The Soulslike. Enough to send a shiver down your spine, right? If there’s one sphere of gaming that has really made a name for itself in the past decade, it’s the ever-expanding field of third-person action-adventures, made notable by their Gothic demeanor, warm embrace of all things unholy, and - most notably, their uncompromising, ruthless, controller-snapping challenge.
Since developer FromSoftware first popularized these sadistic symptoms with the release of 2011’s Dark Souls, many studios have tried their hand at chopping out a slice of the hack ‘n’ slash pie for themselves. Most of these releases are, somewhat shamelessly, almost template to the genre’s pioneer. There seems to be something of an understanding between Soulslike developers and their audiences that we all stick to the same script: namely ungodly monsters, ridiculous weaponry, and an olde worlde setting that light and color forgot.
Back in 2014, Publisher CI Games hopped aboard the bandwagon early, with the release of the well-received but arguably underplayed release Lords of the Fallen - one of the earliest entries into the then-burgeoning Soulslike market. While the release was praised by critics for its uncompromising challenge and oppressive atmosphere, the title flew under the radar a little, perhaps a victim of arriving a little early in what would be the genre’s golden era.
And so, undaunted, CI Games is preparing to take another swing of the broadsword. Just shy of 10 years later, *Lords of the Fallen *is returning to the battlefield. The Soulslike has evolved in myriad ways since 2014, and CI Games has the benefit of experience and hindsight tucked neatly under its belt. But this is also an era of some truly fantastic examples of the genre, and any budding ARPG will have to really hit its mark in order to stand out from its bloodthirsty brothers and sisters.
While the original 2014 release was developed by Deck13, Lords of the Fallen 2023 will be the first release from HexWorks, an in-house developer formed by CI Games. The new title serves as a part-sequel/part-reboot of the original release, and as such can be played independently of the audience’s experience with the earlier release. What little backstory remains plays out in a dramatic opening sequence, with any necessary exposition drip-fed throughout the game in the form of notes, conversations, and item descriptors.
Essentially, you need not have played LOTF 2014 to dive into LOTF 2023.
Set in the dark fantasy realm of Axiom, Lords of the Fallen sees the kingdom of Mournstead under siege, as fanatics attempt to bring about the return of the defeated demon god, Adyr, via an invasion of ghastly, monstrous forces known as the Rhogar. The player is placed in the unfavorable role of “The Lampbearer”, the latest in a legendary line of successive warriors that are chosen, by fate or otherwise, to prevent Adyr and his legions from turning the lands of Mournstead into a living Hell… Because it all looks so cheerful right now.
To ensure Adyr remains vanquished, The Lampbearer must travel far and wide and cleanse the five beacons: guard posts that keep the Rhogar at bay but have been corrupted in the course of the invasion. This amounts to an epic journey across Axiom, one which will take our hero from dismal, murky swampland to the highest peaks of snow-clad mountains and everywhere in between. Standing in The Lampbearer’s way are Adyr’s followers, an army of scary, nightmarish creatures, and some even scarier framerate issues.
Through the Umbral Lamp, the Lampbearer can peer into the Realm of the Dead (left), and even uncover new secrets, routes, and monsters (right)
The player chooses from one of a tremendous 10 classes, (ranging from axe-swinging, barrel-chested meatheads and sly, roguish stalkers to the more fragile masters of the arcane), before setting off on a brutally challenging jaunt through Axiom. Once the adventure gets underway, it’s business as usual from a Soulslike sense, with frame-based combat, parry-heavy strategies, throwables, element-based weapon boosts, and stats upon stats upon stats. The most amusing element of covering this genre remains the way that each and every release is so typical as to be almost template. We can tell you that it’s “A Soulslike”, and the well-versed already know exactly how it plays, feels, and controls. Lords of the Fallen is no exception.
Well, perhaps one exception. LOTF features a distinct mechanic that sees two planes of the same universe layered on top of one another. Axiom has what is, essentially, a mirror universe known as Umbral, which plays host to the lost souls of the dead. By utilizing the mythic lamp, (hence “Lampbearer”), the player can transition between the realms of the living and the dead. This opens up additional pathways, uncovers hidden secrets, and can even allow the player to resurrect themselves. If you die in Umbral, however, it’s back to the last checkpoint, or “Vestige”, of which there are frustratingly few.
The Lampbearer can view memories of those that came before.
As LOTF‘s trademark feature, the Umbral lamp mechanics are both neat and conceptually ambitious, but perhaps do not quite synchronize as well as they might. The lamp mechanics occasionally break the natural flow of the action, becoming cumbersome when utilized in combat. Positively, the Umbral realm is exceptionally creepy in design - populated by no-faced ghouls, itch-inducing moth women, and giant-eyed flora. Additionally, much like The One Ring, hanging about for too long only brings further terrors, including Death itself. Imagine getting 10 stars in Grand Theft Auto, except it’s The Grim Reaper chasing you down instead of Five-O.
Outside of the dual-world mechanics, Lords of the Fallen’s gameplay mostly offers a derivative, if solid, Souls experience. Movement definitely feels a little faster than most of its contemporaries, (I was actually surprised how quickly The Lampbearer sprints, like the Usain Bolt of Gothic Adventure) but combat is still a typical matter of scalpel-precise timing, enemy pattern-learning, threading-the-needle counterattack, and fighting huge boss characters with long names and even longer health bars.
