As the sun drops and the heavy rains begin to fall, a fog descends around you. You make it to the top of a ravine and strain to see the horizon. Lightning flashes reveal ruins in the distance, standing between you and a beacon that tears a knot in the clouds. You feel your chest tighten as you cast your torch ahead, the same lightning that illuminates your way now refracting through the glassy spectres of the Umbral realm interlaced before you.
This is Lords of The Fallen, an utterly thrilling, occasionally horrifying, and at all times atmospheric Soulslike sequel to the 2014 game of the same name. One of the first Soulslike titles to dazzle on Unreal 5 engine, this game renders a staggeringly detailed world with sound and visual design that results in one of the most chilling, challenging experiences of 2023.
With parallels to virtually every element of the original Dark Souls, you play an undead character that awakens in a pit. Rather than a Hollow, you are the accursed beckoner of salvation in these end times, bestowed with a fearsome lamp that reveals the realm of the dead. A Dark Crusader, anointed to slay the servants of the mad god Adyr whose unholy worshippers would soon see his return. Your character class is a synonym for the fantasy archetypes typically found in these games, but with the same character-building freedoms on offer to everyone, all classes will have the opportunity to wield everything from magic to bows and polearms with varying degrees of success. Rather than the rechargeable Estus flasks, you have a set of healing crucifixes. Checkpoints are called vestiges rather than bonfires. A cloaked lady will boost your healing items, and you will find a blacksmith to upgrade your gear. My point here is that developer Hexworks is putting its Dark Souls influence front and centre. Riffing on even the most minute motifs, its core gameplay and UI feel most similar to that first game in FromSoftware’s brutal trilogy. The iterative adjustments in Lords of The Fallen, paired with a singular world that constantly circles back on itself, present closer to what I expected from a more straightforward Dark Souls successor than what we got with Dark Souls II. That’s no knock on that sequel, but rather high praise for what Hexwork’s debut game achieves.
Mournstead’s Umbral horizon is rich with mystery
Despite appearing overly familiar in its aesthetic, Lords of The Fallen is set in Mournstead which is a world of ruined gothic architecture and grim, central European Christian iconography. Its denizens are deeply religious adherents of the holy order, but a corrupting influence of the buried god Adyr has seeped to the surface and tainted even the most devout warriors. Your Dark Crusader will explore the towns, swamps, depths, and cathedrals of this fully realised destination, with various elevators and shortcuts connecting all the areas that are observable upon the horizon. Non-player characters can be found in both the worlds of the living and dead, as you use your Umbral lamp to navigate between them. Everybody is sworn to some spiritual power or another, which influences their schemes and foreboding utterances. As players progress through Mournstead to disrupt the sky-piercing beacons of Adyr’s power, these NPCs will come and go from your player hub. At other times, you will be able to summon them immediately outside of boss arenas.
All that talks of Dark Souls at the top begs the question, ‘Is this Soulslike beginner-friendly?’ And to that question, I confidently answer no. Or, well, maybe not. From as early as the frustratingly limited character creator that seemingly offers only male characters, there is no functional definition of the stats and abilities presented before you. This continues into the game, with no option to query the effects of stats and statuses when upgrading your character other than seeing the affected integers ticking up. I still don’t truly appreciate the difference between burning a character and igniting them, simply taking for granted that they are different damage types that affect different enemies uniquely. The rest is intuition and assumed knowledge. If you’ve survived Blightown and run the gauntlet of Sen’s Fortress, the layout of all the stats and interfaces is effectively copied homework that you can confidently guess your way through.
Adventuring with silent strangers makes for great multiplayer
However dense and irreverent the onboarding for Lords of The Fallen may be, this challenge is cleanly cleaved in two if you can bring a mate or venture into matchmaking with a stranger. During the review, I had a blast popping into other players’ sessions and lending a helping hand. The connections were smooth and seamless, allowing the hosts to keep me as long as they wished. The only real restriction in co-op is that the host determines when players journey into the Umbral realm, as well as unlocking shortcuts and picking up quest items. Everything else remained as rewarding as my solo game, allowing me to pick up items, gather experience, and just generally exist without too much risk. The developers have given cooperative players all the tools needed to have a rewarding, precarious adventure from start to finish, so why not bring your mate along so they can share the glory of finishing a Soulslike?
Unlike the polished cooperative experience, it is an unfortunate shame that during the review window, all instances of PVP and invading players were oddly met with connection issues. Cooperative matchmaking was a-okay, but PVP would result in frequent failed connections, game crashes, and unplayable lag.
So, we’ve established that, for better and worse, what is good for the Soul is good for the Lord. But Lords of The Fallen has an ace up its sleeve in the form of the Umbral lamp. The lamp can be shone at any point from when your Dark Crusader first awakens, casting it upon the walls to glimpse into the realm of the dead layered over the corporeal Axiom realm. If you see a grave, you can expect to shine your torch over it and see some fucky shit. And sure enough, you will. This means you want to explore this world in a way that feels natural to your curiosity. Eventually, this curiosity can and will lead to new areas, rewards, and upgrades.
Story vignettes can be observed when interacting with spectres in Umbral
Exploring the Umbral realm also has the risk versus reward of modern extraction games. Players who die will immediately revive on the spot, in the Umbral version of your location, with half of your health but your accrued experience intact. You can either beeline to a vestige and return to the mortal world, find a crossover point or remain in the Umbral. Remaining means an increasing rate of gained experience but reside here too long and greater foes will begin to spawn around you and mess you up. This turns your thrilling second chance at life into a fast-paced make-or-break dash back to safety, which opens the player up to unpredictable surprises that require quick decisions and dynamic play. It is a spicy addition to the Souls formula that I couldn’t get enough of.
Now for the woes that haunted my playthrough. None are more disappointing than the combat, namely the targeting. When the game places you against a sole enemy, preferably a boss, the action is tight and responsive. It excels at having one player target one enemy in one arena. The moment there are two or more enemies on screen, you must attempt to try and wrangle control of the targeting towards whomever you want to hit. Unfortunately, this is a tall order, with sticky targeting which often refuses to target the apparent enemy directly in front of you. But the combat woes don’t end there. Not only does the AI frequently get stuck on geometry or simply forget its purpose and idle during a fight, but combat fundamentally flops and flails whenever you attempt to swing towards an enemy that you aren’t pinned to via targeting. No matter how accurate you think you may be, no matter how precise your positioning, you are almost certainly going to swing too high or too wide. This means that boss fights with more than a single enemy feel like a hopeless trial based on being lucky enough for the unresponsive targeting and free-swinging melee to align in your favour. Persevering players will be able to find an idiosyncratic combination of gear that they can fumble in their favour, but this fundamentally hampers an otherwise great experience. At least most bosses are a solo affair, and thus often see the combat come together in the eleventh hour.
The photo mode produces moody screenshots effortlessly
Lords of The Fallen delivers on the macabre, challenge, and exploration hallmarks of the Soulslike genre. It thrives in the eerie shadows of its obvious inspirations and shines a light on its best features by reimplementing most of them with the benefit of the sexy set dressing brought to life in Unreal 5. While the combat often frustrates when foes begin to crowd, Hexworks seems aware of this with its placement of enemies and world layout. Venturing between the living and the dead with the lamp transcends novelty. Surviving with a partner in tow is also exhilarating. If you can make it past the dense player onboarding that assumes you’ve beaten Dark Souls, then you’re likely to experience the best imagining of a Souls sequel this side of FromSoft.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- CI Games
- PS5 / Xbox Series X|S / PC
- October 13, 2023