Lords of the Fallen was released late last year under a classic “complete edition” pretense. That’s good enough for me to resurrect another old review nobody read at the time!
Developer: CI Games, Deck13
Publisher: Square Enix (EU), Namco Bandai (US)
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: November 3, 2015
It’s practically impossible not to mention Dark Souls when talking about Deck 13’s Lords of the Fallen, predominantly because the latter is one of the most shameless imitations of the former you could ever hope to see. From the progress structure to the attempted strategic combat to the near-identical control scheme, Deck 13 doesn’t even try to hide that it’s playing From Software’s song.
For all its lofty imitations, one thing is quite clear – the studio isn’t exactly sure how to replicate the Souls games’ innate allure.
If I’m to be brutally honest, I’d have to say Lords of the Fallen is a noticeably inferior copy of Demon’s/Dark Souls. However, inferiority in comparison to one of the most accomplished action role-playing games in the business does not mean the game is inherently bad.
Despite missing the point of the games it apes and employing a number of highly questionable design decisions, Lords of the Fallen manages to be an engrossing, entertaining experience for the most part.
You start the adventure with very little background and some inefficient tutorials. The main character is an ex-convict waging war on the Rhogar, who are demons or something, and that’s about all the plot worth covering.
There are NPCs, though talking to them is like joining a conversation halfway through – they know and care what’s going on, but you, as the player, lack sufficient information to join them. It seems to want to emulate Souls‘ deliberately vague worldbuilding, but it’s too plot-heavy and offers masses of dialogue that mean nothing. Instead of mysterious, the story just comes off as poorly fleshed out.
From then on, it’s gothic hallways and grim corridors as players dodge, block, counter, and circle an army of enemies so spiky and overdesigned you’d think a younger Todd McFarlane birthed them.
Almost all descriptions of gameplay could begin with the phrase, “just like Dark Souls.” Fallen attempts to be every bit as tense as its surrogate forebear, with enemies that slice off large amounts of health, an energy meter governing blocking, rolling, and attacking, and a firm focus on slow, methodical, tactical fighting.
During the opening chapters, the game succeeds somewhat in delivering a Souls-esque experience. The first boss is a dominating, intimidating prospect, wielding a giant sword and shield that require careful navigating and timing to work around. For a good while, one is made to feel cautious and even a little paranoid, with encounters requiring patience and pragmatism.
There are problems from the outset, even in the face of such promise. Environments are composed of tiny corridors, often littered with oversized enemies, and the camera becomes a nightmare as it tries and fails to focus on the action. The lock-on system is awkward, regularly focusing on the wrong enemy and sometimes refusing to switch to other monsters for no discernible reason.
The game is clunky and often glitchy – Rhogar are fond of disappearing and reappearing as if the game forgot to render them, animations can fail to trigger properly (especially anything involving monsters grabbing the player), and players can even fall through walls. The whole game has a rough, janky feel to it, the sort of thing one finds endearing when it’s not infuriating.
Despite all the sloppiness, Lords of the Fallen manages to retain its appeal. Tweaking the death system of Dark Souls, players rack up a kill streak as they slay a successive amount of Rhorgar. Each combatant put down is worth experience, which can be spent at save points dotted throughout the world. However, using a save point to spend XP or record progress resets the kill streak, and one needs a high kill streak in order to coax better loot drops from enemies.
If you die, you’ll leave behind a ghost where you fell, and will need to collect it to retain your experience. Take too long, or die again, and it’s lost forever. It’s a fun balancing act of risk and reward, as players choose between banking their earnings and staying safe or seeing how far they can go without losing it all.
Some of this is mitigated, however, by the fact it’s easy to grind, and one can return to previous areas to beat up on weaker enemies.
That latter issue becomes harder to ignore as the game continues. See, while Lords of the Fallen starts off every bit as unyielding as Dark Souls, the right combination of equipment and character building can turn things into a cakewalk.
At character creation, I gave my guy the “Cleric” spell set, which allows me to regenerate health, raise defense, reflect damage, or slow down enemies, all with a constantly refreshing mana pool. Though the slow casting time makes using them in battle a little tricky, a bit of leveling allowed me to spam these spells recklessly, and all it takes is the right weapon to turn the whole game into a big mindless hack n’ slash.
It doesn’t help that I accidentally completed a dungeon out of order, something designed for above my level, and after chewing through a boss that I wasn’t supposed to fight yet (it did, admittedly, put up stiff resistance), the rest of the game’s opposition was pitiful.
The Complete Edition undoes the balance even faster, starting you off with extra weaponry and armor that make you far more powerful. That first boss I mentioned? Humiliated by the DLC gear included as part of the rerelease’s standard package. By the time those items are outclassed, you’ll have gotten over the original game’s difficulty hump without much bother.
Lords of the Fallen never quite nails balance. When it’s at its toughest, it’s relying on cheap tricks to feign difficulty. Despite the game claiming that enemies are subject to all the same rules as the player, they’re not.
They may power through and break all your attack animations, and while their ability to block isn’t unlimited, their stamina is unreasonably high and they pivot on the spot to face you at all times, a’la Dark Souls II.
On the flipside, when it’s not pulling out all the dirty stops to craft an artifice of challenge, it can be shockingly easy.
Again, however, other games are emulated to provide more of a fight. You can choose to go without armor, and there are equipment/spell packages at character creation that aren’t as easily abused as the Cleric. There are optional challenges throughout the game to keep things spicy. In addition, there’s both a New Game + and a New Game ++ at completion, giving you a tougher run each time.
Lords of the Fallen is a weird little prospect. On paper, nothing about it sounds good, and I realize this review reads negatively. Deck13’s offering is brazenly derivative, technically clumsy, and its difficulty balance is all over the place. It violates its “tough but fair” rules to maintain the “tough” side of things, and when it doesn’t do that, it degenerates into a mindless brawler.
Yet in spite of itself, it’s entertaining. I loved going through the Warhammer-flavored hallways, feeling increasingly more dangerous, with the desire to overcome and preponderate initially onerous opponent providing plenty of motivation.
Not to mention, there’s something delightful in just how ridiculous it all is. The imbalance can be its own satisfaction, as the night-and-day difference between hard and easy lets you go and thoroughly bully something that used to give you a lot of trouble.
Likewise, the overly grimdark art direction and general tone is hilarious. There are weapons with names like Rotten, Butcher, and Bloodsick.
Bloodsick! What could “bloodsick” even refer to? Is it a puddle of sick full of blood, or someone sicking up blood, or is it someone whose veins are full of sick instead of blood?
This ludicrous game is married to the Games Workshop, intricately spiky, endlessly angsty – there’s a lot of unintentional – but nonetheless funny – humor to be found.
Lords of the Fallen has all the stuff needed to be a truly great game. Despite not nailing the point of Dark Souls, it manages to hold its own as a Souls-lite production for a good portion of its running time. The desire to progress is effectively coercive, and there are some legitimately grueling boss fights on offer.
Its overall grunginess, as well as the other aforementioned issues, stop it from achieving its potential, but what can I say? I don’t dislike this, even if I really should. It’s doing something right.
A shameless and sloppy copy of Dark Souls, Fallen shouldn’t be as enjoyable as it is. Somehow, through all its imbalance and oddity, it remains a surprising amount of fun, even if its propensity to make the player laugh is a sheer accident.
If you’re hoping for another Souls experience, this is too tepid an offering to be satisfying. That said, it’s still worth playing if you want an amusing, silly bit of action.