Lords of the Fallen has had a fascinating history as one of the first notable games to take a serious crack at adapting the mechanics of Dark Souls to a unique game of its own. While the 2014 game was a generally solid facsimile, it’s developer Hexworks’ upcoming release that has people taking notice.
I sat down with the freshly rebooted Lords of the Fallen at PAX West to find out if the upcoming action-RPG could still stand out in a deeper sea of Soulslikes. The good news is that it does so far. The demo I tried not only showed a fierce riff on a classic formula, but an original spin that left me wanting to play more … even after some painful deaths.
My Lords or the Fallen demo started with a tone-setting cinematic, as an armor-clad knight is brutally killed by a monstrous fiend, who’s long, pointed fingers and hooked nose bring to mind a somewhat oversized goblin from Lord of the Rings. With that sunny image of my likely future, I set off on my adventure.
It was clear very early that this game was going to be much more Dark Souls than Elden Ring. The areas I visited were largely interlocking knots of corridors, with opportunities to open shortcuts to make additional runs quicker. Enemies were dark and foreboding, with strong medieval undead vibes. With a sword in one hand, a shield in the other, and a trusty dodge-roll at the ready, I was right at home as a longtime Souls player.
The first groups of enemies I found were conventional fodder. Long attack windups made them perfect for getting a feel for combat timing. As I pushed forward, the key differentiator of Lords of the Fallen began to come into focus — and those differences matter a lot. I began my quest in Axiom, the world of the living. I’d soon discover an entire parallel world called the Umbral Realm, where my character is sent when he dies. I could peer into Umbral by holding a special lantern aloft, or use it to tear a small rift between the two and step one way into this darker world.
Umbral is like a darker, more twisted version of Axiom, though the differences between the two are important. At one point I came to a gate in Axiom that blocked me from moving forward, and that’s where the Umbral Lantern came into play. Holding the lantern up put me into the Umbral Realm. In this case, the lantern revealed a version of reality where the door was missing, allowing me to pass through. When I lowered the lantern afterward, the way was sealed behind me.
It’s not all fun and puzzles, however. The Umbral Realm acts as a sort of second life. It can be risky, as dying here results in a firm death. Escaping the Umbral Realm requires players to find a checkpoint in the form of a Vestige or a Flower Bed where a Vestige seed has been planted. These refill all health and healing items, allow for level upgrades, and return slain enemies to the battlefield (as is a Soulslike tradition).
As I fought through the two realms, I met my first boss, a thick armored figure named Bulwark Otto. Fighting him was an opportunity to delve deeper into the combat, and it revealed some clever tricks that further differentiate it from similar games. When I swing a weapon, I can seamlessly switch between stances. That meant I could start a combo with my sword in one hand, continue with it in both hands, and finish back in a single-handed grip. That system adds quite a bit of variety to my attacks. I felt a rewarding sense of control as I decided when to keep a shield at the ready and when to put both arms behind an attack for maximum damage.
That combat hook pairs especially well with a modified dodging mechanic. Instead of just a backstep or tuck and roll, players have the option to tap the dodge button for a quick step. Against a single foe like Otto, this meant I could push forward and cut to one side of the other to take advantageous angles, like a skilled fencer or boxer would do.
After some fancy footwork and punishing attacks, Otto went down in a heap. My victory was short-lived, however, as the familiar face of the goblin-like enemy from the opening cutscene arrived aboard a dragon. His health bar revealed his name to be The Lightreaper, and he took up the job of being “the early boss who’s designed specifically to make you die” (another Soulslike tradition). I was left a helpless, quivering heap.
Fortunately, death is an expected part of the game, so I was quickly back on my merry way. My journey led me further into a burning castle, and I experimented more with some of the Umbral Lantern’s handy tricks. A Soul flay skill let me temporarily knock the soul right out of enemies, freezing them in place for a short time while unloading damage. This was particularly handy when I fought a tough soldier swinging a massive two-handed sword. Ripping him metaphysically apart not only gave me a chance to heal, but hitting his soul stored that damage. Once he was reunited with his inner self, it took a single hit to apply all the damage at once. That one-time-use skill can be recharged by siphoning energy from certain nodes in the Umbral realm, so it was worth spending on tougher enemies.
Eventually I met the next boss, a towering warrior named Pietra. After an exciting introduction cutscene, she attacked. I put up a good fight at first — that is, until she sprouted wings, made arrows rain from the sky, and summoned two light projections in her image. She absolutely destroyed me. I fared better on the second attempt, and felt the surge of adrenaline and endorphins that make this sort of game so rewarding to progress in.
I played a while longer, and my journey took me from terrifying crypts (where another tough boss was laying in wait) to platforms on the exterior of the castle walls. It was here that I met a tall man wearing little save for a metal bucket, covered in spikes, on his head. My demo ended as he tried to headbutt me, and my aggressive dodge roll sent me flying off the platforms to splat on the ground far below.
Rather than leaving me frustrated, I was ready to go again. And that’s exactly what you want to feel when playing a game like this. Bring on the brutality.
Lords of the Fallen launches on October 13 for PlayStation S4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.