There are times when it genuinely feels like the artists who work in game development teams only know Zdzisaw Beksiski and H.R Giger. These two artists are magnificent, don’t get me wrong, but they are so often the inspiration behind a game’s aesthetics that it’s become a visual cliché. And that’s actually quite tragic because neither Zdzisaw Beksiski nor H.R Giger’s creative vision should ever be seen as humdrum.
Sadly, here we are at Lords of the Fallen. Lords of the Fallen would have been better off if the visual style was inspired by a Monet or Dali or Rembrandt or something. At least then it would be something original.
To be blunt the game comes across as incredibly try-hard right from the outset. There was nothing overly unsatisfactory about the incredibly violent opening video clip, which uses copious amounts of blood and decapitations to distinguish its dark fantasy vision from Elden Ring’s relatively elegant and graceful Gothic approach. Likewise, there was nothing wrong with the character creation sequence. This allows you to choose from a bunch of truly miserable-looking grim fighters pulled from a range of European military and mystical traditions. And there was nothing wrong with the introductory sequence, which takes you through the two different realities that Lords of the Fallen requires you to traverse. There’s the “real world,” which is a catastrophically grim Gothic vision, and the alternative world, which is a catastrophically grim Zdzisław Beksiński/H.R Giger nightmare. To re-iterate: There’s nothing technically wrong with any of that. It’s just that it’s as subtle as the guys that dress up like they’re auditioning for The Crow: The Musical. Yes, game. You’re dark. Very dark. You have darkness in your soul. You’re dark as a moonless night, and your soul weeps the bloody tears of virgins. We get it.
Lords of the Fallen undermines itself completely by being so try-hard, though. Where it wants to be this dark, twisted and horrible thing – like The Lord of The Rings, just vicious, or Elden Ring for the hardcore – it instead comes across as a caricature, and it’s really, really hard not to laugh at how utterly stupid it is. The game is actually quite predictable in terms of its narrative, and while technically proficient, incredibly uninspired in what it presents players. It’s going to have its fans because generic grimdark seems to be a genre some can’t get enough of, but overall, there was a prodigious amount of talent wasted here because the creative decision-makers apparently thought amateur Gothic fanfiction was good enough for a game.
Just as with the art and storytelling, there’s a lot of talent that went into the gameplay design of Lords of the Fallen. The dual-world mechanic is good, for a start. Every so often, you’ll come across an area that you can’t progress through. However, through the use of a (grimdark blue glowing) lantern, you can transport yourself into that aforementioned Zdzisław Beksiński/H.R Giger alternative universe, where those passages are suddenly open. But you don’t want you stay there too long, because if you spend too much time in there (or cause too much carnage), then grim reaper things will show up to make your day a really bad one.
Meanwhile, back in the “real” world, you can use that lantern to detect special shields that might be giving your enemies special shields that make them invulnerable, or interact with small fragments of memory that help fill you in on the (very dark) storyline. While you’re there you’ll also be fighting your way through hordes of enemies.
The design of Lords of the Fallen’s levels is good, and shows that the developers have paid attention to FromSoftware and how to carve out intricate, looping pathways that slowly make a labyrinthine world accessible. Lords of the Fallen is more akin to Dark Souls than Elden Ring in this regard, and while it doesn’t quite have the same sense of place or lore, it’s still an intriguing space to explore.
What undermines it is the frequency of the combat within those spaces. I struggle to understand how developers that were such careful students of the FromSoftware genius would fail to understand the importance of pacing, but that’s what they’ve done here, unfortunately. In Lords of the Fallen, despite the world being relatively condensed, the hordes come at you in wave after wave and at times it can feel like you’re never getting a breather. Being mobbed is an exhausting and not particularly satisfying way of handling difficulty, and the game likes to throw some pretty cheap combinations at you, too, that make it almost impossible to avoid being hit by surprise or ranged attacks while you’re focused elsewhere. There’s no rhyme or reason to these enemy placements. Their existence doesn’t add to the ambient storytelling or intrigue. All this combat is just there because the developer appeared to favour big and pacey action in its soulslike.
Boss battles, meanwhile, are also wildly inconsistent. There are some that make good use of the unique tools that Lords of the Fallen gives players. Having to make use of that blue glow lantern in the middle of a heated battle does add another nuance to the norm for the genre. But then there are bosses that can destroy you with a single attack, and that attack is projected incredibly poorly. I’m by no means great at soulslikes, but the ones I love and play obsessively (Elden Ring, Nioh, Steelrising) always leave me feeling like being defeated by the boss is a learning experience, and the next time I’ll be able to look out for the bosses tricks and get a little closer to defeating them. With too many of Lords of the Fallen’s bosses, I just felt cheated.
For all of that, there’s something quite easy playing about Lords of the Fallen. It’s a very challenging game, and I don’t mean “easy” in that way, but it controls nicely and the precision with which you can execute the various defensive manoeuvres (parries, rolls etc) do elevate the moment-to-moment gameplay in comparison to the clunkier Lies of P, also released recently. The two worlds structure is implemented in a way that actually serves a point and doesn’t come across as a gimmick, and things like “bonfires” are placed at reasonable intervals, making this a simple game to pick up and play in relatively short bursts. You might not remember specific, individual moments while on this particular adventure. Very little about it stands out as having enough substance to be memorable. But as the equivalent of a “mindless button masher” it gets the job done.
I am quite sure that some people will absolutely love the intensity of the horror and dark fantasy that infuses Lords of the Fallen. As cartoonishly silly as it comes across by trying so hard, it is technically impressive. Similarly, the game is perfectly solid mechanically, and while it does have some issues with pacing and the design of some boss battles, it is, for the most part, very playable. I had more fun with this than I think it deserved, and while I’m not sure whether I was laughing with it or at it most of the time, I was definitely laughing and having fun with it. Who knows? Perhaps satirising the self-seriousness of dark fantasy was the entire creative point and if so, bravo developers, you nailed it.