Announced way back in 2014, Lords of the Fallen 2 seemingly vanished, until returning some 6 years later, simply as Lords of the Fallen. Can a game that was repeatedly reset and created in pain, still turn out to be good? After 2 hours with a pre-release build, I'm led to believe this will be one of the finest games coming this fall – and a treat for fans of soulslike genre.
Metroidvania > Sandbox
I don't know about you, but when I look at many modern action RPGs, I see who really holds the strongest cards in this segment of the industry – and that's FromSoftware. In recent years, we had such alternatives to Souls as Code Vein, NiOh 2, Wo Long, and many others, which – although good – were just that: an attempt to ride on the wave created by the Japanese studio. Initially, I was surprised that in the era of Elden Ring, Lords of the Fallen doesn't offer an open world, leaning more towards metroidvania and constructs reminiscent of Dark Souls and Dark Souls II.
Let's start with the prologue. It's short and linear, and there's a challenging boss to defeat – just like in FromSoftware games. Cezar Virtosu, the creative director of the game, claims that it can be defeated in the first go. But that's highly unlikely.
We then unlock a hub which we use to venture out in several directions, and to which we occasionally return, as it gradually gets populated by new NPCs. The inner cynic suggests that such a design came from budget limitations, the inability to compete with Elden Ring, which was outstanding in this respect. The deeper I dived into the beautiful universe of this game, smoothly powered by Unreal Engine 5, the more I regretted all my prejudices. The creators personally prefer this approach to worldbuilding, unlike the artificially inflated sandboxes. And this approach works quite well for them.
Saul Gascon (executive producer): […] Not every game has to be open-world. [...] We offer a more concise experience. We handcrafted every nook and cranny of our game. In this respect, the experience is much more thought out. There are no large, repeatable areas.
Cezar Virtosu (creative director): The next issue is that we are leaning more towards a vertical world design here. You can track your progress in many directions. You can see this journey. You can see where you are headed. You traverse this semi-open world. I said "semi" because part of the world remains sealed off with certain quests, but you can also enter late-game locations very early if you have the means...
These statements confirmed what I had experienced while testing the game a few moments earlier. The extensive and diverse locations made a very positive impression on me, and I had as much fun as I did as a child growing up on Castlevania. Instantly, my brain found parallels to my beloved Hollow Knight and Metroid Prime. Simple environmental puzzles, a few dead ends, a couple of corridors and easy-to-miss places (where rewards and increasingly grotesque enemies await) – everything comes together into one coherent whole, and I couldn't tear myself away from exploration. At some point, I even started to panic that I wouldn't see everything the demo had to offer before my playtime would be over... because there was also that "second" world.
And what's become of Lords of the Fallen 2?
Shortly after the release of Lords of the Fallen (2014), Polish CI Games announced a sequel, which was set to release in 2017. However, over time, the German studio Deck13, which helped with the original, was withdrawn and the project was handed over to another developer (Defiant Studio), who in 2018 started from scratch. And this version of the game seems to have not met the expectations of CI Games, because the contract with Defiant was terminated after a year, and the phantom game got another parent – Hexworks, a completely remote studio launched in 2020 by CI Games itself. The game as I played it is their work and even though its action takes place in the same universe, it's more of a soft reboot than a full-on sequel, as its story happens a thousand years after the events of the original. So don't worry, you don't have to know the prequel to enjoy the new Lords of the Fallen.
Waiter! There's The Medium in my Souls!
After the first death (which happens pretty soon, as the genre convention dictates), instead of going back to the beginning of the stage, I was transported to a psychedelic land straight from the darkest visions of Lovecraft, with completely different enemies than before, and I experienced one of the key mechanics of the game for the first time. The universe of the game is split in two – the "normal" one, called Axiom, and a peculiar world of spirits and nightmares named Umbral. Although this "normality" is an understatement because at times, Axiom looks like a three-dimensional representation of what we know from Blasphemous, and the terrifying Umbral evokes associations with a certain Polish game by Bloober Team.
Saul: [...] The first [world – ed. note] is more like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. It's fantasy firmly rooted in reality, with a pinch of the more odd, Japanese fantasy, like the manga Berserk and Claymore...
Cezar: We do love that shit. Elements like that are deeply rooted in our minds.
Gamepressure: Have you played Blasphemous?
Cezar: Oh, we have. We have sure played it.
Saul: We're kinda nerds. [laughter] At Axiom, we're inspired by things like historical armors or swords. (...) At Umbralu, we let our imaginations run wild. Giger, Beksinski... they inspire us.
Cezar: Beksinski is definitely the godfather of darkness. Just like Miura, [the creator of the manga Berserk – ed. note] and others. We're talking about groundbreaking dark fantasy here. You have to show respect. You have to internalize them well.
The division into two worlds is not just about additional aesthetics. At times, we will experience the more horrific, other side. Similar to The Medium, this division is often used in puzzles and exploration. And although on the one hand, Umbral may seem like an unnecessary creature comfort, it's also a tempting option for genre veterans who delight in sadistic challenges – as you spend time in this land, the XP multiplier gradually increases. However, be warned that if you stay in Umbra for too long, you may face a rather unpleasant surprise in the form of yet another challenge...
