Lords Of The Fallen

EDGE - - PLAY - Pub­lisher Square Enix De­vel­oper CI Games, Deck13 In­ter­ac­tive PC, PS4 (ver­sion tested), Xbox One Out now

De­spite our best ef­forts, we keep cy­cling through our magic pow­ers when we mean to roll be­neath an en­emy’s sweep­ing blade. It’s an easy mis­take to make in a game that so closely apes its in­spi­ra­tion – Lords Of The Fallen’s nor­mal and heavy at­tacks are mapped to the same shoul­der but­tons as their Dark Souls coun­ter­parts, after all, and the same is true of its guard and two-handed weapon stance. But while FromSoft­ware bound an eva­sive tum­ble to Cir­cle on PS3, Lords uses X. It’s a small anom­aly in an oth­er­wise fa­mil­iar con­trol scheme (al­beit one that means we quaff our re­plen­ish­able health po­tions at an alarm­ing rate early on), but char­ac­terises the dis­qui­et­ing sense of skewed déjà vu that CI and Deck13’s work evokes.

That’s not to say Lords doesn’t have any ideas of its own. In fact, the game is full of ad­di­tions to the for­mula it bor­rows from so heav­ily. Among the best of th­ese is an ex­pe­ri­ence mul­ti­plier that ramps up with ev­ery kill (up to a max­i­mum of x2). It en­cour­ages you to hold on to the points you’ve al­ready gained, since de­posit­ing your cur­rent ex­pe­ri­ence in ex­change for at­tribute or spell points re­sets the mul­ti­plier. Faced with a new area, the decision of whether to play it safe and level up or to risk los­ing your en­tire haul in com­bat against stronger en­e­mies in the name of greed is a gen­uinely tough one.

To aid your sur­vival, you can top up your health bar and po­tions at check­points – the equiv­a­lent of rest­ing at a bon­fire – but do­ing so doesn’t re­gen­er­ate fallen en­e­mies. Only dy­ing or leav­ing an area and re­turn­ing to it will bring them back. But if avarice, or even hubris, re­sults in an un­timely death far­ther down the line, you’ll have one chance to re­cover your lost ex­pe­ri­ence by fight­ing your way back to your ghost, a glow­ing light that waits at the point of your demise. Un­like in Dark Souls, you only have a fi­nite amount of time to reach it, de­fined by the length of your pre­vi­ous kill­streak, be­fore it dis­ap­pears, a me­chanic glee­fully de­signed to pres­sure you into mak­ing bad de­ci­sions. In prac­tice, you usu­ally have plenty of time, and once you do ar­rive at your ghost it might be ben­e­fi­cial to leave it un­col­lected for yet a lit­tle longer, since stand­ing in its vicin­ity con­fers a stats buff that might give you the edge in the face of ap­par­ently over­whelm­ing odds.

All of this is bound up in a com­bat sys­tem that, while pon­der­ous by con­ven­tional ac­tion-RPG stan­dards, feels sprightly in com­par­i­son to Dark Souls’ weighty, nerve-rack­ing en­coun­ters. Heav­ier weapons and ar­mour slow you down, of course, but even as a lum­ber­ing tank pro­tag­o­nist Harkyn’s moveset will feel fluid to Souls vet­er­ans as he strings nor­mal and heavy at­tacks into sat­is­fy­ing com­bos. The in­vin­ci­bil­ity win­dow dur­ing rolls is gen­er­ous, too (as­sum­ing you hit the right but­ton).

Harkyn has more brutish op­tions as well, in­clud­ing parry and kick moves. And while many en­e­mies carry large shields that make head-on at­tacks in­ef­fec­tive, Harkyn can stag­ger op­po­nents by sprint­ing into them with his own shield raised. It’s a tech­nique that works on many foes, even hulk­ing ones, prov­ing es­sen­tial when deal­ing with both fast-mov­ing, simian-es­que sword fight­ers and mind­less zom­bie-like crea­tures that pay lit­tle heed to cau­tious cir­cling.

Un­for­tu­nately, the de­vel­op­ers undo this good work dur­ing the game’s nu­mer­ous boss en­coun­ters. Rather than build on the dy­namic com­bat found else­where, Lords’ boss de­sign favours sim­ple, repet­i­tive at­tack pat­terns and pre­dictable win­dows of op­por­tu­nity. And in a stul­ti­fy­ing mis­un­der­stand­ing of what makes Dark Souls’ boss fights spe­cial, it fur­nishes its gate­keep­ers with tow­er­ing, de­moral­is­ing health bars. Beat­ing most of them is a case of go­ing through the mo­tions, stay­ing out of reach dur­ing each creature’s of­fen­sive rou­tine, and then chip­ping off a lit­tle vi­tal­ity be­fore back­ing off – there’s no sense that you’re fight­ing some­thing in­tel­li­gent or cun­ning, just awk­wardly re­silient. There are other poorly im­ple­mented bor­rowed ideas, not least the world it­self. Labyrinthine in na­ture, and in­ter­con­nected by grad­u­ally dis­cov­ered short­cuts, many ar­eas feel too samey to be men­tally mapped. As a re­sult, nav­i­ga­tion is a con­fus­ing, pa­tience-sap­ping en­deav­our. It doesn’t help that Lords’ sign­post­ing is ter­ri­ble, with progress-es­sen­tial in­for­ma­tion buried in the game’s poor cutscenes and not re­peated else­where. We found our­selves trapped in an NPC-strewn cas­tle for some time after miss­ing the news that we could now open mag­i­cally sealed doors. Re­turn­ing to the per­son who orig­i­nally di­vulged that in­for­ma­tion elicited no re­minder, and ob­jec­tive text of­fered no hints ei­ther.

More damn­ingly, we spent our im­pris­on­ment won­der­ing whether our in­abil­ity to progress was a bug, such was the fre­quency of glitches we en­coun­tered else­where. En­e­mies of­ten be­come trapped in scenery (one some­how man­ag­ing to get his torso em­bed­ded in the ceil­ing of a tun­nel, leav­ing only his feet for us to hack away at); our tar­get­ing retic­ule would some­times fail to recog­nise en­e­mies en­tirely, es­pe­cially dis­as­trous when fac­ing fast-mov­ing, pow­er­ful ag­gres­sors; and a check­point failed to ac­ti­vate dur­ing a tough se­quence.

Then there’s the fram­er­ate, which flails back and forth be­fore plum­met­ing in jud­der­ing protest when the game at­tempts to hit its high­est gears. It’s a pity, given some of the artistry ev­i­dent in the game world, and it’s in­dica­tive of an am­bi­tious team reach­ing beyond its ca­pa­bil­i­ties, a prob­lem that man­i­fests it­self in both tech­ni­cal and de­sign is­sues. This is a game that tries to build on FromSoft­ware’s for­mi­da­ble work but comes off feel­ing char­ac­ter­less and lack­ing in fi­nesse. There’s still much en­joy­ment to be found in the in­terim grind­ing be­tween boss fights, but Lords Of The Fallen’s great­est sin is that all feels rather soul­less.

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