I’ve never been good at, or even especially drawn to, soulslike games. I’ve tried Bloodborne twice over the years and bounced off both times, struggled with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order the first time around, and only barely managed to scrape through Thymesia. In fact, the latter game is the one and only soulslike I’ve actually ever completed. That's where Lords of the Fallen steps in.
After spending some time with the game, I have a nagging feeling that Lords of the Fallen could well change my anti-souls stance. Not the 2014 original, of course, but this year's upcoming sequel that ups the ante with tougher combat, a novel dual-worlds system, and all the soulslike trappings fans of the genre have been longing for since Elden Ring.
One sunny Tuesday, I made my way to London - in a former tube tunnel turned venue, of all places - to spend a few hours with Lords of the Fallen. It went how you may expect: I died a lot. An awful lot, in fact. But there's something nagging within me that has me desperate to get my hands on the game.
A dose of death
Perhaps it's down to the affordances of my preview - a nice tutorial, tips from those familiar with the game, and a speedrun to the final, gruesome boss - but Lords of the Fallen immediately feels like a more accessible entry into the souls genre. Your base attack feels punchier, taking down early-level grunts in just a few swings, and the generous dodge and roll means you don't have to dither around with parries if that isn't your style.
But of course, Lords of the Fallen is no walk in the park. Enemies may be pound-for-pound less hard work than in other games, but the sheer quantity of them, in some pretty hard-to-manoeuvre areas, can make things a nightmare. There was one particular grunt that gave me plenty of hassle: an armour-clad seven-foot knight wielding a mace, charging at my lowly knight pretty frequently to spell the end of a then-successful run.
Yes, I ended up seeing the respawn screen an awful lot in the three hours or so I had with the game. Sometimes that can get inevitably frustrating, but Lords of the Fallen punishes you for trying to sprint through areas instead of methodically clearing out enemies. It might work up to a point, but you'll soon end up swarmed by grunts you should've decimated earlier.
The Umbral plane
The most unique gameplay aspect here is the dual realms of Axiom and Umbral. Axiom is the world as we know it, while Umbral is an alternate dimension that the player character can peer through via a magic lantern. Sometimes you'll need to enter the Umbral world to bypass environmental puzzles, or to uncover hidden paths you'd otherwise miss, which reminded me of the camera in survival horror gem Fobia: St. Dinfna Hotel.
However, it comes at a cost, because enemies are far more frequent in the Umbral. Lords of the Fallen uses the Axiom-Umbral dichotomy as a soft respawn mechanic: if you die in the Axiom, you'll awaken in the Umbral at the place you died, rather than going back to the last checkpoint. This is another incredibly intuitive feature that makes things easier for newcomers.
But of course, most people will be wanting to know about the boss fights in Lords of the Fallen. I only managed to get through two in my preview, with a final taste of getting absolutely humbled by another grisly boss at the very end. They were about as tough as you'd want a soulslike boss to be: absolutely devastating on the first few attempts, but with a clear strategy emerging as you gradually get a feel for their moves.
Equally, the game gives you optional buffs if you need it, which certainly came in handy as I was getting repeatedly pummelled by the first boss. In some instances you can react with a floating pile of blossom just outside an arena to summon an NPC ally to join you in combat. This doesn’t ruin the balance of the game because they aren’t the hardiest fighters, but it’s useful for gradually whittling down an enemy’s health bar and giving you a few moments respite while they soak up the damage. If you ever cheesed your way through an Elden Ring boss by getting your over-levelled friend to hop into co-op and assist you, it's a similar sort of thing.
The overall package
Even more than just the undeniably gripping gameplay, I often found myself astounded by Lords of the Fallen's presentation. It's one of the first triple-A releases to run entirely on Unreal Engine 5, and that definitely shows. Locations, especially wide open hubs, are utterly gorgeous, with sun-drenched vistas and separate shadowy areas especially standing out. Environments never look this detailed, and it adds to the overall immersion hugely.
The music is also stunning, with vast choir-based melodies often reminding me of the iconic Skyrim theme song. The game often feels epic in scale, and the dramatic tensions build up through the score only emphasises that. Alongside the incredible visuals and rewarding gameplay, it all amounts to a brilliant package.
If you're missing a soulslike in the year-and-a-bit since Elden Ring changed the landscape, Lords of the Fallen will perfectly fill that gap. As mentioned, I'm no natural of the genre, but even I can't wait to dive back in and beat the bosses that stopped me during my preview.
It seems that CI Games has really understood why the previous game may not have resonated with audiences, and is using a near-decade of retrospective experience to create a finely tuned and utterly engrossing take on the soulslike.
I went in expecting to be utterly terrible at Lords of the Fallen - and make no mistake, I was. But that's even more of the reason why I'm so eager to get my hands on it again.