Lords of the Fallen review: Umbral umbrage

HexWorks and CI Games have brought back Lords of the Fallen with a fresh coat of gothic paint and interesting new mechanics.

Image via CI Games

As a fan of Soulsborne games that didn’t play the previous Lords of the Fallen titles, it was interesting coming into CI Games and their in-house developer HexWorks’ reboot of the franchise in 2023. This Lords of the Fallen keeps the war of gods intact while offering a decent action-RPG system, but it both takes it to the next level and complicates things by adding a mysterious and difficult layer to the world. This game was tough, and not always fair, but I kind of love what they pulled off with its unique gimmick and mechanics to stand out in the genre.

The gods must be crazy

Lords of the Fallen’s story takes us to the gothic medieval land of Mournstead, where the Demon god Adyr once attempted to take over the world with his armies, only to be fought back and sealed by humans, who created five beacons. These beacons were supposed to be protected by the Holy Church of Orius, Adyr’s arch enemy, but over time, their protectors withered, the beacons became corrupted, and Adyr’s followers jumped at the opportunity to bring the mad god back into the world of humans.

To cleanse the beacons, Orius’ followers realize they need a warrior that walks in both light and darkness, good and evil. Thus the Umbral Lamp is crafted, granting a wielder undeath and allowing them to see both the natural world and the demonic Umbral world around them. It just so happens that the Umbral Lamp also falls out of the hands of one wielder and into the hands of your corpse, making your player-created character a Dark Crusader and setting you on the path to stop Adyr’s return.

The beacons shining into the sky in Lords of the Fallen
Source: Shacknews

Lords of the Fallen’s gameplay environments are split between the natural world in the kingdom of Mournstead and the Umbral world, which is hidden behind a veil only the Umbral Lamp can grant access to. Both worlds are downright gorgeous. There is no lack of gothic structures, cathedral halls, and ancient crypts to explore, and I found myself making liberal use of the game’s Photo Mode to take selfies on hills with massive castle fortresses and beacons of demonic light, with my armor and weapons shining.

I really like the Umbral world. It is a environment overlaid on what you see in the regular environments, with demonic viscera, bones, and the remains of massive creatures decorating a nightmarish hellscape. Where you see a mountainside fort and checkpoint overlooking the cliff, a peak into the Umbral will reveal a massive demonic corpse with arms wreathed around its structures. And these aren’t just for show. Most of the time, the Umbral world provides a way to move forward where the natural world doesn’t. For instance, the hands and arms of the aforementioned giant demon corpse might give you a bridge to otherwise unreachable items on a nearby mountain ledge. You’ll just have to explore at your own peril.

Peaking into the Umbral world in Lords of the Fallen
Source: Shacknews

I wasn’t always thrilled with the performance. My PC was well over minimum and even a nudge over recommended specs with an NVIDIA RTX 3070 Ti and 16GBs of RAM, but I sometimes found that the framerate had trouble keeping steady in particularly busy cutscenes or areas. When the game is in smooth, flowing motion, it’s gorgeous. It just seemed to use more resources than the requirements even asked for under Auto Detect settings. That said, HexWorks also prepared patches that deployed late in my review cycle and another scheduled for the game's launch. The performance seemed to be smoothed out in some of my post-patch testing, so it's very possible these issues could be addressed by the time the game is openly available.

Bring a sword, your sanity, & lots of religious guilt

Floating demonic corpses in the Umbral in Lords of the Fallen
Source: Shacknews

Lords of the Fallen is similar to most Soulsborne games. You can choose your warrior’s starting class, gear, stats, and specialties. You wander from checkpoint to checkpoint, making leeway towards defeating a main boss at each of five beacons scattered through Mournstead. The checkpoints are corpses of previous fallen Umbral lampbearers, but unlocking them lets you level up, regain your supplies, and fast travel between checkpoints. Lords of the Fallen even gives you an upgradeable healing item that is refilled each time you rest. All of the basics are here.

Where Lords of the Fallen starts to set itself apart is with its Umbral world and the relics that interact with it. At nearly anytime, you can swap between a ranged option like a bow or magic to the Umbral Lamp and hold it up in the normal world to reveal glimpses of the demonic world around you. However, you can also outright enter the Umbral with the help of the lamp, and it’s a very dangerous trip.

Dying in Lords of the Fallen
Source: Shacknews

The Umbral world often offers new paths I otherwise wouldn’t be able to take through my travels. A bridge of bone might appear there where there was nothing in the natural world. You might also find a Umbral entity to rip out of their resting place to destroy a nearby living door and open a new path. The catch is that as you stay in the Umbral world, demons spawn around you and an eye gauge slowly fills, heralding more frequent and dangerous demonic spawns. If you let the gauge fill all the way, a nearly unkillable reaper will appear and chase you relentlessly in an attempt to slay you. The only way out is to get to a checkpoint and rest or use a special Umbral vessel that will whisk you back to the normal world. It’s an intense game of risk vs. reward because there are tons of secrets the Umbral world gives you access to that you otherwise wouldn’t see. The normal world’s enemies also don’t go away in the Umbral world, so the mix of regular enemies and demons can get very overwhelming, very fast.

