A Souls-like or Soulsborne, a game that follows the core design principles of From Software's iconic titles, used to be a novelty. The original Lords of the Fallen in 2014 fell into that category, trying to capitalize on a budding trend yet falling short of replicating the type of experience that made Souls games so good. The upcoming Lords of the Fallen is a second shot for this series, acting as a sort of reboot. Since the subgenre has evolved drastically in the years since, it takes a lot more to grab the attention of folks amid the sea of Souls-likes we see today. And after playing roughly two hours of the new Lords of the Fallen, it's clear developer Hexworks has a better understanding of what makes a good Souls-like click this time around.
While this new entry still contains lore loosely tying it to the original, 2023's Lords of the Fallen is completely rebuilt, committing to a much darker fantasy world and offering stronger RPG elements. The flow of combat that bogged down the first game is gone. In its place is a fine-tuned rendition of that familiar heavy and consequential style of combat where every move is a risk-reward scenario and dodge rolls are your best friend. It's responsive and relatively fast-paced--and from the boss fights and enemy encounters I experienced, the process of understanding attack patterns and exploiting opportunities while managing stamina felt right.
An impressive showcase of how Lords of the Fallen is doing things better this time around is in the very first boss fight against Pieta, She of the Blessed Renewal. Pieta's a knight that towers over you and wields light-based magic utilized in swift, far-reaching strikes of her sword, devastating AoE spells, and summoned avatars. Of course, there's a second phase to the fight where she transforms into an angel-like being who soars across the combat arena and casts even more dynamic light spells that home in on you. Defeating her turned out to be the kind of challenge expected of the genre's greats--it took me three tries, but with each attempt I felt myself getting better, gradually excelling at reacting to her attacks, rather than succumbing to cheap tricks and banging my head against the wall.
There are several ways to build yourself in Lords of the Fallen thanks to a fluid RPG system that, again, is reminiscent of the Souls games. While you choose a class template when creating your character, it doesn't necessarily dictate how your character grows, rather it provides a starting point and a direction you can take as you progress. For the preview, I went with a class that mixed both a sword and bow for close-ranged melee and long-ranged flexibility--it felt suited enough to take on Pieta. This also means I wasn't able to explore the three-pronged magic system, nimble glass cannon-style builds, or any of the variations between.
As is par for the course, you accumulate currency by defeating enemies which you then take to checkpoints--here, they're called Vestiges--and buy stat point upgrades to level up. There's always that risk of dropping that currency when you die, hoping the next Vestige is around the corner, but such is the Souls way. It's a familiar flow that veterans will find comfortable and likely make the most of through experimentation, min-maxing, and equipping various gear pieces and weapons found throughout the game.
The moment-to-moment in my Lords of the Fallen demo ticked most of the Souls boxes I have when it comes to combat, but this game distinguishes itself in its concept of dual worlds. Axiom, the land of the living, is more or less the "normal" dimension, but it exists in parallel with the Umbral realm, the land of the dead. The two realms run simultaneously as you play, which takes advantage of tech on latest-gen platforms. It's similar to The Medium or Titanfall 2's Effect and Cause mission, but spread across an entire sprawling dark fantasy world.
It's fair to say that this is the game's defining feature since the duality of Axiom and Umbral manifests in several ways in both exploration and combat. While in Axiom, you can hold up your Umbral Lamp at any time to peer through what your immediate surroundings look like in the Umbral realm. Oftentimes, it'll reveal alternate paths to otherwise unreachable locations--bridges built off the bodies of dead monsters leading to loot, or a pond dried up in the alternate realm letting you move forward, are just a few examples I saw.
While holding up your lamp is a peek into the realm, you can transport yourself into the Umbral to fully explore the decrepit alternate reality. The catch is the Umbral realm is a dangerous place full of undead enemies, and the longer your stay in here, the more its powerful wraiths threaten and hound you. Another catch is that phasing into the Umbral is a sort of one-way ticket, and the only way back is returning to a Vestige save point. This dynamic introduces a puzzle element to exploration since there are platforms you can control for traversal and Umbral-only paths to critical areas of the world. More importantly, it creates a push-and-pull with tension and curiosity, leaving me interested in inspecting my surroundings just a bit closer and thinking if the risk is worth a try.
Here's another kicker about the parallel worlds: Remember how I mentioned I was able to defeat Pieta in just three tries? That was thanks to the Umbral realm. When you die in Axiom, you immediately resurrect in that spot in the Umbral realm and the fight continues. Lords of the Fallen is shaping up to be challenging in the ways you expect from Souls-like games, but giving players a second chance, Umbral caveats and all, is also a nice way to mitigate the exhaustion often felt in games so punishing. Like the resurrection mechanic in Sekiro, by no means does this make encounters easy, but having a rebuttal in tight situations is much appreciated.
Creative director Cezar Virtosu didn't seem shy about wearing the clear influences on his sleeve. Brief cutscenes, audio log-like spirits, and esoteric dialogue provide a vague sense of narrative throughout the world, which is another core pillar--it almost feels like one of those moments when you notice something clearly trying to be its influence. The merits of how well this new game executes is an assessment for the full experience, however. Because as you learn more about the characters at your Sanctuary base or uncover new details about each boss' lore through their designs and backstories, the more Lords of the Fallen will reveal itself. Virtosu mentioned various permutations depending on how things play out in your run, which may affect how it all culminates in the estimated 45- to 50-hour runtime.
As Virtosu began to showcase other regions and boss fights in late-game areas, I got a sense of the foreboding vibe that perpetuates in Lords of the Fallen, and the Dark Souls familiarity that followed throughout. I got wrecked by a horseback-riding knight in a dingy swamp, smashed by the disgusting cave-dwelling Boglord who has like eight rows of teeth, and rushed through the labyrinthine cliffside village in pouring rain--which all makes for a good dark, atmospheric action-RPG full of dense and malicious areas to explore.
But looking out to the horizon from Skyrest Bridge, the game's starting area before taking on Pieta, you can see a god-like hand resting in the distance. And looking up to the sky, you can catch a glimpse of the six beacons shining upwards, marking the locations you must discover to cleanse the land and defeat the demon god Adyr. I see a vast and interesting world, I just don't know if I'm in the right gaming mood to go down this kind of rabbit hole again quite yet.
In 2023, the Souls-likes have grown and expanded with countless takes on the formula, and even common mechanics have found their way into other games in some form. From Software has also transcended the foundation it created with the likes of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Elden Ring, setting the bar even higher--and for open-world games at large with the latter. But a revolution in a genre isn't always necessary, and sometimes a good take on an established formula is what folks want.
"Familiarity" is a word I've used a lot here because for better or worse, that sums up my short time with Lords of the Fallen, even with all its unique quirks and own bespoke worldbuilding that freshen the experience. However, that'll be music to the ears of those looking for the closest possible thing to another Dark Souls--because reservations and all, Lords of the Fallen seems to be doing that kind of game really, really well. We'll know for sure when the game launches on October 13 for Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5, and PC.
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