Lords Of The Fallen is a reboot of CI Games and Deck 13’s 2014 action-RPG called… Lords Of The Fallen. We thought the original was average and largely forgettable, so how does the new LOTF stack up against it nine years later? Well, it’s definitely going to appeal to more folks by being a fairly enjoyable soulslike that ticks most checkboxes, and that rises above most of the competition by popping a magic lantern in your hands.
Raise a light to the dark fantasy world and it’ll reveal a more dribbly parallel universe you can warp between at almost any time. This spooky lantern might open up some cool realm-hopping twists on your grim adventure, and the game as a whole might instil a sense of exploration sure to please souls fans after a familiar hit of uncertain peril, but its finer details chip away at your patience. It’s not long before your tentative pushes through horrible towns and creaky walkways soon give way to wild sprint finishes born from pure frustration.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. LOTF is a Soulslike, which means it’s a difficult action-RPG where you must light several beacons to rid a dark fantasy world of its darkness. In your way stand lots of nasty mobs who are desperate to kill you, the occasional ‘friendly’ NPC who doesn’t speak unless spoken to, and bigger bosses preceded by cutscenes where it’s revealed their tongues are cannons and their ulcers holding cells for explosive worms filled with corrosive pus. Yes, you guessed it: levelling up means harvesting souls and inputting them into a spreadsheet filled with at-first-glance meaningless words, so the number next to the word you’ve chosen goes up by one and a load of percentages respond in unison. Progress means, for the most part, hobbling between Vestiges (bonfires) and replenishing your Sanguinarix (healing flask). Everything will feel immediately familiar to soulslikers.
And yes, the game tries hard to tell a story through sad item descriptions and snippets of info you’ll hear from cronies back at your hub (yes, the hub has spooky chants of “ooo” and “aaaa” backed up by violins, just like Bloodborne). I understand some magical beacons have become corrupted and that means this evil person called Adyr isn’t being held back anymore; I understand nothing more. The game’s interpretation of dark fantasy is perhaps a little more juvenile than FromSoft’s Souls or, ironically, Lies Of P, which means its locales and their interior designs are more akin to a metal band’s album cover than a plod through a ravaged old town brimming with history. In Souls, I know the large fiery skulls that litter a land might’ve belonged to the giants down the road. In LOTF, they’re just fiery skulls. Don’t expect your connection to its world to be all that strong.
There’s an argument to be made, then, that LOTF doesn’t actually do a great deal to differentiate itself from the Soulslike pack. Fundamentally, you lock onto fire-breathing dogs and take on towering bosses – some of which are neat, like a knight on horseback who takes swipes at you before plunging into the surrounding bogs and re-emerging like an armour-clad great white. Combat has the energy of a slightly clunkier Dark Souls II, with weight behind each blow and the usual thrills that come with overcoming challenges. The magic lantern, though, manages to save LOTF from being just another clone… sort of.
Early on, you’re given a magic lantern that reveals the Umbral realm, the tendril-y, more dangerous version of whatever it’s pointed at, basically. Not only is it a technological feat to open a window into another world that runs simultaneously alongside yours, it’s also impressive how you’re able to use it to your advantage. For instance, little moths (the game loves moths) flutter about areas where it might be worth shining your light. It might reveal a spinal column snaking across the sky towards some loot, and as long as you keep the lantern raised, you won’t fall.
Hold a button and you can actually transition into the Umbral realm entirely, causing the area around you to wash a shade of rotten duck egg. Maps are intricate and do the whole loop back on themselves thing, with ladders you can knock down to create shortcuts and doors that only open on one side. Often you’ll be required to plunge into Umbral to traverse a lengthier flooded section where a quick flick of the lantern won’t cut it. The catches being: 1) The longer you spend in Umbral, the more critters phase into existence and take swipes at you; 2) The Umbral realm counts as your second chance at life, so if you die, you’ll have to restart from the last bonfire.
Umbral genuinely adds some interesting twists to exploration, in that you’ll be forced to take risks or cash in the token of a precious extra life to unveil all of a map’s secrets. That boss knight who’d hop into the swamp? Only in Umbral does it show the ground riddled with shining blue parasites, each burstable, so when he trots over he’ll clatter into them and grant you an opening to strike. And only in Umbral are there certain platforming sections where tearing wretches from walls unlocks hidden coves guarded by bulbous eyes.
Despite Umbral being a neat thing, I also found it the start of many little grievances that stacked up to form a large gavel in my brain that pounded, “Enough, I’ve had enough.” As LOTF goes on, it has a tendency to increase the amount of time between Vestiges so you’re reliant on things called Umbral flowerbeds. At these flowerbeds, you have to plant something called a Vestige Seed to grow a checkpoint (you can only grow one checkpoint at a time). I get what CI is going for here! I get that you’re forced to think about how you spend your precious seeds as the checkpoints become trickier to find. But man, it’s infuriating when you’re battered and bruised and there’s still no checkpoint, so you rifle around your pockets for a seed and come up short.
So either you suck up your lack of seeds and end up farming souls to buy enough, or you end up just sprinting past enemies in a desperate bid to find the next checkpoint. Both of these things can halt your momentum and, crucially, snap your suspension of disbelief in two. Impatience awakens you to the fact that, yes, you can run past everything in Soulslikes, and crucially LOTF didn’t make me feel like I was missing anything by doing so.
My other gripes? The game absolutely loves hammering you with loads of mobs. The first couple of zones are fine, but man, the next poison bog and fiery town are crammed with fights where you’re just gagging for an uninterrupted duel between two bros. Transition into Umbral and it gets even worse, with loads of critters constantly nipping at your ankles. I find the best Soulslikes use enemy placements as the equivalent of Gilette lubrication strips, elegantly gliding you towards the next boss room with just the right amount of challenge. A bump here, a smooth patch there, a mixture of baddies best tackled from a different angle to keep things fresh.
There are more little annoyances in LOTF I just can’t get past. Enemies get caught on terrain. The camera sometimes doesn’t adjust very well when you’re about to get ground to dirt by a titanic demon lad. Performance is quite poor across the board, with frequent frame drops even on low settings (the review build is being patched constantly). Mimic chests are placed in spots that aren’t darkly humorous but more a major ballache. Not to compare it too hard to the competition, but LOTF is a furrowed brow and Lies Of P is Mr. Sheen’s forehead by comparison.
While I didn’t get to try multiplayer a great deal, I did find it easy to match up with a random across the interweb and party up alongside them. They joined my world and made the mob clearing a joy, especially when they persisted in my world despite us both dying. Having ploughed through an area with someone else, I reckon it’s a good way to counteract a lot of the little irritants and take the edge off exploration.
I really want to like Lords Of The Fallen more than I do. Sure, its bosses might not be spectacular or its maps brimming with character, but thrills abound when you defeat a tough enemy or finally poke your head into a crumbled house and see the cosy light of a Vestige. Moreso when you shine your magic lantern on a wall and it fizzles away to reveal a secret passage or a levitating platform that looks like the Adams Family’s kitchen island. The lantern almost elevates it into special territory! And at times, there are flashes of a grand adventure to cleanse a kingdom of rot. But there are just too many little annoyances that prevent the journey and its umbral counterpart from ascending into Soulslike royalty.
This review is based on a review build of the game provided by publishers CI Games.
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