Lords of the Fallen (2023) is the latest action RPG that offers glory to anyone brave enough to topple a brutal gauntlet of boss enemies. Developed by HEXWORKS and published by CI Games, the sequel/reboot to the 2014 game of the same name offers plenty of challenge, even if it sometimes falters in the fun it provides.
Players take the role of a dark crusader, and with an umbral lantern in hand, they must travel the land to cleanse five beacons that have become corrupted over time. This straightforward goal is the driving force behind the game, and everyone you meet will have a stake in your success or failure. This includes members of the various factions that inhabit Mournstead. How you choose to interact with the world and your goal influences your relationships with them.
As in other soulslikes, players will explore a hostile world where even the most common enemy is capable of killing them. With deft dodging and skillful parrying, players will have to overcome armies of demons, heretical creatures, and more to reach the next vestige, their points of respite. Parrying takes some getting used to, but well-timed parries emit a blue flash, giving solid feedback so players can improve. Players can find better equipment or improve it at a blacksmith, but success in combat ultimately comes down to skill and learning the enemies’ attack patterns. It’s always fun to learn the layout of an area so well that you can run past all the enemies to reach the boss arena without getting hit.
While the story is more direct than in other games in the genre, with various cutscenes and plenty of dialogue with NPCs that explains the various going-ons in Mournstead, it feels like a hindrance at first. The abundance of names, groups, and places is overwhelming. It took several hours before the pieces fell into place.
Information can be found on all of the items found in the game, although some of it is obscured until you level your magic-related stats. Narratively, this makes sense—a warrior who specializes in health and strength is probably less informed than a cleric who can dispense holy or fire magic. But mechanically, it feels like a punishment for not playing a certain build. Each vestige (safe points where players can rest, level up, and teleport to other vestiges) is also host to a lore-heavy paragraph in the teleport menu, giving additional context for the region and filling in more of the blanks for the inquisitive player. Although the execution is somewhat lacking, the abundance of potential information is appreciated.
The lands of Mournstead are equally expansive, with a wide variety of environments to explore. Stunning vistas are marked by the beacons, which appear as vivid red beams of light, which make it very clear from the start just how far you’ll travel to reach your destinations. They also serve to guide you, which at times is almost necessary, given how convoluted some of the areas are. It’s hard not to feel lost in the verticality of the world, but it’s a testament to the design that the sprawling locales funnel players to their destinations regardless.
Even more impressive is how exploration is layered across the two worlds, Axiom and Umbral. Lords of the Fallen (2023) provides a pair of massive haunting worlds to discover and rewards the fearless players who want to comb through every nook and cranny. When players die in Axiom, they are shifted into Umbral, a world that appears similar but with a more grotesque aesthetic, often providing paths or platforms through the world that don’t appear in Axiom. Dying in Umbral is a more definitive death, sending players back to the last vestige with which they interacted.
Getting from one vestige to another is always a daunting task, but observant players can choose to take a risky hop into Umbral to locate a shortcut to serve them in future lives. This ebb and flow between the two worlds creates a fun rhythm, where a player in Axiom who’s low on health might let themselves die so that they can use a nearby Emergence Effigy that moves them back to Axiom with a potentially full health bar.
This playstyle is further rewarded when it comes to boss fights, the main draw of many an action RPG. Most of the visually impressive bosses in Lords of the Fallen (2023) are a sort of puzzle, where some hidden detail can be exploited to weaken the boss or at least level the playing field. Even with these ‘solutions’ though, bosses are very difficult, almost unfairly so.
Many of the boss enemies have attacks that can take all of your health with a single blow, even when dropping several level-ups into health. Other times, you’ll simply be stunned by a combo, leaving no chance to escape. While you’ll have two ‘lives’ to defeat the boss if you start the fight in Axiom, this still means that two slip-ups are enough to ruin an otherwise flawless attempt. These moments are extremely discouraging, but discovering a gimmick in a boss fight and winning provides an ‘Eureka!’ moment that’s unmatched.
The bosses aren’t the only tough-as-nails aspect of Lords of the Fallen (2023). Normal enemies are equally capable of reducing your health to zero with a few attacks. This can make exploration feel unfair sometimes, especially when even successful parries can grant Wither damage, which you need to earn back by landing attacks or risk having it all removed with the next enemy attack that lands. Additionally, items found in the world can occasionally turn out to be a horrific monster that chomps on your head and pulls you directly into Umbral, prompting you to check every future item with your lantern.
These instances can feel like Lords of the Fallen (2023) are being cruel just for the sake of added difficulty. Creating challenges that are fun but fair is a delicate balance, and it tips in the wrong direction occasionally, creating instances where you simply don’t engage with the enemies or the game as intended and ignore everything in pursuit of the next vestige. Despite all that, it’s hard to deny the allure of a challenge, and Lords of Fallen will repeatedly have you coming back for one more try.
Lords of the Fallen (2023) is a massive improvement over its namesake prequel, and it provides many highs, but there are definitely some lows as well. For the masochist action RPG fan, though, there’s plenty to love, and it’s all going to hurt.
Lords of the Fallen (2023) releases on October 13, 2023 on PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S.
Lords of the Fallen (2023)
Lords of the Fallen is a massive improvement over its namesake prequel, and it provides many highs, but there are some lows as well. For the masochist action RPG fan, though, there’s plenty to love, and it’s all going to hurt.