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Oct 27, 2023

Lords of the Fallen (2023) Review

Lights Off
4 Awesome
Retails for: $59.99
We Recommend: $59.99
  • Developer: HEXWORKS
  • Publisher: CI Games
  • Genre: Action, Adventure, RPG
  • Released: Oct 13, 2023
  • Platform: Windows, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5
  • Reviewed: Windows

“Oh, it’s one of those”, I said to myself as I died for the 20th time to a trio of archers armed with fire arrows. Yes, Lords of the Fallen is one of those souls likes, the ones that test your patience at every turn. More than that, it’s one that sticks closest to the original From Software formula compared to newer titles like Lies of P. You’d think that by doing this approach, the developer Hexworks ends up creating a middling copycat of what makes From Software games so endearing, right? Oh, dear reader, I was so wrong.

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I am going to be honest here. I was dreading the release of Lords of the Fallen. Its original game did not resonate with me at all in 2014. It stuck a bit too close to the formula and its system was middling compared to From Software’s greatest. After almost 10 years, its reboot gives me a completely different impression, one of “nostalgia”. Is it possible to feel nostalgic for something so “young”? It’s a complicated feeling (that will crop up later in this article). Hexworks leans hard into the gritty atmosphere of Demon’s Souls and the first Dark Souls with a mix of Blasphemous. The world of Axiom, and the land of Mournstead, depicts extreme misery and decay. It is a land where gods fought, died, were banished, and the population suffered from it. Similar to other souls likes, the game provides a lot of this information through items or small bits of exposition. Lords of the Fallen does a better job of explaining the role of the player—also called the Lampbearer—in this conflict that ravaged the land.

At this point, Lords of the Fallen already start to diverge from your typical souls like. Most items require certain levels of “Radiance” or “Inferno” to unlock its descriptions. Think of them as insights into the two major realms that exist in Mournstead, the “real” world and the Umbral. As the Lampbearer, you can visit the Umbral at any time. Think of it as a more miserable, harsher, colder, deadlier version of Mournstead. This realm also has a pivotal role in establishing Lords of the Fallen as not “just another souls like”. Instead of dying during an encounter, you are taken to the Umbral, giving you another “chance” of defeating an enemy or returning to the real world. If you are able to do that, that is. Do you enjoy having half of your health? Be swarmed by enemies that don’t stop respawning? Do you take pleasure in knowing that you can’t spend a lot of time in the Umbral otherwise, some otherworldly creature will show up and end your life for good? Do you seek punishment? If you replied “yes” to any of these questions, there is a slight chance you will enjoy spending time in the Umbral. Even if you didn’t, you will have to explore it sooner or later.

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What really captivated me in Lords of the Fallen is how fantastically layered is its world. Hexworks uses the Umbral to create new pathways, shortcuts, environmental puzzles, to stash secrets. It constantly asks the player “what if you missed some item that might make your journey easier?”. Mournstead as a whole feel deeply interconnected and almost maze-like to navigate. I lost count of how many times I felt truly lost. Moments in which I was desperate to find a vestige (the name Hexworks uses for Lords of the Fallen bonfires) or an Umbral Bed to plant an Umbral Seedling—more on that later.

Again, this is one aspect of the early souls likes, especially From Software ones that I deeply missed. One can argue that Elden Ring brings this back in some ways, but as an open world game, it’s already expected to have multiple pathways to the same location. I don’t believe I saw everything I managed to in a single playthrough. I didn’t bother looking up, as I never do with these kinds of games, but it was clear that certain quests and NPCs got locked out to me. Would’ve traded for a more linear approach? Absolutely not. Each player journey becomes unique and the joy of finding something new, meeting a new character took me back to the days of the Asia release of Demon’s Souls, where someone would find a new item, a new quest, a new line that makes the world more lived in. Mournstead is filled with stories. Many of those are sad, but some are beautiful to read and listen to.

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On the other hand, Hexworks might have leaned a bit too hard on this maze-like structure for most people to appreciate. I can sum it up in one word: difficulty. Lords of the Fallen don’t shy away from pairing you up against some of the hardest boss fights I encountered in the subgenre. Enemies hit hard, usually applying status effects such as poison, fire, bleeding, among others. Difficulty spikes are all over the place, although some of them have been smoothed out since launch. To make matters worse, it uses a unique system of the aforementioned Umbral beds and Umbral Seedlings. These act like “temporary” vestiges. You can use it to level up your character, teleport to a vestige or rest. But you can only have one Seedling active. As soon as you plant a new one, the previous one is removed. The second half of the game relies too heavily on this system. Massive areas have one Vestige, and if you are lucky, one or two Umbral beds. Between them stands an army that is going to hit you so hard that you’ll get dizzy trying to figure out where the shots / magic / enemies are coming from. The trio of archers I mentioned in the opening paragraph? That was me trying to find a place to plant an Umbral Seedling out of sheer desperation.

