility and options, the design of some of the encounters sure don’t provide ample opportunities for dolling out damage and dominating the battlefield. Even with my all-rounder build with both close and long range attacks, there’s a particular boss that forced me to be pulled away from the boss’ proximity, on a ledge firing my arrows. The problem? Your ammunition for bows are consumables and you can only stock so many of them at a time. Before long, I ran out and the boss wouldn’t let me get close again. I was simply out of options, and still am. All that’s left is to maybe spend a considerable number of hours grinding out the skills needed to become a spellcaster and hope for the best. A solution I don’t particularly look forward to.
If it sounds like I’m being too harsh, it’s only because I see Lords of the Fallen’s real potential to be something brilliant. There are gameplay functions put in place to make the experience smoother. Co-operative play is seamless, not requiring any resources or any of that busy work to summon in a partner. The Umbral Lamp also has excellent use in combat to give you at least a little bit of breathing room: you can quite literally use it as a grapple to pull the soul out of an enemy for a brief window, leaving them more susceptible to damage or even yanking them off a cliff face. Hell, if you haven’t taken a delve into the Umbral world in a run, you basically get a backup life when losing all your health, ejecting you into the undead land.
- Gorgeous and varied environments and biomes
- Seamless co-op and other quality of life additions
- Umbral lamp is an excellent means of combat and exploration
- Painfully unbalanced
- Sometimes woefully overpopulated with enemies
- Technical issues such as framerate loss and general chugging
Lords of the Fallen may be better than its predecessor in many regards, but it isn’t quite worthy of standing among the genre giants yet. However, this isn’t from a lack of trying. Excellent and varied biomes are on offer that are truly striking and immersive to be beheld to. There are quality improvements to make the experience smoother. Still, balancing for builds, boss fights… the whole gambit is a little all over the place so far. Consider this with some of the bugs currently experienced in-game and it’s not quite smooth sailing yet. Hopefully, before long Lords can be patched into a state where it stands solidly amongst the genre giants.