Weapons? Well, Lords of the Fallen keeps things slightly more sensible than many of its circular-saw-wielding contemporaries, offering a range of daggers, swords, axes, polearms, as well as an array of useful throwables. These items can also be adorned with a variety of salts, adding the requisite effects of Fire, Poison, Holy, etc. For those who prefer the mythic arts, there are three forms of magic available. These offer both destructive and constructive spells based upon Axiom’s three deities: Radiance for the noble God Orius, Umbral for the powers of the Dead Realm, and finally Rhogar, for those who wish to give the enemy an explosive taste of their own medicine.
It’s all understandably familiar. And that’s a good thing too, as LOTF clearly expects the player to already understand the core gameplay loop of the genre. This is a game that knows what the player expects, and gets to work delivering the goods. Tutorial Schmutorial. If you need further assistance, then one much-welcome feature allows two players to chop their way through the entire campaign together, an act that will allow friends to share the defeat, even though It’s Definitely Their Fault.
Lords of the Fallen features an epic world full of dismal forests, (left), majestic vistas, and silly hats. (right)
Atmosphere plays a key role in Lords of the Fallen, and both the realms of Axiom and Umbral are visually arresting. The width and breadth of the world presented here feels truly epic, and there are often times when it feels as if the protagonist has legitimately walked miles, (though this is perhaps a smart illusion presented through both map design and the cycle of death and rebirth). While LOTF is as gloomy as one would expect, the various areas traversed over the quest are very attractive, with attention paid to the dingiest of caves as it is to sweeping mountain vistas. The central narrative is fairly pedestrian for Dark Fantasy, but those who dig a little deeper - speaking at length with NPCs, seeking out subquests, and taking the time to read the in-game lore - will find some putrid meat on the bones.
Tone is perhaps the central protagonist of LOTF, with an oppressive darkness that seeps out of the game’s every pore. Burdening themes of heresy, death, and sacrifice imbue the land and its denizens with a strange sense of, let’s call it, “Hopeful Hopelessness”. These are a people fighting to save the kingdom, often in the name of a deity over themselves, but as you venture through the story, you might start to question what is worth saving - and, indeed, your own narrative choices might find you on a road to legitimate damnation yourself. I mean, you were only asked to prevent Adyr’s return…
For its debut release, HexWorks has shown itself to be an adept studio with an eye for atmosphere, visual splendor, and haunting creature design.
Unfortunately, for all of these splendid visuals and atmospheric effects, there is a heavy price to pay. Lords of the Fallen, (reviewed for PS5), has a tendency to get the Sony box sweating hard during its more dramatic sequences. Some of Mournstead’s locales - such as Pilgrim’s Peak - saw the framerate take a severe hit, occasionally slowing to a crawl, and it should be noted these problems were encountered during the less resource-hungry “Performance Mode”. Additionally, whilst reviewing, we experienced several crashes, including a critical save error immediately after a staggeringly difficult boss battle (fortunately, after reloading, the file was fine).
There are also numerous smaller issues that hinder an otherwise clean journey through the game world. We found enemies would get momentarily stuck in the environment from time to time, while some boss characters would become dead-set on attacking the “Ghost” partner even after they had departed the scene. Some Umbral shortcuts remained closed when they should be open, and on one instance the game seemingly forgot we had unlocked a door, only to remember upon walking through the original trigger point that unlocked it.
While these issues were frequent enough as to weigh heavy over the title, HexWorks has been applying frequent updates to the PS5 edition all week. As such, it is likely that the developer will support LOTF, on launch day and beyond, and will hopefully iron out these issues. Other members of the Gamer Guides team have been playing LOTF on PC, and while their experience has not been perfect, they have seen a lot less in the way of performance issues.
The Beacons must be cleansed if Adyr is to remain vanquished.
Aside from its technical woes, Lords of the Fallen is ultimately a decent, engaging follow-up to the 2014 original. Having had an additional decade with which to take notes and play follow-the-leader, one might expect CI Games to have delivered a sequel that carries its own greater sense of identity. But given that the developer referred to its own design plan as “Dark Souls 4.5”, then LOTF was clearly intended to be at least somewhat of a facsimile of the FromSoft series. In that specific regard, it is mostly successful.
For its debut release, HexWorks has shown itself to be an adept studio with an eye for atmosphere, world-building, visual splendor, and haunting creature design. Now that LOTF is finally in the can, here’s hoping that this developer can turn its hand to an entirely new project, away from the recreation of other studios’ successes and pursuing its own clear taste and talent for creativity.
Lords of the Fallen is a solid, if conventional, Soulslike that offers an epic and imposing adventure while never quite breaking new ground. It’s not a release that will turn the heads of the non-faithful, but for those who cannot get enough of the Live, Die, Repeat, (and Die Again) method, LOTF’s grim atmosphere, relentless challenge, and unholy lore will get the blood pumping… All over the floor, at any rate.
Note: This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.
Lords of the Fallen is a solid, if conventional Soulslike, offering imposing adventure while never quite breaking new ground. Though a litany of performance woes currently hinders the experience, expansive realms, gloomy lore, and a bloody, heavy-handed challenge await the more sadistic corners of the game-playing audience.
Chris has been playing video games since 1986, back when people saw in black and white. Former editor for Destructoid, their thoughts and reports on the media taste forgot have also been published in outlets such as Eurogamer, Starburst, and Retro Gamer. Joining the Gamer Guides crew in 2023, Chris contributes fair and thoughtful critique on a wide variety of genres.