There is a brand of player that sees impossible odds, sees fiery, poisonous, roaring death from all directions, and greets it all with an insane grin – and then turns up the difficulty. For everyone else, there's Lords of the Fallen.
This is not a necessarily an insult. There is no shame whatsoever in Lords of the Fallen being what many will immediately identify as a brazen riff on the special niche From Software has built for themselves with the Dark Souls series, especially when it's in the interest of a much more accessible game. Accessible is a good thing. Inferior, however, is not. There's plenty of both to be found here.
Lords of the Fallen is the story of Harkyn, a criminal sentenced to spend the remainder of his natural life in prison if not for a priest named Kaslo, who busts Harkyn out of jail to help stem the tide of an invading demon army. Almost every cliché in the grim-n-gritty fantasy playbook gets thrown in here, though Lords of the Fallen does respectable work letting the story play out with far more humanity than expected or, arguably, needed. There's even one or two likeable, memorable characters – particular tip of the hat to the nameless, haunting, stiff-upper-lip rune crafter – though nothing that happens here is unexpected for anyone who's watched even half a season of Game of Thrones at this point.
The story, however, is naught but a wafer-thin excuse to give Harkyn a legion of wicked demon fodder to slaughter. For Souls veterans, the slaying is going to feel so utterly familiar as to essentially make Lords of the Fallen a pick-up-and-play title. Harkyn is a slower character, whose bulk is palpable even when stripped to the bare minimum of equipment, but the fundamentals are the same. Players new to the formula, however, will find themselves getting rather easily acquainted with the game's brand of mayhem, though mastery will be hours away. That's assuming the base level of aggravation doesn't kill the game for them first.
On paper, it's the archetypical dungeon crawler, which often places you in grand, labyrinthine cathedrals of arcane decadence, swarming with armored mutations and snarling, lethal beasts who all want your head. The labyrinths themselves are detailed, but their actual design is often cluttered, and in dire need of a map function. An annoyance to be sure, but most of the diverging paths lead to the same place anyway, and many of the "What now?" moments occur usually when the way out is hiding in plain sight.
The actual act of exploring those labyrinths and removing the devils in your way is a bit more complicated, though by no means impossible. You start out with a simple hand axe, which gives way quick to a delightful potpourri of broadswords, polearms, and massive, double-headed battle axes, each with a light and a hard attack which can be strung together for slow, rudimentary, but effective combos. Past those, you have a grand cavalcade of accessories to give you access to projectiles, bombs, and attack modifiers, and magic spells which vary depending on which of the three classes (Warrior, Cleric, or Rogue) you choose. Warrior spells focus on doing more damage more quickly, Rogues on feats of stealth and deception, and Clerics on ranged spells and healing. There are different attack proficiencies to cram XP into for each class, and the spells help to scratch any itches you might have if you have a preferred play style in another RPG, but aside from that, Harkyn is the same across the board, with the spells regenerating too slowly in the heat of combat to represent any sort of true game-changing experience.
What separates Lords of the Fallen from, say, the Diablos of the world, however, is the fact that every button press in combat has a real heft. Your most basic attack takes the weight of your weapon and Harkyn's own brickhouse girth into account. The first enemy you encounter might be able to strip half of Harkyn's health before he's even made a swing, which will more than likely miss. And thus you learn the frustrating lesson that carries you through the entire campaign: Every action has consequences. Everything you do has a cost of time or energy – not surprising given you've got half an armory on your back – and being caught off guard without the ability to roll out of the way, or being stuck waiting for Harkyn to swing his weapon will teach fast, valuable lessons in pain.
Until you find just the right combination of weaponry, sorcery, and agility, your earliest battles are a slow, grueling process of trial and error, learning Harkyn's limits, testing out new equipment, targeting and strafing around enemies to study them before making a move. Most of Lords of the Fallen's early hours are spent just gaining a basic comfort with Harkyn controlling like an axe-swinging Abrams tank. The next several are spent waiting around for enemies to make an error. It is a game of defense far more than one of offense.
The good news is that when enemies miss, they miss big. Once you learn their openings, or take the time to upgrade your ranged attacks to the point where you rarely even need to bother, you can destroy most low level grunts without suffering so much as a scratch. The same goes for bosses, who hit hard, but leave themselves wide open to Harkyn's most damaging moves after a time. Again, this is a good thing, and the smug grin when you've managed to figure out how to efficiently ruin a giant shielded knight's day is worth the thousand unexpected deaths to come.
Make no mistake, though: Until you reach a certain level of proficiency and strength, you will die often. Even with every save point granting health potions, even if that save point is 30 feet away, a wrong move will cost your life, as well as all your experience up to that point. Lords of the Fallen copy-pastes the Dark Souls gimmick of allowing you to reclaim your lost XP (and earn a tiny stat boost) by reaching the place of your death without dying a second time, albeit with one major twist. In Lords of the Fallen, each kill adds to a steady XP multiplier that is only broken when you die or when you spend your points on attributes or new spells. Frugal players can and should bank their points the second they get the chance to prevent their loss, but daring players who venture just a little bit farther past the save points, killing for a higher multiplier, can reap glorious benefits when they finally decide to make a deposit. It's an elegant way of encouraging the kind of foolish gallantry that leads folks to this kind of game to begin with, while also making it very easy to let those who play at a more languid pace to continue grinding at their own speed.
And therein lies the irony of being the accessible option in a burgeoning, tough-as-nails subgenre of dungeon crawler. The pendulum of Lord of the Fallen's difficulty can handily be swung in the other direction if you have an abundance of patience, but not of courage. Finding just the right spot to keep circling around and killing respawning enemies, watching your multiplier rise into the stratosphere, can very easily create a situation in which Harkyn is ridiculously overpowered for most of the game. It's not even really an exploit: After the third or fourth time of returning to a save, loaded with XP, only to find that the the enemies you just killed have respawned, it's almost unavoidable. It's not quite forcing a grind so much as forcing the player to make the most out of a bad situation.
So, when Lords of the Fallen stops providing the challenge, its other objective flaws are highlighted: The aforementioned cluttered level design, a half-baked, unrewarding moral choice system for conversations with NPCs, and numerous glitches. The one that truly hurts more often than not is the result of the frequently cramped battle spaces. Enemies are bug prone, and after their wide open swings you're often either in a place where defensive/counter attacks are useless, or the enemy is stuck somewhere being your glitchy pinata until they vanish.
Games like Lords of the Fallen are all about settling into a familiar routine, one that keeps the enemies nice and predictable, your spells and weaponry superior, and lets the game take great pleasure in pulling the rug from under you in spectacular fashion when it comes to bosses. To its credit, boldness has a self-satisfying import in Lords of the Fallen. It rewards fearlessness on the part of the player with power, and for a character that often feels burdensome and powerless in the early going, it's a good feeling to have that foolish decision validated in some way. But with time, stripped of its challenges, routine curdles into tedium. With the difficulty stripped away from Lords of the Fallen, there is nothing beyond to beckon the player forward and make it a journey worth taking. There's definitely satisfaction to be had with Lords of the Fallen, but there comes a point at which it has no more tricks up its sleeve. In the end, the worst enemy in the game may be the game itself, and there's nothing hiding in a chest somewhere to fix that.
This review is based on a PSN download of the PS4 version of Lords of the Fallen, provided by Bandai Namco. Images: Bandai Namco
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