Lords of the Fallen review: doppelganger

Lords of the Fallen is a successful twist on an established formula

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Bandai Namco
Developer Deck13 Interactive
Release Date Oct 28, 2014

If Lords of the Fallen had a thesis, it would be that “derivative” doesn’t need to be a bad word.

For the past five years, we’ve witnessed a resurgence in punishingly difficult fantasy action games, led by Japanese developer From Software and its Souls series. Many titles have gravitated toward lessons learned from games like Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, but no one has so brashly and blatantly copied From’s successful formula until now.

That part’s not so surprising, but Lords of the Fallen is a shocker in other ways. The balance between challenge and frustration in this type of game is delicate, as are the relationships between systems of loot, character growth and level design under the surface. It requires some real skill to not screw it up.

I wouldn’t have expected that level of mastery from Deck13 Interactive, a German developer that’s never demonstrated a proficiency for creating complex role-playing games. Lords of the Fallen is far from perfect, but it is a worthy reproduction of everything that has brought hard games back into style.

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Lords of the Fallen does a commendable job with the details

Unlike many other role-playing games, you don’t create a unique character in Lords of the Fallen. Instead, you step into the heavy plate armor of Harkyn, a maligned criminal who has been released from his life sentence in prison by a mysterious mentor named Kaslo. With Kaslo’s guidance, Harkyn goes on a journey to rescue a kingdom that’s being invaded by demonic forces from another dimension.

The outline is a generic dark fantasy plot with a generic dark fantasy character, but Lords of the Fallen does a commendable job with the details. Harkyn, Kaslo and the few other friendly-ish characters you meet along the way are at least deeper than their paper-thin first impressions, if not fully fleshed out. I was genuinely surprised at a few points, as the plot occasionally contradicts genre expectations and shifts the final destination in unexpected directions.

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The story is also extremely easy to follow and isn’t overbearing, an unlikely combination for the RPG genre. Cutscenes and short dialogue segments get across what you need to know briskly, and don’t waste time showering you in nonsense fantasy terminology or interminable exposition. You also gets some backstory via diary entries that the game kindly reads aloud, à la audio logs in action games.

Even these extra bits of lore are mercifully kept short, pointed, easy to understand. Lords of the Fallen’s plot exists primarily to create justification for Harkyn to fight with a bunch of demons. Combat is the point of the game, and it’s absolutely where it shines the brightest.

While you can’t customize Harkyn’s look much, at the start of the game you choose between three classes that will help determine your combat proficiencies. Choose the warrior, and you’ll begin with heavy armor and a shield that can stop most incoming damage.The rogue is better at dodging out of the way and performing swift counterattacks.

Battles against a single opponent can stretch out for a long time

Whether you’re swinging a giant, two-handed axe or dual-wielding daggers, each weapon swing in Lords of the Fallen is a careful, measured thing. Many enemies have the ability to easily break you out of your combat animation (while doing a huge amount of damage), so you need to be careful about when you choose to attack. Battles against even a single opponent can stretch out for a long time and require patience, but I felt rewarded for slow, smart play.

If you’d prefer to blow through battles a little faster, there are plenty of options to help you achieve that. Regardless of which class you choose, you’re going to be a magic user. This might be the most brilliant thing about Lords of the Fallen. The cleric class is the closest thing it has to a default spell-slinger, but even heavy weapon-wielding warriors get a unique set of spells that weave together with their strengths. Using these spells wisely greatly increased my survivability and the speed with which I could clear out enemies.

As a warrior, for example, I often opened up battles with "Prayer," a spell that creates a clone of Harkyn to distract enemies and soak up some attacks. Then, as an enemy killed off my clone and turned to face me, I’d have regenerated just enough magic power to use "Ram," an attack that creates another clone but this time sends it barreling toward the enemy, knocking them down and dealing damage. If I wasn’t able to finish the enemy off with that opening, I could lead into "Rage," a simple attack buff that nearly doubled my damage output.

If this huge variety of skills and choices at your disposal has any negative impact, it’s that sometimes it makes the game easier than it feels like it’s supposed to be. Near the end of the game, Lords of the Fallen allows you to look at your stats for each boss battle in the game — what weapon you used to defeat this boss, how many times you died, and the total amount of time you spent fighting this opponent. I beat almost every boss in the game on my first or second try, and almost every one in under 10 minutes.

I beat almost every boss in the game on my first or second try

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On the one hand, it dodges the frustration that can come with repeated, trial-and-error boss encounters. But on the other I sometimes ended a major fight with a shrug of "huh, that’s it?" rather than the sense of elation that games like Demons and Dark Souls provide at their best.

Lords of the Fallen provides frustration elsewhere. While it has well-designed systems and a great (if somewhat tiny) world map that twists and folds in on itself with shortcuts and hidden passages, it also has a distinct lack of technical polish. On both console and PC versions of the game, I ran into numerous crashes — sometimes robbing 10-plus minutes of progress — and plenty of moments where the framerate became noticeably impaired.

In one particularly aggravating instance, I was able to replicate a bug where the PC version of Lords of the Fallen crashed every time my character was set on fire by a specific attack in a specific boss battle. I ended up sticking to lower-damage ranged attacks for the whole battle just so the game wouldn’t shut down on me. I’m glad the option was there to allow me to sneak past this major bug, but it almost ruined my time with the game after over 20 hours spent on it.

Wrap Up:

Lords of the Fallen is a successful twist on an established formula

I say almost because, even in the face of near-game-ending bugs, my time with Lords of the Fallen wasn’t ruined. It largely succeeds in both imitation and with its strong variations on the formula. Lords of the Fallen is derivative; there’s no doubt about that. But it’s also a surprising show of skill and hopefully a sign of much brighter things to come.

Lords of the Fallen was reviewed using an early reviewable download code for PC. We also spent some time with an early debug copy of the PlayStation 4 version of the game as well as a final "retail" downloadable copy on Xbox One. You can read more about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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