I promised myself before starting this review I wasn’t going to make any comparisons between Dark Souls and Lords of the Fallen. But I couldn’t help myself. It’s hard not to compare the two since Lords draws inspiration from the Souls franchise; only instead of being painfully difficult to the point of insanity, Lords of the Fallen opts to offer a similar experience that balances being punishingly hard with accessibility.
Set in a foreboding dark fantasy world, Lords of the Fallen sees you assume the role of incarcerated baddie Harkyn, whose sins have been forever marked by symbols on his face. With an ancient evil known rising up, demons known as Rhogar, invading the realm of man, and Harkyn is released from prison in a desperate bid to push back the dark forces. Basically, it’s one guy against a legion of overwhelmingly powerful demons no one else can defeat. At least that's an attempt at reasoning why it's you against a seemingly never-ending army.
Lords’ plot is too flat to enjoy, or even follow thanks to its lazily written dialogue. While I was genuinely intrigued by the dark fantasy setting and lore in the beginning, it never drew me in. As events unfolded through the various conversation-wheel equipped cutscenes, I became weary of the plot and began reaching for my phone or some other distraction while the talking heads on-screen did their thing. If the voice-acting had a little more gusto maybe I would had found myself invested in Harkyn’s plight. Instead, each actor sounds as if they recorded their lines in a room with too much echo.
You can increase the base damage of any weapon (including the gauntlet), and the defensive stats of armour, by equipping runes. Runes are items you’ll come across in plentiful numbers while exploring Lords’ game world, with “better” runes being hidden away in optional areas far-off the beaten track. Before you can use runes you’ll need to find the blacksmith who’ll unlock their potential, you can also “bet” your experience for a higher chance of getting a super-special rune. Whether you take the time to invest in runes is up to the individual, but sometimes the effort involved isn’t always worth it.
But it’s not the plot, or the wooden voice-acting, you’re paying the price of admission for. It’s Lords’ deliciously challenging combat. Gameplay is complex, with a number of tutorials popping up over the first few hours, but accessible enough to be enjoyable right out of the gate. This is thanks to a relatively straight-forward control scheme that’s easy to pick up and play, though admittedly takes some getting used to.
Many battles are back-and-forth affairs, dodging or shielding incoming attacks until an opening for your to strike reveals itself. You can opt for an all-in attack if your energy stamina bar is full enough, allowing you to string together light and heavy attacks for massive damage. Still, each type of enemy has their own unique pattern, so taking your time to learn each one is still essential. Rinse and repeat as you cut down through the numerous enemies you encounter until you find yourself in front of a Lord.
Lords are the Fallen’s big cheeses, the bosses as it were, and they’re real jerks. Each one is as ugly, and more jerkyish than the last, and if you’re not careful they’ll gut you in seconds. Like your standard Rhogar, Lords have a pattern which is vital you learn; but don’t worry about trying to figure it out the first time you fight one, you’ll die enough times that you’ll eventually know it back-to-front before too long. Aside from their larger stature, the other thing setting Lords apart are how most of your encounters with them is broken up into stages. Most Lords’ health is divided up by indicators on their health bar, and when their health drops down to any one of them, the battle changes. This could range anywhere from a Lord’s armour dropping off, making them faster, or them powering up to make their attacks deadlier, to them calling on other Rhogar to fight alongside them, and so on.
These dynamic changes in your battles against the Lords helps keep you on your toes, at least in theory. While some of the changes that occur during a Lords fight might be cool or interesting, I found it frustrating when they’d call upon lesser Rhogar to come to their aid. Lords aren’t easy even when you’ve figured out their pattern, one slip-up and you’ll be taken back to your last checkpoint, so throwing in a handful of other enemies to contend with dulls the epic scale of the fight, while increasing the chance of you suffering a cheap death.
Of course when you do die in Lords of the Fallen you’re not punished all that much, just dragged back to the last checkpoint without whatever experience you’re carrying. Not that it matters since you’re given a decent amount of time to make it back to where your departed ghost lies to reacquire lost experience; though take too long, or die again, and you’ll lose it forever. There are special items called Ghost Shards that allow you to instantly retrieve your dropped experience, though they’re few and far in-between so use them sparingly.
When it comes to experience, Lords approaches it in an interesting way. Like any other game you earn it by defeating enemies, however you can only use experience to level up at save-shards, objects that are scattered all around the world and act as a type of checkpoint. Save-shards let you pool your experience into points you can use to either upgrade your spells, or increase your stat points. Alternatively, you can opt not to spend your experience, instead keeping it to earn yourself a multiplier bonus when defeating enemies. The more experience you have on-hand the higher the multiplier goes up, which in turns grants you more bang for your buck, so to speak.
