Surrounding me are other journalists, and representatives for the game, and they’re all talking about the same thing. It’s the only thing they’ve talked about, really. It isn’t Lords of the Fallen – it’s Dark Souls.
Dark Souls is more than just an easy point of reference for this new action-rpg from Bandai and Square – it’s its only reason for existing. The game is unabashedly capitalising on the huge and unexpected success of the Souls franchise (and to an extent, perhaps, the growing excitement around spiritual successor Bloodborne). It offers what the developers hope will be a more user-friendly and accessible, but still familiar, experience to that famously brutal series.
Lords of the Fallen lifts whole-cloth from its inspiration, with many mechanics simply identical in form, function and even name. It’s not necessarily a bad thing in theory – there are lots of really good games out there that are based more on iteration than innovation. I suspect, too, that there probably is a market for a more forgiving Dark Souls. Successfully copying another game, however, is a deceptively difficult thing to do.
The problem is that while it’s easy to point to which elements of a game are fun, it’s much trickier to identify exactly why they’re fun. Truly great games consist of a huge amount of carefully interlocking pieces, united by a central design philosophy – if you don’t understand that design philosophy, then you’re not going to understand the full significance of any given piece, and how it connects to other pieces.
Take, for example, Dark Souls‘ death system. When you die, your total experience points are left where you fell, and if you want them back you have to fight your way to them through respawned enemies. Die again and they’re lost. Lords of the Fallen copies that system exactly. It’s a central mechanic in Dark Souls, creating tension and risk/reward scenarios, and firmly drilling into you the importance of learning the game’s levels. In Lords of the Fallen it loses meaning; because the game is, consciously, much easier, with less overwhelming enemies and more frequent checkpoints, any given run back to your point of death is short and tensionless, and picking up your XP is just busywork. The system can’t justify its existence in such a different context.
I go into a room and, unexpectedly, I’m in a boss fight. After a few failed attempts, it becomes clear that I’m just not doing enough damage – chipping his huge health bar down is going to take far too long to be feasible, no matter how skilfully I play. I decide that I’ll just spend the large stockpile of XP I’ve collected on raising my Strength, allowing me to use a more powerful weapon. The problem is, I have to go into the boss room to collect my XP, and once I’ve gone in, I’m not allowed to leave to spend it. My choice is between abandoning it and grinding other enemies for a new stockpile of XP, or throwing myself against the boss over and over knowing that even a successful attempt will take a tediously long time.
It’s a problem Dark Souls had too – but in that game the mechanic served an important role. Here it’s lost its purpose entirely, and only its flaws have been preserved.
I look at the three journalists around me. We were the early birds – the first to arrive – and each of us is playing through the game from the start. Before we began, while consoles were still being set up, the three of them spoke of their inability to connect with Dark Souls. It was, they agreed, too frustrating, too punishing. I seemed to be the only unabashed fan of the series among them. Perfect, I thought. These are the people this product is for, this more accessible, more forgiving experience. If I don’t enjoy myself but they do, I’ll know that the developers have succeeded in their goal.
And yet, I’m the only one making any progress. While I’m sprinting through, falling back on muscle-memory and dredging up old techniques, those around me are sighing in frustration, and struggling to understand their options. Despite promises of a more expansive and informative tutorial than Dark Souls, the irony is that far too many mechanics are left unexplained because of an assumption that you’ll have played through that game. While I’m happily chugging health potions, having correctly guessed there’d be an equivalent to Dark Souls‘ Estus Flask, others have no idea they’re even there. Likewise for back-stabbing, parrying, jump-attacking and a host of other mechanics. Ultimately I am the only one of the four of us to not give up in frustration before the second boss. The game appears to have missed its target audience.
The few other things Lords of the Fallen does try to do differently from its inspiration are, in the few hours I played, equally unsuccessful; it casts you as a set, named character instead of a customisable but personality-less wanderer, but the protagonist is about as forgettable and unlikeable as they come; it goes for a more coherent, accessible story, but the writing is stilted and odd, featuring nonsensical moral choices; it gives you a more linear path rather than dumping you into a daunting open world, but it somehow feels both claustrophobically penned-in, and confusing to navigate, and loses any sense of wonder in exploration.
It’s not a terrible game by any means – it controls well enough, it looks good, and there are hints of interesting spells and abilities to come later on. I only played the first few hours, and there’s every possibility it opens up and finds its feet as it goes. The problem is that, by its own actions, Lords of the Fallen exists firmly in the shadows of an immediately better game, and that’s not an easy path. It may, in fact, be the hardest one of all.