STAFF REVIEW of Lords of the Fallen (Xbox One)

Thursday, November 20, 2014.
by Khari Taylor

Lords of the Fallen Box art There's simply no way to put it lightly; in every way that Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 set the gold standard for modern rogue-likes on the previous generation of consoles, Bandai Namco, Deck 13 and CI Games’ Lords of the Fallen is a poorly executed imitation. It might seem unfair to make such a direct comparison; after all, every game deserves to be judged on its own merits, not just on how well it ticks all the boxes that another more successful game does. But in the case of LotF, this review will need to make an exception for two reasons: 1) LotF steals borrows so heavily from the Souls gameplay formula that avoiding the comparison is all but impossible, and 2) holding up the Souls franchise as a mirror is the most expedient way to demonstrate how LotF attempts but ultimately fails at just being an enjoyable action RPG.

Things get off to an awkward start right from the beginning when the game asks players to make the all-important choice of picking their desired character class (Warrior, Cleric or Rogue), only to immediately alienate two thirds of the audience with the cinematic that immediately follows their selection. Regardless of whichever class you choose, players are treated to a CG sequence of the main character Harkyn doing battle as an overpowered, hammer-wielding cleric. No effort is made to even explain whether the sequence is a prologue meant to establish how badass he is, or an epilogue teasing his ultimate potential, but once the controls are handed over to the player and Harkyn makes a door-crashing entrance into the game world, players who choose to play as a Warrior or Rogue are bound to sense a disconnect, especially Rogues, whose pitifully small daggers could be considered Freudian in their inadequacy. A good action RPG should ensure that the player feel empowered and confident in their choice, regardless of what class they've chosen, and for CI Games and Deck 13 to not create a character-specific intro for each class once the player has made their choice smacks of laziness and suggests that one's class selection is really of little importance in the end.

In fact, it begs the question as to why players should even have to choose a class for Harkyn in the first place, as the option only affects which of Harkyn's attributes will be strongest and what weapons he will be armed and most skilled with at the outset. This can also be said of character selection in the Dark Souls games, but in those titles the classes are much more varied, the differences between each class are vast and the amount of grinding needed to close those gaps is so time-consuming that simply choosing another class closer to one’s desired play style makes more sense.

In LotF, the three classes all seem only a stone's throw away from each other, making the differences between them seem inconsequential, and no matter which way you go, you’re still stuck with the same uninteresting character and back story. Players also get to choose between three magic types, Brawling, Solace and Deception, and although they naturally align with the Warrior, Cleric and Rogue classes respectively, they can be mixed and matched--but only one magic type can be accessed for the for the first playthrough.

A second spell tree becomes accessible in “New Game+” and all three can be accessed “New Game++”, provided the player chooses to progress that far. If only three class types and ultimately three magic types sounds a bit anemic to you, then you’ll be thrilled to know that CI and Deck 13 have simplified things even further, making the first accessible spell in all three spell trees the same (an inaptly-named and largely ineffective decoy trick called “Prayer”), and that each spell tree contains only four spells maximum, so there’s very little to look forward to. Players will eventually find a magical gauntlet that adds a few more offense-based range spells to the mix, but the gauntlet is awkward to equip and use in the heat of battle, and even when its attacks manage to hit a target, their overall effect is supplementary at best. If you’re a fan of magic users, LotF is NOT your game.

Then there's the gameplay, which in so many aspects can only be described as Dark Souls "Lite". The Souls “curse” mechanic and how it is tied directly to the death and resurrection of the player character at checkpoints has been directly lifted from FROM Software's cult hit franchise with almost no effort to hide it, and supposedly there’s no need to as LotF and the Souls Games share the same publisher (Bandai Namco). What’s offensive however is that while CI and Deck 13 have blatantly stolen the mechanic, they have made next to no effort to tie it to their own game’s lore or story. In other words, there’s no explanation as to why Harkyn, a seemingly normal, “not-undead” human being is able to return from the dead in the first place, how the XP from fallen foes is lost when he dies, or why it must be recovered along with his "ghost" and "banked" at checkpoints in order to be retained. Frankly, the entire implementation feels half-assed in comparison to the Souls games, where death, resurrection and the importance of souls is intrinsic to the lore and spirit of the games themselves. LotF simply treats it as a gimmick which could have easily been swapped out for another and made very little difference to how the game would be played or the story would be told. That isn’t to say there aren’t some interesting tweaks, though.

