If you feel like you’ve heard of Lords of the Fallen before, you’re not going crazy. Its predecessor was released back in 2014 under the exact same name. While this Lords of the Fallen is technically a sequel, set 1000 years after the original, it feels like more of a traditional reboot, managing to rectify many lingering issues since then, even if it relies heavily on a pre-existing Souls-like formula that has made many of these action-RPG titles feel connected, yet just as fun to experience.
Lords of the Fallen largely succeeds on some of its newer mechanics, such as bridging the gap between two existing worlds, but it also largely succeeds in sticking very closely to a tailored, yet successful formula that many of these Souls-like games have ultimately pioneered. It’s fun to explore and satisfying to play, which makes it not only a worthy sequel/reboot but an incredibly competent action RPG in its own right.
A New Way Forward
Even if it’s set 1000 years after the original, Lords of the Fallen is immediately focused on being its own thing, rarely referencing that original game in any meaningful way. The story itself is largely subject to lore after the brief introductory cutscenes, which see your character setting across the realm of Axiom on behalf of the religious order to stop Adyr, an evil god who wants nothing more than to spread chaos, from being resurrected.
While it’s not particularly engaging at every turn, it’s simply there to give players a reason to explore this dark and dreary land in the first place. That being said, your character now has the ability to drift between worlds. Players begin in Axiom, otherwise referred to as the normal, physical world, but can cross over to Umbral, a darker spiritual realm, where creatures lurk and uncovered areas are given an entirely new perspective. Thankfully, this is the main mechanic of Lords of the Fallen and one that succeeds at providing both a sense of variety and overall exploration.
You’ll carry a magical lantern, which can not only be used to cross over but can also be used as a peephole into the world beyond. For example, certain areas in the world of Axiom might be sealed or otherwise unable to be accessed due to a large chasm or obstacle. Whip out your lantern, and you’ll see that in the world of Umbral, this is not the case. Be it a bridge to cross or an opening to slither through, you’ll be able to cross over into this world and progress. But all is not that simple; for once you cross over into Umbral, you’ll need to find a specific beacon in order to enter the Axoim realm once again.
Into the Breach Once More
While it’s generally intriguing to cross over into Umbral for what you might find, it’s also doing everything it can to present players with a sense of variety and replayability. Areas will look different, coated with a smoggy atmosphere that drenches the environment in a dreary grey, while the enemies are now more dangerous and can alter their levels of difficulty and aggressive nature the longer you spend in Umbral, making it a rather suspenseful trip, should you overstay your welcome.
Most Souls-like games see your player taken back to the beginning of an area of level once killed. In Lords of the Fallen, should you die in the world of Axiom, you’ll be taken to Umbral for your chance to get back. It’s a nice feature that helps with the overall difficulty as a second chance of sorts. That being said, time spent in Umbral is even harsher, so you’ll want to get out as soon as possible.
I personally love that Umbral is essentially fixated on finishing you off, as an eye on the corner of your HUD slowly widens, becoming aware of your location and sending more powerful enemies over to make sure you don’t make it back. It’s admittedly the highlight of Lords of the Fallen, which manages to make the concept of difficulty and death feel more like an accessible layer of the game, as opposed to an outright punishment.
Swinging for the Fences
The combat feels a little more nimble than combat found in Dark Souls, akin to something like Bloodborne. It still bears a sense of weight and purpose but feels a little more forgiving in terms of pace. You’ll still mix light and heavy attacks with blocks, parries, dodges and rolls to defeat enemies. While none of it feels stale, it’s tough to say that any of the gameplay feels particularly refreshing either. It’s rooted in action-RPG titles that have come before, but it’s worth noting that if you haven’t enjoyed previous Souls-like games for the way they feel, Lords of the Fallen isn’t necessarily going to win you over either.
