Lords of the Fallen Hands-on Impressions
And so, the lampbearer shall usurp a God.
The latest release into the soulslike genre is finally here! By this point, you've likely finished your journey through Krat and are looking for the next game to beat you for a change, and this just might be the thing! CI Games returns to the genre with a new developer to work on their reboot of the Lords of the Fallen franchise, and we had the opportunity to check it out.
A Tale of Tyranny, Usurping, and Overcoming
The demon god, Adyr, has finally been usurped by the reigning humanity, and what seemed like years of peace eventually turned into further years of terror — the tyrant was nowhere near done. Death and mortality are nothing to gods, and Adyr is no exception — his return draws ever nearer, and freedom is threatened by his grasp once again.
After a short cinematic showing us the fate of the previous lampbearer, it's time to bear the curse of carrying this forbidden tool. With this unique magical item, you can travel between two realms — Axiom and Umbral, which are essentially the living and the dead, respectively — and meet the lampbearer's curse of bringing down Adyr. A tale told through riddles and narratives that might be difficult to follow for some, I enjoyed going through the lore (and what little I understood of it: I'm dumb, sue me).
Die, Live, and Die Again
Lords of the Fallen's greatest strength is its world exploration. The unique mechanic of the Umbral and Axiom worlds brings a multi-faceted world for you to explore, with monsters, items, and optional paths to journey through! Either through death or with your Lamp, you can jump into Umbral to explore a world filled with horrors and monsters; this works as your opportunity to face tough foes once again and is essentially your second life.
This was by far my favourite mechanic in the game, as traversing through two worlds was exciting, but there was a sense of danger and stalking in either of these that felt eerie in the greatest of ways. By pulling out your Lamp and shining the light, you can peer into Umbral to find shortcuts, items, and foes, but this also momentarily reveals you to enemies within, which will try to attack you and pull you into the world with a one-hit kill mechanic that'll force you into fight or flight.
There was a level of tension at every turn of the corner because death was not the end — and not in a happily-ever-after way. Once you've died at the hands of a foe, you will appear in the Umbral realm, where you will not only have to face enemies that you left behind in Axiom, but you also have to face a whole slew of new enemies.
The Dead Will Stay Dead
Remain in the Umbral for too long, and you'll start facing tougher enemies that spawn endlessly. This mechanic made it terrifying to explore the world because it ensures that you have the feeling of a ticking timer, and it's ticking to death. By finding certain spots in the world, you can revive yourself into the Axiom realm once again, which will also leave any foes you killed along the way dead.
It was a very interesting mechanic that I enjoyed experimenting with. Death wasn't the end (for the most part), and it meant that I could fight my way through to the next Vestige or walk my way back to a safe spot without sacrificing my precious Vigor. The timer ticking down and my "bounty" increasing limited my capabilities to explore in the Umbral, but that also made it even more enticing because there are areas that are only explorable in this realm.
A Way Through Everything
Lords of the Fallen's world design is actually pretty grand. I enjoyed exploring Axiom in search of items, but likely my favourite aspect was using the Lamp to peer into the Umbral and finding shortcuts. From avoiding enemies to entire fights, you can walk through some walls that don't exist in Umbral and find entirely new paths to explore; sometimes, you don't even have to die to traverse, as you can lift your lamp and interact with anything that exists (or doesn't) in this realm.
It was very gratifying to find new ways to explore the world because there were usually unique paths you could take, some of which were more or less perilous. It's a "pick your poison" sort of deal, where you have to choose between sacrificing one of your lives and traversing the world in Umbral whilst fighting those foes or facing a skeletal bastard with a mean arsenal of abilities that, usually, took at least one of my lives. It was always a struggle between facing mutant fairy-like creatures that give birth to Umbral monstrosities or that one skeletal guy, which was always ever-so alluring... and consistently took my life — or in worst cases, Vigor.
A Unique Approach
Lords of the Fallen tries a slew of unique approaches to a lot in the soulslike genre. For instance, whenever you're fighting enemies and perish (an all-too-common occurrence for a fool like me), they might pick up your Vigor. It's terrifying and hilarious in ways previously unexplored in the genre, as seeing a formidable foe clutching my Vigor like its life depended on it meant I needed to fight harder to get it back; succeeding felt even more enjoyable than just dashing through some enemies, picking up the souls, and panic rolling away to safety. Lords of the Fallen demands you fight, and I obliged... often dying in the process, but that's part of playing a soulslike.
Surviving means finding various Vestige points around the world, which work as your quintessential checkpoints and enemy-resurrecting resting points. Though you'd expect to find many of these scattered throughout the world, Lords of the Fallen decides to screw you over by instead scattering Flower Beds that you need to use Vestige Seeds on to spawn most of the ones you find in the world. What's tricky is that once you spawn a Vestige location, your previous one disappears until you replant it, and those seeds cost 2,500 Vigor a pop, which meant that I — being overly cautious — tended to overspend on these to ensure I had somewhere to rest. Yes, this implies that I was under-levelled, but being able to farm and gain those back is always an option anyway.
Lords of the Fallen doesn't stop beating you up after the credits roll, however, as unique mechanics continue past starting your NG+ run. With Vestige locations entirely annihilated, you'll need to reliably make it through the entire game without backtracking, a feat that makes a second playthrough all the more necessary!
Rolls, Parries, Dodges, and Deaths
Now, on to what I've neglected to mention (and most of you are likely most excited about): the soulslike mechanics. Lords of the Fallen returns to favouring dodging in DARK SOULS style, where you can avoid enemy hits with generous invulnerability frames that ensure you can make it through any foes unscathed. But, for those who are interested, parries have been slightly modified, instead bolstering a Stamina system for the enemies represented in a minuscule gauge at the centre of whoever you are targeting that I missed for way too long. Once you've dealt enough damage, you can parry them to stun them to deal a Grievious Attack by either parrying one of the upcoming blows or hitting them with a fully charged heavy attack.
The system has received some nerfs in contrast to other titles, which means that you'll find yourself returning to old habits of previous soulslikes that didn't favour blocking or parrying through attacks. The risk is definitely larger for parrying than the reward, leading Lords of the Fallen to have a much higher skill ceiling because your various parries and learning enemy patterns won't give you the upper hand in combat too much. It doesn't help that parrying still depletes your health through chip damage that gets Withered (meaning you can regain it by hitting but be dealt one direct blow to your HP, and it's back to the Vestige with you).
I don't mind this, as, after all, I'm a huge fan of rolling through attacks, and it gives a faster feeling to the combat that is less heart-attack-inducing than trying to learn parry patterns. This just means that I get to safely panic roll and ingrain bad habits once again instead of trying to face my fears, stop being a coward, and fight foes by trying to block their attacks at the last minute — just as I like it.
So, should you pick up Lords of the Fallen? If you’re a fan of soulslikes, there is little reason not to — it’s a return to the genre classics in ways that newer titles have steered from, but it brings enough to the table to keep it fresh!