Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Lords of the Fallen Review!


In 2009 Demon Souls was released and took the gaming world by storm, with some innovative game mechanics, an interesting multiplayer and extremely challenging gameplay. The game was the oasis of hope for gamers trying to escape the loop of hand holding games of that time. The Souls franchise expanded and with this a cult of elitists was formed that sees Souls as the new standard of difficulty and a trolling war started from here. While there are a lot of good things to say about the Soul series it isn’t as perfect as the fans would want it to be and putting a game on a pedestal is not a good idea. If you don't believe me, look at Dark Souls II.
It was only a matter of time until more games using similar mechanics came out and started to feast on the market that Demon Souls opened up. I will defer in this review from making too many comparisons with the Souls series, mainly because I'm not one of those experts at it and I don't find it that necessary.

Lords of the Fallen is a dark fantasy action RPG (we are playing fast and loose with the word RPG nowadays) developed by the German studio Deck13 Interactive together with the Polish studio and publisher CI Games. The executive producer for this title is Tomasz Gop, known for his work as producer of Witcher 2.
Lords of the Fallen is trying a slightly different approach to what made the Souls series so popular. And with an experienced producer, two studios behind it and a very powerful engine can things actually go wrong?

The story follows Harkyn, a bald convicted criminal with a face full of tattoos which are marks of his crimes (looks like Ragnar Lothbrok). He was just released from prison (I have no idea why exactly he was imprisoned) and brought to a monastery by his liberator to aid the leader of mankind in the fight against the demonic race named Roghar. By the time our hero (antihero?) got here it was already too late, the monastery was invaded by demons and nobody seems to be left alive.
The goal of our hero is to redeem himself by stopping the Rhogar invasion all by himself and kill all their Lords sent to our world by the fallen god Adyr. But as Harkyn cuts through the waves of demons and some of their Lords, he meets a woman (the only woman in this game), Yatka, who doesn’t seem to give a sh*t about what looks like the demonic  apocalypse and is more focused on finding a book of her family and the secrets hidden in it. Yatka plays a part in the story, but the action could easily move along without her, as all she does is act tough and wait for the hero in different areas to talk about things which have hardly any importance to a man who’s busy battling hundreds of demons in order to save humanity. It seems to me that the only reason she’s in the game is because there was a need for at least a female character, something that the gamers apparently want to see in RPGs.
The good thing about the storytelling in Lords of the Fallen is the fact that it is not forced on the player, having skippable cutscenes and short dialogues makes it easier to tune it out if you don’t find it appealing or in the eventuality of more playthroughs. Most of the information is provided through journal pages found scattered around the world. Ironically I found the content of these journals far more captivating than the main story.  These pages trigger audio logs filled with knowledge about this universe, listening to them can lead to treasures, secrets and can provide vital information about the Roghar Lords. The game is very stingy when it comes to lore and the information given is not enough to put the players in context with this new world that is presented to them, by the end of the game not much is known about what lies outside the walls of the monastery and I found myself craving for more information.
The quests are few and not underlined, except the ones that are part of the main story, which give a realistic feeling to questing and even confidence as the developers didn’t think the gamers need handholding in order to complete them, something that is seen rarely these days. Finding the quests through audio logs or getting them from various characters and attempting to solve them in a game without a map or a quest tracker (RPGs GPS) is a challenge. Choosing to ignore a quest may have unknown consequences that might be seen later in the game.
The plot of Lords of the Fallen is unimpressive and made my interest in it gradually fade, despite having a twist close to the ending (which I've seen coming really early in the game). The quest choices become nothing more than a bunch of statistics presented in the ending cinematic of the game.
Lobster hand.
Man she's ugly!

The world of Lords of the Fallen welcomes players who want to explore it and at first it does seem like there is a lot to be seen in it. Secrets play an important role and go hand in hand with the questing. Attempting to find secret areas by knocking down walls and opening all sort of pathways that could lead to better loot or entering demonic portals guarded by furious demons was quite enjoyable. It really felt at times like a dungeon crawler, especially because the game leads you to all kind of narrow dungeons. Sadly this entire experience could have been much greater if the game had traps and puzzles.
But as the game progressed and more pathways opened, I found myself running in circles, as many of the doors that were closed and which I was expecting to open later in the game to lead me to new adventures, were just shorter ways to come back to more central areas where the main story takes place. The level design is horrible at times, circling the player to frustration through areas barely populated with enemies. By the end of the game I came to realize that the exploreable world is extremely small and the developers attempted to hide this with back and forth movement to complete the main story tasks. This was a total letdown, especially after I got used with RPGs that go on for more than 50 hours in which they took me to all kind of places. I needed less than nine hours to see almost everything that can be seen in this game (on the first difficulty level), including finding all the quests I could find and by the looks of it discovering most of the secret areas. So I wonder, if the game is so short, why does it have such a steep price tag?
There is a system which allows for replayability called New Game + (and ++) which allows restarting the game using the same character on an increased difficulty level.  But as the new game starts it doesn’t take more than two fights to realize that the monster scaling is terrible, making these continued playthroughs a walk in the park. No new enemies have been introduced to make the new difficulty more exciting and the existing ones haven’t received any new abilities that players will have to accommodate to. The loot is the same as before with the difference that now it has better stats to be on par with the monsters’ increased damage and health, but the balance is way off and makes the players more powerful than they should be. I crushed the first three bosses on NG+ without using almost any of the tactics that helped me beat them on the first difficulty. The developers should have been prepared for the fact that players now know the tactics for each fight and something new is required to keep them engaged. Opening new areas to explore could have made the new playthrough worth the while, but instead the New Game+ system seems like a desperate attempt to increase the length of the game after realizing the end product is way too short (looks like it was designed in one night considering how badly balanced it is).
This doesn't look very safe.

