Forty-five minutes passed in Lords of the Fallen before I died for the first time. That’s a bit of a surprise for a game that makes no secret of its heavy debts to the ultra-punishing Dark Souls series, but the combat I experienced on the way to that first death revealed a game that’s just as concerned with letting us have fun without the pain. At times it sacrifices too much at the altar of combat accessibility, but it usually makes up for it with a tempting risk-reward system that caters to multiple play styles, and through the arcadey pleasures of hacking and slashing for loot.
Lords of the Fallen’s formulaic story follows Harkyn, a gruff criminal who’s pulled from behind bars to save the world from interdimensional monsters called the Rhogar. We’re never told the nature of his crimes, however, and Lords repeatedly introduces other characters with only a modicum of characterization. Even the big bad guy behind it all gets only around three minutes of screen time. When the plot tries for a shocking twist near the end of its roughly 17-hour story, it’s hard to care about anyone involved.
The story wants to be something greater, but never quite attains it. It peppers its cutscenes with choices such as whether to chop a monk’s infected arm off or leave
Lords of the Fallen is a challenging Action RPG set in a medieval fantasy world ruled by a Fallen God. Fight against the formidable Lords and Generals that command a demonic army, Lords of the Fallen rewards skill and persistence among dedicated Action RPG fans.
it to fester, but significance feels minimal aside from alterations to the final scene after the last boss falls over. Far more interesting are the audio snippets of lore waiting in scrolls scattered about the world of Keystone, which help Harkyn’s world come to life in a way it never manages with the main cast of characters in play.
It’s generally a good looking world, although aside from the welcome lengthy jaunt into the Rhogar homeworld, it’s composed of the usual crumbling castles and snowy peaks. (I like to think that it would have been more interesting had the Rhogar world featured something else besides, well, more crumbling castles and snowy peak.) All in all, I was more fascinated by the look of the gear than the landscape; the bulky, comic book design of characters and weaponry is less “prepare to die” and more “let’s kick some ass.”
As it turns out, that attitude doesn’t undermine the joys of combat. Blocking attacks and rolling out of harm’s way is essential in Lords of the Fallen, at least for the first few hours. Harkyn also encounters some fascinating creatures along the way, such as vaguely Cthulhu-type figures who breathe fire or giant spiders who spew venom. They’re certainly not pushovers, but neither are they even close in difficulty to the monsters Dark Souls fans are used to. In fact, on the mandatory first playthrough before the New Game Plus is enabled, encounters seem balanced for people who were scared away from Dark Souls’ unrelenting emphasis on hardcore play.
Lords of the Fallen concerns itself more with arcade-quality fun, and it complements this focus with a Diablo-style loot system that drops ever-better weapons and gear from both chests and enemies. The weapons themselves are fun to use, whether it’s a customizable magic gauntlet for ranged combat or impressive-looking weapons like scythes and staves. It rewards you at almost every turn, whether it’s with chests crammed with entire gear sets or with the hidden challenge portals that pop up after you defeat a boss, allowing you to fight off three waves of enemies for the promise of a chest crammed with loot.
Getting into the sword-swing of things reveals a fun hack-and-slash combat experience that feels closer to the beat-em-up style of Darksiders than Dark Souls’ high-stakes deuling. You can charge up attacks for more force, for instance, and you can minimize the energy needed to swing Harkyn’s hefty weapons through carefully timed combos. You’re locked into one of three sets of four spells for warrior, rogue, or cleric playstyles for the first playthrough, but I did feel I had a fair amount of freedom to play Harkyn as I chose. The biggest issue is that the class skills are wildly overpowered when fully upgraded.
I played as a Warrior, and early on I picked up a Rage spell that boosted my damage and briefly removed the need for energy/stamina requirements, thus trivializing fights that previously forced me to conserve my energy for shield blocks. Yet another spell sends the ghost of a warrior rushing toward a foe, staggering them and allowing me to score hits against even heavily shielded enemies. Yet the greatest of these is Quake, which summons a massive spirit who smites my enemy with a mighty thud of the hammer. Maxxed out and complemented with high magic, it makes even the toughest bosses a joke. Once you’ve completed the game with one class’s spells, you can unlock one of the two additional ones or New Game+. In my case, having beat the game as a Warrior, I’m fleshing out the Rogue spell tree for my second playthrough. By the time I have all three unlocked at once for the third playthrough, Harkyn should be ready to take over as the world’s god.
At the same time, Lords of the Fallen tries to increase its challenge in indirect ways. Just like Dark Souls, it makes you return to the scene of your death to recover lost XP, for instance, but it ups the ante by attaching a timer to the XP pile. Take too long to fight your way back, and it disappears forever. Glowing gems that serve as checkpoints and potion-filling stations allow you to play it safe by storing XP in them for use with either magic or attributes, or you can be more ambitious and ignore them to build up an XP multiplier that increases with each kill. It even discourages grinding by not triggering enemy respawns after you reach a checkpoint; they only pop up again after you die. This risk-reward system is the great idea behind Lords of the Fallen.
It’s a good system, particularly since there’s no way to adjust the difficulty, so it’s sad to watch Lords of The Fallen make it irrelevant in the second half of the campaign by allowing you to reach quasi-godhood with little effort. The class spells had already minimized most of the challenge, but looted runes that bestow stats such as extra attack power or defense make humiliating enemies even simpler once you slot it into your gear. And that’s not the end of it. If you’re willing to bet some of your XP at the resident rune crafter, you have a good chance of receiving an even more powerful version.
This balance issue carries over to the bosses. Lords of the Fallen boasts a couple of battles that forced me to think out strategies for victory, but I managed to kill four other bosses on the first try by simply wailing on them with a big sword and my warrior’s Quake spell while blocking and swigging a potion when needed. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun, but dying at the hands of a boss on the first try became a mere annoyance rather than the first step in a rewarding learning experience. Halfway through the campaign, I absolutely expected to win every fight as long as I played within my comfort zone, and that’s a problem.
Heavy armor pushes this drive toward absolute power to absurd lengths. In time, my Harkyn seemed to laugh off heavy blows even without the extra help from spells. The challenges do grow consistently tougher and more satisfying once you complete a playthrough and venture into New Game Plus territory, but it’s a shame you have to wait.