Warning! This Review contains spoilers for “Lords of the Fallen” and the “Dark Souls” franchise.
Imagine the following scenario: A book publishing agent discovers that your favorite book is “Lord of the Rings,” and approaches you with the following pitch:
“Hey, I’ve got a book you’ll love! It’s totally marketed to Lord of the Rings fans!”
You eagerly say yes, only to be handed a copy of “The Hunger Games” series. When you quizzically ask what makes this dystopian novel at all similar to an epic fantasy masterwork, the response is, “What are you talking about? It’s just like Lord of the Rings. It’s got lots of combat, it’s about a struggle against evil, it’s a trilogy, and it’s written in English!”
Ridiculous, right? Well, apparently not to the marketing team for “Lords of the Fallen,” who seem determined to play up the comparison between their game and the “Dark Souls” franchise. And judging by all the reviews that make this inevitable comparison, they seem to have succeeded.
The problem is that I’m not sure why anyone thought this would be a successful strategy. Just as “The Hunger Games” would inevitably fall short when compared with the masterwork that is “Lord of the Rings,” pretty much any game would fall short when matched against the titanic masterpiece of philosophical high art that is “Dark Souls.” Furthermore, it’s not clear that the comparison even makes conceptual sense. “Lords of the Fallen,” as near as I can tell, owes only a few things to the “Souls” franchise: Its control scheme, checkpoint system, the fact that enemies respawn when you die, and a plot that references deicide. Well, that and the fact that it liberally rips off (and dumbs down) several boss concepts from “Dark Souls.”
However, when you get right down to it, the things that are different about Lords of the Fallen and “Souls” far outweigh the things that are the same. It makes more sense to call “LotF” a third person shooter version of “Diablo” or a fantasy third person “Borderlands” than it does to compare it to “Dark Souls,” as its item generation, repetitive enemy design, linear levels, loot-focused ethos, dialogue system, cartoonish aesthetic and handholding quest markers are clearly more at home in either of those games. In fact, it’s arguable that “Dark Souls” and Lords of the Fallen don’t even belong in the same genre.
“Dark Souls” is clearly a role-playing game through and through, whereas Lords of the Fallen is more of a third person action game with role-playing elements. It’s tempting to call the comparison an apples and oranges comparison, but that doesn’t quite do the massive gulf between the two titles justice. It’s more like someone pointed at a round red thing at fifty paces and told you it was an apple, only for you to realize when you got close that it was actually a bunch of kale leaves someone had dyed red and arranged in a round shape.
The point I’m trying to make here is that Lords of the Fallen looks terrible when you compare it to “Dark Souls.” On an “is this game Dark Souls” scale, it’d rate at best a 3 or 4. You could call it a poor man’s “Dark Souls,” except it’s actually more expensive than the “Prepare to Die” edition of the first “Dark Souls” game. So if anyone is reading this review who hasn’t played “Dark Souls,” I’m going to just out and out tell them to stop what they’re doing and go buy “Prepare to Die” on Steam, or whatever version is available on their console of choice, and enjoy the glorious weeks of suffering that await a new “Souls” player. Then, once you’ve been addicted like the rest of us decent folk, come back and read this.
YOU HEARD THE MAN. BUGGER OFF.
Are they gone? Okay, good. Now, let me speak to my fellow “Souls” fans. I’ll be blunt; playing this game feels a bit like dating a rebound after a breakup with someone you’d wanted to marry. Oh sure, the new person might be fun, and you might feel a spark that dulls your loneliness and even make you happy a good chunk of the time, but there will always be that gnawing void at the back of your mind that reminds you that this isn’t the person you fell in love with, and that you may never feel the way you did with them again. Of course, the thing about this is that the comparison is inherently unfair. And that’s why “Is this Dark Souls” isn’t our standard for review here.
Rather, our standard looks at whether the game is good, period. And while Lords of the Fallen can’t even begin to rise to the level of “Dark Souls,” it can still an enjoyable, relatively mindless experience that might give you a few ghostly, pleasurable reminders of what it was like to conquer “Dark Souls” for the first time. It’s not going to win any “Game of the Year” awards, and it’s never going to be “Dark Souls.” In a world where “Dark Souls” didn’t exist, it would look daring and original rather than derivative. But if this is what “Dark Souls” imitators are going to look like, I’d say we Lordran and Drangleic expats could do a lot worse.
