Lords Of The Fallen
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.