Now, you might ask: “Lucas, why on Earth are you going through this? Is it for the sake of writing a review?”. Obviously, besides that, I was actually kind of enjoying the system! Yes, maybe I am broken inside and enjoy punishing myself by playing Lords of the Fallen and experiencing systems that work against the player. But I am also a huge fan of roguelikes, and I lost enough characters in games such as Tales of Maj’Eyal or Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead after pouring 20 or 30 hrs on them. Limited turns or turn timers, limited options, systems that create extreme friction between the game design and the player. I’m the audience for it. The more friction, the more I will exploit or bend the rules. For instance, I started the game using my traditional strength build, or as I like to call it, “The Wall”. I would soak up all the damage I could and find openings to hit my enemies. Hexworks pulled the rug under my feet and said, “No, this is not happening here. Either you interact with all the systems we offer you or you’ll go through a world of pain”. Halfway through, I changed to a radiance (Holy) build. I never do magic builds; I usually find magic boring. But the magic system in Lords of the fallen is delightful. Not only it but also the ranged system that has an ammunition bar instead of your typical “have X arrows in your inventory”. Every time I thought I saw it all, the game threw a new system or enemy at me. Runes, weapon upgrading, an enormous variety of weapons, armors, magic and throwables. There is even advanced classes, but I will let you find those by yourself.

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At the same time, the game reminds you it will not be a walk in the park. Committing a point into one of the game’s many attributes is a process that almost paralyzed me. “Should I invest in vitality? Maybe a bit of endurance, so I can throw more hits at the enemy without losing stamina. Hmm, maybe increase radiance, but my current weapon doesn’t have a good scaling with it”. The leveling costs are high, significantly higher than your average souls like. That’s the beauty of Lords of the Fallen to me. I spent so much time in the last decade going through almost every game in this subgenre with “cookie cutter” builds that I forgot the joy of finding just the right balance of attributes, weapons and runes to get through one tough boss fight. That there’s no way around only makes it more enticing to me. No matter how much farming for Vigor (Lords of the Fallen word for “souls”) you do, you will not get past some areas with sheer brute force. But, by taking this path, Hexworks also created a series of unnecessary problems for itself and Lords of the Fallen, most of which have been smoothed out or outright fixed in the weeks after release.

The aforementioned difficulty spikes were one of them. Some areas were simply brutal or unfair. The lock on system didn’t work properly at launch, targeting far enemies rather than the one that’s right in front of you. There is a fair bit of what is usually called “jank”. Some enemies float in the air, and the game doesn’t provide smooth movement like other famous titles, although it has extremely well-polished hitboxes for the enemies and your character. Last, performance issues were — and still are to some extent — present in every copy of the game. Performance is the one that “hurts” the most. The game has an extremely poor shader compilation, opting for doing some of it during its initial launch on PC or after upgrading your GPU drivers. Stutters are not uncommon. While they are an improvement over the shipped game, I can still find it in dense areas. And, for a game whose focus is making the player feel miserable through its enemies, I sure didn’t need to deal with performance woes. It is at this point where my other complicated feelings come from. I love Lords of the Fallen, but unless you have a great PC (in my case, an i9-1300k and a 3090 and have it installed in a nVME SSD) you will struggle a bit with performance. Consoles face their own array of problems.

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If you asked me at launch, on October 13th if I would recommend Lords of the Fallen, I would’ve said “absolutely not, there are neat ideas but unless you have a huge tolerance to deal with unfair deaths because of performance, stay away from it”. Today? Well, it’s more than worth a shot. It makes me question the review process itself. How much we, as critics, should wait for patches? Are we able to look and find its strengths even though they are stashed inside a package that is about to crumble because of bugs and performance issues? If you read this tomorrow, will it still apply to Lords of the Fallen? What about next week, or even next month? Two weeks ago, I typed “This game has some of the best boss fights in the subgenre, but most of them will have you face two enemies: the boss and the loss of frames that come with it.” Two days ago, I erased this sentence since it doesn’t apply anymore.

I will not delve deep into this issue, otherwise I would end up doing another article, but it suffices to say that reviewing games in the constant shifting of the digital age and late-stage capitalism — especially in a year that saw enough share of “broken” releases, developers getting laid off and studios closing — is becoming harder and harder.

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Lords of the Fallen does indeed have some of the best boss fights, memorable ones, some of which I put up there with From Software’s best. And that’s a very high bar to reach. Heck, if this game receives a “Boss Rush” mode, I’ll be the first one to jump in and die over and over again. I will not outright recommend Lords of the Fallen to every souls like fan. It’s more of an acquired taste. As I stated previously, it reminds me of the earlier Souls titles, with all the jank and “lack of polish” in some areas that only make it more endearing to me. It’s highly likely you will feel discouraged at some point. Things will not go as planned and you’ll die. You will die a lot.

But please, I ask you only one thing: persist. If you do, you will find one of the most fascinating, rewarding and in-depth souls like out there. Lords of the Fallen deserves to sit next to some of the genre best, such as NioH 2, Lies of P and so many others. It brings its own flavor to the table, even if it sometimes tastes sour. I’m more than sure that I will be back to it sooner rather than later. Mournstead is calling me, and I already have many planned builds to tweak with.

Steam code was provided by the publisher for review purposes