Review: Lords of the Fallen

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In a world where no sin is forgotten, Harkyn is an imprisoned man seeking redemption. He may atone for what he has done, but it will only be an internal peace. True peace, where there is no conflict with the world nor with one’s own demons, will likely elude this man as his face is literally marked by his past. The evil things he has done before the start of Lords of the Fallen are tattooed on his face so that all who meet him will know who he is and what he has done. He is released from prison to turn his strength upon the demons and gods threatening the realm of men, to earn his forgiveness.

The story in this game is either too subtle for me to absorb consciously or it just isn’t there. The setup for this game is all of that written above, but the game would be the same if Harkyn simply showed up at the giant monastery structure that he will spend most of the game exploring without any explanation at all. The only difference is that I would have thought it strange that the shmutz on the main character’s face vaguely looked like runes (they’re his sins, but the tattooist must not have wanted anyone to be able to read them). For the most part the story unfolds in a few very brief conversations with characters who stay put in set places in the castle/monastery/dungeon and provide side quests and vague descriptions about the world. 

The story is minimalist to say the least, just like the quest structure of the game. The Rhogar (read: “demons”) are bad guys and Harkyn needs to kill them, the quests are to kill demons (or to meet a guy who will then direct you to kill a big demon). The voice acting, what little there is, is serviceable but the need to converse with NPCs feels unnecessary as they usually have little to say. Dotted throughout the game are floating scrolls that bounce up and down, begging you to press the triangle button while standing next to them. Obliging will give both the kind of feeling that only comes with minding your manners, as well as an audiolog that will say something about the world or is a page out of someone’s diary, sometimes related to the place where they are found. These spoken word pieces are better than nothing to flesh the world out, but if they were not there the game would have been no better or worse. Lords of the Fallen does not do a good job at making you care about the world or telling why what you are doing is important.

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What this game excels at is exploration and combat. At any given time there is only a vague sense on where players have to go. For the most part it is a game about going down detailed corridors to finds new monsters and treasure, interspersed with towers and courtyards exposed to the elements. The different layouts of rooms and how richly they are detailed makes the game a joy to explore. There are small windows in tower walls, interred bodies in the catacombs, melted wax around groups of glowing candles and dozens of other details that bring the game to life. It is possible to break the various pots and benches around, but it almost seems like a shame to since they fit in perfectly with the environments. There are hidden rooms and portals that lead to small sections of a hellish dimension which can lead to great treasure. In most dungeon exploration games, and in this one as well, the carrot is always better gear. Lords of the Fallen is special because the dungeons are actually visually interesting to explore.

While loot may be the carrot, death is the stick. Enemies will try to kill Harkyn at every turn and unless you are the world’s greatest Lords of the Fallen player from the time you press what passes for the “Start” button on the PlayStation 4, or your system of choice, you’re gonna die. Probably more than once. Whenever that happens our hero will respawn at the last checkpoint in the game represented by large, scarlet crystals hovering in the air. Saving progress at these stones will make that stone the new respawn point and refill a few empty health potion bottles. It is also at these stations where the experience points gained for slaying demons and discovering new areas can be spent on character development. The trick is that the longer you go without spending any experience points, the higher a multiplier you will build, making kills worth more and more experience. Unfortunately, if you should die while having a large amount of experience, it may be lost when you die. After respawning, a silver cloud representing your lost experience will be placed on the spot of your death. Simultaneously a hidden timer will begin to tick down, reducing the value of that cloud as Harkyn plods towards it. But since all of the enemies who involuntarily contributed to that murder cloud are also brought back to life when Harkyn respawns, care must be taken to not rush and die retrieving your experience. If this happens, the experience will be lost forever. And that can be a real bummer, because you may lose thirty minutes of character progress in a few seconds of carelessness. It adds a layer of tension to every encounter when retrieving experience and also gives a good reason to push onwards and not bank experience as the bonus for not doing so can be significant.

The combat is the developer’s take on realism. I have never killed anyone with a great axe, and I am going to assume that no one involved with the making of this game has either. However, I have chopped trees down and cut up fire wood with an axe. And I can tell you that unlike the dwarf in Golden Axe, a regular person, even someone in fantastic shape, cannot swing an axe forever without getting tired. Eventually your arms ache and the effectiveness and accuracy of each blow decreases, and a dozen swings after that your arms feel like they are made of lead and you can’t lift the axe anymore. Harkyn has a set of moves for each kind of weapon he can equip and can only swing it so many times before having to take a break. He typically can only take a few swings at a time and it is necessary to either avoid or block enemy attacks until he has recovered. It may seem odd that he can only get in a few shots between breaks, but one has to remember he is wearing a hundred pounds of armor. Blocking attacks with a shield will also drain his stamina and eventually his health as he no longer has the power to resist the next blow. There are spells that do direct damage or lure enemies, as well as a magical gauntlet that can shoot magical bolts, but for the most part I found the basic combat a far more effective means to dispatching enemies. As more hits are landed in a row (and we’re talking about three or four hits) the damage will start to dramatically increase with each new hit. However, that also means that it will take longer for stamina to recharge. As things like rolling out of the way of charging enemies and running quickly drain stamina, it is very critical to success to be able to read the enemy, dodge or block his attacks and still have the reserves capable to respond effectively.

