Sunday, October 4, 2015

Lords of the Fallen - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

The Souls titles are undoubtedly my favorite games from the seventh console generation, and one of my favorite series of all time. I adored Demon's Souls when I played it back in 2010, but my true love affair with the series began with Dark Souls, the massively varied fantasy world spurring my interest over its muted and macabre brethren. Therefore you can see how I would approach a non-From Software effort with some trepidation—I've been so groomed on the Japanese titles that it felt weird merely browsing the unfamiliar menus in Lords of the Fallen. Despite that, I wound up completing the campaign and my conclusion for CI Games and Deck13's attempt at making a Souls game is that it turned out... alright.

Perhaps the easiest way for me to write about this is to first talk about the things Lords got right, and then the things it got wrong. One of the benefits of creating a game in the Souls' action/rpg genre is that there's no definitive formula for the games yet, so variations to some core mechanics are a welcome change. Lords isn't afraid to mess around either, as it slows the pace of combat down, eliminates shopkeepers, simplifies spell-casting and ranged attacks, and focuses on three "core" builds. And the change is good!... once you get used to it. I must confess that I grumbled my way through the first hour or so of the game, solely lamenting everything that felt weird (combat is weird! Shields are useless! Bosses can summon minions!) until I found myself getting into the groove of the game.

Right around the point where I jumped into the Keystone Portal is when I finally learned how Lords wanted me to play and respected the game for it. I had been trying to dodge and counter a lot, angry that my character wasn't as nimble as I wanted him to be... before I realized the usefulness of the spells. I would argue the make or break aspect of the game relies on how much you enjoy your handful of spells and their situational applications, as without them fights can seem unfair in medium/heavy armor. However with them, you realize you don't need to be nearly as dexterous or cautious about your stamina/health management; the flow of combat is dictated by which spell you use and finding an ample opportunity to get the cast off. I played as a Cleric, which gave me plenty of options to steamroll through the game as long as my spells went off (thank you regen!).

The best way I can describe the change in combat (and this may be a damning statement to some) is that it followed the same paradigm as 2012's Ninja Gaiden 3. Combat is streamlined as there's a noticeable flow to encounters, medium-low difficulty, and some satisfying action that you never have to think too deeply about. Sure there are some enemies you have to be wary of, but there's nothing demanding like Sen's Fortress or Shrine of Amana here. The bosses deserve a special mention for being pretty fun too—most of them unfortunately have a bit too much health and noticeable "phases" they go through (I groaned every time Annihilator would go into his lighting beam animation), but a couple of them (Champion, Guardian) were worthy opponents, turning our battle into a thrilling death tango.

Despite the generally good time I had, there's still a bunch of things that stick out as erroneous to me. The game is surprisingly short (10 hours) and hosts a meager five areas for you to explore, almost all of them featuring the same color scheme (blues and grays). The areas aren't really too different from one another (besides the Catacombs and its narrow corridors) and there weren't a lot of places where I was "wow'd" by the design. Backtracking is also pretty prevalent despite the brevity of the game, and while I don't mind it in most games, I feel the lack of variety here made traveling through old areas quite dull.

Enemies—while distinct—are also of a similar variety: hulking humanoids with burning skin. There are some exceptions to the rule of course, but most of them looked so similar that I wasn't sure if I was fighting a new variant at times or not. The weapons and armor for the game look really nifty as you collect more of them (the Griffin set is the best), but since you can't upgrade sets (beyond placing runes in them), you're entirely at the whim of find and collecting loot. That may not seem so bad to some, but as a Cleric I only had access to maybe six different Faith-based weapons the entire game, while Strength and Agility builds constantly got different equipment at almost every turn.

Lastly I should briefly mention that the story is far more prominent than in any of the Souls games, yet happens to be entirely insipid. The struggle of choosing between God or Man is an interesting platform to stand on, but the game doesn't seem to do much with it or even attempt to make any of its characters likable. Being given certain choices to make throughout the journey is cool but is hampered by how unremarkable the world feels, and by the time the credits rolled all I felt was indifference looking over my actions. The plot isn't offensive mind you—it's just utterly unambitious.

Make no mistake—Lords of the Fallen is not a Souls substitute. But rather than simply mimic its more successful predecessor, Lords honorable tries to alter the formula in a handful of ways. Some parts are a hit while others are a miss, but at least it felt like a different type of game by the end. While the combat is sluggish and the story is nothing to write home about, if you push past the awkward opening you'll find a pretty fun title you can spend 10 hours on. If nothing else, I'm glad there's another game in this barren genre, even if its quality falls a little by the wayside.

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