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Lords of the Fallen / 30th of October 2014

Imagine taking the mechanics of Dark Souls and the aesthetics of Diablo III - specifically the third act - and smashing them together to create a new game. What you’d most likely end up with is something akin to Lords of the Fallen, the new game from Deck 13 Interactive and CI Games. On paper it may sound like a winning formula, after all both the Souls series and Diablo are hugely successful franchises, but unfortunately Lords of the Fallen fails in its attempt to be more than the sum of its parts.

This is, in part, down to some rather strange design choices, the first of which is the limited customisation options presented to players at the beginning of the game. The developers have chosen to focus their story on a fixed character by the name of Harkyn, and though there’s nothing wrong with this, in principle, it fails to work in this instance. Normally if any RPG gives players a pre-defined character to inhabit, then the character in question needs to at least be interesting, not necessarily likeable, but interesting at the very least. Something Harkyn, a former prisoner, released and conscripted to fight in the hope of obtaining redemption for some vague crimes, completely fails to achieve. Instead this beefy Viking-like thug, complete with ridiculous cockney voice acting, comes across as just plain boring from start to finish.

The remaining customisation available to players, is instead restricted to choosing from three classes with unique armour and weapons, and also defining which type of magic you want to align yourself with for the entire game. However the equipment available to each class can be all be collected within the first hour of gameplay, and as for the magic itself, each type essentially consists of three spells that are broadly the same and one ultimate spell that ends up being thoroughly underwhelming once you finally unlock it.

But poor spells and dull characters aside, Lords of the Fallen is a game that’s been heavily compared to the Souls series for its robust third person combat. And not without reason, as everything down to the layout of the controls is heavily influenced by Dark Souls. Combat revolves around carefully timed light and heavy attacks, there’s bonfire-like checkpoints, and you’ll even have to recover lost experience from where you last died. But despite a few nuances such as having your XP cloud heal you, should you opt not to collect it immediately (presumably to help you during boss battles), and creating an XP multiplying risk vs reward system based around the game’s checkpoints, nothing here that hasn’t already been done better elsewhere.

And although the developers have stated that the pacing of the combat is deliberately slow, it doesn’t excuse the fact that such a restriction ensures certain weapons become practically useless. Personally I spent most of the game wielding staffs and spear like weapons, but every time I picked up a new axe or greatsword I was still keen to give it a try. And this slow pacing serves to make using oversized weapons, such as greathammers and the like, nothing more than an exercise in frustration, as by the time your swing winds up you’ll more often than not be hit and brought straight out of the animation. The good intent for a more methodical form of combat is there, but it sadly needs to be refined a little further.

Where the game fares slightly better is in the level design, or more specifically the layout of the game’s world. Although it at first appears linear, Lords of the Fallen again takes its cues from the Souls series and attempts to mimic the criss-crossing open word from the first Dark Souls. It doesn’t do it to the same standard sadly, as things begin to spiral off and the general similarity of each area can, at times, confuse. But none the less such an attempt to create a flowing world full of shortcuts and secret passageways is admirable.

What isn’t appreciated however is the game’s insistence on being vague for no discernible reason. A prime example for this can be seen once you begin to come across various side quests and NPC’s. Once again taking influence from Dark Souls these tasks have no waypoints and no record of what it is exactly you’ve been tasked with, something which would be fine if the quests weren’t the kind you’d expect to find in more traditional RPGs like Skyrim or Dragon Age. For example one monk particularly early on requested that I find three signs left by his commander and report back to him, but with no idea what a sign looked like I was effectively looking for a needle in a haystack, if that is, I’d never seen a needle in my life. And such a half-baked implementation of a relatively simple concept means that that same monk will be waiting for me to return until the end of time.

And so for all its promise Lords of the Fallen is in truth nothing more than a poor version of an already niche sub-genre. It has neither the rock solid mechanics of its Japanese counterpart, or the usually more palatable storyline and character, something which has, in recent years, become the bread and butter of western RPGs. Not only that but the art style, heavily influenced by the bold, angular, demonic look of games such as Diablo III isn’t as appealing as those of its nearest rivals. In truth Lords of the Fallen survives only on its satisfactory combat and the ambitious, if flawed, level design. It may be a game that keeps you ticking over until the next Dragon Age arrives, but it’s not going to be something that sticks in your mind for years to come.

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