There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking clear cues from an established franchise, though a developer does run a series of risks in doing so. Suddenly the distinction between loving tribute and blatant copy becomes a stark one, and the line separating the two is about as difficult to discern as the difference between this and last year’s Madden. Lords of the Fallen developers Deck13 Interactive and CI Games clearly have a genuine appreciation for Dark Souls; does it translate to a loving Darksiders-esque homage, or a cheap means of saving time drawing up design documents?
Well, the honest answer is a little bit of both. The good news is that Lords of the Fallen brings to the table enough interesting and genuinely unique ideas to separate itself from From’s beloved and notoriously challenging series. The bad news is, certain bits of the picture never really come into focus, falling somewhere between unrealized potential and technical shortcoming. Your mileage will certainly vary — I’ll come back to that later.
New Yet Familiar
Like Dark Souls, Lords of the Fallen sets the player on a solitary journey, with a vast world to explore and myriad ways of surviving in it. I’m happy to report that the game looks, much to my surprise, quite visually stunning. Textures are crisp and high-resolution, while enemy designs are both foreboding and intimidating, albeit in less of a truly frightening fashion than some of the entities that roam Dark Souls II’s Drangleic. Lords of the Fallen genuinely looks and feels current generation, and despite its somewhat cliched fantasy RPG trimmings, offers a world well worth ogling at. This alone makes your journey worthwhile, for witnessing its prettiest moments if nothing else.
You can customize your loadout fairly easily, and like the Souls games you’ll have access to dozens of weapons and pieces of gear, just waiting to be discovered and utilized. Weapons are mostly of the melee variety, and choosing between a one-handed weapon + shield combo, a two-handed weapon, or a dual-wielding setup will often make or break the outcome of an encounter. Luckily, adjusting your strategy against particular foes can be a massive help as well, so if your heart is set on dual-wielding those shiny scimitar-esque blades, you won’t have to pass up the chance for the sake of stats and success. It’s no Lightning Returns doll simulation, but playing dressup is a fun distraction that proves surprisingly entertaining.
One area where Lords of the Fallen cleverly trumps its inspiration is the way in which experience and leveling up are handled. If you die, you’ll have to retrace your steps to get back the XP you lost/progress you earned, and if you die again you’ll lose it for good. The best part, though, are the XP multipliers. The longer you hold onto XP without cashing it in, the more your kills are progressively worth. This in turn introduces an awesome risk vs. reward balance, where if you hold onto your XP for 4 hours and cash in big, you’ll experience huge growth and a massive boost to your abilities when you finally choose to do so. On the other hand, if you do die and lose it all… the results could be devastating.
It’s Not Easy Being Not Easy
Which brings me to one of the game’s bigger problems — it’s not all that difficult. The challenge posed by Lords of the Fallen is certainly steeper than your average fantasy RPG, but by Souls standards it’s not much to write home about. This brings up the issue I mentioned earlier in the review, too; more forgiving difficulty than similar games isn’t a negative by default. But when you’re so clearly operating under the same rules and conditions of an established series, certain things are going to be expected. In this case, unforgiving, rewarding difficulty is one of them.
Worse still, the times I did die often felt cheap or unjust, especially when the game’s hit detection gets iffy or enemies become temporarily invincible for reasons completely unexplained. Most gamers like a challenge, but I don’t know any who enjoy feeling cheated. I’d put my deaths in Lords of the Fallen at about fifty-fifty here, but for a game of this nature, that ratio is far from good enough.
It Works – For Now
The final dagger that prevents Lords of the Fallen from achieving greatness is its completely throwaway plot, and to a lesser extent, a nasty case of uninspired world design. Player avatar Harkyn definitely has motivations of some sort or another (he’s a freed prisoner on a save-the-world mission), but you’d be hard pressed to remember all but the barebones details about why you’re actually pursuing any of this at all. The game’s world, though graphically pretty and especially crisp thanks to PS4, lacks unique art and sorely needs an injection of at least some color. After a while it began to feel more like a series of film sets tied together by “natural” pathways, an attribute doomed to get old regardless of how thoroughly plastered in current-gen goodness it is.
In the end, Lords of the Fallen does manage to land in the “respectful homage” category, but only by a hair. I had fun, which is what counts, but unlike with Dark Souls, I’d be hard pressed to play a sequel that basically amounts to an evolution of the same formula. If Namco Bandai is serious about Lords of the Fallen as a franchise, its going to need to devote some serious polish and brainstorming toward a sequel. In the meantime, though, this first game is undeniably worth experiencing for its graphics and handful of unique strengths alone — just don’t expect it to transport you to another world.
Review copy was provided by the publisher. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.