The division into two worlds is also cleverly used in combat. A certain boss, whom I managed to confront, initially seemed immune to my attacks, until I used a special lamp that the hero was equipped with. It allowed me to peek into the alternative reality, without having to enter it. Scanning the surroundings with a lamp during the fight revealed that there was a single mob in Umbra that supported the boss with a shield spell, so it had to be defeated first. I felt enormous satisfaction when I figured it out on my own – I just hope the creators will prepare more such moments.
From Dark Souls to God of War, all in 30 minutes
Before the demo started, we could choose a character. Here, as genre standard demands, the offer included, among others: a warrior, a rogue, some sort of barbarian, a cleric, and a mage (the creators advised against the latter, as if it were a more sensible choice for players more familiar with this title).<br> Having chosen the warrior, I quickly went through the character creator – though nothing special caught my eye, and after all, I would spend only a few dozen minutes.
If you've ever played Dark Souls, you'll feel right at home in Lords of the Fallen. Strong attack, heavy attack, dodge, shield guard, parrying (I haven't really got the hang of it) or wield a weapon with both hands (I also used throwing spears a few times, but was much more effective to settle differences with a melee weapon). Naysayers could conclude that this set of moves is too modest, too similar to FromSoftware's games. But I found it completely sufficient – I don't need a revolution, I need a combat system that simply works. And this one works... with a minor hitch.
A does clumsiness could be felt in the movements of characters, and the camera sometimes had issues when I fought a larger group of enemies in closed locations. It wasn't so bad as to take me back to the first, bloody crude and awkward Lords of the Fallen (2014), but enough to make it distinctly different from the more responsive Dark Souls II, which I'm currently platinuming. Some of you probably won't pay attention to this, but for me, after hundreds of hours in all sorts of titles from this genre, it was clearly visible. Fortunately, a few days after the preview, word reached me that the creators have introduced some corrections to camera work. I trust them, because this issue didn't seem like something that would require a huge amount of work – just some minor polishing.
However, the pacing, or rather escalation, of the spectacle gave me the most doubts. The game, initially more reminiscent of some down-to-earth dark fantasy, started to remind me of God of War after the second boss. Pieta, as that's the name of the aforementioned opponent, showed her real game in the second phase of the fight: cloning, heavy charges, huge area attacks. I sensed some Elden Ring's Malenia vibes here and, although I defeated Pieta with relief, the fight itself left a rather positive impression on me. However, I am afraid that such epicness may not, in the eyes of many players, go hand in hand with the dark fantasy and the feeling of isolation that the game conveys.
Saul: There's no such thing as "too epic" in our book. [laughter]
Cezar: You know, Pieta is supposed to be the fuse. Everything before her is just a tutorial. The opponents are not that aggressive. Things were slower, more realistic. Pieta is here to test your skills and is one of the Sentinels, setting the tone for what awaits you later.
Saul: We have over 30 bosses, 12 of which reach similar levels of over-the-top epicness. So you have a lot of diversity here.
Get some tissues
I didn’t ask about the story, because it's just a pretext to cast our hero into a whirlwind of events at this stage: the demonic deity Adyr, defeated centuries ago, is returning, and we have to defeat it and save the world (or not). As befits the convention, the game doesn't hand over much on a platter, and 2 hours with it made me believe that, just like in FromSoftware's games, only the most patient and inquisitive individuals will be able to fully comprehend this universe.
During the demo, it was easy to miss many of the collectible voice memories of Umbra's residents and you could completely ignore all of the NPCs, though each of them seemed to have something to say. Having learnt from the enigmatic nature of other productions of this type and their, somewhat annoying, approach to side quests, I brought this topic up in conversation with the creators. Lords of the Fallen, despite some narrative conservatism, appears to be more cinematic and approachable compared to competition.
Saul: [...] In this aspect, the construction is similar. You don't have a task journal. It's very immersive, you still have to follow a certain path, but mostly, when you interact and chat with independent characters, they'll tell you what they expect. So yeah, mystery plays a role here, but it's not a big deal.
Cezar: We are trying to communicate with players more. Our experience ensures that you will have more opportunities to complete a given task. You can't pass all of them in a single playthrough, the rewards are significant, but these tasks aren't mandatory. Nonetheless, they will prove necessary for certain things or, for example, exiting Umbral, which is a place of biblical proportions. Getting there requires a lot of effort, not to mention understanding its nature. But what you will experience there is Solaris stuff. I bet players will be like: "No way!" But what I'm getting at is this: we hide things and we don't lead the player by the hand.
Gamepressure: So, different endings confirmed?
Saul: Yeah, three different endings, depending on which god in the game you will side with. [...] In the end, you will probably need to consult wiki for the Umbral World's finale. [laughter]
Cezar: And get a pack of tissues!
I wasn't waiting, but now I am
Lords of the Fallen really surprised me. Setting aside matters of combat, aesthetics and vibes, which perfectly cater to my tastes (you can actually feel the influence of Miura, Giger, and Beksinski), what convinced me the most was the universe of this game. It's hard to put it into words, but I was quite amazed that the smaller, more insulated world seemed fuller and better designed than what we know from many similar games that go for a much larger scale. And although I was planning to skip this title until recently, and play the promising Lies of P this fall, I feel that in a few months, I will not be able to resist another round of virtual masochism.
Jordan Debowski | Gamepressure.com