Looks sharp, plays hard and the box cover snarls Oliver Reed out loud…
When a game is specifically built around that fine line between fun and frustration, a deft touch is needed by the developer to find that ‘secret sauce’, which rewards player skill, but also punishes complacency. Any discussion around Lords of the Fallen has to include the ‘Dark Souls’ series as it shares huge amount of its gameplay design and mechanics with the, From Software games. That said, ‘Souls’ fans be warned. As truly demanding, high-stakes combat has been sacrificed to make this title more accessible to the masses.
The hulking protagonist Harkyn, one of humanity’s most hardened criminals, has been released from prison with the expressed purpose of battling a huge god named ‘The Fallen’ and also its generals, ‘The Lords’. As far as a fantasy-action-RPG goes, it’s both generic in setting and story. The narrative beats have just enough exposition push players onwards, but the characters involved are superficial clichés and world, although detailed, ‘feels’ empty. At the outset Harkyn can be one of the three classic fantasy classes ie: Warrior, Cleric and Rogue. But, to prevent players being ‘locked-in’, all classes are magic users with various spells and buffs at their disposal. ‘Magic Energy’ powers these spells, as well as Harkyns customisable gauntlet which is used for ranged combat. Heavy and light armour, staffs, swords, maces etc… are not class specific and again focus on player choice and attribute levels. A Warrior class can be fitted with Rouge-like equipment and be just as deadly with dual welded daggers, or the same player could be levelled in magic for ranged combat. Armour, weapons and gauntlets can also be improved with runes later in the game and can offer surprisingly powerful buffs if the right combination is struck.
Harkyn has to hack ‘n’ slash his way through crumbling castles in search of enemies, loot and XP. The XP is obviously used in the levelling-up of his attributes, but the developer Deck 13 have made a stunning addition, by creating what is a ‘risk and reward’ XP system. So, as enemies are killed and XP is earned, a multiplier builds, but only until the total XP earned is banked at save points and the multiplier then resets. If the XP is not safely banked and Harykn dies in battle, the XP is left as an ethereal cloud on the battlefield. This ‘XP ghost’ will remain, slowing melting away in mere minutes, if not reclaimed. Then another choice comes into play, as the ‘XP Ghost’ if left in place, can act as a stat buff for Harkyn if he can fight in its vicinity. So a tactical death in a boss fight arena can leave a ‘XP Ghost’ which will buff the player in his next attempt fighting that boss. Essentially, this tug of war of risking XP for a bigger multiplier or buff, creates what is a difficulty/risk modifier that is completely up to control of the player.
The commonality with the Dark Souls games is unmistakable and fans of the From Software series will feel very comfortable in combat. Shields, dodge rolls and backstabs are crucial, as well as managing Harkyns limited magic and energy meters. As opposed to the ‘Souls’ games, energy can be spared through well timed combos which if done right, can double the amount of weapon attacks made in the heat of battle. Enemy variety is not huge and players will front up to the same ‘Rhogar’ demons numerous times. Once the particular ‘tells’ and animations are learnt, downing enemies without even taking damage becomes quite easy. The occurrences of Boss fights are perfectly timed within the campaign and are actually a nice high point to look forward to later in the game, as the regular enemies become little more than a bump in the road. Two or three bosses are very interesting and push the player to think outside the square, but the majority still come down to learning patterns and timing magic or buffed attacks.
The Lords of the Fallen is a PS4, Xbox One and PC title and its shows. The graphics are quite stunning at times. Making what is standard fantasy fare castles look detailed, dark and oppressive with plenty of visual hints as to the beauty of the world now lost. One moment still sticks, that being the chilling walk across a massive stone bridge to enter the realm of the Rhogar, it will impress all. Harkyn himself can be equipped with amazing looking armour and weapons detailed with the appropriate smattering of skulls and spikes, and all donned attire carries over to the cut-scenes as well. The cut-scenes themselves are short and functional with some limited dialogue choices, however on the whole have no bearing on the story and thankfully can be skipped as the voice work and animations are laughable. Exploration is rewarded with loot chests or collectables in side corridors, levels are compact and the path ahead is usually clear….. except when it’s not. When the narrative and level design falls over, many players will be visiting forums or FAQs to understand where the game wishes them to go next.
The sadistic gameplay and difficulty of the famous ‘Souls’ series has been used as inspiration in Lords of the Fallen, but certainly not as the template. Deck 13 have struck the middle ground of combat and enemies that must respected, but perhaps not feared. Lords of the Fallen has certainly been made for players who have an interest in challenging games, but don’t want to invest the time, blood, sweat and tears that some titles in the genre demand. As a gaming experience, if you can look past the minor failings, it is both challenging and most importantly, fun.