Prepare to Die. Has there even been a more appropriate tagline for an RPG than From Software’s Dark Souls? In an age where accessibility seemed to be the mantra, the Dark Souls franchise seemed to stick out its chin in defiance. As “punishingly difficult” and “supremely rewarding” became its selling points, masses of players rallied under its mystique, guaranteeing the rest of the industry would answer. Lords of the Fallen is that answer. The question is: does it stack up?
This column is a fan’s answer, so much so that we’re eschewing the week’s news in favor of delivering it. I’ve been following Lords’ development for months, and if you go back in the archives, you can find me searching for breadcrumbs before there were many to be had. Lords of the Fallen intrigued me, not because I was a Dark Souls fan but because I wasn’t. I was the player who’d tried over and over to get into the game but couldn’t get past the stiff combat. As much as I loved the mystery and subtle depth it offered, I felt robotic when I’d swing my sword and thud-roll to away from enemy attacks. That rolling… well, it’s probably how I’d roll in real life but I value my ribs too much to try.
Lords of the Fallen, I hoped, would solve that problem. It would introduce some fluidity into combat and a touch more speed. And if that weren’t enough, Lords was actually going to add some color. Dark Souls depressed the hell out of me, even just watching it. It was like a nickel tour of misery, all gussied up in poop-browns and ooze-blacks. No offense if you liked it. It just made me tired.
So was it the answer for players who loved Dark Souls in concept but hated it in execution? In some ways, yes, but in others, no. Lords of the Fallen is definitely a reply to Dark Souls but they don’t share a common identity. They’re relatives, half-brothers who went on different paths in life; you can see the resemblance, but one is the bully who steals your lunch money and knocks you down, the other just gives you the evil eye and dares you to go further.
What we have here is a mix-up in marketing. Deck13 was so clear in their clarion call – if you like Dark Souls, then come here! – that they forgot sell Lords on its own merits. LotF is a very good game (crash bugs aside) that Dark Souls fans are going to enjoy. But apart from its meticulously paced combat and resource management, the comparison too often highlights what the game is missing.
The most obvious case: Lords of the Fallen is far easier than any of the Souls games. I haven’t played New Game Plus, and maybe that’s where the punishment is at, but on this side of the fence, the most I see is a game that pushes you to play smart. You’ll die, that much is a given, but not so often or so terribly as in Dark Souls I or II. In fact, with the right assortment of spells and abilities, you’ll progress faster and find yourself overpowered by the end of the game (though that last bit I’ve yet to experience myself).
There also isn’t quite the mystery here. If I can go out on a limb, though, I’d say that may not be such a bad thing. A lot of Dark Souls’ mystery seemed like the result of poor explanation. As citizens of the internet, we might revere the daring of game developers willing to send their players to the web for explanations and mythologize the depth of not knowing, but I’m not so sure that’s good game design. It’s an open question.
But it’s what Lords does right that’s important. Combat is faster paced, if not very, but is a welcome touch up. I’ve heard some people describe it as hack and slash but that goes too far. It punishes you for dying by taking your XP but then dares you to go farther by giving you a stat buff for going on without it. Likewise, the longer you go without banking experience, the higher your XP multiplier raises. Lords of the Daring, I say.
And what the game lacks in mystery, it does not in depth. Dark Souls, I believe, probably wins out in this regard, but Lords has a certain richness that I find endearing. Character progression is rewarding and full of choices that make a real difference in gameplay. I was initially dismayed when I first discovered, long ago, that I could not make my own character. In practice, however, leveling and developing Harkyn can be quite satisfying down the game’s three skill trees. Combined with the game’s 11 weapon classes, there’s lots of room to define your play style and enjoy Harkyn your way.
Speaking of, I don’t much enjoy Harkyn. As a character I mean. If there’s one area that Deck13 could have done better in – aside from the aforementioned crash bugs – it’s in the story. The plot here is better than Dark Souls but, then, that’s not saying much. Why was Harkyn in jail? Why should we care about him at all? I love the character designs but the story beats often feel detached.
But here’s what I love, the thing that beats Dark Souls hands down: Harkyn may as well strut, he’s such a badass. The armor is bigger and gaudier, raucous like the brighter colors of the game’s palette. It screams “warrior” and the stat upgrades are the sweet cherry on the bloody top. Perhaps I prefer my armor overstated, but I like that I can deck out my character like he’s his own personal tank. I love the idea of killing bosses and transcending waves of enemies, scraping by the skin of my teeth, just to earn a chest with a full of armor. Upgrading Harkyn is like an IV drip of loot and rewards, and a good coup de grace to the doubts of how rewarding a less difficult game can actually be.
In closing, to answer the titular question: Does Lords of the Fallen live up to Dark Souls? Perhaps not in difficulty but it surely in the joys fighting. Then it leaves Dark Souls far behind in the satisfaction of decking out your character in wickedly designed armor and weaponry. In New Game Plus, maybe it will be impossible to become overpowered. For now, I’m enjoying the flavor of Dark Souls in my new RPG. The games are brothers, not twins.