Lords of the Fallen wants you to think about the Souls franchise. There’s little doubt in my mind that the developers want people to evoke the hardest of the hardcore games today in order to bring attention to their newest intellectual property. But that spotlight can prove damning at times, and in this case Deck13 and CI Games would do well to avoid any and all comparisons to From Software’s dark fantasy. It would be fine and even defensible if Lords of the Fallen was a simple derivative of Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls, but fundamental problems in the mechanics, balancing, and a plethora of bugs prevent this game from being little more than a cheap distraction in the next-gen library.
Why do I do this?
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: a hero with a dark past must rise to banish an evil force. Lords of the Fallen can try to gussy up its world and story with any number of proper nouns and capitalized innocuous words, but there’s nothing of value going on in this world. No characters are interesting, nothing feels real or dangerous, and the whole affair feels like an excuse to kill some monsters in a generic fantasy setting. Again, there’s nothing wrong with such a simple or straightforward story, but Lords of the Fallen seems determined to keep anything interesting from entering the frame of the narrative. When the hard-spoken female character showed up to talk about how tough she was, I rapidly searched for a volume setting on my computer lower than mute.
If you want to say one thing for Lords of the Fallen, say that it’s a good looking game. We’re starting to see the new consoles outputting some pretty interesting graphics and dazzling effects, and LotF certainly looks the part. Snow peppers the world and feels like an obstacle in itself, fires supply a gorgeous haze to the surroundings, and the distant mountains keep you feeling lonely and isolated. Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing in the way of variety in these snowy landscapes. You never move beyond boring gray castles and dank blue hallways. This lack of imagination makes world traversal a chore at times. I found myself completely lost and confused on where to go, and even watching Youtube walkthroughs provided little in the way of insight. “Which gray hallway is this, exactly? Oh, the one by the room with the books. Got it.” There’s the odd statue or giant brazier to act as a landmark, but not nearly enough to make this world feel real.
But you came to LotF hoping to find some quality monster slaying. After all, nearly every preview talked about the measured combat and compared it to the Souls games. In addition to a health and magic bar, hero Harkyn has a stamina bar to govern his attacks and mobility in battle. Swinging a sword takes a bit of stamina, as does rolling or sprinting. All of these things are a growing trend in the action/adventure genre, but to be fair, LotF goes for something a bit different in terms of its focus and feel, which isn’t inherently a bad thing. Our hero attacks with large, powerful lunges regardless of his armament. Sure, short swords are a bit faster than giant axes, but everything takes longer than expected in order to connect with the enemy. Watching Harkyn wind up a powerful great sword swipe is nerve-racking, but there’s something pretty sweet about connecting that super strong attack.
Unfortunately, LotF doesn’t completely follow through with this weight and measured approach to combat. You would expect enemies to practically liquefy when hit with an axe the size of a boat anchor, but all too often your foes barely register so much as a complaint when sword meets flesh. Worse still, the weapons rarely make sense when measured with enemy reactions. I found myself immensely puzzled when a dagger forcibly stunlocked a large creature while the heaviest axe in my possession, complete with nearly three times as much damage output, was consistently ignored. Reactions are about as mercurial as the weather, and this goes for Harkyn as well. Sometimes an attack clips the hero mid roll for maximum damage, yet other times it knocks him down while causing the same amount of pain. Reliability is a hallmark of the action/adventure genre, but LotF too often turns into a guessing game, resulting in a great deal of frustration.
It doesn’t help matters that enemy variety is almost non-existent. The various creatures look like they strolled out of a GWAR concert or your best friend’s trapper keeper from 1994. Everyone has huge, bulging muscles and oversized weapons, and you’ll continue to fight the same adversaries for hours on end. The quick cloaked figures at the start of the game are still around when you reach the catacombs, and you’ll dispatch them the same way each and every time. Regular enemies pose little challenge for Harkyn until they blatantly start cheating. Spells designed to distract your foes only seem to work half the time, leaving enemies turning to face your attacks at precisely the wrong moment. Shield-wielding villains block your attack when their shield hangs slack at their side, and then take full damage when it appears to completely cover their torso. Again, consistency is completely lacking, and serves as the only real source of challenge in the whole game.
Bosses deserve special mention when it comes to their ability to frustrate and annoy players. These “challenging” encounters are little more than gimmicky moments designed around video game clichés. The second boss gets to summon buddies to fight by his side, while the third gets an unblockable insta-kill move that requires you to hide in a gazebo without any indication on how to prevent imminent death. The fourth boss combines two awful gaming tropes that should be banished to the other side; he gets to heal himself and drain your mana during the fight. These gimmicks attempt to distract from boring guardians who can do little more than swing giant weapons or spastically attack with almost nothing in the way of reciprocity to the player’s actions.