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Animations and timing are different for each weapon. Once I found a good sword that worked well with a shield, I used that to slay many a boss and smaller monster. In chests and hidden behind broken walls, I’d find other, arguably better, implements of damage but kept using the same sword. Even when I found greatswords or axes that objectively were substantially better in terms of raw damage, I still stuck to the smaller sword, eventually finding a better one with the same character animations. The only reason I ran with inferior gear was that I was familiar with the timing of the hits and knew exactly how many swings I could make before having to stop to recharge my stamina. It may have been less damage per second, but I knew I could at least survive to get in a series of smaller hits until the enemy fell under a rain of blows. It was not until I found a hammer that was leaps and bounds better that I switched. I was not thrilled having to adapt to a different play style, but I did enjoy seeing my foes falling down sooner, even if they managed to score a few hits of their own. Not many role-playing games manage to internalize in the player a weapon preference, choosing instead to represent the idea of weapon mastery as increased numbers to hit and cause damage for a fighter when he wields a mace and not an axe or sword. It adds a whole new factor in deciding whether that new piece of loot is any good beyond “Are the numbers higher?” and “Does it scale with a strength or dexterity build?”

Invariably this game is going draw comparisons to Dark Souls. In both games you play a lone warrior with limited stamina traveling in real time through a sprawling massive dungeon, made up of several smaller, connected dungeons, fighting monsters and gathering new loot to fight stronger monsters.  What Lords of the Fallen does not have is all of the bullshit. I don’t mean just the ability to access foes that are way too powerful for your level (you can definably do that in this game), I mean the traps. There are few instant death environmental kills and very few blind corners where three powerful enemies are waiting to pounce on anyone boldly going into a room. The combat is methodical in both games and there is a risk/reward associated with progressing further and further from the last save point, but it is nice to finally play a game of this style where I would not die in unavoidable ways. I never understood why anyone thought those traps in Souls were enjoyable to encounter. Maybe that is just me; I like to have fun. It’s a personal problem, it’s probably genetic. When the only way to avoid an obstacle is to expect the player to have encountered it before, that ceases to be an obstacle and becomes the needless padding-out of a game as players are forced to replay sections multiple times. Lords of the Fallen rarely feels like it is unfair in the way the Souls games do at times. Every single time I died in this game, which was many times, it was because I rushed to swing my hammer too soon or ran over a place that, in retrospect, was clearly a trapped spot (rotted boards over a pit in the center of a room). This game is very much about a guy in heavy armor plodding his way through a dungeon, and if you try to play it like Devil May Cry and swing constantly, relatively weak enemies will make your health bar their juicy meal. In that sense it preserves the best of the Souls games. The methodical take on combat that rewards patience as much as timing is uniquely appealing.

It also looks substantially better than the Souls games. The enemies range from standard weird-looking demonic guy with a sword and shield, to ten foot tall monstrosities with multiple arms all clutching different weapons. Some of the bosses are merely strange reptile men or a really tall demon guy with a sword, but some of them are impressive spider demonesses and gigantic ogres equipped with a giant club and a maw of irregular teeth. After the first few hours Harkyn will discover armor and weapons that have a level of detail unlike anything in the Souls games. Animal motifs, inlaid runes, jagged edges and gigantic pauldrons make the found gear impressive to the eye and actually looks epically powerful. The numbers don’t just go up, as the armor and weapons get more powerful they are actually more and more impressive to behold. It gives you a sense of confidence that you can actually take on the challenges laid out in Lords of the Fallen. Looking forward to what the next set of gear will look like is almost as important as seeing how it ups Harkyn’s stats. Almost.

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Experience points banked at save points can be spent towards spell points or attribute points. At the start of the game players will pick one of three “classes” for their Harkyn. I did not notice a huge difference amongst the classes, as primarily they are used to set which four spells are available during the game. Spell points are used to gain these magical abilities and to increase their effectiveness. In some situations they can distract enemies or deal damage without running the risk of being hit, but largely the spells are not going to be anyone’s primary survival tool. Attribute points are spent to determine how much health is available for the monsters’ consumption or how much damage will be done with weapons. Other than trying to make a character that can swing a sword more than once and at least survive until the next hit off a health potion, the decision to be made to make an optimal character is between speed and power. Whether Harkyn is going to do multiple hits and then roll out of the way of danger or if he is only to swing a giant mace around twice, dealing massive damage and maybe unbalancing an enemy. Since most of the weapons scale towards Dexterity or Strength stat, a character with points split between the two will not be anywhere near as effective as one with everything dumped into one. There are a fair amount of weapons of each type to find in the castle, so no matter which kind of attack you prefer, you’ll likely find something in a chest to your liking. 

The only other chances for customization is putting runes in slots at the ghostly blacksmith who travels among the various anvils in the game. Enemies generally drop generic, useless runes which the smith will convert into something useful. If some experience points are invested in the process, this conversion will be guaranteed to make the best sort of rune available. I do not know why these are randomly converted and having to return to a blacksmith for upgrades seems like a needless step as he rarely has anything interesting to say once he is discovered.

This is a difficult game. Anyone who is not prepared to wait for the right moment to strike, block or otherwise manage stamina is going to die. A lot. And anyone who is not prepared to learn to play Lords of the Fallen for the kind of game it is, is not going to have a good time with it. In keeping with the theme of a difficult game with no handholding, there is no map or quest tracker beyond a message in the upper-left corner of the screen reading “Go to [Location].” How you are going to get there is up to you to discover. Make no mistake about it, this is a hardcore dungeon crawler whose only care for the player is to reward perseverance and patience with very nice-looking armor and weapons that look as impressive as they are. It is a fun challenge while it lasts and some people may be so into the game that they may wish to take a stab at the New Game+ mode. Other people, like me, will appreciate the game for what it is and hope that more games of this style of dungeon crawler continue to come out. Especially if they leave out the traps.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Amazing looking gear
+ Solid stamina-based combat
+ Great lighting and environments

Cons:
– Rune system is overly complicated and time consuming
– Characters are flat and the story is uninteresting

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also available for PC and Xbox One
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games America
Developer: CI Games / Deck 13
Release Date: 10/28/2014
Genre: Action-RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.