In one way, and one way only, does Lords of the Fallen live up to its title: After falling in battle a countless number of times, you may feel as if you’re indeed a master of dying. Despite being more forgiving than Dark Souls and Dragon’s Dogma, though often equally obtuse and cryptic, Lords of the Fallen is still a painfully punishing game. It’s generous that crystal checkpoints are always placed just outside a boss fight—generous, that is, in that it helps you get killed again even sooner. Even playing as a Rogue, the lightest and most mobile of the starting characters, which include a Cleric and Warrior, the questionable dodging mechanics (which only sometimes provide a frame of invulnerability) and spotty camera seem designed to ensure that you stay down, regardless of whether you’ve long since memorized a foe’s attack patterns.
Ironically, it’s likely that fans of this sort of masochistic action-RPG will be disappointed in that Lords of the Fallen isn’t even harder, especially since the game provides a reward for those players accustomed to having fewer available checkpoints. Newcomers to the genre can protect their hard-earned experience by banking it at these save points, but they’ll find themselves relatively under-leveled (and having to grind) given that an experience multiplier accumulates the longer you chain together kills without returning to safety. Meanwhile, because there are no traps, relatively few enemies likely to kill you in one hit, and no respawns until a fresh loading screen, veterans will run roughshod through each zone. Even the boss encounters can be approached in singular fashion; only the Graveyard’s Worshiper cannot be reduced to a pattern of dodging, attacking, and dodging.
Lords of the Fallen is trying to Goldilocks it, neither being too hard nor too soft, and that lands it in the rather generic and unadmirable position that last year’s Bound by Flame found itself. It passably mimics other games while remaining hollow inside, an experience not aided by the story, in which a convict named Harkyn is freed as a last resort in stemming the demonic Rhogar assault on Keystone Monastery. Short of a slight twist toward the end of the game in which Harkyn is allowed to choose which side to sympathize with (the god Adyr or priest Antanas), the story largely exists in order to pivot from location to location, and is scripted as such. Supporting characters like Yetka, Kaslo, and the Guard Captain have no backstories and only the shallowest of motivations, and this only weakens the story when they suddenly show up, claiming an emotional connection that’s unearned and largely unfelt.
For those with the patience to dig into Lords of the Fallen, and it’s not clear which demographic that is, there are some nice rewards to be earned from beating bosses under specific conditions, and from wearing complete armor sets. There are secret passages hidden behind fluttering tapestries, though some of these revolve around the very spotty jump mechanic—which will often result in you rolling off a cliff. Without any in-game clarification or tracking, however, these seem designed more to sell strategy guides than to fairly challenge the player. This is especially true in terms of the way in which travel is handled. As with games of this nature, shortcuts are opened as you progress, but because many of these are doorways that mysteriously become unblocked without warning, and move from interiors to exteriors, it’s unnecessarily difficult to piece together how all of the various areas connect, especially with regard to the Rhogar dimension, which has but a single chokepoint through which to enter.
Any game as demanding as Lords of the Fallen needs to be equally precise in execution, and yet it often stumbles on the simplest things. Early on, you earn a Gauntlet that provides ranged attacks, but because it draws from your limited pool of magic, and is rarely as potent as the four spells you’ll gain access to, it’s mainly just another accessory. (It’s also frustrating to target enemies with it.) Likewise, by the mid-game, you’ll be able to install runes in some of your equipment, but the vast majority of them provide such minute boosts that the time-consuming task of finding a Crafting station, identifying a rune, and then sorting through equipment simply isn’t worth it. And ultimately, that’s Lords of the Fallen in a nutshell: Because this 20-hour grind has only roughly 10 hours of uneven content, it just isn’t worth it.