In LotF, players don't have an infinite amount of time to return to the place of their previous death to recover their XP ghost; if they tally too long battling enemies on their way to the spot, their ghost may simply vanish, putting more pressure on the player to cut through re-spawned foes to reclaim their lost XP as expediently as possible. Checkpoints also allow players “bank” XP as either Magic or Attribute points, which then in turn can be spent to level up Harkyn's spell abilities or stats, but unlike in the Souls games, the points do not have to be spent immediately. Once banked, XP funneled into either point meter is safe from loss, even if the player doesn't have enough XP to exchange for a full point. The supposed trade-off is that players that collect more XP and go longer without banking it will get better and more frequent item drops for taking bigger risks.

In this reviewer's experience however, doing so only rewarded me with gear that was too heavy for my Rogue class character to use, meaning I would have to spend additional hours grinding to level up Harkyn’s stats so he could use it, or simply leave the equipment to take up space in my inventory. Shockingly, the game isn’t even sophisticated enough to allow players to sell or dispose of unwanted gear, but thankfully players can at least sort it and need not worry about being physically burdened if it is not equipped.

The actual combat also cribs heavily from the Souls games' notes, but fails to go far enough or add anything worthwhile. The trademark Souls riposte (parry) and back stab are both here, but without clear audio-visual cues it's much harder to tell when the player has successfully parried, and harder still to take advantage of it when it does, as Harkyn's light and heavy attacks lack the feeling of weight or heft that the Souls games do so well. A tutorial at the opening does encourage players to time attacks for best effect and hold down the attack buttons to throw more weight behind them and do more damage, but the cues to indicate success are practically nonexistent, so fighting just feels like flailing about.

Unlocked spells, even after being leveled up to the maximum, remain weak, highly undependable and prone to puttering out before hitting their target, sometimes missing it completely, and some spells, like “Mimic”, actually block the player’s vision of Harkin in addition to doing next to no significant damage. It's possible to go on for hours about the other things that don't work: the slippery, unreliable backstab; the temperamental lock-on system; the absolutely horrid camera whose haphazard angles obscure Harkin completely and make fighting in narrow corridors, tight spaces or a corner of the map a nightmare; and an abundance of invisible walls that result in countless whiffed range spells at the most inopportune moment, even when players have a direct line of sight to their target.

Worst of all, the boss fights are repetitive slogs that equate the word “difficulty” with throwing in multiple lesser enemies to harass and chip away at the player until they die or figure out the “trick” to the boss patterns, rather than challenging the player’s wits and giving them an arena to best utilize their newly acquired gear and abilities, because in the end, they only make Harkin incrementally better than he was before. Every encounter ends up being the same: Run in, jab at the boss, run away and/or dodge his big move, get his underlings off your back, wash, rinse, repeat.

Finally, there’s the presentation, which I’m sad to say is equally a mess. LotF is certainly not the first game to star a generic-looking, unlikable character (though props should be given for making him homely, bald, bearded and middle-aged instead of a typical dudebro), nor is it the first to underwhelm players with mediocre voice acting and uninspired designs for its levels, creatures and NPCs. But when these common misdemeanors are combined with erratically choppy framerates (even during load screens), dialogue audio dropouts that can only be resolved by restarting your gamesave, and amateurishly poor audio sync during in-game cutscenes, they become crimes worthy of capital punishment.

The lack of TLC given to this game extends into other areas as well. Alternate pathways frequently double back into the same areas themselves and even reuse entire sections other of levels, betraying how small they really are. Spell effects lack variety and imagination, and some (such as Stab and the aforementioned Mimic) even go as far to recycle Harkin’s regular fighting moves instead of wowing players with something new and impressive. The best thing that can be said about LotF is that it looks pretty on the surface, and the orchestral soundtrack gets the job done, but these small blessings are quickly forgotten when all the above issues begin to sink in.

There are so many other quality choices available on Xbox One this Christmas season that make Lords of the Fallen a highly questionable purchasing decision, especially at its triple-A-level, $65 CAD price tag. On the Xbox One platform alone, one can pick up the excellent Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition or Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor for the same amount of money and get far more quality entertainment, value and replayablity for the dollar, not to mention a solid action-RPG gameplay experience that actually respects its story, lore and chosen audience. And if you happen to own an Xbox 360, an even greater wealth of options in the same genre await, from the Souls games themselves to the more action-oriented Darksiders games, which not only do everything LotF does better, but can be had nowadays for a song. There’s no reason whatsoever to waste time and money on this game, given the alternatives, so do yourself a favor and don’t.

1) More QA (Quality Assurance) testing. 2) More item drops that are relevant to the chosen class. 3) More powerful and effective magic! 4) Stop chasing Dark Souls' tail. The next LotF would be far more interesting and successful as a Darksiders-style action game, where the more streamlined magic system, unchangeable main-character and smaller environments would be more welcome, with much stronger gameplay mechanics, naturally.

Overall: 5.6 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 4.0 / 10


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