When I played Lords of the Fallen earlier this year in a demo at E3, I was left skeptical. It pulls from the From Software-developed Souls games that I love so much, but from my brief time with the game and a short interview with its creative director I wasn't convinced that it could capture the unexpected magic of that series.
Two weeks ago, I got to sit down for a full hour with a near-complete build of Lords of the Fallen while talking with executive producer Tomasz Gop. After an extended session and discovering a lot more about the game, I've completely turned around on my initial lukewarm feelings.
"The E3 demo is something we could have done better," Gop admitted immediately. By his estimation — and speaking from my own experience as well — difficult action-RPGs like Lords of the Fallen are tough to show in demo form, because they toss players into the middle of a game, often into areas where it's expected that they're fairly familiar with the game's mechanics and strategies already.
To avoid this problem, I'm started at the very beginning of the game in this new demo. This choice served two purposes: It allowed me to get to know the game at the pace that will be expected of anyone playing for the first time, and it showed off the developed tutorial system that sets Lords of the Fallen apart from a game like Dark Souls.
"Personally I believe the most important factor in whether or not Lords of the Fallen is going to succeed is if it's going to be clear that the goal we have is to make the game challenging but accessible, approachable," Gop said. "We want it explained in a little bit better of a way, so the opening of the game is very important to us."
As Lords of the Fallen begins, players take on the role of Harkyn, a criminal who has been set free from prison by a mysterious man named Kaslo. Though Harkyn has a sketchy past, Kaslo believes he's the one person who can stop a long-dormant evil god whose armies have begun attacking humans once more. Harkyn and Kaslo had just entered a castle housing one of the commanders of that army when the game gave me control.
"The goal is to make it challenging but accessible, approachable."
As I moved forward toward the first enemy, a demonic warrior called a Rhogar, the game paused and put up a block of text to begin teaching me the basics. "Only the most important tutorials will pause the game and tell you what to press at what moment," Gop said. "Most of the tutorials are going to be more like hints that appear on the side of the screen as you're playing. We figured out the most important things that players need to be informed of at the beginning, especially players who haven't played Souls games, for example."
Gop noted that these tutorials are crafted to be easily skippable if you're already familiar with this style of gameplay. For everyone else, they offer a much stronger introduction to this intimidating style of game than any of From Software's releases.
"I know for a lot of people, this will just be a big block of text," Gop said. "You don't have to read it, but it's important that whoever wants to find out things will be able to."
This relates to Lords of the Fallen developer Deck13's approach to storytelling as well. Where Souls games pride themselves on having difficult-to-follow plots with key information hidden away in item descriptions and brief, baffling NPC conversations, Lords of the Fallen feels more traditional. The story progresses with short but clear cutscenes, and as I explored, I discovered notes and diary entries that played out like audio logs from other games, fleshing out the backstory of each area.
Some of these entries are hidden in dark corners of the game world; others will drop from fallen enemies, providing a description of how that enemy type came into being. "Some audio entries are optional, and some are more straightforward," Gop said. "Some things are told indirectly, but it's still easier to find that story than the Souls games, even when it's optional."
As I continued fighting through the castle, putting my experience with the Souls games to use to make short work of enemies, I came across a large crystal. Gop asked me to stop here and examine it. If much of the intro of Lords of the Fallen is about being gentler than Souls games, these "shards" as he called them are where the game can get considerably harder.
"These shards are always in the main path of the player, and when you see them for the first time, they're inactive," Gop said. "Each one is bound to a boss. When you've defeated a boss, you know that one shard somewhere in the world has activated. It becomes a portal that takes you to another dimension."
These portals will put players into difficult challenges, such as arena battles or tweaked boss encounters. Succeeding will earn you some of the best treasure in the game. "We wanted to put in a lot of optional content, and we wanted to encourage exploration and going back to cleared areas," Gop said.
