Lords of the Fallen is the first of what will surely be many clones of the Souls games – which is great! I adore the Souls series and think the action-RPG genre could learn a tonne from them. Lords of the Fallen, unfortunately, is not the brightest child in the class, and more to the point the PC version is currently in a right old state. Hero Harkyn faces tonnes of nasties, but the worst of the lot is the game itself.
I'll get to the technical stuff in a moment, but suffice to say that it stopped me from completing Lords of the Fallen – my Steam profile says I've spent 15 hours in-game, but I'd estimate just under half of that was actually playing. So these impressions are based on the opening half of the game, all of which take place in an extended fortress complex that so badly wants to be Boletaria from Demon's Souls.
Not-Boletaria has turrets with arrow-shooting soldiers, it has switch-operated gate mechanisms, it has minor divergences in routes, and it has an extremely confusing underground maze. The environment is heavily inspired by what the Souls games did with 3D architecture – that is, twisting it around itself to create dense configurations with surprising shortcuts and many secrets. LotF's locations are gorgeous if a little samey, but despite some nice use of shortcuts they never feel as intelligently-designed – multiple paths tending towards the same goal, and myriads of rooms feel like little more than distractions.
LotF's nicest touch by far is the experience system, which rewards you for not 'banking' your XP by increasing the multipliers and drops you get for defeating enemies – after a few hours I had more armour and weaponry than I knew what to do with. This is a great way of allowing a player to set their own challenge and take risks, and possibly even an improvement on its inspiration. But in this light it's bizarre that one of the attributes you can upgrade is 'luck,' which also improves your drop rate. I'm not a fan of an upgrade path that simply changes a background number generator rather than improving my character in a tangible way, especially when the game already features a ready-made alternative system.
The story in LotF, so far, is one of the most forgettable I've ever played through. Harkyn's just a gruff cipher and the NPCs are barely any better, with the only interesting pieces of world-building existing in the audio diaries scattered about. But this doesn't matter enormously in a game that's all about the fighting, and LotF has both good and bad.
The combat system's elements are straight from the Souls series – a stamina meter, a dodge-roll, a parry, and refillable potions – but the overall pace is slower. The game offers three classes and I played through the opening hours as both Rogue and Warrior, with the latter so much more capable of dealing damage and weathering attacks that it seemed almost unbalanced. Of course I accept that a Rogue should feature a different playstyle and be weaker than a Warrior – but the fact that combat is actually quite simple, with little room for unusual tactics beyond strafe-then-backstab, meant that this felt like playing the game on two wildly different difficulty modes.
The combat does get some things right, in particular its incorporation of magic – available to all three classes – which acts as distractions and buffs rather than simply mana nukes, and a gauntlet that once upgraded acts as a powerful ranged weapon. Better even than this is the idea of charging attacks, which allows you to knock enemies flat out of their stride or get extra damage in on a recovering boss, and which rewards perfect timing on combo strikes with reduced-stamina consumption. These last two ideas, in particular, feel like they're adding something to the Souls formula rather than slavishly imitating.
Overall, though, the combat and particularly the bosses end up underwhelming. The combat may have its own character, but it also features several noticeable compromises in execution. Problems have simply been fixed in a quick-and-dirty manner – for example, spacing. Let's say you're fighting an enemy and deliberately keeping it at a range where a swing won't hit you. It will swing and magically zoom a few feet forward while doing so in order to make that blow connect. The hitboxes on enemy weapons are highly questionable, particularly with horizontal swings. And with the second boss, he'd sometimes stop moving and then hit me out of nowhere with an invisible attack. The latter might be fixed in a patch, but don't hold your breath about the others.
As for the bosses, none of them so far has killed me. Not one. In fact most of them don't even fight you, preferring instead to cast spells, use the environment, or summon in NPCs to do their bidding while occasionally taking a swing. A huge part of the Souls series is the satisfaction you get from defeating an enemy that, at first, seemed unassailable. There is none of that here. To add insult to injury, some of them even copy attacks from Souls bosses – earlyish boss The Worshipper uses a scythe, shoots giant blades from the ground, and summons melee NPCs to distract you. That's pretty Nito, and in another context might be classed as a tribute, but in a game with such an overwhelming Souls influence it both accentuates the lack of fresh ideas and suffers terribly in the comparison.
It all adds up to a combat system that's great in theory but in reality feels terribly average. This superficiality extends across LotF. While the visuals are impressive technically, for example, it would be remiss of me not to point out that the aesthetic stinks. This is generic fantasy with a heavy dash of Diablo III, all smoking red eyes and ridiculous shoulderpads, and its pus-monsters and demon-knights and fat fire-throwers just lack any subtlety in their design. A brief digression encapsulates this: in Dark Souls there's an undead dragon, and this is how its designer Masunori Waganai described the design process:
“When I was drawing the Undead Dragon I submitted a design draft that depicted a dragon swarming with maggots and other gross things. [Director Hidetaka] Miyazaki handed it back to me saying 'This isn't dignified. Don't rely on the gross factor to portray an undead dragon. Can't you instead try to convey the deep sorrow of a magnificent beast doomed to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin?'”
Lords of the Fallen doesn't have an undead dragon, that I've seen anyway, but if it did the thing would be swarming with maggots.
So now we come to the real horror. The Lords of the Fallen preview build worked fine for me, and my PC hits the recommended specs (albeit using an AMD graphics card) – with the exception of framerate drops, which I put down to it being a preview build. The review build on the other hand got worse as time wore on. It began with extreeemmee frame drops, slowdown, screen-tear, dodgy collision detection and so on – these would come and go, but at a certain point I decided to check all my drivers, uninstall the game, and start from scratch.
After this point Lords of the Fallen was never the same again, with the loading times lengthened enormously and multiple crashes the order of the day. Then things got worse and on three separate occasions it bluescreened my PC (don't say I never do anything for you). At that point I gave up. I looked around to see if anyone else had experienced issues, and it seems this is not uncommon – I can't test different hardware, but others have, and the results on high-end cards are not encouraging.
There is apparently a 5GB patch incoming for Lords of the Fallen, which may make a difference, but at this point I'd advise steering well clear unless you're rocking an absolutely monster rig. Even then, is it worth it? From the not-inconsiderable amount I've played of LotF it feels like a game that lacks the finesse and precision of its inspiration, lacking any kind of multiplayer element and offering only a Diablo-esque quantity of loot to keep you coming back. Presuming that the game is patched to a workable state RPS will return to take another look in a week or so's time – but until then, you'd be better-served replaying the Souls games.
Lords of the Fallen is out now on Steam for £30/$50. Don't buy it.