While Souls-like games are becoming more frequent in release cadence and are seeing sharp rises in quality, it’s been quite the rocky path to get to where we’re at today. Many titles manage to nail one or two aspects key to the subgenre, but fail to fully capitalise on everything it can achieve in the way FromSoftware does. One of the most high profile first steps into this new frontier, was in Deck13’s Lords of the Fallen.
While its core direction and setting were sound, Lords of the Fallen was weighed down by numerous flaws. The clunky controls, uneven difficulty curve, and hit-or-miss boss fights made for a middling experience that had clear potential to be more. It’s these circumstances that bring us a sequel/reboot under the very same name that bucks much of the baggage that came with the original. While this is an earnest attempt to create something new, this iteration of Lords of the Fallen stumbles in ways different from its predecessor.
While not directly tied into the narrative of the 2014 original, Lords of the Fallen takes place a millennia after the defeat of the Demon God Adyr in the first game. As with all bad things, though, Adyr is gearing up to make a return to the lands of Mournstead. As a newly risen Dark Crusader (badass, I know), you must traverse the worlds of the living and dead to put a stop to Adyr’s terror for good.
It’s a very Souls-y premise, calling back to the cyclical nature of Dark Souls lore. This is one thing this iteration of Lords of the Fallen absolutely nails. Mournstead is a haunting and atmospheric land drenched in gothic imagery and attention to detail that breathes life into its myriad locales. The impact that Adyr has on these lands is clear, creating a convincing end of the world style setting that sells the stakes.
Much like Dark Souls, it’s the environmental storytelling and subdued characters that serve up Lords of the Fallen’s narrative appeal. Each location has a story to tell, and the quiet mindfulness of each wanderer you meet along the path echoes an ethereal and dream-like mysticism that’s hard to effectively nail down.
While Mournstead is relatively linear in design, it’s elevated by Lords of the Fallen’s two-world premise. Mournstead is split into two realms; Axiom, which is the world of the living, and Umbral, which is the world of the dead. Through use of the Umbral Lantern, you can peer through and shift between these realms to navigate obstacles and find the path forward.
A door blocked in Axiom might be due to untamed overgrowth of grotesque organic materials in Umbral, requiring you to enter the land of the dead to clear the way forward. Moving between these realms and solving navigational puzzles to progress forward is always rewarding and engaging. It’s a constant treat to see how Hexworks puts this brilliant system into play, and adds depth to areas that would otherwise feel pretty one-note. Better yet, you can’t just exit Umbral whenever you see fit. Effigies must be found to return to Axiom, and the longer you spend amongst the dead, the more dangerous it becomes.
Entering Umbral and making use of the Umbral Lantern will start to Wither your health bar, which effectively works as a grey health system. Withered health will completely disappear upon taking a hit, and can be replenished by dealing damage to enemies. It forces you to play in a more considered and careful manner every time you venture into Umbral, and keeps you conscious of the time you spend there.
The dual realms and Umbral Lantern also have some interesting impacts on combat and related systems. For starters, death in Lords of the Fallen isn’t truly final until you kick the bucket in Umbral after falling in Axiom. It smooths down some of the abrasiveness that comes with learning enemy and boss patterns while maintaining the difficulty this sub-genre is known for. You can also Soulflay enemies, splitting their soul and physical body apart, opening up an opportunity for big damage. It’s truly original stuff that’s unlike anything else on the market today, taking advantage of high speeds afforded by current-gen hardware.
One of the original game’s biggest issues was how clunky and slow it was to control Harkyn both inside and outside of combat. While 2023’s Lords of the Fallen fixes this issue, it does so by veering too far in the other direction. Combat feels floaty, suffers from inconsistent hit detection, and generally lacks the impact and game feel needed to keep it engaging for the title’s lengthy runtime. Its numerous combat mechanics, consumable items, and varied enemy designs help to provide some flexibility and dynamism to encounters, but don’t ease the monotony that sets in during the later hours.
Because of this, boss fights rarely serve as effective points of punctuation throughout your playthrough. They sport some incredibly creative visual designs and spectacle that are a treat to look at, but ultimately fall victim to the game’s mediocre combat. A vast majority of them are also disappointingly easy, with most of the difficulty coming from wrestling with the camera.
While general progression is incredibly safe, the sheer number of weapons and potential for build variety is quite impressive. Ranged, magical, light melee, heavy melee, a mix between everything – Lords of the Fallen makes experimentation feel worthwhile and encouraged. Coming back to the Skyrest Bridge hub area for healing upgrades, weapon crafting, or even just to touch base with its inhabitants is also always worthwhile.
Another thing to appreciate is how flexible Lords of the Fallen’s co-op system is. While multiplayer is very commonplace in Souls-like games these days, you can explore the entirety of Axiom alongside a friend with ease. It’s a painless and seamless experience that has me yearning for more straightforward implementation in other games of this ilk. It definitely doesn’t do the overall difficulty any favours, but who’d turn down some realm-shifting antics with a mate?
There’s a lot riding on Lords of the Fallen as one of the first big Unreal Engine 5 games for this generation, and I’m glad to say it lives up to the hype in this regard. It’s one of those games that has to be seen in-motion to be believed. Its sheer visual fidelity is eye-popping a lot of the time, and serves to bolster the sublime art direction of Mournstead. Whether it’s the decrepit and abandoned areas of Axiom, or Umbral’s festering undergrowth, Lords of the Fallen just oozes with details that bring the macabre horror of this world to life in excellent fashion.
While my PC playthrough was relative issue free, I did have one hard crash and a few intermittent bugs. Nothing definitively game breaking, but they were enough to interrupt my experience more frequently than I’d like. I can’t speak to the quality of the console versions, but if the Xbox is your platform of choice be sure to get it patched up with the update that just dropped as it fixes a number of performance issues.
While this iteration of Lords of the Fallen sheds many of the flaws that plagued its predecessor, it also brings its own baggage. Excellent systems related to the dual realms of Axiom and Umbral alongside fantastic art direction are held back by middling combat and uneventful boss encounters. There are some definite highlights in Lords of the Fallen, but it struggles in the areas that matter most.
Immaculate world-building and intriguing characters