As Gop continued showing me the game, it became clear that this is a major theme of Lords of the Fallen: Main path content that is very challenging but able to be cleared by most gamers, backed up by optional challenges that are incredibly tough for those who really want to prove themselves.
Take the game's unique approach to boss fights. After half an hour of hacking my way through the castle, I found a key and opened the way to Lords of the Fallen's introductory boss: the First Warden. This large, heavily armored foe wielded a giant flaming sword, often bringing it crashing down in a move that shot a wave of energy across the battlefield.
"We really love speedrunners."
One interesting element of boss battles in Lords of the Fallen is that they occur in phases. A boss' life bar will be separated by lines — in the case of the First Warden, his is separated into fourths. Each time I took down a fourth of his health, he threw off a piece of his armor. This served as both a visual sign of my progress through the fight and a hint that he was about to begin employing new attacks. In his final phase, he tossed away his shield altogether, rushing me down with non-stop, aggressive sword swings.
With my skills at this style of encounter already developed from the games Lords of the Fallen draws inspiration from, I managed to defeat the First Warden on my first try. My reward was a bunch of experience points, a rune used for crafting and the boss' weapon, that powerful flame sword. I was excited to wield this massive blade, but Gop quickly rained on my parade by informing me that I could have received something better.
"For every single boss in the game, there's a particular set of conditions," Gop said. "If you defeat them under those conditions, you get a special version of the same loot." For the First Warden, the condition in question is defeating him without taking any damage. It sounds nigh-impossible, even for the first and most simple boss in the game, but the reward is commensurate with the effort: a beefed-up version of the flaming sword that can perform the powerful shockwave attack that knocked me down so many times during the fight.
Lords of the Fallen is full of these tiny details that help set it apart from the Souls games and also provide more ways for truly skilled players to challenge themselves. To provide another example, Gop showed me how leveling up works in the game. As in Dark Souls, you can only bank your experience points into stat increases at checkpoints. But in Lords of the Fallen, fighting enemies without going to a checkpoint also slowly builds up an experience multiplier that resets whenever you touch a checkpoint. In other words, there's an added layer of risk/reward in the game pushing you to stay away from checkpoints longer and risk losing your experience points to death.
"We really love speedrunners," Gop said. "I can't wait to see what they do with this system."
Dying with dignity
In fact, even death can be turned around to your benefit by a skilled player. As in the Souls games, when you die in Lords of the Fallen, you drop your currently gathered experience points at the physical location where you died. Unlike in Souls games, the amount of that experience available for you to recover slowly degrades the longer it stays out in the world, putting a time limit on your rush to get back to where you died.
But there's a benefit too: As long as those experience points remains on the ground, and as long as you're nearby them, they provide a passive buff that makes you much stronger. Having trouble on a certain boss? Dying and attempting to fight the boss near your unrecovered experience points may be a viable strategy.
To finish off my demo, Gop jumped me ahead to a point 10 or so hours into the game and a much more challenging boss encounter. This time I found myself up against a spider whose multiple spindly legs were heavily armored and who could poison me if I didn't properly block or dodge attacks.
I bumbled my way through this boss' first phase and discovered that with enough strikes to its legs, the armor would fall off, leaving the legs vulnerable to much more damage. In the creature's second phase, it started spewing poison from all over the arena. Combined with the ability to stun me with a ranged attack, I soon succumbed to death. As with any good Souls boss, this one was clearly going to take some work to perfect my strategy.
Of course, Lords of the Fallen is not actually a Souls game, and the more I've played of it, the more I understand how it differentiates itself. At a certain point, I realized how openly I'd been speaking about it in comparison to Dark Souls, and I apologized. Gop doesn't mind the comparison, though. He's open about the inspiration, and he believes there's room for more games like this in the world.
"There aren't a ton of Souls clones," Gop said. "We're not going to be one of dozens. And we're not trying to top Dark Souls. It would be stupid to say that we can do what they do better. But we have our own take on it."