FromSoftware’s games are a lot of things — beautiful, frustrating, obtuse — so it’s incredibly reductive to boil them down to just being difficult. “Just being difficult” wouldn’t have shaken the industry to its core because games like Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy and The Impossible Game would be the near-universal template if that were the case. 2023’s Lords of the Fallen is not as deft with its assessment of From’s template as it has taken the surface-level analysis of those games and pushed it forward to an annoying degree.
Lords of the Fallen’s irksome qualities are inescapable, too, and are most plainly displayed by how it places its enemies. Soulslikes often have a habit of putting a character just out of sight and behind a corner; a cheap trick that is meant to punish those who don’t carefully think through each step. Lords of the Fallen absolutely cannot help itself and seems to hide some asshole behind almost every other corner to a comical effect. It happens so often that it feels like a bit, only one that doesn’t ever loop round to being funny again and stays as eyeroll-inducing as the first time it happens.
Some of these foes are little snipers, which is yet another problem that cuts this game down. Lords of the Fallen is full of magical pricks with magical blasts that are anything but a magical time. Getting constantly pecked at from afar in the midst of a swordfight can have value if done correctly and sparingly, but it happens at an alarming frequency and at a distance that just further pours salt in the wound.
Lords of the Fallen already puts a lot on the player’s plate by constantly dumping in enemies. It hardly has fights with one or two tough foes and instead favors battles where their numbers are more important. Threat prioritization is a crucial part of this genre, but, again, it’s misunderstood here and meant as a stand-in for a hearty challenge. These grunts are rarely more than pushovers in small numbers and grouping them together seems like an attempt to mask their stupidity.
This is exponentially more evident in the Umbral, the game’s other, darker world. Spawns are constant and only get tougher as players spend more time in that decaying realm. Some of the best art is here and showcases some truly stunning design, but it’s all hard to admire when the clock is ticking down and the endless hordes are closing in. And, in carrying over a terrible genre tradition, there is no official pause menu to give players a breather. The Photo Mode is the only respite. It’s tedious to contend with endless grunts the first time but devolves into an absolute drag when having to backtrack and deal with the Umbral’s laborious puzzles and navigation challenges that require a lot of realm switching.
Backtracking is inevitable because of its stingy checkpointing and misguided checkpoint placing mechanic. Official safe spots are annoyingly few and far between and seem like a deliberate decision meant to highlight how players can plant checkpoints at certain spots. However, there can only be one at a time, so it’s a waste to go explore another area while one has already been planted, which only discourages exploration. New Game Plus also makes these the only types of rest stops and is yet another way the game has bent its challenge too far for no good reason.
Lords of the Fallen has other notable problems, as well. Combat is functional, yet has pathetic sound effects that undersell every hit and parry. Bosses, while consistent with the world’s inventive art style, only have a few attacks and don’t always telegraph them well. The dual world concept is visually and technologically impressive yet also hamstrung by how rigid switching between each realm is. Reclaiming lost “souls” and fishing around for Umbral leeches that buff enemies in the normal realm are both sluggish mechanics that lead to cheap hits.
And while destructive, none of these hold Lords of the Fallen back more than its sadistic and shallow stance on difficulty. Overcoming a challenge should evoke gratification, as is often the case with the best games in this genre, but there’s rarely that vital ebb and flow here. The uphill struggle is constant and that Sisyphean nature is exactly why the exhaustive effort to keep climbing isn’t worth the struggle.
Disclaimer: This Lords of the Fallen feature is based on a PS5 copy provided by the publisher. Played on version 1.010.000.