All of this would be fine if Harkyn controlled in a way that allowed you to deal with such obstacles. Alas, Harkyn controls like a dump truck with a flat tire. He lumbers forward at a pace requiring a tuba for musical accompaniment, and find himself easily tangled up in the environment should he encounter a tight corner or any obstacle higher than shin level. This is exacerbated further by LotF’s insistence on making you play the game in heavy armor and relying on Harkyn’s unwieldy roll dodging. There are also moments where Harkyn ignores your button presses and leaves you wide open for a world of hurt. I found myself all too often walking instead of sprinting, failing to dodge at the right moment, or just standing there when trying to attack an approaching horror. Harkyn seems to take every player input as little more than a suggestion.
These problems with the controls are further compounded by the worst camera and lock-on system I’ve seen in a modern video game. The third-person camera simply can’t manage the cramped hallways and long corridors of most of the environments. It gets stuck on walls, zooms in way too close at times, and never gives you the best angle when things get dicey in combat. Bizarrely, Harkyn turns transparent when the camera gets in too close rather than the walls. It’s an effect that takes too long to be beneficial and doesn’t help when you need to properly line yourself up for an attack. The lock-on is even more pathetic and lacking in execution. I routinely had to press in the right analog stick two or three times to properly target an enemy, and even then I would lose the lock for seemingly random reasons. Trying to switch between multiple targets is practically impossible and made me feel like my controller might actually be broken.
It’s not all bad or unrefined, thankfully. LotF brings some new ideas to the table that help it to stand out a bit in a very accomplished crowd. Players get to level Harkyn by allocating experience points into attributes and spells. This gives players some choice in how to better their version of the hero, though some spells are clearly better than others and certain attributes will be completely useless given your build type. A neat risk/reward system incentivizes players to slay monsters and horde experience points instead of refilling health potions at designated save points. Each felled foe fuels an experience multiplier, allowing you to quickly rack up skill points should you choose to do so. Death, however, resets the multiplier and forces you to run and collect your lost spoils. Keep in mind that time is a factor, as the amount of experience recovered slowly dissipates as you run back to your corpse. LotF also has a curious loot system. Harkyn finds various swords and axes, each more powerful than the last, but it forces you to change weapons in order to stay dangerous in combat. I would have preferred to upgrade a favorite weapon instead of being forced to equip something new, however.
All of these positives and negatives equate to a game that’s just below average; an experience lacking in execution but clearly focused on a vision of what it wants to be. Unfortunately, an alarming number of bugs, glitches, and odd occurrences bring this game down to a level that makes me question whether or not it should even be on store shelves. Numerous problems hindered my own performance as well as my enemies’. During one session, my character took no damage when his back was attacked but couldn’t properly absorb any hits with his shield. Several enemies flickered in and out of existence, often times coming back with full health bars and renewed vigor. Harkyn got himself caught in one of those crumbling gazebos from before and couldn’t free himself from danger. Even the save system seemed broken at times. I was often pushed back a few minutes, since I had a tendency to level up and then save again before quitting the game. Perhaps most egregious was the gamma setting when playing in borderless windowed mode, which resulted in my monitor maintaining the higher setting and requiring a restart every time I quit the game. It’s not a good sign when an installed game starts to feel like a viral infection on my computer. There have also been reports of crashes and even attribute points getting reassigned when saving. It feels like I’m playing an alpha version of Lords of the Fallen when I fire it up, and that would mean it needed about six more months in development.
There was a point where I tried to open a door and Harkyn said, “Why do I do this?” I had the exact same feeling numerous times during my ten hours with Lords of the Fallen. I got about two-thirds of the way through but couldn’t bring myself to finish. The positive moments where my attacks felt measured and mighty were far outweighed by general sluggishness and unresponsive controls. The bugs and glitches proved too much to overcome and forced me to uninstall the game for good. I hope the developers get another chance, though. There’s something to be said for the weighty combat and unique experience system, but there’s too much wrong with the whole game to actually recommend it to anyone.
Correction: This review originally stated that health potions weren’t always refilling at save stations. Turns out there’s a cap on the number of potions restored when activated in order to avoid abuse by the player. I apologize for this oversight and, as such, the line has been removed from the review.