What is the highest praise that you can give to a soulslike game? Feeling exactly like a Fromsoft title or standing apart from it on its own? Lords of the Fallen effectively ends up hitting both markers, sometimes for better or worse. The 2023 version of the game from Hexworks, is a strong step forward from its predecessor in 2014. But that’s not to say that step is without some stumbling, the more unique mechanics of the game can be as frustrating as they are refreshing, and no amount of resting at a Vestige is going to recover that lost health.
Let’s start at the beginning, the world has fallen in to chaos, as it is want to do. The demon god Adyr was causing a bit of a ruckus, and so got sent to another realm for a time out. In the aftermath, the Hallowed Sentinels were formed to stand vigil for his return. Only problem being that Adyr was such a popular demon god that his influence and corruption seeped in to the world and broke things. A fairly standard affair, “evil” god, upset the world, it’s the players job to then go and fix it. A tale as old as time, but Lords of the Fallen can be forgiven this fairly standard over story, because if it works, it works. It’s a perfect setting for a fantasy based soulslike.
And this is one of the strengths of Lords of the Fallen. At times you feel like you’re playing a FromSoft title, the environments, the exploration, the bosses. It all lines up so succinctly that it doesn’t feel souls ”like” it feels like the genuine article. Lords of the Fallen wants to stand on its own though, the most important way of doing this, is the twin realm concept. Through an Umbral Lamp the player is given at the beginning of the game, you’re able to “rift” between the realm of the living, Axiom, and the realm of the dead, Umbral bringing memories of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver rushing back to my brain. Shifting the player in to a warped version of the world. with skulls littering the floor, giant skeletons, bone bridges, twisted otherworldly enemies, and just a beautifully created pallid version of the world. This Twin Realm mechanic is fully utilised when it comes to exploration and puzzles, while a path might look blocked off in one realm, it could be open in the other. Bridge collapsed in Axiom with no way across? In the Umbral a giant bone section spans that chasm, allowing you to cross. Puzzle sections are also commonplace in the Umbral, with platforms you can push and pull to allow traversal, or doors that require using your lamp on a few ‘locks’ to open them.
The Umbral isn’t risk free however. Enemies in Axiom, exist in the Umbral, however the Umbral has its own enemies within as well, this adds more potential to gain Vigor (souls) but at a higher risk of being overwhelmed. The Umbral also has a timer, the longer you spend within this realm, the more attention you draw to yourself. This adds another element to gameplay, shifting between the realms at opportune times allows the game to really shine. The Umbral system also adds an extra life buffer, as if you die in Axiom, you shift in to the Umbral to continue the fight, but be careful of this unexpectedly adding more enemies to the fray. Enemies can also be accompanied by an Umbral friend, some of these can make the enemy immune to damage until dealt with or boost them in other ways. Thankfully while you can fully rift between realms if you choose, you can also hold your lamp aloft to give you a peek in to the Umbral, this can be used to check for pathways, or deal with those pesky friends, so you can focus on the main fight.
Combat in Lords of the Fallen is an enjoyable section of the core loop. Of course as is standard you have your option of parry/block vs dodge. If you block an attack you’ll take ’wither‘ damage turning part of your health bar white, if you hit an enemy before getting hit, you’ll be able to recover this health, adding a momentum aspect to the combat. Not so much a risk vs reward style system akin to Bloodborne where you’re rewarded for aggression, but more an added level of strategy, block certain hits, knowing you’ll have a big enough window to recover the health and deal substantial damage. Of course, just dodging also works. After a little while, you’ll also open up the Rune system, similar to Bloodborne’s, runes can socket in to your weapons to modify their scaling, damage, and other aspects.
The combat isn’t without its flaws though, enemy attacks have a tracking aspect to them, meaning they can partially turn while attacking, or reach further forwards than you’re expecting resulting in unfortunate health loss. This frustration is only compounded by other technical issues, such as a targeting system that has a mind of its own at times, and a camera system that makes some pretty rookie mistakes, backing in to a wall can jam the camera in to unhelpful angle, or as I had happen several times, the camera might pass through the hanging cloth on a wall, turning your entire screen black for a moment. The dodge function is also a double tap option, but only when targeting. If you’re not targeting anything, dodge will be a healthy roll, if you are targeting an enemy, a single tap of dodge will be a cheeky side step, while a double tap will be the healthy roll. In theory this works, but occasionally, it doesn’t, while not a full deal breaker, it can be frustrating when you double tap planning on dodge rolling, but instead get a much shorter step and then get reduced to a smear, or bisected by a holy sword.
This is the case for most of the game, something impressive, impacted by a few minor annoyances. While some of the areas feel a little uninspired and illicit feelings of deja’vu (swamp level, cliff side working towards a castle) it doesn’t stop them being enjoyable, it doesn’t detract from how much I wanted to explore them while playing, or at any point make me feel like they were being lazy, more that they wanted to create a tiered world, the dark depths of mines and swamps, paralleled by the heights of castles looking out over the horizon. What it does do every now and then, is just punch you with a ’reminder’. Another ‘invincible’ enemy you need to use your lamp on first, another enemy hidden round a doorway, or waiting behind an object to push you off a ledge, or jump you. It adds tedium as they feel over used. In one Boss fight, if you approach it in the Umbral, you’ll be dealing with a Boss, 2 kinds of adds, and have an Umbral zit to burst so you can harm them. Approaching it in Axiom removes an add, but adds knee high water to part of the room to add an area management aspect, You’ll still need to burst the ‘zit’ before you start. I’m not complaining about the difficulty this fight presents, just that sometimes, less is more. These aspects used sparingly are more impactful.
The technical side of things isn’t free form issues either and feel lacking for a game that they keep advertising with the quote ‘nextgen soulslike’. Framedrops are common, most not being too impactful but at one point I dropped from 120FPS down to 18, which is harmful to my health bar. The PvP framework is an effort in suffering, turning off cross play is recommended on several social platforms, but this isn’t a fix-all. Disconnection from Host while loading happened on average 3 out of 5 times. The times I did find a match while invading, the majority of fights were decided by latency, rather than skill, or by the host throwing themselves off a ledge before I could reach them. Out of over 30 fights, 1 was lag free, and the single time I was invaded, the enemy was dead before they even swung. The default key layout on PC, could use some work, for jumping, you’ll need to hold W, then V to sprint, and while holding those two, F to jump. While remapping is possible (and advised), if you’re on Controller currently there is no way to remap the controls. There’s also no option to turn some of the holds in to toggles which would aid with accessibility.
All of the weaker aspects of design, and technical missteps don’t manage to infuriate enough to stop you playing the game or enjoying the time you spend with it though. Lords of the Fallen still succeeds at not only nailing the core components of a soulslike game, but adds unique elements that seamlessly incorporate in to the game, and take strong steps in making sure that the game can stand along side some of the more impressive titles in the genre. While there might be moments of frustration, at the end of it, Lords of the Fallen gives you an enjoyable combat loop, a world worth exploring, secrets begging to be uncovered, and impressive bosses to overcome.