We don’t get many games like Lords of the Fallen 2023. This industry is saturated with IP reboots and sequels but rarely does a developer and publisher sit down and just say, you know what, let’s take another run at this. The “this” in this case being Lords of the Fallen 2014, one of the first major studio swings at the then-relatively fresh Soulslike genre. Co-developed by Deck13 and CI Games, it was a largely forgettable fantasy action outing that attempted to recapture the, uh, soul, of FromSoftware’s booming Dark Souls franchise, a monumental task too great for such a green concept. But a lot can change in a decade, and while Deck13 carved its own niche, CI Games never quite let go.
That dedication to the series has finally borne fruit, though not without years of tumultuous growth and pruning. Originally planned as Lords of the Fallen 2, the game I got to play a few hours of earlier this month now emerges from Hexworks, a CI Games internal studio formed in 2020 to fulfill the publisher’s vision for the series. A vision that passed through both Deck13 and the now-shuttered New York based Defiant Studio, before finally finding its footing some five years later back in the CI Games fold.
In many ways, it feels like Hexworks has made its best approximation of Dark Souls 4; a relentless blend of FromSoftware’s past decade of ideas and aesthetics, cobbled together with its own ambitions and Euro-centric fantasy vibe. Which is, frankly, pretty bold; the original Lords of the Fallen made a name for itself with its proximity to Dark Souls and the newly imagined version seems to have distinctly doubled down on the connective tissue. But where FromSoftware has garnered a reputation for deliberately considered design, Lords of the Fallen sprints in the other direction, opting for decadent art and a stacked array of mechanics that majorly impact everything from combat to exploration. It’s big, brash, and hard to not find kind of compelling.
Things begin as they often do in these affairs, with a crunchy character creator followed by a mysterious, solemn awakening in a prison. There are a handful of potential classes to choose from with some banger names like Udirangr Wolf, Hallowed Knight, and my personal favourite, the Blackfeather Ranger, a multifaceted build that was doing their best at a Bloodborne cosplay, right down to the silly little hat. Classes followed the basic archetypes of strength, agility, magic and so on, each sporting a fun bit of worldbuilding and lore. Once you’ve chosen your class, you’ll be stirred awake in a gloomy cave by a mysterious figure talking in riddles about your “sacrosanct flesh” before asking you to find him in the world.
The overall onboarding of Lords of the Fallen can be a little much as the game is tasked with not only teaching you the basics of combat but the mechanics of its signature idea, the Lantern. This cursed object always hangs from your hip and is somewhat clumsily equipped by holding both LT and LB in a crab-like grip. With it you can peer into the Umbral Realm, a shadowy mirror of the real world that hides new pathways through levels, different enemy types and an all-seeing ominous eye that gets wider the longer you spend in Umbral. You can fully enter the Umbral by holding X and tearing your soul from its flesh, giving you decreased defences but the ability to exist within the realm for lengthy periods of time. Conversely, if you’re downed in the “real” world, the Lantern will give you one final chance at life in a form neither corporeal nor spirit, dramatically altering your health pool.
It’s a neat trick, and one that the game will be using regularly to help you navigate world puzzles, obscured pathways and take on increasingly gruesome foes. Aesthetically the Umbral is a bit washed out, layering existing gameplay areas with a blueish grey filter, and littering them with piles of corpses and congealed fleshy goo. But the details really make it sing, those same piles covered in eyes that follow your movements, heightening the feeling that you’re not supposed to be here, and somebody knows it. Imagine the Insight endgame of Bloodborne and you’re halfway there, only now those mammoth Lovecraftian horrors are everywhere and waving at you.
Soulslike combat is also impacted by the Lamp, giving you the ability to rip souls from bodies for increased damage strikes and strip enemies of otherworldly protections. Baseline is exactly what you’re imagining; light and heavy attacks assigned to bumper and trigger respectively, a dodge roll, block, parry, and stance swapping all tethered to a limited pool of stamina. There’s a lightness to the combat that does raise an eyebrow from time to time, your character feeling a little less grounded in the world and the swings of weapons than I’d like for the genre. But the primary concern with combat was the camera, which swung wildly between functional in open spaces and frustratingly clumsy in tighter, smaller arenas. I died to one boss about half a dozen times thanks to the camera and lock-on system breaking, something that will hopefully be tweaked before launch.
Lords of the Fallen closes this gap through sheer force of will though, papering over its limitations with a collage of weapon and build variety, a generous parry window, and fantastic enemy diversity. My Ranger was positioned as a dual melee/ranged build, capable of wielding a swift one-handed axe and switching to a long bow with the press of a button. Both would prove vital and fun across my few hours with the game, as I could easily pick off foes from a distance with a variety of arrows (even in boss arenas) before rolling in with my axe and shield for a more traditional bout.
Parrying is kind to the player too with a rather wide window of opportunity but the trade-off being much less of a stun on the enemy when successfully done. Damage is mitigated by blocking but not entirely done away with too, leaving a greyed-out portion of your health bar that you can claim back by hitting foes, encouraging more aggressive play. And while I didn’t have time to try them out, I also picked up a bevy of cool weapons to skill up into, and even found a little freak to sell me powerful Umbral spells for a magic build.
The world of Lords of the Fallen is actually packed with little freaks come to think of it. This is a vaguely Dark Fantasy, Pagan-esque shitshow of a land drowning in bloody ritualistic magic and colliding power systems. To try and recount the full table of proper nouns and plotting I saw would take most of the day but essentially the citizens of Mournstead have been locked in an endless war to prevent the return of a tyrannical demon overlord and they’re losing. Begrudgingly sanctioned to use dark magic to prevent the end of the world, you’re enlisted as a Dark Crusader by the Church of Orius to become hero of the Radiant God and stop Adyr’s army of demonic beasts. In practice this means you’ll be running operations from a central church hub that can be used to connect to various corners of the world in which you’ll find giant beacons to destroy. But the true Lords are the friends you’ll make along the way.
Over time the church becomes more populated with folks you find in the overworld and even former bosses. After the first major boss encounter wraps up, your foe is reborn from a spewing mass of blood (I know) and later shows up at the church to be your maiden of sorts, allowing you to level up and purchase items. I explored this church for a good while, finding secret alcoves with strange figures happy for a chat and another vendor menu. Though many of them would recoil at the Lantern and call me a heathen, I still appreciated how far Lords of the Fallen goes to make this space feel inhabited. Down some stairs I found sleeping quarters even, and raising the Lamp revealed a room-sized creature who was actually rather nice if you got to know them.
It all coalesced into a dense experience that had me hanging out for just a bit more time in the world, out of both sheer curiosity for its oddities and a need to poke at its systems a little longer to better understand where it’s all headed. Lords of the Fallen is clearly winding up for a major swing, layering its own unique concepts on top of years of genre staples and aesthetics, and these hours with the game at least hint at it all paying off. With some combat refinement and polishing, this could easily be one of the cooler action fantasy experiences of the year, even if it took a second run at it to find solid ground.