It's usually considered bad form to talk about a game solely in relation to another game, but discussing Lords of the Fallen ($60; PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC; PS4 version reviewed) without mentioning Demon's Souls and Dark Souls is nearly impossible. Developers Deck13 Interactive and CI Games are not shy about their influences, but to their credit, they try to do something new with a formula that's arguably already been perfected for years.
The Souls series of ultradifficult action/role-playing games (RPGs) has garnered legions of fans for its intense challenge, haunting worlds and minimalistic stories. Lords of the Fallen takes the same concept, right down to the control scheme, and presents it in a more streamlined fashion. If Dark Souls is a feast, Lords of the Fallen is a snack — just enough to tide players over until Bloodborne, the spiritual successor to Souls, comes out in February.
In Lords of the Fallen, you'll take control of Harkyn, a tattooed warrior offered a chance for redemption, presumably so named because people call attention to him a lot. In the 15 hours or so that you'll spend in the game's ramshackle world, you'll battle a variety of grotesque enemies using swords, axes, hammers, gauntlets, shields and magic spells. All battles take place in real time, and most of the enemies can mop the floor with you if you're not careful.
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The procedure here will be familiar to Souls fans: Advance with your shield raised and your finger on the dodge button. Lure enemies away to tackle them one at a time, and learn their patterns in order to strike for the few seconds they're vulnerable. Lords of the Fallen is a slow-paced game, but battles are still exciting because they take real skill to complete.
The tagline for Dark Souls is "Prepare to die." For Lords of the Fallen, perhaps "Prepare to squeak by" would be better. Lords of the Fallen shares a lot of similarities with the Souls series, but a nearly sadistic glee in killing the protagonist over and over is not one of them.
Lords of the Fallen is difficult, and you'll meet your share of unfortunate demises, but the game is somewhat forgiving. Minor missteps will hurt you, not kill you, and only the bosses provide roadblocks likely to stymie players for any great length of time.
The flip side is that the game can feel a little bland as a result. The tight, meticulous gameplay is a bit at odds with a game that's not terribly interested in killing you, and collecting experience points from slain foes to level up your abilities and spells never feels incredibly urgent or rewarding.
The enemies are fun to look at, but their patterns are either easily predictable or frustratingly inconsistent. The bosses at the end of each chapter feel like exercises in attrition, and test your patience rather than your strategy.
This isn't to say that Lords of the Fallen is entirely bereft of original ideas. Upon starting the game, players can give Harkyn a unique class by choosing a basic build (Warrior, Rogue, Cleric) and a type of magic to go along with it (Brawler, Deception, Solace). Any class and magic type are a valid combination, and each combination has a name to go along with it: A fighter, for example, can become a sturdy Warrior, an overpowering Raider or a defensive Paladin, depending on what magic he chooses.
Daring players can also rack up experience points much more quickly than their conservative counterparts. Each time you slay an enemy, you'll receive a bonus modifier to your experience points gained. By defeating many enemies in a row, you can double your yields — or more. The only trouble is that if you save at a checkpoint, or die, your modifier gets reset.
Balancing potential gains against dying and losing it all helps keep the game exciting. Besides, if your plan goes belly-up, you can still retrieve your experience points by traveling to the location where you died.
Long ago, humanity devised a way to banish all evil spirits and monsters from the world, although it could not quite quell the evil in the hearts of men. That was all well and good, until monsters started showing up again. Now, the desperate priest Kaslo releases Harkyn — a troubled man with his sins tattooed on his face — from prison and guides him on a quest to close the portal between the worlds of demons and men once again.
The best word to describe both the story and the characters who inhabit it is "dull." Harkyn is the latest in a long line of generic, grizzled, middle-aged male protagonists in modern gaming, and his impolite grumblings don't do much to set him apart from his brethren.
Nor is Harkyn a terribly interesting character, as he seems to have only two settings: standoffish and reluctant. He insults characters while performing side quests for them, and has nothing of value to say about his backstory, which sounds considerably more interesting than the story unfolding in real time.
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Aside from Harkyn, the only two characters worth mentioning are Kaslo, whose sole purpose seems to be to disappear for long stretches of time so you can track him down to advance the plot, and Yetka, who is a sassy female lead, because every action/RPG is required by law to have a sassy female lead. If you remember any of these three characters in a few months, you have recall beyond that of most mortal men.
A middling localization doesn't help matters much. The game is plagued with awkward dialogue, typos and hint screens that make no sense whatsoever. A story-driven take on the Dark Souls formula may sound good in theory, but for it to fully work, Lords of the Fallen should have had a richer narrative.
Graphics and Art
Since Lords of the Fallen is available only for Xbox One, PS4 and PC, I expected that it would be one of the most gorgeous games on the market. It's attractive enough, but an exceedingly drab art style and extremely muted color palette make the game a bit less aesthetically pleasing than it could be. You'll explore snowy landscapes, stony castles and dusty catacombs, but neither the settings nor the characters who inhabit them will likely catch your eye.
Music and Sound
Lords of the Fallen pulls a cruel musical trick: It has an excellent opening theme, and nary a memorable tune beyond that. The first choral strains and pulsing drumbeats of Harkyn's adventure signal great things to come, but quickly die away into the much more predictable stand-alone strings for exploration and overwrought orchestral compositions for exploration and boss battles, respectively.
Likewise, the voice acting is nothing to write home about. Most of the characters sound slightly bored and not very convincing. Harkyn, especially, sounds kind of lifeless — never spiteful enough to be a credible threat, but never compassionate enough to help the audience care much about his struggle.
Lords of the Fallen is a good concept that suffers from a subpar execution. The game is not without its charms, but it had the potential to be so much more. Imagine a game as intricate and demanding as Dark Souls, but with an epic story and a more reasonable difficulty curve. Lords of the Fallen is, unfortunately, not that game. It wanted to be, but it doesn't quite get there.
Check out Lords of the Fallen if you have already finished the first three Souls games and just can't wait for Bloodborne. Otherwise, Demon's Souls or Dark Souls will serve you better. They're tougher, true and sometimes more infuriating, but ultimately more rewarding.
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Deck13 Interactive, CI Games
Release Date: 10/28/14
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
OS: Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8
Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad 8400 2.66 GHz, AMD Phenom II X4 940 3.0 GHz
Memory: 6 GB RAM
Graphics: GeForce GTX 460
DirectX: Version 11
Disk Space: 25GB