I'm not usually one to judge a book by its cover, so to speak, but the capitalisation of LORDS of the FALLEN just has me tickled. It suggests we should shout the first word but then drop to a whisper and, when listeners are lulled into a false sense of security, scream the last syllables like a BANSHEE. If you're thinking 'only an angry nutter would do that' then welcome, my genteel friend, to LORDS of the FALLEN.
I wouldn't normally open with a screenshot of a loading screen but just hark at Harkyn, the gravel-chomping hero of LORDS of the FALLEN. He is PISSED. Someone's written all over his face, so I guess you would be? Harkyn's so angry he shouts WHY SHOULD I CARE at NPCs chatting away and screams with guttural rage at moments of triumph, as if the mere thought of happiness is an AFFRONT. At one point an old man asked Harkyn's advice on dealing with a poisoned hand. CHOP IT OFF was the obvious reply and, when the chap hesitated, Harkyn did the job for him. These LORDS may be FALLEN but, if anger is any indicator of strength, they are also FUCKED.
All this bluster may be a cunning way of differentiating LotF from its obvious inspiration, Fromsoft's much more understated Souls series. And 'inspiration' is putting it kindly. This is a thirdperson combat game with a loose medieval-fantasy vibe where the system is built around a health and stamina bar, and on death you leave behind a 'ghost' containing experience that has to be re-collected. You can parry attacks, roll to dodge them, drink potions refilled at checkpoints, and innumerable other familiar details.
The sheer quality of the Souls games meant that such mimicry was inevitable, and so it's to LotF's credit that it does innovate a little. The combo system has an element of timing swings perfectly, for example, which makes them use less energy and with certain weapons is essential to trigger the most damaging strikes. You can also charge attacks by holding the key, which uses more energy but deals more damage and can send enemies flying.
The feel of combat is also distinct, surprisingly so given how much it borrows, with encounters neither as deadly nor as fast as those in any Souls game. The key tactic for Souls, in my opinion, is never getting hit – which makes mastering how to roll an essential skill. LotF features three different rolling speeds (as in Souls) but the slower pace of battles means that even the fastest roll feels sluggish by comparison – and anyway, blocking is much more viable and your dude can take more of a beating. I cannot emphasise this aspect enough: in Souls you can be wearing the fanciest armour in the game, and still get slaughtered by a guy in a loincloth with a pointy stick. Here the minor enemies feel much more like cannon fodder, doing relatively little damage and easy to dispatch with random swinging.
What all this adds up to is a kind of Souls-lite combat system where the elements are the same but something's slightly off about the rhythm. This may very well be to do with the fact that the preview build had only the first location in the game to wander around in, so obviously the enemies are going to be weaker than what's to come. But even then the bosses were something of a disappointment. Both had a tower shield gimmick that meant you had to wait for their attacks, get a swing in, then back off and do the same until they were dead – maybe I'm missing something but I couldn't find another tactic. Things got even worse when trying to do them using the dual-wieldable weapons, which depend on your building up a perfect combo to deal out a third super-damaging strike, because the window to get hits in was too small for that strike to ever happen. This was particularly disappointing because the Souls games allow such divergent playstyles to work – pretty much any weapon can be used to defeat any enemy, and your approach to the huge bosses can be either super-cautious or all-out. Here it seemed like there was one strategy to pwn them all.
This may well turn out different in the final game, and I'm certainly hoping to eat my words, because although LotF doesn't make a great first impression there's certainly room for a more arcadey take on what the Souls games do. And it has several smart design choices that could develop into something great – the 'perfect strikes' idea adds a tactical layer to dual-wielding in particular, and I never got tired of charging up heavy attacks with a giant sword.
LotF alters ideas like the 'bloodstain' in small but clever ways – in the Souls games, when you die a bloodstain remains at that spot containing your acquired souls. This is cool as it is, but in LotF your 'ghost' will fade over time, meaning you have to get back to it as quickly as possible to get all the experience back – and before it has been collected the ghost acts as a minor but noticeable healing AoE spell. So if you die at a boss, for example, you can forego collecting your ghost immediately to have some automatic healing for a while.
The best idea, by far, is how the experience multiplier works. Basically the more enemies you kill, the higher your XP multiplier will go – but this multiplier gets reset at a checkpoint when you 'bank' your XP into the status screen. So this encourages somewhat risky play, and also means that the further you travel without checkpointing the further you'll have to travel to get that ghost if you die. LotF (like Souls) doesn't have a difficulty setting so this is a great way of allowing players to establish their own challenge threshold within the game – and even though I was playing in a relatively small area, I did find it eventually making me more careful against even the cannon fodder.
So the early verdict on LotF is mixed. It suffers enormously from a straight comparison with Souls – everything from the combat's immediacy to the aesethetics to the way it delivers narrative is much less to my tastes. But they're also much more different games than it first appears. It may well be that you're one of those who found Dark Souls' lack of a narrative through-line disappointing (heathen!), or perhaps wanted a more forgiving combat system, and in that case LotF may well deliver. What interests me is where it goes after this opening. If LotF can amp up its challenge and introduce more interesting enemy types then, along with that clever XP system, there's hope. But if it sticks with this slightly rote and slow take on combat throughout it's on a hiding to nothing. Check back next week to find out Wot I Think of the full thing.