Circle-Strafe: First Impressions Of Lords Of The Fallen

Ever since gameplay footage of Lords of the Fallen wowed us at this year’s E3, developers Deck13 Interactive and CI Games have been caught in the shadow of Dark Souls. It’s an admittedly facile comparison to make, but one that doesn’t change the game I’ve been playing for the past couple of hours.

In a word: derivative. The Dark Souls influence is obvious enough, and yet there’s more: armor and weapons look as if they were ripped straight from a Blizzard game. The radial menu used for equipping the protagonist, Harkyn, apes the console version of Diablo 3. The branching dialogue trees remind me of when they were done better in any Bioware game to date.

The demon-infested Monastery where the game begins is appropriately “moody” and “oppressive,” with some impressive lighting and particle effects. However, all attempts at creating a truly engrossing atmosphere are sabotaged by the multitude of graphical and audial glitches I encountered. This is AFTER I downloaded the 5 gigabyte day 1 patch.

From the very beginning, my PS4 version of the game suffered from missing textures, choppy animations, wild cloth physics, and dropped sound effects and music. When the audio decides to show up, the design is top-notch. Everything from howling wind and clanking armor to Harkyn’s footsteps in the musty stone halls is recreated beautifully. When it works.

The dialogue and cutscenes also seem to suffer from the same lack of polish. The dialogue is obtuse, crammed with More Proper Nouns Than You Can Count (an issue I also had with Destiny). The voice acting is similarly stilted. The actors put on their best vaguely-European accents and try to hack away at the dense material. It works. It’s passable. But for a game that is trying to be more transparent and coherent than Dark Souls, it’s far too little.

The cutscenes jump wantonly back and forth between the in-game engine and the cinematic cutscene engine, with appropriately hilarious results. When I found one of the few NPCs not trying to murder me in the opening level, she was threatening to throw a monk off the battlements. I chose the dialogue option to call her bluff (which wasn’t a bluff at all) and she prepared to toss the poor guy down the mountain. The game stuttered, switched over to the in-game engine and back again before I even knew what was going on. Next thing I knew, the monk was gone without so much as a peep. It had the timing of slapstick, but certainly not the intention.

It’s obvious what didn’t get the most attention during development. If you’ve followed any of the pre-release buzz around Lords of the Fallen, you’ll know the real draw is the weighty, Dark Souls-inspired (sorry) combat. Does it hold up? The short answer is “so far.” Does it do some things better than Dark Souls? So far.

Lords of the Fallen features a combo system that is conspicuously absent from the Souls series. By timing your attacks correctly, the player can chain their strikes together to unleash flashy and effective combo moves. Each of the 11 weapon types (I got my hands on around 6 or 7 already) all felt distinctly different. To chain strikes with a hammer, for instance, you must press the attack button in a different rhythm than for daggers or axes.

The enemies are sufficiently varied, even this early in the game. The demonic Rhogar come in two delightful flavors, and the monastery is also populated by blind zombie-type creatures that you can sneak past if you’re low on health. It’s a pleasant surprise to find such a restrained gameplay element in a frequently bombastic genre. I can’t wait to see what other grotesque monsters the developers have dreamed up for me later in the game.

The rest of the combat in Lords of the Fallen will be familiar to any Souls veteran: manage your stamina bar, lock-on, and block/dodge religiously. I circle-strafed my way past the first two bosses, but the third fight ramps up the difficulty considerably. Every boss has a segmented health bar, each corresponding to a phase in the fight. The first boss drops his armor and then shield over the course of the encounter, accompanied by a change in attack patterns and AI. It’s a nice detail, but nothing that hasn’t been done before.

I’ll keep hanging out with Harkyn, the talking scowl, and see where Lords of the Fallen takes me in the next 15-20 hours. Stay tuned for an update!