In 2014, the original Lords of the Fallen was one of the first to try replicating FromSoftware’s Souls formula. It would be an understatement to say it was released with underwhelming praise from critics and audiences alike, but there was no ignoring the developer’s courage to try something so hard to master. Now the sequel, or reimagining of the first, has landed in 2023 with a second attempt to match the greatness of the genre. At the hand of the power of Unreal Engine 5, improved combat, and a unique world design, the new Lords of the Fallen mostly excels at everything it’s trying to accomplish.
Story, Setting, and Lore – Rise, Dark Crusader
The first thing you will notice when starting Lords of the Fallen is how beautiful and detailed the environment is. With the power of Unreal Engine 5, everything pops on screen, including enemies, weather, and especially magical spells. This is a next-gen Soulslike game taking complete control of the software and technology available in the present day.
As for the story, it’s all about good vs. evil and taking back the land that the Demon God, Adyr, has taken control of. This is done through the various beacons scattered across the land of Mournestead, where your job is to find these beacons and shut them off for good. Shutting them off will weaken Adyr, saving the land of corruption once and for all. Along your journey to do so, you’ll find mysterious characters and companions, each pushing the story further and detailing the lore of the area where the game takes place, Mournestead.
Usually, the story in Soulslikes is insignificant, but Lords of the Fallen caught my interest. Not to get into any spoilers, but you’ll discover the background of bosses through a mechanic called Stigmas, which show you the life of the past, pushing the lore further and progressively giving you a better understanding of your cause and why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s an excellent form of storytelling, and I believe most fans will be pleased with the effort Hexworks has put into it.
World and Level Design – Deep Exploration Filled With Secrets
Lords of the Fallen’s world and level design is superb. All thanks are due to the dual realm feature, where players can bounce between the two (Umbral and Axiom), essentially allowing one level to act as two levels. It wasn’t clear whether this mechanic would feel gimmicky leading up to launch, but fans can rest assured that it is not and it pushes the boundaries of level design in magnificent ways.
Before getting into why the dual realm mechanic is so fantastic, it’s essential to understand how it works. The Umbral Realm works like this: you can use your Umbral lamp to peek into Umbral or completely rip the tear between realms and jump into Umbral altogether. While peeking into this new realm, you can discover hidden doors, walkways, and a myriad of other secrets that players can easily miss on the first playthrough. Meanwhile, jumping into Umbral allows you to actually grab the secret items, complete puzzles, and claim more Virgo (experience points) due to the activation of a multiplier.
These hidden parts of the level that can only be seen in Umbral are why this mechanic works so well in a Soulslike game. In a genre where secrets and discovery are so important, Lords of the Fallen allows for more of it as each level has two layers, and considering there are so many levels in the first place, it is almost impossible to find every secret in the initial playthrough of the game. I found myself discovering entire areas and altars that are not present in Axiom (normal realm), and the only reason I found them is due to me dying and being transported into Umbral at the right time.
This brings me to my next point: the Umbral Realm goes hand in hand with dying, as it essentially acts as your second life. You see, every time you die in Axiom, you are transported to Umbral for your final chance at survival. Dying in Umbral means Game Over, forcing you to start from your last checkpoint.
Hexworks making Umbral your “last life” is genius, as it adds a sense of urgency and genuinely makes the darker realm more intimidating to traverse into. While in Umbral, the enemies progressively get stronger the longer you are in it, and you can only leave if you find a specific checkpoint through the level. This had me constantly glimsping into my lamp, seeing an item or hidden path in Umbral, and thinking, “Should I go into Umbral and give up my first life?” I often decided against it since I knew how much harder the enemies were there, and I was in a bad place health-wise to take on the challenge. This alone adds an immense amount of strategy, planning, and inventory management for success, creating an addicting gameplay loop.
Build Creation and Combat – Endless Combinations to Take Down Unforgettable Bosses
Those who love experimenting with different builds will find themselves at home in Lords of the Fallen. So many options and combinations are available here, as there are over 70 spells, close to 200 weapons and shields, and over 300 armor pieces for players to discover. On top of this, most weapons have extensive movesets and slots for rune buffs, adding even more possibilities for unique builds. Do you want to dual-wield two daggers with runes that increase posture damage while you throw fireballs out of your hand? — you can. How about two-hand a greatsword with runes that increase health while buffing yourself with defensive spells? You get my point.
Let me get this out in the open — combat can sometimes feel janky. In no way is it bad, but some glaring problems with it can remove the player from the immersion and cause frustration, especially for those who don’t consider themselves a Souls veteran. For one, the lock-on system isn’t the greatest, as it doesn’t always work unless very close to the enemy. And two, there are way too many enemies in specific levels of the game. Mixing these two problems led to some very unfair encounters that make me fear that most players will sprint through these particular areas to reach the next checkpoint, which is clearly not the developers’ intention.
I want to emphasize the issue of way too many enemies on certain levels. Not only are there way too many enemies, but there are also way too many ranged enemies. I often wondered how Hexworks expected me to deal with three ranged enemies hurling fireballs at me while I was trying to deal with five enemies on the ground. This surmounts to 8 enemies (sometimes more) in a small and narrow area, pushing me into the corner and getting camera locked, unable to move. And then, if you die, you get transported into Umbral with even MORE enemies, adding to the regular ones you’re already facing in Axiom. It just seems that certain levels would benefit from removing some enemies. Otherwise, players will sprint through these interactions because it can sometimes feel unmanageable.
Other than those issues, Lords of the Fallen has satisfying combat. Enemies are each carefully designed with readable moves, creating opportunities to dodge or parry and move in for a punishing blow in classic Soulslike fashion. This fact is especially true during the unforgettable and most satisfying boss fights I have ever encountered in a game of this genre.
As for every Soulslike player, good bosses are a must, and Lords of the Fallen does not disappoint. Each boss on your playthrough has its weakness and moveset that lead to the trial and error cycle that FromSoftware has taught to the students of the genre, and Hexworks puts this education in full force. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like a dance between you and an enemy. Dodge here, block here, dodge again, jump in and punish. There are no unfair attack patterns and always a way to overcome the challenge, and I can’t stress enough how epic the end result is.
During my playthrough of Lords of the Fallen, I did encounter some performance issues that put a damper on things. First, I spent my entire first day with my review copy with zero environmental, enemy, and footstep sounds, completely taking me out of the immersion. On the second day, I experienced stuttering in certain areas after playing for extended periods, which went away after restarting the game.
I want to clarify that the game is entirely in acceptable condition. The developers at Hexworks are on it, and these issues should not be anything to worry about. The developers kept in constant communication with me, updated the game daily to improve the experience and consistently listened to feedback. It’s clear that Lords of the Fallen has a dedicated team behind it and is willing to improve the game, and I’m sure this dedication will only increase once fans start voicing any concerns they may have.
Lords of the Fallen is a superb Soulslike that draws inspiration from others of the genre while standing out by remaining its own thing. The dual realm mechanic, which essentially makes each level act as two, is brilliant as it opens up many opportunities to discover secrets, loot, and massive areas that can easily be missed the first time around.
Most of what fans of Soulslikes want are at the maximum: masterclass-level design, unforgettable bosses, and extensive freedom toward build creation. The combat can feel rough at times, and there are way too many enemies in certain levels, but these downfalls don’t negate the fact that Lords of the Fallen reaches for a spot in the highest tier among the genre’s greats and finds itself right at home.
This game was reviewed using a copy of the game provided by the game's publisher,public relations company, developer or other for the express purpose of a review.
- This article was updated on October 12th, 2023