Let's get this out of the way now. Lords of the Fallen takes a whole bunch of stuff from Dark Souls. Tactical twitch combat with loads of weapons? Check. Vicious boss battles and unforgiving enemies? Check. Sprawling fantasy world complete with a tale of struggling gods and mortals? Yes and yes. The first time you sit down with CI Games' action RPG it's impossible not to notice this if you've spent the briefest amount of time with From Software's games – even the control scheme is almost identical. I'll be comparing Lords of the Fallen to Dark Souls repeatedly in this article simply because the similarities are too blatant not to mention.
Take my first introduction, for example. I'm positioned at the end of a long corridor, decked out in light armour with a shield in one hand and a staff in the other. Up ahead I can see two enemies shambling about in the darkness, not yet close enough to see me, but stationed such that the cramped confines of the building I'm in will make any fight a tricky prospect. Instead of going toe to toe, I drop a fireball spell right in the middle of them, easily blasting them apart but also using up my magic. I advance forward, take a few more shamblers out less professionally than I'd hope, and eventually run into a nasty-looking dude with a tower shield. I try to blast him, realise I'm out of mana, panic, and get stunlocked into a corner, where an enemy I failed to spot makes hot dogs out of my lower intestines.
This guy is the second boss I completely failed to kill, a lumbering warrior who slowly loses his armour over the course of a fight, becoming faster but more vulnerable
It's textbook Dark Souls gameplay in all but look. That's not to say there aren't differences, however. Enemy attacks patterns are a terror to read in Lords of the Fallen. Jumping in to what I was told was some way into the game, I found it a challenge to navigate even simple one-on-one fights without suffering heavy hits. Enemies just have... so many bits. It's why the skeletal zombie enemies in the first Undead Burg stretch of Dark Souls are so perfectly designed; they act like wire-frame puppets, each swing of their blades so easily readable that the opening hour or so act as a training session for the rest of the game. The warped enemies I fought in Lords of the Fallen were such a twitchy mass of spikes, nasty growths and dribbling fluids that reading them was a sight more difficult.
Weapons also seemed slightly less precise, with what seemed like a shorter range. Is this just me moaning after becoming so used to the combat system of Dark Souls? Possibly. Lords of the Fallen might use the same control scheme, but it's hard to capture the razor-sharp tightness of From Software's sword-fighting. The range was what really got me; only the staff weapon seemed to keep the distance I liked during combat, while swords and daggers required far too much closing with the enemy. I'll stay as far away from that demon with the tower shield as possible, thank you. As for magic, my mana supply was too limited to judge how useful it will be in the long run, but it seemed to act like more of a one-shot smart bomb that does heavy damage than an alternative main attack source. Different builds I'm yet to see may affect that, though.
The art style favours an over-the-top Warhammer look, with weapons and shields looking particularly stylised
This unfamiliarity with the combat system lead to some truly humiliating boss encounters. The Champion, who I had an ongoing one-sided struggle with, is a brute of a boss, a brawler with two massive great iron claws on the ends of his fists who like to charge full-pelt and try to crush you underfoot. I'm ashamed to say that despite deploying my best rolling and countering skills, I couldn't beat him. Sometimes in Dark Souls 2 I felt that bosses got a little too easy to read, and fights became a rather simple matter of avoiding their sign-posted 'big' attacks and laying into them while they recovered. The Champion didn't make things that easy, switching from charges to side-swipes to earthquake-creating ground punches without allowing much of a window for counter-strikes.
They were probably there, but it's a sign that Lords of the Fallen isn't quite as willing to ditch the hardcore stance of Dark Souls as the developers make out. Even the basic enemies seemed unpredictable and deadly, particularly the demonic spiders that spewed poison at me and spawned pint-size spiderlings to swarm me even as I retreated. That said, simply placing checkpoints closer together (the developers are aiming to make them about twice as regular as those in Dark Souls) removes a lot of desperate back-and-forth scrambling and almost single-handedly opens the game up to a less patient audience. The save point before The Champion fight was about three enemies away from the boss room, for example. I mean those three enemies killed me a bunch of goddamn times, but it's not like trudging all the way through New Londo Ruins every time you die, just to get stomped by those bastard Four Kings again.
It certainly looks the part, but performance on the PC version was underwhelming
Here I suppose I have to mention the rather unimpressive frame rate. I played the PC version of the game, which chugged badly at times during periods of relative quiet. There's a few months to go yet, so I'm sure CI Games will work on optimising the engine for Windows computers, but right now I get the distinct feeling they've been working harder to get the current-gen console versions sorted – I've seen the PS4 version in action at a previous event and didn’t notice half the slowdown I did during my playthrough.
Hopefully those graphical issues will be fixed by the time the game comes out on October 31 (October 28 in North America). If they are I can see Lords of the Fallen providing a decent alternative to fans of brutal action RPG's. While it essentially copy-pastes entire mechanics from a more ambitious game, it does at least succeed in creating its own rich, over-the-top high-fantasy atmosphere. There's also a few alterations here and there that should also win over some fans left frustrated by Dark Souls' impenetrability. Could be a fun, if unoriginal, ride.