Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Lords of the Fallen really wants to be like Dark Souls. It tried very hard to do that. Poise is an important stat. Your roll speed is affected by the amount of weight you’re carrying. When you die, you lose the experience you had on you and have to run over to where you died and pick your bits back up. There’s even a boss fight with two bosses in a single room and after you kill one, the other absorbs his fallen comrade’s energy (or whatever) and powers up.
Because of the many, many, many similarities, I found myself comparing Lords of the Fallen to Dark Souls when I first played it. And, because of that comparison – which the game seems to actively invite – I never really enjoyed it. All the Dark Souls clones fall a little short when compared to the juggernaut that inspired what is now basically a sub-genre of videogames. Whatever strange alchemy was required to create Dark Souls only comes around once every few lifetimes. It’ll happen again eventually, but we’re a ways off.
However, if you don’t compare Lords of the Fallen to Dark Souls and instead judge it on its own merits, you’ll find the experience isn’t that bad. I finished it a couple of days before I sat down to write this and, to my own surprise, I’ve actually started Lords of the Fallen on New Game+ just to complete some things I missed the first time around and see how much more strength I can pump into my 40-strength warrior.
And what made Lords of the Fallen so enjoyable to me is the combat. I played as a warrior, focusing mostly on massive weapons – greatswords, greataxes – and the experience of swinging them is deliciously meaty.
There’s a wonderfully powerful greataxe that you can get fairly early on in the game – called My Axe, I kid you not – that will carry you through the bulk of the game if you’re building a character for strength. Swinging that thing never gets old. It sweeps around in a massive arc, hitting practically everything in front of you and, more often than not, a thing or two behind you as well. The corpses of smaller, lighter enemies are sent flying, medium-sized ones stagger or spin and topple, and the larger ones drop like rocks.
Combat is slower than Dark Souls, but there’s power and weight behind every swing which, once you get used to it, becomes very satisfying.
Another interesting thing they’ve done with combat is in how the bosses work. Each boss has a segmented health bar, typically four segments. Once you knock off enough health to clear a segment, the boss’ behaviour changes very slightly. Sometimes attack patterns change, sometimes new attacks are added, sometimes they get a powerful one-off, one-shot attack – basically, there’s a periodic wrinkle thrown into each fight that keeps you on your toes.
In typical boss fights in other games, once you find your rhythm, it’s easy to switch off mentally and let muscle memory do the work. With Lords of the Fallen, at least the first time around, boss fights usually try to keep you focused throughout.
There’s also an XP multiplier that I find quite interesting. Every kill you get adds to a multiplier that increases the XP of your next kill, up to a maximum of 200%. The multiplier only resets if you die or use a checkpoint, so if you’re careful or just very good, you can theoretically run around for the entirety of a play session without resetting, stockpiling XP as you go. However, Lords of the Fallen is prone to crashing on PC, so running around with a ton of XP is a fairly big risk. On consoles – I played on the Xbox One – this does not seem to be a problem and it’s therefore much safer (relatively) to hoard XP and build up that multiplier.
And finally, it’s also a rather pretty game. Old now, certainly, but it’s held up a heck of a lot better than the original Dark Souls has – including the Remaster – and it has a lot of locations, especially towards the end game, that are gorgeous to look at and walk around.
Where Lords of the Fallen really falls short – in my eyes, at least – is in the story and the writing. There’s been a very valiant attempt to expose the story and lore of the world more actively than Dark Souls. You’ll find scrolls all over the place that offer fully-voiced snippets of story and backstory. There’s also a lore tab in the UI if you want to revisit the pieces you’ve found and see how many you have yet to discover. The story ideas are sound; the execution is rather awful.
Lords of the Fallen tries to ape Dark Souls’ style of writing and narration, but instead of feeling like a mystery that needs solving, it comes across as ham-fisted and goofy. Most text in the game also reads and sounds a lot like it was translated into English, and it feels like a few things got lost along the way. Lords of the Fallen aims high and, regrettably, falls terribly flat.
Dark Souls worked – at least for me – because it reminded me a lot of Steven Erikson’s books. In much the same way that the Malazan Book of the Fallen does, Dark Souls drops you right into the middle of a story, without a great deal of explanation, and leaves you to work out what came before you and where you need to go from the moment of your arrival. It encourages mental investment in a way that traditional narrative styles often don’t.
As a result of this particular problem, a good chunk of the game feels markedly less engaging. Side quests are interesting for the rewards, not the story beats; NPCs are interesting for the XP their quests give, not their personalities; lore is worth collecting for the achievements and to satisfy your inner completionist – but none of these things really contribute to a greater sense of attachment to the world or the people in it.
Lords of the Fallen is held up almost entirely by the strength of its gameplay. By the quality of the combat and by how generally excellent its weapons feel. And as Destiny has proven over the years, no matter how poorly executed and relentlessly disappointing your game’s narrative experience is, quality gameplay is consistently satisfying. Lords of the Fallen is much the same.
So, to sum this up …
Lords of the Fallen is a fun game to play through once, maybe even twice. If you really enjoy the combat, you could even play it thrice, once with each of the game’s different classes – warrior, cleric, and rogue. Basically, if you’re feeling an itch for something Souls-like, but slower and meatier, consider using Lords of the Fallen to scratch. And if you happen to find Lords of the Fallen on discount, so much the better. I’ve put about thirty-ish hours into it and I can say, at the very least, that it was fun while it lasted. And personally, I think fun is quite enough.