They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s the case, From Software should consider itself awfully flattered, because Deck13 Interactive and CI Games’ latest effort, Lords of the Fallen, is about as close to imitation as you can get. I don’t mean to imply that there are no original ideas in Lords of the Fallen – because there are – but all of them are built upon the foundation that Dark Souls built. I’ll try to limit the comparisons between the two in this review but, frankly, it’s near impossible to talk about Lords of the Fallen without resurrecting Dark Souls from a nearby bonfire at the same time.
If you read our first impressions of Lords of the Fallen then you already know the premise, but let’s cover the basics one more time. You play as Harkyn, a tested warrior that is branded and imprisoned for his sins. After a visually stunning opening cinematic, you take control of the beast of a man in a dark and decrepit fortress. Thankfully, the game immediately launches you into a tutorial that teaches you not only basic controls, but general tactics and strategies.
Combat is, for lack of a better term, laborious. It’s just as much a test in your patience and timing as it is a test in your skill and fortitude. Whether you choose to fight as a heavily armored warrior in full plate, or a light-on-your-toes rogue with quick moves and sharp attacks, your ability to read your opponents, react to their actions, and adapt your approach is paramount. Standard enemies aren’t really capable of getting the best of you as long as you know what you’re doing, but the line between mini-boss and just big, tough, bad guy is extremely blurry.
At character creation you get to choose not only a combat approach, but also a magical path. For my playthrough, I opted to specialize in both heavy armor and defensive magic. This combination resulted in the game branding me a Paladin, a magical warrior with high defenses and strong magical support spells. As a Paladin, I was prone to wearing the heaviest armor that provided me with the best protection, while also utilizing my defensive spells for added support. One spell in particular caused my health to regenerate and dramatically improved my ability to absorb damage in a fight. An alternative offensive spell would increase my damage output tremendously – it’s a question of aligning your specialties and abilities to your playstyle.
There are three different approaches to magic in Lords of the Fallen, each of which either align with or compliment three different types of character archetypes – defensive, offensive, and stealthy player roles, which align closely with heavy, medium, and light armor varieties. This is a great approach because instead of plastering stereotypical character “classes” on your screen to pick from and then explaining what they do, you’re instead asked what you would like to focus on, and then told what that class would probably fit best. I’m surprised more games haven’t attempted this inverse approach to character generation.
Lords of the Fallen also shines in its overall game design. Enemies are spaced out enough to allow for equal parts exploration and action. There is a nice mixture of open outdoor areas and cramped indoor hallways that accent the usefulness of mixing up your approach. One of the best features is how the game deals with progression and saving. As you adventure throughout the world, you’ll come across large crystals. These serve as not only checkpoints to save your progress, but also banks for your experience points. By using a crystal, you will refill your health bar completely, refill your healing potions, and deposit all of your garnered experience points into your progression menu. However, using a crystal also serves as a bit of a reset switch as well.
The longer you play and kill enemies without visiting a crystal, the larger your bonus for XP gain is, and the higher your chances are of enemies dropping loot. As a result, Lords of the Fallen plays a delicate balance of risk/reward every moment you’re playing the game. To mix up the formula even further, when you die, not only does all of your gathered experience drop precisely where you died (just like Dark Souls), but it’s now also on a timer. If you take too long to retrieve it, then it will start to fade and you’ll slowly see it trickle away one percentage at a time. It’s a deliciously clever way of adding a sense of urgency on top of a pre-defined notion of caution – two things that typically are at odds with one another.
Unfortunately, Lords of the Fallen does lack the degree of polish we’ve come to expect from games in this genre. On several occasions the PS4 version of the game either froze or straight up shut itself down causing me to lose (at times) over an hour or more of progress. This, combined with the myriad framerate hiccups, screen tearing, and wonky camera issues, mean that a few performance patches are definitely in store better sooner rather than later. The PC version seems to suffer from similar issues, but the relatively high system requirements prevented me from adequately testing that version of the game.
If you combine the unfortunate performance issues with the fact that the story is far from interesting, voice acting is extremely lackluster (some of the worst lip-syncing I’ve seen in recent memory) and the incredibly random difficulty spikes, then you have a game that is far from perfect. However, all those things considered, this is currently the best action RPG available for the current generation of gaming platforms and should serve as a great interim option until more games of its type release in the coming months. Lords of the Fallen is an iterative experience that generously borrows elements from the established Dark Souls franchise, but also adds enough unique flavor to keep me coming back for more of its form of satisfying punishment.
This review is based on a digital retail copy of the game for the PlayStation 4 provided by the publisher.