All is not hunky dory in the world of Lords of the Fallen. A horrid army pours into its reality from an unfortunately accessible demon dimension, doubtless doing immeasurable damage to the local tourism industry. Who ya gonna call? In this case you call Harkyn, a bald, tattooed bruiser of fearsome reputation. He’s in the middle of some hard time, but he cuts a deal: you let me out of jail, and I’ll do some demon-smashing for you. Harkyn saunters into the beginning of the game as a free man, so it must be time to start upholding his end of the bargain.
Lords of the Fallen is a third-person dungeon-crawler-brawler heavily inspired by the Dark Souls series. Players take charge of the gruff Harkyn and go forth armed with the bare minimum of backstory. The criminal accompanies a sage named Kaslo to a snowy castle where Bad Things have happened, and then it’s straight into gameplay: tactical, in-depth combat against demonic enemies. Here, each opponent must be treated with respect lest a late block, tired roll, or over-zealous attack mean that the encounter becomes Harkyn’s last.
The quickest way to explain many of Lords of the Fallen’s basic mechanics is essentially to say “see Dark Souls”. As with that series, Harkyn’s stamina must be carefully managed during battle, as each strike, block, and dive roll saps him of energy, and a flurry of moves can end up with him caught short with nothing left in the tank.
Enemies hit hard, respawn on player death (though not on saves), and present a tough challenge – each new type encountered is likely to dispense some major hurt until the player learns its attacks and weaknesses.
Naturally, the frequent bosses are big ol’ tanks with health bars that exploit the measurements of a widescreen telly and attacks that reach what sometimes seems like about half a kilometre.
It’s a bit of a player-smashing frustratothon at times, but veterans of Dark Souls and other tactical combat games will likely find it a relative walk in the park, and even newbies will start to find the going easier as Harkyn gains power. Those that have played the Souls games will also notice that despite the obvious similarities, Lords of the Fallen has some interesting ideas of its own.
One is the way it deals with experience. Save shards are found frequently throughout the game. Here, Harkyn can refill his health potions and safely bank experience towards increasing his attributes and magic skills, or he can take the risk of continuing to carry his XP around with him to try to earn multipliers that increase between each deposit.
If he does fall in battle, the XP he was carrying will be reclaimable on the spot where he died, but enemies respawn on each death, and a time limit slowly drains the XP pile away, so you’d better get back there fast and pick it up. Ah, but fight near the site of your ghost, and it will increase your mana, stamina, and even health generation, even as precious XP vanishes into nothingness. It’s a thoughtful system that adds some play style options to proceedings.
Combat itself offers admirable depth. Harkyn can heft a two-handed greataxe, go for the classic sword-and-shield approach, or leap nimbly around with a dagger in each hand. Timing attacks correctly can lead to combos that save on stamina, and the lighter Harkyn travels, the faster he moves. Character creation at the outset of the game offers class specialisation via stat sets, but Harkyn can always use any weapon or armour, although he does so less effectively if he doesn’t have the maths on his side.
In fact, the game spams the poor man with a vast array of weapons and armour (including a range weapon with three modes) early on, and it can all be a bit overwhelming trying to decide which is the weapon and style for you, especially when all the gear is managed via the somewhat clunky inventory and character screens. Fortunately there’s plenty of chances to experiment on the respawning enemies, and also in the occasional challenge arenas in the demon dimension Harkyn comes across. That’s just as well, as it pays to be competent with a couple of different approaches to better combat the varying enemy types.
Magic also proves an increasingly powerful tool throughout the game, with three different schools tied to the warrior, rogue, and cleric classes. The decoy spell is particularly handy, letting Harkyn get in a backstab, which he can also deploy occasionally via some rudimentary stealth gameplay. Weapons are also upgradable via magic, which lends Harkyn an added combat edge.
Lords of the Fallen offers some lovingly detailed and well-lit environments, but not much in the way of changes of scenery; the range is really ‘snowy citadel’ and ‘demon citadel’. In combination with the maze-y feel of
some of the level design, this can often produce a feeling of having seen the part of the game you’re in already – which about half the time turns out to be true.
Enemy and boss design also falls back on samey ‘large, heavily armoured knight guy’ a bit too frequently. Harkyn himself looks a treat though. The wide range of armour available to him allows for myriad of appearances, and he’s armed with a stylish flourish animation for each weapon.
As with the setting, the story feels a bit boilerplate. Audio logs paint a background picture of the environment, and Harkyn conduct conversations with NPCs, but most are uninteresting, and any decisions made never feel like they’re of much consequence. Motivation rarely seems to get beyond the level of “go here, do this”, and it’s a bit too easy to agree with Harkyn when he growls “I don’t care” at someone. As a character he too is very much your antihero stereotype, although he manages to exude a little bit of charisma nonetheless – perhaps it’s the tatts.
You’d guess he revels in a bit of a scrap though, and it’s the red joy of enemies skilfully bested that will drive the player on too, rather than the supposedly-pressing need to avert a demonic invasion. To heck with the world – let’s get back to the demon-smashing.