Next-gen RPG Lords of the Fallen wants to challenge, not mindlessly punish

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Next-gen RPG Lords of the Fallen wants to challenge, not mindlessly punish
The Witcher 3 isn't the only Polish next-gen RPG to keep an eye on. CI Games' Lords of the Fallen, coming to PS4, Xbox One, and PC, also looks to mix dark fantasy with sizable challenge, but through its own brand of tactical, thoughtful combat.

It's become fashionable for developers to name-drop Dark Souls as emblematic of their own games' similar, tough-as-nails appeal, but this often lacks meaningful merit. Not so in Executive Producer Tomasz Gop's case. His Souls-drop, made when first announcing Lords of the Fallen, was absolutely visible when I saw the game in action. That's not to say it's a replica of the Souls games, something Gop is keen to stress, but I did recognize a familiar mano-a-mano challenge in its third-person RPG combat.

I watched the game's hero, a grizzled slab of man called Harkyn, bide his time through slow one-on-one encounters, each one an ordeal. His first fight was against a demonic sub-boss Lord, his red eyes lurking beneath reams of armor, his arm all too happy to slam his huge molten sword into the ground, cracking tiles into streams of flame. Against the backdrop of a monastery's crumbling ruins, Harkyn strafed as he waited patiently for an opening. The Lord shuffled, looking to lunge forward and strike. The only thing missing was the Kirk and Spock battle music. When combat did break out, it was clear gung-ho attacks wouldn't work for Harkyn. The Lord could do big damage with just a few swings of his sword, while Harkyn's attacks made much smaller dents to his enemy's life bar. Blocks and dodges were soon employed as necessary, timing obviously key, before the micro-opportunity came to take a hit. Not just one hit; the trick was attacking the right number of times. One too many gave the Lord the chance to strike back, removing buckets of lifeblood.

As the Lord's health dropped, an attack took a huge chunk of his armor off his towering frame. This made him lighter, and so he was able to switch up his attacks, swiftly weaving his fiery blade in loops over and around his frame, almost like a street performer juggling torches. The combat evolved like this a few more times, each change demanding a different approach from the player. Bear in mind this was a sub-boss, and the enemies can get much bigger, and surely tougher. That's why this game has me intrigued.

"You can imagine Lords of the Fallen as a game that has all the layers, all the complexity, all the mechanics, all the elements of very advanced tactical combat," Gop told me when I asked about the game's appeal. "But it's not being mindlessly punishing at the same time."

It's not easy to make a game feel truly challenging without risking it feeling "mindlessly punishing." One way Lords of the Fallen is attempting to avoid having players bounce off its difficulty level is through its class-tied spells, "smart bombs" that can be used "when things get hot," as Gop put it. For example, the rogue class can go temporarily invisible, while clerics can deploy phantom clones that draw enemies towards them. On the other hand, Gop said the game will reward players who focus more on the tactical aspect.

If a lot of this sounds rather conceptual, it may well be. The game is in pre-alpha, and it's clear a lot is still being tinkered with. The class system, for one, seems more traditional than before. Players will choose one of three classes - warrior, rogue or cleric - and that class will govern which smart bomb-like spells players can use. There's still some of the "relative construct" Gop previously noted, with some weapons and gear not tied to classes, allowing players to still mix up builds.

Given it's still early days, maybe it's more useful to focus on the finer points of the game's ethos. For example, learning by dying will be a good mantra for players to abide by, but it's not like Gop wants players to die without understanding why they died; don't expect too many hidden traps lurking in the floorboards. Also, while tactical, demanding combat will be a key part of Lords of the Fallen, arguably the defining part, exploration and narrative will have their roles too.

When Harkyn delved further into the monastery's catacombs, he soon found a few audio notes, these serving a dual purpose. The audio itself expanded upon the world's dark fantasy backstory, involving a world enduring the wrath of a forgotten 'Fallen God.' The finding of the audio notes, however, was tied to a glittering red shard, visible on a high ledge near the monastery's entrance but seemingly unobtainable. According to Gop, the shard was one of many examples of the game's hidden secrets. He didn't explain exactly how the audio notes helped to obtain the shard, but did note it could be used to unearth a powerful class-specific weapon.

"I heard a guy who said that games like [Lords of the Fallen] are assholes," Gop recalled as he summed up the game's challenge. "I said, 'Okay, what if we try to come to a middle ground, and I say yes, you might have the feeling this game is an asshole, but what if it's an asshole that's comprehensible, fair, approachable, and something that actually makes you feel like you know what you're doing? Is that still an asshole?' Maybe a smaller one. We're not planning to be an asshole, but we really think that what is most important about the game is to be fair, predictable, and somehow comprehensible. I believe Lords of the Fallen is exactly that kind of game."

Lords of the Fallen is due next year: not Q1, Gop told me, and I suspect 2014 is ambitious as is. Hopefully it'll build on its promise and, asshole or not, prove worth the wait.
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