My time with Lords of the Fallen started out very positively, but it was disheartening to see how my opinion of it changed the more I played it. It’s a game with some truly brilliant ideas and a high-level vision of how to stand out from other Souls-like games. But this vision didn’t seem to be shared by everyone on the team.
Lords of the Fallen is similar to Souls. If you’ve played any of these before, you’ll expect a few basic features right away. Combat is based on endurance; Heavier weapons/attacks use more of it than lighter ones. Your throws and dodges rely on the same stamina pool, and you have ranged options in the form of throwable items, weapons like bows, and spells.
Wither damage is a mechanic that isn’t very common in these games. Blocking doesn’t completely negate the damage, but rather turns the received portion of it into something the game calls a wither, represented by a gray color on your health bar. You can restore lost health by simply landing attacks on your opponent, but take him one If you score, you lose everything.
Withering damage is probably the first thing you notice when you enter Umbral, the game’s parallel world of the dead. The main mechanic of Lords of the Fallen is that its world exists on two levels. Axiom is the realm of the living, and this is where you start. Die and you fall into Umbral.
Both are always present, and with the Umbral Lamp you receive immediately, you can see through (and travel to) at any time. The game uses this in a few clever ways that I haven’t seen in other Souls-likes. For one, Umbral acts as a second life after death, providing another chance to either end the fight (if it’s a boss) or cancel it.
But that comes at a price. Not only do you take Wither damage as soon as you land in Umbral, but the World of the Dead is much more treacherous. Umbral mobs roam right next to Axiom’s enemies, and the longer you stay there, the more challenging it becomes.
The game actually wants you to farm your power (souls) in Umbral. There’s a multiplier that makes farming a little easier, but your ability to say “enough is enough” and leave Umbral will be tested as more hunter-like enemies come after you the longer you spend there. Exiting Umbral can be done primarily at specific, pre-determined points, the placement of which can turn a good run into a disaster.
Speaking of checkpoints: In Lords of the Fallen you can create your own checkpoints in both worlds. These seeds can be earned by defeating enemies or purchased directly from a specific NPC. Only one of them can be active at a time, so they serve as temporary checkpoints when placed before boss fights or deeper in the level. I found them helpful, but only as a solution to the game’s lack of consistent checkpoints, particularly in the larger, later levels. Levels have shortcuts, so I’m not necessarily asking for a vestige (bonfire) right in front of the fog gate (although that would help), but rather that HexWorks needs to re-evaluate where to place checkpoints for much of the game.
The other thing Umbral offers is the opportunity for more elaborate level design. You will regularly come across sections that can only be reached via Umbral. Sometimes they allow you to unlock shortcuts for future runs in Axiom, but most of the time they serve as a way for you to explore areas of the world you didn’t know existed.
The challenge is of course even greater in Umbral, and it’s another thing that can get frustrating when you’re asked to do a bit of platforming, dodging archers and wizards from four different angles while trying to Escape the mobs on your tail.
The biggest problem with Lords of the Fallen is the encounter design. Simply put, you’re constantly being pursued by more enemies than you can handle, and they’re often given advantages that immediately put you behind.
Snipers were a big problem, and while HexWorks has already adjusted them over my time with the game, they remain unfair. Ranged enemies can detect the player from extremely long distances and have a hit rate of almost 100%. Due to various visual effects, you rarely see them before they see you. This is why you often take two hits as soon as you turn the corner and are forced to retreat immediately without even noticing the attackers’ general position.
The game takes a similar approach to melee enemies, which always has more enemies than Lords of the Fallen’s combat can handle. They never lose sight of you and never stop pursuing you. At the height of my frustration, I would simply find myself running past entire areas just to get to where I was before I died, and then having to deal with a dozen enemies, all chasing me until my inevitable death.
Another way misconceptions about difficulty manifest themselves is through the regular reuse of bosses as normal enemies. This is actually quite common among Souls-like players and is usually an easy way to show players how much power they have gained over the course of the game. If you’ve fought a particular boss and see him walking around the open world hours later, you’ll feel good when you defeat him without much resistance.
Except in the case of LOTF, these are the bosses immediately added to the enemy pool, which made me wonder why they were bosses in the first place. It has the opposite effect of the intended effect and leaves you feeling weak.
Bosses, boss design, and even their appearances are all obviously important parts of Souls likes. The quality of bosses in Lords of the Fallen varies shockingly, almost as if some of them were given the care and attention you want while the rest were outsourced to meet a certain quota. The frequency of boss fights is partly responsible for this. So often when you’re exploring the world, you turn the corner and immediately and without warning see a health bar appear at the bottom of the screen. It happens so often that it’s really difficult to explore at your own pace, and it adds to the frustration when you end up dying and having to keep running back to recover your lost, forever-trapped power.
The big story bosses are fairly straightforward, but they rely a bit too much on spectacle rather than mechanical complexity. They almost always perform a large area clearing attack that is guaranteed to kill you if you don’t know it Specific Way to avoid it. It seems like a gimmick.
Lords of the Fallen is a game of varying quality. At its best, it features level design, bosses, and combat that are generally some of the best Souls likes. At worst – and this is more common – it relies heavily on quantity over quality and a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes these games challenging. My issues with balance and difficulty may improve with patches, and my concerns about design pitfalls are among the things that only get better in sequels. It made me want to play Lords of the Fallen 2.
Version tested: PS5. Code provided by publisher.