Lords of the Fallen Review
Don’t Call It a Comeback
When the original Lords of the Fallen released in 2014, the action RPG space was a somewhat different sort of place than it is today. True, Dark Souls had already left its mark on the genre — in fact, Dark Souls II released the same year as Lords — but the Soulslike landscape was still in its infancy, with many important evolutions taking place over the next near-decade. This means the recent Lords of the Fallen reboot has far more to live up to than the original did. While it addresses many aspects lacking during the franchise’s first outing, the overall experience still misses the high-water mark it aims for, with a glut of gameplay systems and wonky mechanics rearing their ugly heads each time a measure of success is achieved elsewhere. It outpaces its predecessor in terms of quality, to be sure, but not enough to make for an emphatic recommendation.
Though the games are set in the same universe, there is no prior familiarity with the franchise needed. Players take on the role of the Lampbearer, an anonymous soul who comes into possession of the Umbral Lamp after its previous owner is slain by the Lightreaper. It doesn’t take long before the player is pressed into service, travelling the land of Mournstead to cleanse five beacons in order to prevent the demon god Adyr from rising again. While making their way through the world, players can use the Umbral Lamp to transition from the land of the living, Axiom, to the realm of the dead, Umbral, in order to overcome obstacles and find useful items.
Though Lords of the Fallen uses plenty of otherwise familiar Soulslike gameplay concepts, the dual-world dynamic is a unique twist that certainly sets it apart from others in the genre. However, traversing the twin realms comes with a host of unique rules and limitations, all of which are introduced during the game’s opening hour, making for a rather dense and frustrating learning curve. For example, it is possible to switch into Umbral at will (though occasionally required), but one can only return to the land of the living from certain locations. A select few transdimensional actions can, however, be performed without fully crossing over by utilizing the Umbral Lamp; for example, a blocked doorway in Axiom may be open in Umbral, and the lamp enables the player to take a few brief steps in the other dimension without leaving Axiom.
Crossing over into Umbral also has its own perils, like constantly spawning enemies and an on-screen meter that fills the longer one stays in the realm of the dead, summoning a fearsome demon bent on slaughter once filled. Being cut down in Umbral is a final death sentence for the player, while dying in Axiom merely propels one into Umbral for one last go at survival, in essence providing one Hail Mary boost to the health bar prior to death, even during boss battles. Though it eventually becomes second nature, the whole dynamic makes for a rather bumpy start right out of the gate.
While the dual-world mechanic may frustrate early on, combat has a penchant to swing from smooth to irritating all the way to the final credits. The lock-on system is habitually slow to recognize freshly spawned enemies, and there were many times when trying to activate it swung the camera around impotently instead. Elsewhere, having a rally system that enables the player to regain blocked chip damage by playing offensively is welcome, but it is less useful in the many instances when being swarmed from all sides. Frequent ambushes are bad enough on their own, but they often have even more devastating consequences, as all enemies present in Axiom also appear in Umbral, alongside additional Umbral-specific foes. It’s not out of the ordinary to be thrown out of the frying pan and into the fire by being forced into Umbral in the middle of an enemy nest from which there is virtually no escape.
Despite this, there are still plenty of instances when combat and exploration are tensely enjoyable and rewarding. The game’s combat system ticks all the necessary boxes, at least on paper, and provides players with plenty of options. These include a number of character classes (including some unlockable ones as incentives for subsequent playthroughs), skill point allotments, and offensive options that include melee, ranged, and magic. Blocking and dodging are present and accounted for and work as advertised, though a more surefire path to victory lies in throwing enemies and bosses off balance by parrying their attacks.
Lords of the Fallen is a rather lengthy game, and dwarfs its predecessor in terms of size and scale. Many times along the journey, particularly when outdoors, players can swing the camera around in a 360-degree arc and see each of Mournstead’s five beacons in the distance, shooting piercing beams of light into the sky. The lengthy journey will take players to locations like fetid swamps, wooden scaffolding clinging precariously onto a mountainside, a defiled cloister, a town burning down to cinders, and a ruined castle keep buried under snow and ice. At the center, the hub area of Skyrest Bridge provides a safe haven from the world’s chaos where players can rest up, improve their equipment, and further any of the various NPC plotlines. It’s quite satisfying to unravel, during the course of play, how many of the areas twist and wind on each other and end up connecting back to the hub. The powerful bosses also feature some memorable highlights, with a few outlandish and bizarre designs that show the developers flexing their creative muscle.
When considered as a whole, some aspects of the game can come off as uneven, tipping into one extreme or another over its lengthy runtime. Level design and exploration, for example, feel quite a bit more finely tuned and deliberate in the game’s second half, whereas early hours are undermined by overpowered enemy encounters and sprawling environments. Early bosses can often feel overwhelming, whereas later encounters feel more in line with player levels at that point. Enemy variety, on the other hand, feels somewhat short-changed, with common enemies simply reappearing as upscaled versions, while the latter half has the unpleasant habit of jamming previously encountered bosses down the player’s throat with uninspired (and sometimes unfair) consistency.
It must be said that all these instances of the game’s steep difficulty curve are likely a direct result of the player’s chosen character class. Those opting for a traditional melee approach to combat will have a wholly different experience than those going for a magic-centric build, which benefits from having many powerful spells to find or purchase. Rather than provide a balanced alternative to sword-and-shield combat, however, magic — if the PvP player invasions participated in during this playthrough are an accurate representation — is grossly overpowered at time of writing. Not only does this call into question how challenging the main campaign actually is for a magic user, but it also makes for ludicrously lopsided PvP duels that actively discourage engaging with the game’s online components. At least it’s very simple to find or offer co-op assistance, features that are often obfuscated in this genre.
Saying that Lords of the Fallen looks great seems like a contradiction given the ghastly and decayed state of Mournstead, but it does. The game presents a high level of dedication to making absolutely every nook and cranny of the world look fantastically bleak and hopeless. The twin realms of Axiom and Umbral effectively double the amount of geographic real estate, and while the two worlds are the same in broad strokes, there are many subtle nuances visible only after crossing from one to the other. Umbral often looks like a scene xeroxed straight out of some Lovecraftian nightmare, with towering monstrosities rising out of bottomless pits or scaling buildings and mountainsides. Even with Umbral’s bleached, monochromatic color palette, the level of effort evident in the world of Mournstead is nothing short of impressive.
Musically, there’s also quite a bit to like, with epic choral compositions taking center stage to highlight the game’s gothic tones of decay and religious decadence. The voice actors, too, perform their roles well. Narrative and world-building are closely tied together but must be sought out and thusly can be largely ignored if one wants to. Similarly, sidequests exist more as a way to flesh out the gameworld with characters that can be met and interacted with in various locations as they travel through Mournstead following their own story beats, with the player needing to seek them out or supplying key items in order to trigger their journey’s next stage.
Given the amount of time between Lords of the Fallen’s initial outing and its reboot, this new release feels far less like an attempt to right the ship and more like its own thing. This is a positive, as it certainly forges a strong identity of its own, and provides a robust amount of content to back it up. But much like its predecessor, it struggles to push past its self-imposed limitations, in this case revolving around its combat system and dual-world gimmick. With frustrating encounter designs and a need to fine-tune some aspects, the game veers from joyful to jarring and back again far too frequently to let a sense of fun be its main takeaway.
Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Intriguing dual-world concept
Massive world with engaging areas to visit
Presentation is delightfully gothic and relentlessly bleak
Some enjoyably twisted boss designs
Combat system occasionally fights back
Magic system feels like ultra-easy mode and unbalances PvP
Frustrating opening filled with systems galore