The Soulslike genre, which started out in 2008 through FromSoftware’s Demon Souls, has quickly become one of the most beloved genres in the gaming space, challenging players with their memorable boss fights, intricately detailed yet dangerous worlds, and their signature difficulty. The original Lords of the Fallen title aimed to do just that back in 2014, but it failed to replicate and make better what had come before, resulting in a game that left little more to be desired. The game would not see a sequel until nine years later.
Developed by an entirely new team, Hexworks, Lords of the Fallen, which shares the same name as its predecessor, seems to have a lot of pressure to present a memorable Soulslike experience that pushes new boundaries while trying to redeem its name. The development team has largely managed to accomplish both feats. There are some marked high points, but some facets of the game unfortunately miss the mark.
Lords of the Fallen opens with a blustering cutscene that sets the stage for what’s to come; the Demon god Adyr has risen, and it is up to you, the Lamp Bearer, to stop this menace once more. There is a plethora of classes you can choose from in Lords of the Fallen. You have your classic knight and shield backgrounds in the Hollowed Knight and Dark Crusader, while other backgrounds like the Orian Preacher and Pyric Cultist are there for players who want to dabble in magic; you even have a Condemned background, built specifically for souls veterans. There are a lot of options at play here. Given my deep affection for the Dark Souls series, I went with the classic Hollowed Knight on my first playthrough.
Lords of the Fallen features all of the bells and whistles you’d expect from a Soulslike. Souls have been replaced with vigor; bonfires are known as Vestiges, while the Estus Flask is known as the Sanguinarix. Where the game starts to deviate is in its storytelling. I felt the story was a lot more explicit in The Lords of the Fallen when compared to other similar games. Apart from the opening cutscene that tells you exactly where youfit into the story, there is much more context. This made me more engaged and invested in the world of Mournstead, a beautifully rendered game world rife with rich detail and meticulous world design.
Mind you, you will discover a lot about the world and its inhabitants through exploration, but Hexworks has managed to strike a fine balance between explicit and complicit storytelling, which I find that Soulslike games often struggle with. Either there’s too much context or not enough of it. The balance I found here also translates over to the amount of hand-holding the game does. While the original Lords of the Fallen went overboard with how much it tried to appease the most casual of players, the newest installment does not shy away from throwing the challenge right at you. While you will die a lot! The game has a handy list of tutorials in the pause menu that you can view at any time, allowing you to figure out where to change your strategy.
An area where I found this to be especially useful was during the game’s second main boss, Pieta, where, despite my best efforts, I kept getting bested by her until I figured out how to effectively parry enemies to deliver large bouts of damage at once through Grievous attacks. Additionally, the withered health system that the game has in place gives you some leeway during combat without taking away any of the challenges.
The withered health works similarly to how it did in Bloodborne, whereby you can restore bits of greyed-out health by striking your enemies. You get withered health every time you block attacks or enter the Umbral realm (which we’ll discuss later), and every time you hit an enemy, you get some back.
I found that this system, coupled with my choice to use the Hollowed Knight, allowed me to take a dual approach to combat, while I normally don’t use shields in Soulslike games, by taking withered damage through blocking and then quickly following up with an attack I was able to navigate the world with ease. The mixture of defensive and aggressive combat is something I’ve never seen play out like this in a game of similar caliber, but it quite works well and adds an additional layer of novelty to the game and nuance to the combat.
Perhaps the biggest talking point of Lords of the Fallen is its new Umbral world mechanic. Being the Lamp Bearer in Lords of the Fallen means that you can use your Umbral lamp for a number of different tasks, one of which involves shifting over to a darker, more grotesque version of Mournstead that exists parallel to the Axiom world.
The Umbral world is more than just an aesthetic switch as it allows for new and unique game opportunities and a number of new paths and enemies. Not only can you solve puzzles in the Umbral world that change the outcome in the Axiom world, but you can also access blocked areas. For example, during the game’s early portions, I came across a body of water that prevented me from progressing. Using my lamp to peer into the Umbral world revealed that in the alternate reality, the body of water is a normal path.