Your magical lantern does add a level of variety to combat in Umbral, as it can be used to Soul Flay enemies, as you essentially leach their souls from their bodies, leaving them susceptible to attacks. You can even use it to push and pull them around, which is handy when enemies are near cliffs and ledges. It also takes a couple of seconds to do, leaving you just as open to enemy attacks in the meantime. Some enemies will even need to be flayed, removing that layer of protection that can make them almost invulnerable. While time in Axiom is generally fun and challenging, Umbral takes things up a notch with the inclusion of this mechanic in combat, and I’m all here for it.
Players can also take advantage of Vestige Seeds along their journey, which act as scattered checkpoints that can be planted at will, to access when you’re having a tough time. While it can take away from the overall challenge, it’s worth noting that they can indeed be skipped, and only offer a helping hand to those who need it. You’ll only get a limited number of seeds at a given time, however, which adds a level of both challenge and tension when simply choosing where and when to stop and plant them in the first place.
Where Did That Come From?
It also wouldn’t be a Souls-like game without a couple more additions, namely customisation and boss fights. While I won’t spoil the variety on offer here, there are some really cool and well-designed bosses to face off against. My only real gripe here is that, while they’re fun to fight, they’re not really that hard to beat. It seems unfair because I’m now drawing comparisons to, and judging the game by the standard the Souls-like games have set. But when everything else feels so similar, it’s all the more noticeable.
Customisation and progression also feel incredibly familiar. You’ll create and customise your character by choosing between nine distinct classes, each with its own traits and abilities. There is a tenth class in the Dark Crusader, but it’s worth noting that it is only unlockable later in the game, or immediately accessible via the game’s Deluxe Edition. You’ll then progress to wield a number of weapons and create a number of builds based on expanding and bolstering your existing statistics. An included New Game + mode is also going to help with various builds and general replayability as well. It’s definitely a system that’s tried and tested, but a system we’ve simply seen before.
Lords of the Fallen can also be played cooperatively with a friend, which is a bunch of fun, deepening the experience even if it rarely adds to the challenge. Thankfully, players are not kicked out of each other’s games after boss fights, but you can surprisingly lose yourselves out in the world quite frequently, with no available indicator to help find each other again. Accompanying players are tethered to the host when they get too far, but you’ll have to sit through a rather long loading screen when you’re brought back.
Look the Part
Lords of the Fallen looks and performs well for the most part, but can be subject to a few frame rate drops here and there, particularly when things get a little too chaotic. The game offers both Quality and Performance modes, the first of which caps the experience at 4K 30FPS, which runs steadily but feels incredibly slow and sluggish. Performance is the way to go, aiming for 4K 60FPS and offering VRR (Variable Refresh Rate) for compatible panels. While the frame rate will fluctuate, it’s certainly worth it for the way it allows the game to feel smoother and more responsive.
I’ve also only realised how spoilt I am on next-gen platforms. While the new and super-fast SSD is meant to reduce and often eliminate loading times, Lords of the Fallen actually features loading screens. Like traditional, bar at the bottom, loading screens. They only last a few seconds, but their presence simply made me realize how rare these actually are today. While they’re generally fine when playing alone, they’re much more frequent and ultimately annoying when playing cooperatively, as you’ll have to sit through one each and every time when being teleported back to the hosting player.
Ultimately, Lords of the Fallen still looks great, thanks to some decent polish and textures in both realms. While the Umbral realm is usually more interesting, there are some beautiful landscapes and architecture to uncover in Axiom as well.
Lords of the Fallen might rely on existing tropes and mechanics in terms of gameplay, but it does enough conceptually to set itself apart as a competent action RPG. Drifting between the Axiom and Umbral realms is definitely a highlight, even if the sense of challenge doesn’t feel as brutal when it comes to boss fights.
While this won’t necessarily bring over those who aren’t fans of previous Souls-like experiences, there’s plenty to love here for those fans who are looking for another action-heavy fix.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Engaging combat mechanics; Dipping between the two realms aids traversal and puzzle-solving; Slick visuals
Lowlights: Bosses can feel a little too easy; Frame rate is inconsistent at times; Excessive loading times when playing cooperatively
Developer: HEXWORKS, Defiant Studios
Publisher: CI Games
Platforms: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, Windows PC
Review conducted on PlayStation 5 with a code provided by the publisher.