If the name “Lords of the Fallen” rings a bell, that’s because it's a dark fantasy action RPG by CI Games and Deck13 that was released back in 2014 to a more or less mixed reception. It was one of the first major attempts by a developer to create what we now call a “Souls-like,” though it concentrated on a specific character called Adyr and wasn’t as polished and fine-tuned as Dark Souls. Fast forward nine years to now and CI Games, along with new developer Hexworks, wants to take another crack at it. After years of learning what fans want from the Souls series, this Lords of the Fallen reboot is their effort to improve upon its past work and craft what it believes a Dark Souls 4 might look like.
The return of the prodigal Souls-like
The appointment I had with CI Games at GDC 2023, where the developer showed a roughly 30-minute hands-off alpha demo of the game on PC, was done at a blistering pace. This was largely because CI Games had a wealth of content to show in a very short period of time, especially when it came to the Umbral world (more of this later). In fact, within just the first five minutes of the demo, it became clear to me that this version of Lords of the Fallen might as well be an altogether different game to its predecessor.
Before delving into the gameplay, I was shown the character creator, which has a strong amount of customization options and a body shape slider that, with the power of Unreal Engine 5, will automatically change the shape of any armor to fit your character. You can choose from among nine preset classes to make it easy to get straight into the game, or you can take the time to build a custom class to better suit your playstyle. Either way, your character is put in the role of a dark crusader who is trying to prevent the resurrection of the demon God, Adyr. The developers also wanted to point out the work they put into the opening tutorial section, which they felt was lacking in the original game.
While I can’t say with certainty how well Lords of the Fallen compares to Dark Souls in terms of combat, as I didn’t get any hands-on time with the game, it looks like CI Games has taken a lot of time to make fights feel solid and flexible. Your character is proficient with pretty much any weapon, stringing together light and heavy attacks like a champ. You can even mix one-handed and two-handed attacks within the same combo.
The game also introduces a hotkey system to allow players to combine physical strikes with any assigned magical abilities more seamlessly, so long as you can nail down all the button presses. Instead of a dedicated button for parries, pressing the block button right before getting hit will initiate a parry. If it doesn’t go through, the maneuver will default to a block, so this should make defense less risky. Furthermore, if you want to make your experience even easier, you can play the game with a friend in seamless co-op that won’t require you to fiddle around with summoning circles and co-op items.
From what I saw throughout the demo, the game could improve enemy reactions to getting hit to make it clearer when an attack goes through. Given that the build was still in alpha, there’s still time for CI Games to polish the animations here. That said, the boss fights I saw looked right on par with what you might expect from a Souls-like. There was a large, lumbering monster called the Congregator of Flesh that tried to squash the player and became more dangerous as its health was chipped away. Another battle against a pair of conjoined twins, Tancred and Reinhold, will remind Souls fans of the difficult fight against Lothric and Lorian.
On an even stronger note, the art direction of Lords of the Fallen already looks inspired and impressive. The rundown temples, dusty reliquaries, bleak caverns, and unhallowed abbeys all contribute to the grimdark aesthetic of the forsaken Kingdom of Mournstead. A new trailer showing off the game’s use of Unreal Engine 5 highlights the beautiful dynamic illumination, particularly in moments when beams of light are able to shine through the windows and reflect off the stone staircases and statues.
In the valley of the shadow of death
Amplifying the sense of dread and desecration through the environment is the introduction of the Umbral realm, a planar space that mirrors the real world much like the Dark World in a Zelda: A LInk to the Past or The Upside Down in Stranger Things. The player can peer through to this in-between space by lifting a magical lantern, letting parts of the Umbral world overlap the real one.
This might not sound like a good idea at first since this dark plane is full of monsters, strange tendrils, and the occasional eyeball that leers at you from within a wall. But there will be some areas that can only be traversed in the real world, formally called Axiom, by investigating this otherworldly space. A gate that you can’t get through in Axiom might not exist in the Umbral one, or a gap could be filled in by a bridge that only reveals itself when you lift your lantern.
This Umbral world isn’t just a nifty mechanic for explorative detective work, either. If you lose your life in the real world, you can instead be drawn into this dark space instead of dying. Staying in this realm for too long isn’t the best strategy for survival. A large chunk of your health will already be lost or grayed out when you enter this world through death, and the level of Umbral madness will continue to increase, making enemies stronger and more dangerous. But if you’re able to reach a permanent ancient anchor, which acts like a bonfire from Dark Souls, you can return to Axiom
Hello darkness, my old friend
That said, you also have the option of entering the Umbral world deliberately through a ritual (or not so deliberately if a monster pulls you in). This will allow you to explore the realm with more starting health and complete puzzles that require you to remove certain areas of corruption to proceed further in Axiom. A higher level of Umbral madness also leads to better loot tables and there are some bosses that are unique to this dimension, so there are reasons to venture into this realm on purpose.
If you’re resourceful enough, you can also build a custom anchor called a conduit that provides some breathing room as you explore the Umbral world. The downside is that this semi-permanent anchor can be destroyed so it’s important to figure out where to place it. Hexworks is still tinkering with how this conduit will ultimately work, so changes might be made to it as the game inches closer to a full release.
Lords of the Fallen is slated to arrive in 2023 for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. No special editions or demos have been announced for the game at this time.
This preview is based on a hands-off PC demo as shown by the developer at GDC 2023.
Nick Tan posted a new article, Lords of the Fallen aims to be an ambitious, redemptive Souls-like reboot
Ha! The Umbral is another usage of ogPrey's Shadowlands where you shot ghosts to go back to the real world.
Also that Conduit sounds kinda cool. I want a tower defense challenge out of that.