I’m not going to lie to you, Lords of the Fallen isn’t the sort of video game that’s best experienced in a 60-minute burst. The opening is a frenetic mixture of esoteric concepts and complicated tutorials, where rushing ahead is quickly punished within labyrinthian environments spanning two planes of existence. This is the sort of Soulslike that you’ll want to sit down and settle in with for the long haul, as you work to conquer 40-hours of sheer brutality across Axiom and Umbral.
The land of the living and the land of the dead, interconnected realms you move between with a magical lantern. This system has massive implications on everything from combat to exploration to navigation, and understanding its intricacies is as key to Lords of the Fallen’s rhythms as managing your stamina in particularly tricky encounters. The Umbral can ensnare your health bar and swallow your fallen experience points, open new pathways or close off avenues for progression. It’s a little messy, but remains the defining idea driving the Lords of the Fallen’s surprise rebirth.
Life and death
The Soulslike underwent a startling transformation last year. Developer FromSoftware pushed beyond the Metroidvania-inspired outlay that it pursued so successfully with the Dark Souls trilogy, expanding into open world territories for Elden Ring. There was always the risk that this evolution would make Lords of the Fallen feel somewhat antiquated – as if its developer, Hexworks, was looking to the past as the genre-architect was off exploring new horizons. But the truth is that there’s a confidence to the core design ethos of Lords of the Fallen that has to be appreciated.
It’s surprising that no single development studio has been able to properly replicate the feel and pace of the Souls games over the last 15 years. Some have come close – Deck13 with the original Lords of the Fallen and Team Ninja’s Nioh 2 being notable examples – but there’s often some arcane magic missing from the execution. Palpable, yet difficult to pinpoint. Hexworks certainly seems as if it’s on the right track with the 2023 iteration of Lords of the Fallen, but that’s ultimately going to be decided once we can truly judge the flexibility of character progression and the sensibilities of the later game.
Rolling right into the action with the Hallowed Knight class, a medium-encumberment melee-attacker, I’m surprised by how quickly I feel comfortable in control. Movement and camera tracking is tightly-wound, with Hexworks targeting performance at 60fps, ensuring you feel in command during combat encounters. Melee strikes with a single-sword are impactful, and Lords of the Fallen introduces nice multi-hit combos to allow for maximum return on slim windows of opportunity. The parry window isn’t entirely unforgiving, and there’s a nice weight to the dodge too. The fundamentals seem spot on, so the question will be whether Hexworks can deliver elsewhere. Of the two boss battles I encountered, both seem suitably grandiose, though I am concerned with how flat the attack patterns appeared between phases.
What I will say is that Lords of the Fallen has fantastic production values. This was true of the original, which looked and felt fantastic for its time, and especially so here – Hexworks is an early proponent of Unreal Engine 5 and getting great results from its dual-reality setup; from the quiet pervading evil woven throughout Axiom to the grayscale decay of Umbral. When you consider the four Souls games out of FromSoftware, they aren’t exactly the most technically proficient experiences in all the world, so the smooth play and evocative visual bearings in Lords of the Fallen are to be appreciated.
Given the success of Elden Ring and Armored Core 6, there’s a good chance that FromSoftware will take a little break from the Dark Souls series. That leaves a space which Lords of the Fallen could capably fill, with upcoming titles like Black Myth: Wukong and Lies of P not far behind. It’s almost a shame that Lords of the Fallen is stuck in the shadow cast by the Souls games, because there’s something extremely invigorating to its core creative concept. Will it be enough? We don’t have long to wait to find out now.
Lords of the Fallen will release on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X on October 13, 2023.