As the archangel swings her fearsome blade, I find myself getting into a rhythm. Each blow can be dodged; it's just a question of timing. I weave around her attacks, whittling down her health bar before disengaging. I’m too late; my character slumps to the ground. My fight against the first set-piece boss of Lords of the Fallen is over.
Or so you might think.
I awaken, surrounded by skeletal constructs and bathed in an eerie purple light. The archangel is still here. The fight, it seems, is still on.
Unfortunately for my opponent, I’ve learned my lesson. This time, I don’t get greedy. This time, she falls, no number of celestial swords of angelic powers a match for well-timed dodges.
It’s only after the satisfaction fades that I realize something vital. Throughout the slog through hills and ruins to arrive at the encounter, the game has been preparing me, teaching me how to parry, dodge, and block. In only an hour or so, Lords of the Fallen had made me better at video games.
On the surface, Lords of the Fallen looks indistinguishable from Elden Ring. You adventure through bleak, yet hauntingly beautiful environments in search of ending the tyranny of an ancient horror. It’s a third-person action RPG where you battle from save point to save point, doing your best not to perish and lose your precious resources.
However, Lords of the Fallen changes the script, by taking the time to teach its players and offering a fast, responsive combat system where you can put these lessons into practice. In contrast to the more ponderous combat in Elden Ring, Lords of the Fallen gives us something faster and more fluid, reminiscent of the splendid lightsaber contests in Star Wars Jedi: Survivor.
Walking between worlds
On top of these welcome tweaks to the soulsborne formula, Lords of the Fallen uses a novel environmental mechanic whereby the two worlds of Axiom, the world of the living, and Umbral, the land of the dead, are superimposed on one another, traversable via a magic lantern.
Can’t cross a chasm? You can use your lantern to peer into Umbral to see if a transposition might allow you to cross the gap. However, this doesn’t come without risk. Enter Umbral, and you’ll quickly find yourself hunted by increasingly dangerous hordes of shambling horrors. On top of that, the trip from Axiom to Umbral is one way without the help of special items or rest points, so the decision to cross the threshold is anything but trivial.
Perhaps the most wide-reaching effect of this mechanic comes in the form of the second chance it gives the player during battle. Perish in Axiom, and you’ll revive in Umbral, pushing back your enemies with a burst of energy before continuing the fight exactly where you left off.
This allows you a final chance to apply the game’s lessons in combat, offering you one last opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Rather than a coddling safety net, this feels like a love letter to soulsborne fundamentals. Learn and improve, and you’ll survive, but repeat your errors, and you’ll perish.
Fighting with purpose
Everything about Lords of the Fallen seems more accessible than most of its soulsborne counterparts, though rarely at the expense of the “tough but fair” grind at the heart of the genre. This is true not only of the combat but also of the world itself.
While Lords of the Fallen is steeped in the usual dark fantasy intrigue you’d expect from a typical soulsborne title; there is just enough direct exposition to give the intrigue context. The plot is simple and comprehensible: you must stop the demon god Adyr by traveling the world and confronting the fallen guardians who tried (and failed) to keep him imprisoned.
It’s hardly original, but, thanks to the clear exposition, I found myself able to piece together more about Lords of the Fallen’s setting in three hours than I managed in my first 10 hours with Dark Souls 3 back in the day. Knowing about the world and your place in it helps to give your struggles some much-welcome context, putting the “role” back in action in role-playing game.
Lords of the Fallen’s polished combat and distinctive flavor set it apart from many of its soulsborne contemporaries. While many of its ideas are not original, per se, they are all refined and repackaged, presented in a more accessible format that still preserves the satisfying difficulty at the heart of the soulsborne experience.
While it’s too early to say if Lords of the Fallen meaningfully builds on this in later stages, the promise of a user-friendly soulsborne title will certainly pique interest.
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Cat Bussell is a Staff Writer at TechRadar Gaming. Hailing from the crooked spires of London, Cat is an experienced writer and journalist. As seen on Wargamer.com, TheGamer.com, and Superjumpmagazine.com, Cat is here to bring you coverage from all corners of the video game world. An inveterate RPG maven and strategy game enjoyer, Cat is known for her love of rich narratives; both story-driven and emergent.
Before migrating to the green pastures of games journalism, Cat worked as a political advisor and academic. She has three degrees and has studied and worked at Cambridge University, University College London, and Queen Mary University of London. She's also been an art gallery curator, an ice cream maker, and a cocktail mixologist. This crash course in NPC lifestyles uniquely qualifies her to pick apart only the juiciest video games for your reading pleasure.
Cat cut her teeth on MMOs in the heyday of World of Warcraft before giving in to her love of JRPGs and becoming embedded in Final Fantasy XIV. When she's not doing that, you might find her running a tabletop RPG or two, perhaps even voluntarily.