First person shooters were dubbed “Doom Clones” once upon a time. Some great games were released that were shot down because of their iterative nature – Blood and Shadow Warrior to name a few. But these games carved their own identity, slowly paving the way for new genres to be born. RPGs have largely been defined by the JRPG and western RPG tropes, with the newest variation on the genre being Strategy RPGs (SRPGs) that the Disgaea series popularised.
German developer Deck13 Interactive, alongside the senior producer of The Witcher II: Assassin of Kings and Polish developer City Interactive, have taken on the challenge of evolving the punishing RPG – a sub-genre dominated by a certain Souls franchise. History has repeated itself as some have called it a “Souls Clone”, but in all fairness it does try its best to carve its own identity.
Mechanically, it wears its influences on its sleeve. Combat works exactly the same way, with the shoulder buttons being used for attack and defence. Dying will leave behind your experience gains which you can redeem at red crystals scattered throughout the land. Equipment largely determines what class you will be playing as, either a nimble backstabber or an armoured brusier, thanks to the classifications and weight.
This has led some people to accuse the developers at Deck 13 Interactive of creating a clone of From Software’s punishing games, but there are major differences. For starters, enemies stay dead until you either go to a new area or re-spawn after death, yet you only have a limited time to get to your “ghost” before all that lovely experience begins to dwindle away. Health also doesn’t ebb away upon each death, so you don’t have to worry about restoring humanity to obtain a full health bar, making the game far less taxing.
Another key difference is how the game handles magic. Near the beginning of the game, you get a gauntlet which acts as a ranged weapon that uses your slowly regenerating mana pool as a resource. All classes have access to Prayer, a spell that creates a decoy to fool foes; but the other three range from offensive fireballs, defensive buffs, and deceptive shenanigans. Later on you will gain access to a smithy who will uncover the secret of your runes and enable you to equip them into empty slots, similarly to how Diablo handles them.
These differences give its game its own identity at the cost of some of the difficulty. It’s quite simple to hang back and wail on your opponent with gauntlet shots; but with the taxing nature still being present, it still has ways of surprising you. It won’t be because of random Indiana Jones inspired rolling rocks, but more about enemy behaviour. Some will get up after dying, others will heal themselves using the environment, and some will even explode on death.
But it was playing Lords of the Fallen that memories of my time with some Castlevania games came crawling back, mainly during the boss battles. Some featured unique situations, including a fountain that sapped your magic bar or the boss itself having a rage meter that builds as you hit it. Encounters ranged from the simple to the infuriating, depending on your play style. Bosses can stun you on occasion which is perilous as they usually follow it up with a lethal blow. These battles are where Lords of the Fallen shines. They keep you on your toes and force you to learn patterns to exploit weaknesses.
On occasion however you will find that the game has a tendency to not act how it should. Total game crashes happened on more than one occasion, but it’s the smaller bugs that help or hinder you that indicate a lack of polish. One enemy that I had decided to try to lure out to a more open arena would run away in a glitched manner back to its usual stomping grounds. I’m not saying that the Souls franchise is devoid of these glitches, but they’re more noticeable here.
Narrative is far blunter compared to the Souls franchise’s ambiguous style, opting for a character focused romp through castles and dimensions to stop the advance of the Rhogar race that are hell bent on destroying humanity, the key to this is beating the “Lords”. Speaking with NPCs gives branching choices, more commonly found in the likes of western RPGs, who will give you side quests. It’s up to you to keep track of these however as the game only ever highlights the tasks that advance the plot. Overall it is fairly generic, but it sets the scene in a clear and concise way with collectable scrolls building on the world lore.
That world is gorgeous looking in a stylistic sense, borrowing a lot from gothic RPGs with its desolate ambiance, dank caverns, and gloomy alternative dimensions. But the similarities of the locations makes the game feel less like a world but a singular castle. Environments aren’t as varied as they are in Castlevania games, or indeed the Souls franchise. Enemy variety does go beyond armoured humanoids with conventional weapons, introducing mutated monstrosities, poisonous spiders and fire-breathing tree-like Chimeras; but the adventure of unknown adversaries is not as clear-cut.
One thing that won’t be surprising you is the sudden invasion of another player – which will never happen because it isn’t a feature. It’s likely that this decision will be polarising, with those who love to grief other players finding frustration in being unable to do so. Others who hated being invaded may welcome this with open arms, instead relying on the game’s nature for challenge rather than the sudden appearance of an adversary. This does also mean you’re on your own for boss encounters though.
Comparisons to the Souls franchise are a little unfair, because Lords of the Fallen is a case for defining the future of a genre. It takes the principles of ruthless gameplay, while including its own spin on the genre with a focused magic system and single-player orientated adventure. It’s not by any means perfect, with some bugs potentially ruining good progress, but a lot of the issues can be built upon via a sequel that expands on the world rather than confining it to castle corridors and fortifications. It’s the best game that CI Games have had a hand in developing and is a start of a bright future for Deck13 Interactive, but they need to continue to evolve this new sub-genre.