Promptly switching to the Umbral World allowed me to navigate the section without a hiccup. In the Umbral world, you gain a multiplier for the vigor you pick up. The longer you’re in the Umbral, the higher it goes and the harder the enemies get. A definite risk and reward situation here rewards careful planning and execution because you can’t enter the Axiom at will. You’ll need to locate Emergence Effigies to do so, and they aren’t always the easiest to find.
The lamp is useful for more than just transitioning to the Umbral world as it allows you to ‘Soul Flay’, the game’s most important mechanic. Soul Flay can be used to solve puzzles in the Umbral or it can be used on enemies in the Axiom to remove Umbral parasites that make them invulnerable.
The latter requires Soul Flay charges, which deplete upon a successful flay. Alternatively, you can soul-siphon enemies to build up your Soul Flay charges. Soul-flaying enemies leaves them completely vulnerable and is a great way to deal with tougher foes.
The game does well with its enemy design. From ranged enemies and traditional armament-wielding foes to humanoid and animaloid adversaries, I constantly found myself facing new challenges between the game’s many, many tough bosses, which for the most part felt very challenging, though I didn’t struggle as much as I thought I would.
The bosses did feel a little lopsided to me, oftentimes exhibiting poor AI behavior, which rendered them ineffective, and some bosses were far too easy while others were punishingly difficult. If you face a situation where you struggle, you can summon an ally through co-op to help you.
Summoning friends has been made extremely easy in Lords of the Fallen; coming from the convoluted Demons Souls and Elden Ring system, the straightforward approach makes the entire mechanic extremely easy to use. You need to walk up to a Vestige where you can then summon, join or invade another player. The progress of the world is tied to the summoner, and the rewards the summoned player picks up are reduced significantly. This is where I felt changes could be made because the game doesn’t necessarily incentivize joining another player’s world.
On the contrary, the game does incentivize experimenting during combat with hundreds of different weapons and classes available. The combinations and plays you can make are truly unparalleled. While I did stick with my traditional character, summoning and joining other players made me realize just how diverse the builds can be in this game. You can be a healer, a ranged weapons expert, or a magic character that spews a number of different magics. The choices feel limitless. Magic also sees a massive buff in regard to variety. The game features three distinct magic types, each requiring a different catalyst to cast.
However, I was a bit disappointed in how the game handled the dodging mechanic. Pressing the dodge button once makes you do a slight side step, while pressing it twice makes you roll dodge. Often times I accidentally initiated a sidestep when I intended to dodge. This is especially egregious during boss battles that require extremely precise dodging; for example, instead of pressing the dodge button thrice to dodge a three-combo attack pattern, I had to press it six times, which more often than not resulted in me getting caught in the crosshairs. This is made worse by the game’s inconsistent lock-on mechanic, which fails to lock on to my desired enemy and downright fails to switch between targets.
The game’s performance further lets down the combat. A Soulslike action RPG needs a rock-solid frame rate to make it enjoyable and responsive; however, the game has a number of technical issues that prevent it from reaching a flat 60FPS. To make performance more consistent, I even tried switching over to the 30FPS mode, but that too had me dealing with freezes, frame skips, and on rare occasions, crashes.
The nature of these performance hiccups is completely random, so it’s hard to anticipate and pinpoint them. While performance issues don’t deter my personal experience for a game too much in the case of Lords of the Fallen, they’re so egregious that they often cost you important battles and leave you frustrated. While the game does boast some pretty stellar visuals, there is just too much geometry and texture pop in that breaks the immersion. The game is being updated constantly though and this should get better after release. Overall, it feels like Lords of the Fallen will keep the community divided for the reasons mentioned above. While some will spend a lot of time with this game, it might not sit well with others.