Let’s talk for a moment about what the game gets right. To begin with, it does make an effort to make its enemies more challenging than the usual RPG boilerplate, and figuring out how to defeat one or two of them is an enjoyable exercise. One of the game’s more clever ideas is to throw in regular enemies who can’t be beaten until you find a specific item that keeps them alive, which adds a welcome puzzle to the otherwise basic hacking and slashing you’ll be doing. Similarly, figuring out strategy for certain bosses is a real pleasure, even if it falls vastly short of the sort of desperate experimentation between frantic dodge rolls and chugging of Estus Flasks that one got used to in “Dark Souls.”
I do also want to note that while other game reviewers have taken to attacking the game for its visual design being too obvious in its attempts to be badass, I actually found the game’s attempt to maximize its “f–king awesome” quotient to be charming in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. This is a game whose visuals feel more at home in a “Dragonforce” music video. In fact, I frequently just turned the music off and started blasting “Through the Fire and Flames,” and was suddenly twice as enthused. It’s a gloriously un-self aware heavy metal rush, and doesn’t really pretend to be anything else. Finally, while I’ll have a lot more to say about the story in a bit, I did think the philosophy undergirding this world’s setting was refreshingly unique, and more a rebuttal to “Dark Souls'” own philosophy than a conscious imitation.
That all being said, the many ways in which Lords of the Fallen is not Dark Souls are also good examples of why it could have been better, so let’s jump into the critical bits. Start with the fact that character creation is a bit insultingly tuned down. You can’t try all the types of magic on for size, for instance, but instead have to specialize in one to start with — a choice that severely constrains your play style, especially if you’re not sure which type of magic best caters to it. What’s more, the existence of only three classes (Warrior, Cleric and Rogue) will almost certainly make some magic-focused players confused, since the Cleric fits neither its usual translation into “team healer” nor that of a more aggressive sorcery-style spellcaster. Mixing and matching magic styles and classes is technically feasible, but unless you’re playing through a second time (and didn’t decide to just play New Game+), you’re probably not going to experiment with it, since the game encourages just doubling down on one comfort zone and staying there.
That’s not even touching on the fact that you have no control over any element of your character’s identity, including his sex. The existence of a female option is routine in roleplaying games at this point, and while pretty much all the design choices in this game are drenched in testosterone, the fact is that not including it just looks lazy. Especially when you consider that there is a readymade female character who shows up throughout the game as an NPC who could have easily been adapted into a playable character with a separate but sufficiently similar plot line. It doesn’t help that said female character is vastly more likable than the actual protagonist of the game, if only because she mocks him relentlessly.
COME AT ME BRO.
Speaking of that protagonist, let’s talk about Harkyn, a man who seems to have taken as many steroids as Marcus Fenix, and who makes Kratos look like a character with emotional range. Harkyn is apparently a criminal guilty of unspeakable crimes (though what they are we never find out), who got let out in order to help take down the Rhogar, a race of invading, extra-dimensional fire demons who have driven humanity to brink of extinction. How this happened, or what the history of the conflict is, we are never told, as the game’s intro cinematic seems singularly uninterested in anything other than showing off how badass Harkyn is with no apparent relation between his badassery and the plot.
In fact, that’s the one character trait I can say with definite knowledge that Harkyn possesses — he is a badass. You can tell because his armor looks like it would weigh down Arnold Schwarzenegger, because he speaks in a deep cockney growl that always seems to seethe with tranquil fury regardless of what he’s saying, and because he apparently is capable of taking down an entire army of demons who can mercilessly slaughter normal people. Never mind what Harkyn was imprisoned for, my question is how did normal human beings capture this sulky, rage fueled testosterone elemental? Even the game’s secret Big Good calls Harkyn an embodiment of rage, anger and hate, and we’re meant to take this as a good thing. Which it can be, if you’re writing Darth Vader, but Harkyn is too boring to rise to that level and instead simply comes off as petulant and unlikable.
Not that the other characters are any better.
Next: Read On For Our Final Score