If you happen to be a fan of the Dark Souls franchise, then you are likely well aware that there is still a sub-genre of the action-adventure game that wishes to punish players for each misclick or poorly timed dodge that they make. Although it can be easy to find these punishing games frustrating, there's still demand from players who prefer to be challenged when it comes to combat timing and precision. Much like From Software's Dark Souls games, Deck13 Interactive caters to that group of masochists with Lords of the Fallen.
Lords of the Fallen is a third-person dark fantasy action-RPG that places players in control of a hardened criminal named Harkyn. The plot is painfully familiar and forces the reluctant hero into a position to make up for the sins of his past by battling demons who have begun invading the medieval-inspired human realm. After being released from his life sentence by a mysterious mentor, Harykyn's adventure plays out like a traditional dungeon crawl as players creep through dark corridors from a third-person perspective and battle enemies with swords and spells.
Although Lords doesn't fall into the horror category, the moody citadels invaded by an assortment of grotesque monsters is enough to make players at least a little afraid of their surroundings. Things get exponentially creepier when Harykyn leaves behind his home world on occasion to battle on the demon's home turf, but don't expect any Resident Evil style jump scares.
Lords kicks off with a gorgeous cinematic sequence that is reminiscent of Diablo 3 in tone, setting, and style. Although the cutscenes are incredibly well-polished, it takes a while to become invested in Lords of the Fallen's protagonist and the sinful world he's stuck in. Between cinematics, narrative is delivered via journal entries that can be found throughout the world, similar to BioShock or, again, the latest Diablo installment. Unlike BioShock's engrossing mystery or Diablo's lore-rich history, the journal entries in Lords of the Fallen are fairly uninteresting and feel more like a distraction than a tool to further immerse us in the world.
Whether you understand and care about Harkyn's mission of redemption or not, it doesn't take long to pick up on the game's goal: Kill monsters and, at all costs, avoid death. After picking a few basic character stats at the game's start and choosing a class (rogue, warrior or cleric), players are immediately dropped into a battle with one of the game's mini-bosses. The basic mechanics of jump, dodge, shield, and stab are all explained during the first few blows of this battle and by the end players are left alone to defeat the giant axe-wielding demon.
Lords of the Fallen does a fairly solid job with its combat system and focuses on consistent timing and positioning on attacks and dodges; but sometimes the deck is stacked against the player. Some portions of the game are nearly impossible to work through without equipping the shield, which prevents exploration of the other weapon specializations. Some players, particularly Dark Souls veterans, may be able to get by without the defensive tool, but newcomers to the genre may lose patience with the game quickly if they don't keep the shield equipped and at the ready.
When players do die, any experience that hasn't been banked (used to level up skills or abilities) is temporarily lost. Harkyn respawns at his most recent save spot and players must fight their way back to his ghost (wherever he died) to reclaim lost experience points (XP). The tricky part is that experience bonuses get bigger and bigger the longer you go without banking, so there is a strong incentive to gamble and wait as long as possible before spending the XP. This strategy pays off for experienced gamers who are less likely to get taken down outside of a boss fight, but I highly recommend new players spend XP any time they have the chance.
The experience system can be confusing at times and you might want to research a few guides for advice since it feels more hardcore RPG-ish than a traditional action game. Once experience points are spent and players begin applying stats to the skills that they care about, the game moves at a nice pace. There's little sense of grinding for XP between levels and finding new gear is always exciting and rewarding. Lords of the Fallen also uses a rune system to let players upgrade equipment so there's always a sense of progression.
The game's setting also adds a challenging and sometimes frustrating component to each combat encounter. Unlike many action RPGs, Lords of the Fallen keeps players in dark dungeons and corridors with hardly any opportunity to see the outside world. The small hallways, steep staircases, and sharp turns can make rolling away from attacks nearly impossible during certain encounters. Part of the fun of the game is how scary turning a corner can be, so the dungeon crawl setting works well in that respect, but once you do turn the bend and catch a demon's attention, you won't always have room to dance.
In traditional, intentionally difficult RPG fashion, Lords of the Fallen also neglects to offer players an easy navigation system. It's fairly easy to head in the right direction if you are playing the game for hours at a time, but the lack of a map or quest markers make returning to the game after a break a bit challenging. The game's muddy narrative doesn't help navigation much either. After a major cutscene or an NPC interation, a few objectives will appear in the corner of the screen, but it's not always clear which direction Harkyn needs to head to complete the new mission. Usually heading in the direction of demons helps, but since every monster respawns after Harkyn loses any battle, that strategy doesn't always pan out.
There's no denying that Lords of the Fallen is derivative, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing in this case. The game is unique enough to be attractive to Dark Souls fans without feeling like a ripoff. Its difficulty may seem a little too forgiving for the most experienced Souls players, but it will be plenty challenging for the majority of gamers. Lords is a great gateway game into the punishing action-RPG genre, but is unlikely to win over gamers who already have a bad taste in their mouth from Dark Souls.
Lords of the Fallen is now available for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. For this review we played the Xbox One version.
Follow Denny on Twitter @The_DFC.