2014’s Lords of the Fallen was one of the earlier attempts on the part of studios hoping to emulate the success of FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, the forbidding classics that formed the foundational inspiration for the “Soulslike” subgenre of action role-playing games. It was… fine? Coming from small-time Polish publisher CI Games and German developer Deck13, Lords of the Fallen was, most reviewers agreed, a solid, workmanlike attempt at the Souls formula that made it a little easier, a little crunchier, and a little more colorful, without bringing much new to the table.
Now we have a reboot — first announced as The Lords of the Fallen, now reverting to the plain old definite-article-free version of the title. In the intervening nine years (or 1,000 years, within the game’s world), things have not gotten any more cheerful, or less in thrall to the works of Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team. It seems that CI Games has decided the problem with Lords of the Fallen (2014) was that it wasn’t enough like Dark Souls.
I’m being a little unfair. Lords of the Fallen (2023) does introduce some interesting mechanical twists of its own, including a parallel worlds conceit that tips its hat to The Legend of Zelda and makes the influence of Nintendo’s games on FromSoft’s even clearer. But, based on a preview that involved playing through its first few hours, the new game — made by HexWorks, a Spanish-Romanian developer founded by CI Games for the purpose — strains hard to get as close to the structural intricacy, cautious combat, and dank, despairing vibe of the Dark Souls trilogy as it possibly can. In doing so, HexWorks bumps up against the fact that imitating FromSoft’s artistry is one thing, but capturing its essence is quite another.
One of Lords of the Fallen’s biggest jumps toward Dark Souls is apparent as soon as you start a new game. The original had a preset lead character, but here you can fiddle with a character creator to forge your own, working from nine class archetypes. Participants in the preview were advised to begin with one of the four melee classes (a standard knight, a barbarian type, a flail-and-crossbow-wielding Partisan, and a more dextrous infantryman); also available were an assassin, a jack-of-all-trades ranger, magic users specializing in fire and light spells, and the mysterious, fiendish Condemned class.
Whichever you choose, you will be a Dark Crusader, toiling through the cursed world on a quest to overthrow the demon god Adyr. Everything about the setting is imbued with an intense, doom-filled cheerlessness, right down to the name of the realm: Mournstead. In the writing and art, HexWorks is clearly going for FromSoft’s blend of ruined high fantasy, ornate language, and epic melancholy. (Even the fonts and the arrangement of the user interface are familiarly sad-looking.) But FromSoft’s unique tone is impossible to replicate perfectly, and the attempt in this case frequently wobbles over into metal-album-cover overkill or Renaissance-fair camp, as characters with spikes all over their helmets begin lines with “thusly” or discuss “the bestowment of this subsequent boon.” Hooks by which you can pull platforms toward you are incarnated as wailing specters; defeat a miniboss, and “Heresy purged!” is blazoned across the screen.
Dark Souls players will feel increasingly at home as they make their way through the tutorial, die as intended at the first boss, and begin picking careful routes through a semi-linear, interconnected world with vertiginous verticality. Lords of the Fallen’s strongest selling point might be that it maintains the circuitous, detailed, almost Metroidvania-like level design of Demon’s and Dark Souls in the face of Elden Ring’s more open approach, even if it can’t claim to operate on the same level. It provides plenty of opportunities to comically fall off ledges in the midst of a fight, as tradition demands.
Its gimmick, however, is that the player can move between the realms of the living (Axiom) and the dead (Umbral), using the game’s key item, an Umbral Lantern. You can peek into Umbral using the lantern, and cross into it if you see a route forward not present in Axiom — a platform (made of bones and rotting flesh, of course), perhaps, or an empty lake bed. But you can only make the return journey at preset points, including the Vestiges that play the part of bonfires in Lords of the Fallen.
Umbral also softens the difficulty level of its chosen genre — up to a point. If you die in Axiom, you are resurrected in Umbral, then given another chance to defeat your enemy before you give up the ghost completely and need to corpse-run from the last Vestige to reclaim your Vigor (Lords of the Fallen’s souls). This doesn’t refresh your healing items, though, and the longer you spend in Umbral, the more Dread builds up, and the trickier things get. Enemies get tougher, and increasing numbers of zombielike creatures materialize in your path — they’re easy to kill, but their presence complicates the battlefield considerably.
Lords of the Fallen isn’t inspired, but it is a well-sorted game: responsive, playable, balanced, and fair, which in this genre is no easy feat. The combat is precise, fluid, and faster than the original game’s, located somewhere between Dark Souls’ defensiveness and Bloodborne’s aggression. I suspect it will come into its own in the more fragile and showy caster classes, but it will take more time and a more skilled player than I am to test that hunch.
It is, perhaps, a little overdesigned, heaping on a variety of concepts. There’s posture damage and a stagger system. There’s withered damage, which is sustained in a variety of circumstances and reduces your maximum health, not unlike Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s gloom, but which can be partly reclaimed if you hit your enemy first (it’s fuzzily explained, and I didn’t get my head around it during those first hours). Soul Flay — a move that uses your lantern to extract enemies’ souls from their bodies, allowing you to pile on extra damage to their incorporeal form — comes with its own resource that can only be topped up by Soul Siphoning from enemies and resource nodes. There are stances, combos, backstabs, and so on.
It’s too early to tell how well this initially unintuitive design will gel together. But complexity like this is grist to the seasoned Soulslike player’s mill, and it’s to HexWorks’ credit that, at the very least, the complexity doesn’t overly get in the way of the moment-to-moment combat, which feels tough, consequential, and crisp. Based on these first impressions, Lords of the Fallen doesn’t have a personality of its own — not in the way Team Ninja’s takes on the genre, Nioh and Wo Long, do, for example — but perhaps “pretty good Soulslike, for people who really like Soulslikes” is all the personality it needs.
Lords of the Fallen will be released on Oct. 13 for PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X.