Describing Lords of the Fallen to someone sounds an awful lot like going through a list of Dark Souls patch notes that never were. An experience multiplier increases with every kill but resets when using a checkpoint; each corpse run now gives less experience back the longer you take; checkpoints won’t completely refill precious health potions, and the more you use a single checkpoint, the less useful it becomes; enemies only respawn when after you die, which makes it harder to grind areas and level up, but easier to make progress.
I hate to make evaluations by way of comparison, but when inspiration is as obvious as it is here, it’s the far more effective and interesting conversation to have. Dark Souls looms over any conversation about Lords, and to ignore that would be disingenuous. So.
Like many copycat products, Lords wants to expand the reach of its inspiration in all directions, to try to pull in as many people as possible. As a result, the whole experiences feels diluted. It’s unsure of what it really wants because it wants to be something for everyone. The changes I mentioned earlier should appeal to diehards, but Lords also eases newcomers in by wrapping an intimidating experience in several familiar wrappers. Loot is marked and colored a la Diablo, a triumphant horn marking the acquisition of rare gear; the simplified magic system takes more cues from an action game than Souls’ array of Sorceries, Miracles and Pyromancies. It looks friendlier, too: the aesthetic screams “evil” and “demonic” in the same non-threatening way games like Darksiders do.
The more important issue, however, is that these minor tweaks miss the point. At the core of Dark Souls was an oppressive indifference to your whims that brought every aspect of the game together. If you wanted to piece together a narrative through item descriptions and the few cut-scenes that weren’t boss introductions, you could, but Dark Souls didn’t care. The first few enemies of the game can destroy you, and there’s no difficulty setting to change that. You could wander around aimlessly in the wrong direction for hours, thinking that the game was harder than it really was because you thought to enter the Catacombs before heading to the Undead Burg. Though its world was clearly designed with the player in mind, I always felt like I was a cog in a machine that didn’t care if I lived or died.
Lords of the Fallen cares. It has copious cut-scenes. Dialogue options with the six or so other characters in the game (the ones who aren’t instinctively murderous, anyway). Audio diaries to give a better sense of what’s was going on in the world and your place within it, even if none of it is ultimately of interest. It has various tooltips on how to play, what classes should focus on doing what, and other miscellany on how to wade through the world it tries to present as desolate and harsh. You can’t get lost, because your objective is on-screen constantly. I made it a point to search for as many hidden areas as I could, but the world feels almost claustrophobic in size—not once did I have more than one path to follow, only one or two side quests to accomplish on my way to my goal.
This sort of heavy-handed approach seems almost patronizing to those who may have no clue what they were doing in Dark Souls, and I constantly wished the game would leave me alone to bash some skulls in like the sociopath I am. But with so little to do and this much guidance, nothing about this world feels desolate, lonely or harsh. That’s fine, I suppose—one of the biggest hurdles for people attempting to get into a game like Dark Souls is that just about everything is too obtuse, and its world feels too lonely. It’s an admirable goal, and Lords makes some good headway in that regard.
Then there’s the delicate act of Bullshit Management, the idea that everything is unfair until you get the hang of it, or until you create your own emergent and devious workarounds. Boss fights generally have the right idea here: The first time I approached them, I was more than likely going to die, suddenly, at the hands of some move or attack I had no idea how to stop. I’d let go of my controller, thrust an open, upwards-facing palm at my TV, and say “Well what was that!? That’s bullshit!” before picking the controller back up again to give that stupid boss another go. After beating said boss, I’d realize that that thing he did wasn’t really as bullshitty as I first thought. Or maybe it still was, but I found my own bullshit, like abusing the decoy spell to sneak more attacks on them. This is perhaps where Lords shines most, in that the boss fights come closest to achieving the feeling of utter triumph after a series of infuriating close calls.
This is the essence of “tough, but fair;” for every seemingly impossible-to-avoid attack, there’s some trick you pull on an enemy that makes you feel as though you’re putting one over on the game. But where boss fights felt right, I very rarely had that feeling of getting one over on the game otherwise. I almost consistently felt like the game was cheating me. For example: enemies have an area they prefer to stay in, and when they left that area in order to chase me as we fought, they’d run, faster than I could ever hope keep up with, to their initial post, disappear, then reappear with full health. Sometimes enemies spawn not ten feet away from checkpoints, meaning I was immediately in the thick of it again after dying.
You’d think that these sorts of complaints would lead to me saying that Lords is too hard. But it’s not (in fact, I’d say it’s relatively easy, otherwise). It’s simply that these moments are too common to dismiss as aberrations in design. And after every other aspect, from the tooltips to the cut-scenes to just about everything else has reminded me that I am the center of the Lords’ universe, these bullshit moments cross the border from tough-but-fair to mean-spirited. Every time one of those enemies ran by its post and respawned, I could feel the hand of a designer who didn’t want me to get too carried away with exploiting its systems, forcing me to play the way they expected of me. And while I at times had the same kind of fun I did with Dark Souls, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was drinking RC Cola and not Coke. That’s more frustrating than any boss fight could be.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who is also a little disappointed that none of Lords’ boss names can live up to Dark Souls’ infamous Ceaseless Discharge. He’s written for Paste, Kotaku and Shoryuken. You can follow him @SurielVazquez.