Within the past five years hardcore JRPGs have made quite the return. From Software has been the vanguard of this resurgence with the Souls series heralding this new wave of titles that set out to cater to their small, but incredibly dedicated audience. And now Lords of the Fallen comes a long, a game that is frighteningly similar to the Souls games and one that manages to channel the best parts of those titles and apply its own spin to each of them.
Lords of the Fallen casts you as Harkyn, a notorious criminal who’s been released from prison and conscripted into fighting in humanity’s last stand against an army of long-defeated gods. The dark fantasy outline is very generic but the game does a commendable job of introducing fresh, interesting concepts, but a lot of these go underutilized as the plot roles on.
A similar problem extends to the majority of the cast, the supporting characters are quite more fleshed out than they first appear to be, but only a handful of them get time to develop to a point where they matter to the story. Harkyn himself has a lot of potential to be a compelling character, but the game never explores him or his past, leaving us with character with a completely void personality.
What the game does exceptionally well though, is its world building. Just enough of Lords of the Fallen’s world is explained to draw you in and leave you wanting more. The game avoids burdening down the player with an overabundance of meaningless exposition and frilly fantasy terminology; instead it serves up a highlight reel of a history that I’m quite keen to explore further.
When I said the game was scarily similar to the Souls games I wasn’t exaggerating in the slightest. If I’d been sat down to play this completely blindly I would have fully expected to see the From Software name during the credits. The progression, death, combat and control mechanisms are lifted wholesale from the Souls series, but there are enough interesting spins put on each of them that the game avoids feeling derivative.
You level up in the standard RPG format: kill monsters, gain XP, and spend XP to accrue levels and spells. The catch here though is that there’s an XP multiplier that is constantly escalation as you acquire XP, but it vanishes once you spend any of it. It leads to the player constantly gambling their progress in the hopes that they’ll score big and it resulted in quite a few white knuckled moments for me.
In addition to losing your multiplier death causes you to drop all your XP in the form of a “ghost” that needs to be returned to in order to restore it. What differentiates it from the Souls death system is that the value of the XP contained within the ghost is constantly diminishing, meaning that caution needs to be thrown to the wind if you want to retain most of it.
That mechanic encapsulates the key difference between this and the Souls games; where the Souls series enforces you to employ caution, Lords of the Fallen instead allows you to utilize more drastic strategies quite often. Diving in with a set of light armor and no shield to back you up is a much more viable strategy here than it ever was in Dark/Demon Souls.
It makes for a game that’s much more accommodating and not quite as punishing, at least in a way that makes your missteps clear. The combat can be phenomenally satisfying when it hits all the right notes; heavy animations and great sound design make every counter, slash and parry feel rewarding. There’s an interesting magic system that lends credence to every play style and the gear you acquire throughout the journey leads to some great variety all round.
The enemy design though lets everything else down. There’s a decent enough variety with the basic level enemies, but the higher tier foes is where the game starts to fall apart. The boss fights in particular stand as the worst part of the game, with most of them being pure exercises in frustration rather than the challenging duels you’d hope for. The final encounter is especially awful and it ends the game on a sour note that is a detriment on a game that I otherwise found to be very enjoyable.
Most of the game takes place in a mountain fortress and while it’s a much smaller world than you’d see in other RPGs of this ilk, the game actually benefits from its less expansive nature. The environments are dense with detail and every room has some kind of secret hidden in it; smash your way through a wall and you could uncover a powerful weapon, fall down a pit and you could well discover a whole new area.
It makes for some wonderfully engrossing exploration and the game does a great job and encouraging this as every minor action rewards you with XP or rune shards that feed into the gear upgrade system. Even after finishing the game and diving into the New Game Plus mode I was constantly finding surprises crammed into areas I’d thoroughly explored previously.
There are a few side-quests to go about when you are not pursuing the main objectives, but the complete lack of a menu that keeps track of these means that I abandoned most of them as its just to much of a hassle to juggle multiple objectives in this manner.
There’s more to Lords of the Fallen than it first appears. The wonderful combat, great world design and interesting takes on the mechanics that the Souls series established takes it quite far in the right direction. A decent soundtrack and a visual style that evokes the best parts of the fantasy genre help it along nicely, but it is brought severely off course with its frustrating enemy design and a story that never capitalizes on its interesting potential.
Lasting Appeal: 7.5/10
Ever so slightly unhinged, this one spends most of his time playing or writing about video games. Also dabbles heavily in tabletop, comics and the occasional bout of music creation.