One of my favorite things about Lords of the Fallen is that if you’re careful, you can interact with the Umbral world from the normal side and access some of its secrets by way of the Umbral Lamp. There was actually a mountain path in the game where there was no reasonable way forward in solely the Umbral or natural world. It was there I discovered the Umbral Lamp can not just be held up to peak into the Umbral world, but interact with it from the natural side as well. I had to use a mix of the two-worlds mechanics and the lamp mechanics to open the path forward. The game is full of smart interactions like these that had me whipping out the lamp at nearly all times to spy for secrets around me.

The Congregator of Flesh boss in Lords of the Fallen
Source: Shacknews

As much as I like the mix of Umbral and natural world exploration and puzzle-solving, though, I will say I felt like the difficulty of the Umbral side is more than a little cheap at times. One of the main mechanics is that you can die in the natural world and be transported to the Umbral world (or you can be hit by an Umbral demon if you’re using your lamp to peak around too liberally), then if you die in the Umbral world, you go back to the checkpoint. The problem is that once you’re in Umbral, there’s no second chances and there are a lot of things in the game that take you there instantly.

I also would argue that as much as Lords of the Fallen has some smart puzzle-solving and encounters that mix these mechanics, it relies a bit much on quantity versus quality on the Umbral side. There were more than a few times where I was simply overwhelmed by constant spawning swarms of minions that just got cheap hit after cheap hit in on me alongside the natural world foes. It was a little disappointing how often it felt like Lords of the Fallen’s answer to my attempts to survive was to flood me with enemies. It also has a lot of branching paths and I found it a little too easy to wander deep into an overleveled area where you don’t realize you’re in over your head till you’re already neck deep.

Duality Souls

A player character by the checkpoint in Skyrest in Lords of the Fallen
Source: Shacknews

As unfairly challenging as I could find Lords of the Fallen to be, I also appreciated its creativity. The Umbral world and mechanics surrounding it made for an extremely compelling and risky adventure where I often rode the line between safety and death. I feel like the game could have done better at making the threat of Umbral more than escalation of foes up to an unkillable pursuer that could one-shot me, but I can’t deny I was tickled by the possibilities and always curious of what was on the other side. Mix its intertwined-worlds mechanics into good melee, magic, and archery in a beautiful gothic setting and 2023’s Lords of the Fallen feels like something I’ll more than remember for what it did right and how it set itself apart. The duality of this game’s settings is both dastardly and dazzling.

This review is based on a PC copy provided by the publisher. Lords of the Fallen comes out on October 13, 2023 on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.

Senior News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player and writer with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. He found his way to the Shacknews roster in late 2019 and has worked his way to Senior News Editor since. Between news coverage, he also aides notably in livestream projects like the indie game-focused Indie-licious, the Shacknews Stimulus Games, and the Shacknews Dump. You can reach him at tj.denzer@shacknews.com and also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

Review for
Lords of the Fallen
  • Dual world Umbral mechanics are neat
  • Both worlds are amazingly beautiful
  • Many puzzles and encounters mix both worlds well
  • Familiar foundational Soulsborne mechanics
  • Challenge is difficult, but mostly satisfying
  • Umbral world sometimes goes quanity over quality
  • Vague directions often lead to overleveled areas
From The Chatty
  • reply
    October 12, 2023 6:00 AM

    TJ Denzer posted a new article, Lords of the Fallen review: Umbral umbrage

    • reply
      October 12, 2023 8:03 AM

      Reviews are decidedly mixed on this one. But all mention performance issues. More concerning for me, are rumors that it drops the frame rate to 30 fps in any kind of multiplayer, which is a deal killer for me.

      • reply
        October 12, 2023 8:53 AM

        There was a patch deployed near the end of my review cycle that smoothed out the issues I would have knocked the game harder for. I took the time to test the patch and was satisfied with its improvements.

        I will say, this patch came VERY late in the cycle and I don't know that everyone had time to test it like I did, but there's a Day 1 patch coming in addition to the review patch, so I'm fairly optimistic there will be less to complain about performance-wise in just a few days.

    • reply
      October 12, 2023 8:06 AM

      Oh damn this comes out tomorrow

      • reply
        October 12, 2023 8:14 AM

        Early performance reviews are terrible on pc and even worse on ps5. This feels very strongly like a pass. Which sucks, because I was ready to buy it.

        • reply
          October 12, 2023 8:17 AM

          Yeah I'm in no rush to get it

        • reply
          October 12, 2023 10:19 AM

          FromSoft: "Not so easy to get good performance, is it, assholes??"

        • reply
          October 12, 2023 6:27 PM

          How long before its a PS Plus title? Lol?

    • reply
      October 12, 2023 12:46 PM

      Awesome + https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-BkrwO_Dck :) , my body is ready!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 17 hours to go!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • reply
      October 12, 2023 3:24 PM

      Perfect $20 on sale game in a year!

    • reply
      October 12, 2023 6:54 PM

      "The normal world’s enemies also don’t go away in the Umbral world, so the mix of regular enemies and demons can get very overwhelming, very fast."

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