The first Lords of the Fallen released in 2014, a time when From Software’s Dark Souls series consisted of two games. Bloodborne wasn’t out, and Elden Ring hadn’t yet redefined what the action-RPG genre can be. Lords of the Fallen was among the first Soulslikes to appear on my radar. It didn’t hit for me and I put it down after a few hours. It was slow, clunky, and allowed for little wiggle room in gameplay style. I yearned for the flexibility of Dark Souls’ various classes and the speed some of them allowed.
Lords of the Fallen executive producer Saul Gascon says the first game came out when the Soulslike subgenre was still quite niche, and it was made to serve that niche audience faithfully. But as the genre has grown, so too have the desires of the people that enjoy these games.
Nearly a decade after the first and CI Games is taking another crack at Lords of the Fallen with, well, Lords of the Fallen, and it’s doing everything right so far. Despite a rocky development with multiple studios and production restarts, it’s one of the most exciting Soulslike games I’ve played in years. Gascon says Hexorks focused on answering, “How do we broaden the appeal [of the genre], unaware of how Elden Ring will tectonically change the landscape?” He said the team is quite happy with the decisions it’s made in light of what From Software’s latest did to the genre.
Not only does the sequel boast a good assortment of classes, allowing for various playstyles of different speeds across melee and ranged combat, but it features two distinct realms to play through; which is to say Lords of the Fallen has fixed both my biggest problem with its predecessor while also adding its own spin to the Soulslike subgenre – an increasingly important factor as the genre continues to grow more crowded.
“How we started [working on Lords of the Fallen (2023)] was working on Lords of the Fallen 2,” creative director Cezar Virtosu tells me, explaining how the team mapped out improvements, new features, and more based on community and press criticism. “After working on it for quite a long time, we basically realized that what we were doing was a reboot. If you play the first game, you will feel a familiarity with the lore, but if you’re new to this franchise, you will feel at home anyway.”
I start my journey with the Blackfeather Ranger, which prioritizes versatility over a single-focus approach and is also the Bloodborne-esque hunter seen in various trailers. Unsurprisingly, this ranger is fast and agile, using a sleek ax and small shield.
Overall, Lords of the Fallen’s combat feels great. Its action is fast and versatile, its parry timing is generous, as are the effects of blocking, and the world is full of surprises and secrets, both of the “surprise enemy jumps out to scare you” and, “Ooh a treasure chest” variety.
What sets Lords of the Fallen apart from the rest of the genre, and what has me most excited for the full release, is its two-world system. Axiom is the world of the living, which creative director Cezar Virtosu tells me is completely connected through shortcuts, hidden paths, and more. It’s metal as hell, full of dark catacombs and terrifying gothic cathedrals that ooze atmosphere. But it’s also sometimes bright, revealing a beautiful landscape dotted with castle peaks and mausoleum spires I hope to arrive at later in my journey. In the simplest terms, it’s the world you expect of a game like this.
What surprises me most, however, is Umbral. This is the realm of the dead and exists parallel to Axiom. It can be accessed at almost any time, in real-time. But, once you’re there, you must fight through its more challenging enemies to reach an access point that brings you back to Axiom. While you can select to explore Umbral on your own, Lords of the Fallen will bring you there almost every time you die. Dying gives you a second chance in Umbral, where, if you survive, you can reach the realm of Axiom once more. This eases the usual challenge of the genre – mind you, Lords of the Fallen is still extremely tough – but also opens up a unique playground for puzzles I welcome.
Using the Umbral Lamp, I illuminate Umbral while in Axiom. That gate blocking my way to a chest in Axiom doesn’t exist in Umbral. I discover this with a quick lamp illumination and easily walk through a hole where, back in Axiom, the gate exists. This lamp also interacts with the environment to break down barriers, pull platforms toward you, and more. This doesn’t turn the experience into a puzzle game, but it’s a welcome element of locomotion and traversal that makes Lords of the Fallen’s exploration exciting and varied.
I also use this lamp in combat to pull the soul out of enemies, with a move called the Soul Flay. Once revealed, any damage I do to that soul is exponentially multiplied when it crashes back into the enemy’s body, making quick work of smaller enemies and taking out handy chunks of health from bosses. It’s a limited-use system, though, which prevents this mechanic from being too powerful, fortunately.
The Umbral Lamp and its associated Umbral realm is the foundation of Lords of the Fallen and I like how it reshapes everything I do. It is the highlight of my hands-on time, just above a great boss fight against a bloody and fast-paced flying knight that sent my soul to Umbral more than a few times.
“The RPG has expanded tenfold,” Virtosu says. “The first game did not have a lot of variety, unfortunately. For us, it was incredibly important to give you the tools, as long as you look for them.”
I’m impressed with how great Lords of the Fallen feels to play and how unique its world and systems are to interact with. Hexworks is taking big strides to make it stand out not just from its 2014 predecessor but the rest of the genre, and I commend the efforts. While two hours of play isn’t enough to call it a success, I’m hopeful the final package will coalesce into a new Soulslike favorite. For now, nearly a decade after the release of the first Lords of the Fallen, the team is excited about what it’s built.
“We’re quite happy. It never ends with perfection [and] Lords of the Fallen 4 is going to be brilliant, it’s going to be the most perfect game ever made,” Virtosu says with laughter, joking about a theoretical future entry in the series. “But we have a solid foundation.”