Naturally this comes at a risk considering Lords’ penchant for killing you dead. While it might be beneficial earning a higher amount of experience per kill, if something manages to kill you, and for whatever reason you’re unable to make it back to your ghost to reclaim whatever experience you dropped, you’ll lose it all. There’s also the tradeoff of whether to earn more experience, or upgrade Harkyn; the latter of which I strongly urge you do.
While you play a predetermined character in Harkyn, Lords does allow a little customisation. Your first decision will be what type of magic he’ll be able to wield; Brawling, Deception or Solace. Out of the three options, Solace is perhaps the most useful - I chose this particular option, mind - since it focuses on magical defence and healing. Deception on the other hand is more focused on damaging your enemies over a period of time with poisons, while also deceiving them with illusions, whereas Brawler is all about overwhelming your foe with powerful magic.
The second option you’re presented with is equipment selection. Unlike magic type, which locks you into a particular progression tree for the duration of the game, equipment has no real bearing other than what weapon and armour you start out with. Warrior is ideal for players wanting a high defence and to hit hard, but the tradeoff is you’ll move very slow because of the heavy armour; Rogue is the polar opposite in it allows you to move swiftly, but your weapons deal less damage; and lastly Cleric is an all-rounder, sitting nicely in the middle.
Armour is divided up into three categories; Heavy, Medium and Light. The heavier your armour, the more you’ll weigh, meaning you’ll move slower in battle. Things like heavy weapons such as giant axes can also slow you down. As you collect loot from exploring the game’s linear open-world environment you’ll slowly amass a collection of different armours you can change and chop to make yourself either lighter or heavier depending. This allows you to adjust your playstyle if needed when encountering a more challenging-than-normal foe, like a Lord, so try out as many combinations as possible to find something that suits you. But remember, Harkyn can only carry so much equipped weight, but you can upgrade his ability to carry more by increasing the endurance or strength stat.
Lords’ enjoys relatively straightforward RPG mechanics in respect to levelling up. Pool your experience at save-shards to earn either a spell or attribute point. Attributes are split up between strength, endurance, vitality, luck, agility and faith, and can be increased by one with a single point. Spells are determined by your magic type, each with four spells you can unlock and upgrade by spending spell points.
Lords’ selection of weapons also present a number of customisable options. From your standard sword and shield set-up, to dual-welding, to a magic-infused gauntlet, you’ll be able to change on-the-fly by cycling with the Y button how you dish out damage to those pesky Rhogar. My weapon of choice was a mighty big shield and an equally large scythe with extra-long reach, meaning I could keep some measure of distance between me and my enemies while I sliced them to pieces. If you want to get into the thick of it, you can dual-wield daggers or knuckle-buster-looking things, or bring the rain by using the magic-powered gauntlet.
The gauntlet is an interesting weapon in that it has three different functions; blast, explosion and projectile. The first two I found are pretty much useless unless you allow yourself enough time/room to execute the attack. Projectile, however, gives you something no other weapon in Lords grants you; the ability to attack from afar. This is an invaluable tool, especially against some of the late-game Lords who are incredibly deadly up close. Though despite how useful it is, I feel it could be considered a little too overpowered in some instances. There were times I was using nothing but the gauntlet, and found I was cutting an easy path through my enemies.
Lords of the Fallen is a current-gen only game amidst a year of cross-generational releases. But make no mistake, this is not a true PS4 and Xbox One “current-gen” title. Aside from the echo-sounding voice acting, I found the audio would sometimes randomly cut out, a shame since Lords’ sound effects and soundtrack can be quite epic in places. Visually it’s not a bad looking game, but doesn’t look anything more than a prettied up last-gen game with better lighting and higher-resolution textures here and there. There’s also a disappointing slowdown in the game’s frame rate - using a digital copy on Xbox One - and an awkward camera that sometimes swings itself around into very awkward situations, resulting in far too many cheap deaths.
If you’re thinking about giving Lords of the Fallen a try, there’s two things you have to ask yourself: do I want to play a Dark Souls inspired game on my current-gen console, and do I want to play a game that’s like Dark Souls, but easier? If you answered yes to either, or both, then you’ll enjoy what’s on offer here. Despite cheap deaths and a lack of technical polish for a PS4 and Xbox One game, Lords of the Fallen is an enjoyable romp, and a decent offering by a relatively unknown studio.