Stuck in the Middle with Lords of the Fallen

It seems that in recent years an increasing number of new videogames have been falling into one of two categories: high-profile, high-budget, “AAA” blockbusters; or smaller-scale, low-budget, “indie” titles. But what about the middle-ground? What about those games which don’t really belong in either category and instead fall somewhere in between? These “Stuck In The Middle With” features are dedicated to looking at some games which, whatever their final level of quality, could be described as mid-tier releases.

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From Software’s Souls videogames have had an undeniable impact upon the medium since the release of Demon’s Souls in 2009, and this has naturally led to some developers taking inspiration from the dark fantasy action-RPGs for their own titles. 2014’s Lords of the Fallen, developed by Deck13 Interactive and CI games (and published by various publishers in different regions), is one such case.

Lords of the Fallen is set in a dark fantasy universe and casts the player as Harkyn, a convicted criminal – his many crimes represented by the symbols tattooed on his face – who is released and tasked with travelling to a monastery in the mountains and combating the demonic forces who have overwhelmed it after invading the human realm. Because when humanity is in danger, who you gonna call? An extremely violent, heavily-armed recidivist, apparently.

After creating a starting build by choosing one of three magic styles and one of three armour sets, you set out to battle the demons – the “Rhogar”, to be specific – via a melee-focused combat system, the game featuring numerous armour pieces, shields and melee weapons to collect and choose from as you progress, with each piece of equipment possessing its own statistics. Alongside your melee options are magical abilities, and while I didn’t find the magic system to offer much depth or variety, the couple of spells I did use worked well as occasional compliments to the melee combat. Your health can be topped up via a limited but rechargeable supply of health potions, and you also have a stamina bar to keep in mind as you attack, block and dodge.

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One of the main things you’ll notice about the melee combat in Lords of the Fallen is that it feels slow-paced and heavy, and while this didn’t bother me personally as I thought it often added a sense of weight and impact to the combat, at the same time I can appreciate that some players might find it too slow to be enjoyable.

Defeating enemies grants you experience points which can then be used to increase your level, and there are several attributes to choose from, whether you want to increase Harkyn’s maximum health, magic damage, maximum stamina, etc. Experience gain is tied to a multiplier – the more enemies you kill without using a checkpoint, the more experience you gain, encouraging bold play. If you die then your unspent experience points can be collected again at the spot where you died, although you have to reach it within a time limit to do so. While Lords of the Fallen’s experience system has obviously been inspired by the Souls games, the developers have tried to put their own spin on it at the same time, and they’ve done a good job, implementing an effective risk / reward mechanic.

From a technical standpoint, Lords of the Fallen is a visually impressive game, the graphics boasting a high level of detail and polish. Sadly, the actual art design is generic and unimaginative, resulting in a cliché and painfully “badass” dark fantasy style. This doesn’t just apply to Harkyn’s absurdly bulky weapons and armour but also the enemies, none of whom are particularly visually interesting. Also, some enemy types are too similar in appearance, a flaw which becomes even more glaring when you realise just how few enemy types there are in the game.

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The bosses fare just as poorly, as while some of them are decent enough fights from a gameplay perspective, none of them are imaginatively designed or make much of an impact on the player, looking far too similar to each other and having names such as “Champion”, “Commander” and “Dave”. (Okay, so not that third name, but you see my point).

As for the game-world itself, it looks nice enough but I was incredibly disappointed to find that it ultimately consists of only two locations: the monastery in the human realm, and a location in the realm which the Rhogar call home. While there are distinct areas within these locations, again a lack of imagination and variety is all too apparent. The game-world does a better job with its actual level design, however, often containing multiple paths and shortcuts, making for a decent sense of interconnectedness while also encouraging exploration.

If you’re hoping that Lords of the Fallen might present a gripping narrative and deep lore to make up for the apparent lack of effort in other areas then you’ll likely be disappointed as the plot, world-building and characterisation are far from noteworthy and fail to add a great deal to the overall experience.

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Harkyn is a bland protagonist who gives you no reason to care about him or his quest, and the same goes for the handful of supporting characters you encounter (although the voice acting is at least decent across the board). During some of these encounters you’re presented with a choice of dialogue options – along with the occasional, simple side-quest – but in most cases your choice makes little or no difference, these options offering only illusions of freedom and consequence. Although to be fair, I should mention that the game does contain multiple endings, the ending you receive being dependent upon certain actions.

Scattered around the game-world are notes providing background information on the game’s universe and some of its events and characters, but although a few of these are fairly interesting, there’s little to really capture your imagination and add depth to this dark fantasy universe.

A less subjective criticism I have of Lords of the Fallen concerns the fact that during my playthrough of the game it crashed several times, forcing me to restart the game and costing me progress, and this was after it had already received a patch. I’m no stickler when it comes to a game’s technical performance, but a game repeatedly crashing like this is bullshit and a flaw which should have been fixed before release.

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So, on the whole I’ve been pretty negative about Lords of the Fallen, and while this might give the impression that I dislike the game and wouldn’t recommend it, that’s not really the case. As I’ve explained, the game certainly has a number of flaws, and in comparison to the Souls games whose influence it wears on its improbably-armoured sleeve, it comes off poorly: its combat isn’t as deep or polished, its art design is generic, and its writing is forgettable.

But the core gameplay and its other strengths are enough to make Lords of the Fallen a title worth checking out, whether you’re a fan of the Souls games looking for a similar (at least in some ways) experience, or simply someone interested in playing a dark fantasy action-RPG. There’s certainly fun to be had here, and hopefully in the future a sequel can fully realise the game’s potential.

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