Nine years after Deck 13’s Lords of the Fallen, the newly formed Hexworks brings us an accomplished soft reboot that offers a glimpse into what the studio is capable of within the realm of Soulslikes. It’s a shame that all of its heart and unique ideas are buried underneath a game that was pushed out several months too early.
Lords of the Fallen Review — A Flavorful Undercooked Meal
Lords of the Fallen takes place in the land of Mournstead, which is corrupted by the conflict between competing gods Adyr and Orius. This battle resulted in Adyr’s imprisonment behind five beacons of light scattered across the world. However, these lights have grown weaker, showing signs of corrupting Mournstead. As a Dark Crusader, you’re tasked with cleansing each beacon to stop Adyr. While it technically takes place after the original game, the events are separated by about 1,000 years, meaning it isn’t required material for absorbing the story.
Narratively speaking, Lords of the Fallen is about as hands-off as expected. Although a basic main plot exists, it isn’t communicated explicitly through regular cinematics and dialogue. Rather, Hexworks relies on the polarizing approach of forcing players to extrapolate information from easily missable clues. For example, all memory sequences that flesh out the world and its events are typically found off the golden path, requiring constant exploration. Additionally, NPCs often speak cryptically, barely furthering the story unless you’re paying close attention.
This narrative approach works for two types of audiences. On one end, it satisfies lore hounds who want to seek everything out for themselves. On the opposite end, players who don’t care can get to the meat of the experience with very little friction — that being combat and exploration, both of which are intrinsically tied to the heavily advertised dual-realms mechanic.
Within the world of Mournstead, you can seamlessly travel between the real world — known as Axiom — and the other world, referred to as Umbra, through an Umbral lamp. You can pull the lamp out anytime for an immediate window into what resides in Umbra without fully shifting over. This half-in, half-out exploration lets you cross simple paths, such as bridges, that only exist in Umbra while remaining in Axiom’s relative safety. However, you’ll often need to step into Umbra to progress through the story or reach optional items for character progression.
Lords of the Fallen successfully captures the essence of an exciting risk/reward mechanic with the Umbral shift. Experience points are acquired at a more rapid pace while in Umbra, which sounds enticing at first. So, the longer you spend in Umbra, the more experience points you can gain. However, staying in Umbra is incredibly risky. More and more enemies spawn into the world until a deadly creature that negates the use of healing items joins the fray once you’ve overstayed your welcome. This is especially draining because while Umbra can be entered at any time, only specific points can be used to travel back to Axiom. They disappear after being used until you rest at a save point, which can also be used to return. This design makes even simple Umbral exploration tense and stressful.
The risk/reward mechanic is enhanced because of how important experience points are to every aspect of progression. Vigor, this game’s experience points, are used for everything — leveling up, upgrading weapons, shields, and purchasing items. Vigor acts as both your standard progression as well as your main currency for every single transaction.
Lords of the Fallen also uses Axiom and Umbra to spice up the death mechanic. When you die, you first respawn in the same spot in Umbra, giving you one last chance to recover. However, it isn’t necessarily a get-out-of-jail-free card because of the aforementioned timed pressure.
Combat itself is satisfying enough to placate action RPG fans. Mechanics such as perfect blocks feel great to pull off, largely thanks to excellent sound design adding feedback to each timed block. There’s also a decent heft to individual attacks due to the animations, which sell what they’re attempting to accomplish. Unlike some games in the genre, enemies are very readable. Lords of the Fallen is challenging, but it doesn’t leave you unequipped to handle the obstacles placed in your path. Nearly every enemy and boss fight, even the fast ones, clearly communicate attacks and spells with legible animations and sound design. Overcoming fights is more a matter of patience and mechanical execution than memorization or anything else.
Much like other soulslikes, Lords of the Fallen feels deliberate within its weightiness. Each subsequent swing within a combo carries enough momentum to potentially carry you off ledges. You’ll soon learn not to get too combo-happy, paying attention to enemy animations and the surrounding environment.
That’s not to say that combat is perfect. As great as it feels when all of its systems click, it also isn’t quite as refined as the genre’s best. For example, the lock-on system sometimes only works when it wants to, failing to activate at crucial moments. While no lock-on system is perfect, Lords of the Fallen‘s failings feel especially egregious, bordering broken. The player character will routinely swing past or around an enemy right in front of them when the lock-on isn’t engaged. However, when locked-on properly — which is the vast majority of the time — Lords of the Fallen falls into a satisfying rhythm.
This extends to boss fights, which are remarkably well realized for a first effort within the genre. Most bosses strike a difficulty curve, whereby they’re challenging without unfair advantages or gimmicks that will make you want to quit. Every boss feels attainable with enough tenacity. Even when some of the fights fall flat because of a lack of challenge or interesting mechanics, they’re always at least aesthetically interesting.
Speaking of visuals, Lords of the Fallen is the most visually striking soulslike to date. Its art direction is astounding, providing aesthetically interesting sights with enough variety to separate the distinct locations. Coupled with the dense geometry and draw distances, it provides some of the prettiest distant scenery you’ll see in a game today.
Lords of the Fallen also succeeds at allowing for player experimentation with full customization. While you do select a class at the start of each playthrough, they really only exist to serve your starting equipment and stats. Nothing in Lords of the Fallen is locked by class. Rather, all gear is gated by stat requirements. This means that if you start as a safe all-arounder class like a Paladin, you can switch a full radiance magic build by dumping stat points into radiance. This will allow you to equip radiant catalysts for slotting radiant magic into as well as meeting the stat checks for each individual spell. Additionally, you’ll be able to effectively use weapons whose damage scale best off of radiance. Lords of the Fallen‘s approach to customization is one of its greatest triumphs because it puts you in full control.
Everything sounds great until you acknowledge the elephant in the room. Lords of the Fallen launched in an unfinished state. Most importantly, performance is incredibly unstable and inconsistent depending on the scene. Some areas run fine, while others genuinely inhibit user playability and have led to my death. Even though locations run well enough in Axiom, Umbra runs reliably under the target 60 frames per second in performance mode on PlayStation 5.
Even after about 10 patches between the pre-launch code and the time of writing, performance hasn’t improved much outside of resolving performance degradation over time. PC users have also continued to report constant stutters regardless of hardware. Xbox Series X|S consoles have fared no better, with Hexworks employing a post-launch patch meant to bring Xbox up to parity with the other versions. Unfortunately, Xbox users have also reported heavily downgraded texture quality after this patch.
Unfortunately, I died several times due to collision issues, in which I got stuck between or underneath geometry. Enemies also found themselves prone to this, letting me defeat creatures that were just as defenseless as I was during my unfair deaths.
Lords of the Fallen Review — The Bottom Line
Lords of the Fallen is a satisfying action RPG and a remarkable soft reboot of a franchise that nobody thought had a future. There’s so much more soul here than the 2014 original, along with plenty of depth for those who want to engage deeply with its systems. This includes the fully malleable customization, in which classes can equip any gear once the stat requirements are met, essentially morphing mid-playthrough. It’s unfortunate that a genuinely great game is sullied by a severe lack of polish.
- Impressive art direction/design
- Satisfying combat and sound design
- Dual-realms are used effectively for combat and exploration
- Framerate is all over the place
- Geometry collision issues, which lead to getting stuck
- Lock-on likes to not work at the most integral times
[Note: CI Games provided the PS5 copy of Lords of the Fallen used for this review.]
Lords of the Fallen Review — A Flavorful Uncooked Meal
Lords of the Fallen could have been a great game with several more months in the oven.What Our Ratings Mean