The opening cinematic, which looks gorgeous, doesn't tell you much, if anything, about the story. It shows your character, Harkyn, barking defiance at a fallen god while battling a massive beast the size of roughly fifteen elephants stacked on top of each other. Harkyn fells it with one massive magical blast, which also bears little resemblance to the in-game action.
So let's skip past the cinematic and cut straight to the chase. Harkyn is a violent criminal who has been imprisoned for his crimes. The tattoos all over his face detail his crimes for all to see. However when the demon Rhogar army start threatening the world Harkyn is freed by Kaslo, who reasons that “only evil can destroy evil”. It's somewhat flimsy logic, but that's the idea behind Lords of the Fallen.
Before the game starts you get to choose your class; Rogue, Cleric or Warrior. They follow standard tropes – Rogues are fast and like to back-stab enemies, Warriors are hardy and prefer an “in your face” approach, while Clerics tread a middle ground. You also choose from one of three magic trees; Brawling, Deception and Solace. These mostly match up to the classes, with brawling magic suiting a warrior play style, deception suiting rogues, and solace suiting... everyone. Still, the choice is yours, so you are free to mix and match play styles.
There are a variety of weapons at your disposal including swords, axes and hammers, all of which deal damage based on Harkyn's strength. Other weapons, such as staves, daggers and fists deal damage based on his agility. Somewhat surprisingly there aren't any ranged weapons in the game, though you do pick up a gauntlet early on that can spit out magic (it's actually hate condensed into projectile form) for low-level damage.
The controls will be familiar to you if you've played similar games on consoles before. R1 swings your weapon, R2 does a special/heavy attack, L1 holds up your shield (if you have one equipped), and L2 either parries, or performs a special action depending on the shield you're using. Pressing triangle makes Harkyn hold his weapon with one hand, two hands, or sheathe his weapon in favour of the gauntlet. The ‘x' button will be your friend, because you use that to roll away from incoming attacks. You get a small period of invincibility when you roll, so if you time it right, Harkyn can avoid most damage. It's all quite intuitive, and works well for the most part.
Killing enemies earns you XP as well as increasing an experience modifier for each kill you get without dying. The modifier adds around 2% extra XP with each kill, all the way up to double XP. In a system akin to the Souls series you need to bank XP at checkpoints, or risk losing it all when you die. Should you die you have the chance to recover it by getting back to the spot you died, but if you die again it's lost for good. Banking your XP resets your modifier, making it a game within a game managing how much XP you're prepared to risk at any given time.
Another difference here is that even with a low equipment load, or using two hands on a weapon instead of one, Harkyn's attacks, and his recovery from them, are quite slow. Slow enough that you'll feel like your feet are knee deep in cement at times. The one caveat here is the ultra-light weapons such as daggers and fists are quick, but they deal significantly less damage. In my experience the mid-range weapons are a waste of time – they're not much quicker than heavy weapons and deal a lot less damage – so you're better off going all out.
Magic plays a significant role in enabling aggressive tactics too. Harkyn has a lot of different magic at his disposal, but from the get-go it's incredibly effective. Take Rage for example – it gives you a hefty defensive bonus and lets you ignore energy, meaning you can let loose with your heaviest attacks without worry for a short period. Or Daze, which slows any enemy in its area down to about one quarter of their normal speed, allowing Harkyn to chop them down with aplomb. Magic does have a cooldown but enemies are usually spaced out far enough apart that you can use a spell in every fight, giving Harkyn a huge advantage if used well.
There is no in-game map to refer to, which isn't a problem most of the time because the world, while not exactly small, loops back on itself a lot. Unfortunately the design isn't as impressive here as other games, and locations don't stand out as much, so it's not always easy to remember the best way back to “The Citadel” or “The Graveyard” , which is all the game will tell you. You'll find your way eventually – the game is rather linear – but a little more direction would have saved me some time.
That is a small issue compared to Lords of the Fallen's biggest issue, which is the camera. In general play the camera works fine, but once combat starts it's another story. The big issue is that almost nothing in the game becomes transparent if it gets between you and the action, so your view is constantly interrupted by things like trees, long grass and low ceilings.
In confined spaces the problems are even more pronounced, with the camera climbing walls, or spinning around to give you an uninterrupted view. You'll suffer more than your fair share of damage as the camera pans this way and that, completely obscuring your view on occasions. Strangely the one thing that can disappear for the benefit of the camera is Harkyn himself. Good luck dodging attacks when you can't see where you are!
In a first for my PS4, Lords of the Fallen also crashes spectacularly at times, resulting in the first “blue screen of death” I've experienced on a console. This isn't unique to the PS4 as it apparently happens on PC and XBONE as well, so is probably a coding issue. This might also explain why my PS4 sounded like it was about to take off at times – Lords of the Fallen sounded like it was working the PS4 very hard at times.
While the game does have its issues, one are it succeeds is in the visuals department. The opening cut-scene looks fantastic, as does the still shot of Harkyn you see when loading the game. It doesn't stop there either, as Harkyn and the enemies you encounter are all well-animated, moving fluidly and believably for the most part. More variety in enemies would have been welcome – you get spiders, hounds and a few different types of Rhogar – but what is here looks great.
There are a few issues, but they are of the minor variety. Firstly, the text is very small, probably better-suited to PCs. Unless you have a big TV prepare to grab your glasses, or spend some time squinting at the least. There's also a fair bit of clipping with the gear on Harkyn's person, e.g. swords going through capes, that kind of thing. And finally, the movement of characters during cut-scenes is noticeably strange. They jerk around unrealistically while talking; looking like a fit is just around the corner. It's a small thing, but noticeable as well.
Sound is another area Lords of the Fallen performs well, with great music throughout. Whether it be the tense beating of drums, haunting singing, or tunes that wouldn't be out of place in a fantasy or adventure film, the music does a great job of setting the scene. Ambient sounds, such as the whistling of the wind as you stand on the parapets of a castle are well done too. Combat sounds weighty and realistic, with every clash of sword on shield reverberating through the speakers.
The voice acting is mostly well done. Harkyn has a gravelly voice as you'd expect, while the other cast do a decent job in their roles. No-one steals the show, but the script doesn't give anyone the opportunity to do so. One issue with the sound is that a couple of times, after extended play, all of the voices cut out – this applied to cut-scenes as well as audio logs found on the ground. Restarting will solve the issue, but that's far from ideal.
In summary Lords of the Fallen is a decent game, but one I couldn't whole-heartedly recommend. It excels in the visuals and sound departments, but with one-paced combat, a camera that puts up more fight than any enemy, and a the odd bug that causes sound to cut out, or the game to crash, there are cons to every pro. It's not up to the standard of the best games in the genre then (looks towards Dark Souls), but if you love this style of action-RPG and can put up with the above issues Lords of the Fallen is not without its charm.
Review By: Mike Allison