The game mechanics are similar to those seen in the Souls series. Defeating enemies awards XP which can be spent to increase the character stats or the number of spells, the requirements for stats increases as more XP is spent to enhance the character. The tricky part is that the XP can only be spent at save points and dying between two save points will drop the XP under the form of a soul and all the enemies on the map will respawn together with the hero. Dying again after that will result in generating a new soul containing the XP accumulated so far and the loss of the unrecovered one together with the entire XP that it was holding. Death can't be taken easily in this game as dying repeatedly could make a character underpowered, it can be recovered through farming, but where is the fun in that?
Lords of the Fallen does bring some new mechanics to the table, to differentiate itself from the Souls series, under the form of a high risk - high reward system. A multiplier keeps adding up the more enemies are killed without stopping to bank experience or dying, exponentially increasing the experience gained from killing.
The character customization is fairly limited, with no customization allowed on our bald and rough hero. Before choosing a class, a magic school has to be picked. There are three types of magic in this game, each designed to work better with a certain class, but they can be picked freely with any of the available classes. While three is not such a bad number, when you combine it with four spells for each magic school, the math is not quite in favor of the game. The spells variety is irritating as the spells from each school serve almost the same role.
 The game has three (this seems to be the magic number) classes to pick from, each designed for the three types of armors present in the game and with different combat traits and useable weapons. The rogue is based on mobility using light armor, dual wielding small weapons and taking cover behind buckler shields. The cleric is designed to be more of a spell caster, a class in between the other two, wearing medium armor and wielding kite shields and hammers. This is probably the best class to get accommodated with the game. The warrior is slow due to the heavy equipment, the class is based on soaking hits while dealing damage and less on avoiding being hit, it can wield all kind of giant weapons and tower shields while wearing heavy armor. There are no restrictions to useable gear with the exception of weapons that require the main stat of a class to use it at full potential. The classes are not completely balanced (just like almost everything else in this game) with rogue being the hardest to master and warrior becoming some sort of facerolling halfway through. The lack of a ranged class made me mad about the character customization (being a big fan of ranged gameplay) way before the game’s release. The argument of not being suited for this universe is irrelevant as there are ranged enemies in the game. Most likely adding a ranged class would have made the designing of monsters a lot more difficult and the developers chose the easier road (because why not?!). There is a gauntlet that is taken early in the game and provides three (again?!) types of ranged attacks, but that doesn’t make up for everything.
You can level your character by spending experience into a basic and fairly intuitive attributes system and the chosen magic. While characters can be messed up by spending points on the wrong stats, I felt everything was quite natural and if a player is not entirely sure on what attributes to increase, after the first three boss fights everything becomes quite clear.
I found the Luck stat completely useless, because the game’s difficulty becomes easy early on and I didn't feel the need to increase my chance for better items at the expense of raw stats.
Soo many choices! What to choose?!?

The itemization in the game is varied from daggers and small shields to badass two hander weapons and tower shields the size of a wall. The loot is separated in different quality levels, the quality items drop chance being affected by different factors. One of the interesting ways to get an item of the highest quality is defeating the bosses in a certain way. This will award an item that can also use an ability similar to one of the skills used by the defeated boss. The art style of equipable gear is absolutely amazing, the design of armor sets is fit from head to toe and the design of the weapons and shields is a combination of art and destruction power. It felt great to walk around in a huge heavy armor that made me feel like a great warrior from the Warhammer universe.
There is a crafting system that revolves around the gems found in the world which can be identified and used to upgrade the items with sockets in them. Gems have to be identified in order to reveal their stats and experience can be sacrificed to increase the chance of getting higher quality ones.
I only carry with me items to gear up an army or two.
This crystal always drops for me!!!

 The combat system is at the meeting point between realistic, tactical and arcade. It relies on learning your enemy’s moves and patiently avoiding his attacks waiting for a window to counterattack. Every combat action requires energy, a renewable but limited resource that has to be carefully managed, when the energy bar is empty attacks become slower, blocks become ineffective and the character can't run. This energy bar adds to a more tactical approach of the combat, where every move has to be calculated and to add even more depth to this mechanic if attacks are timed perfectly in a combo their energy cost will be reduced. The health in this game can drop quite fast if not careful and there is no health regeneration and the number of potions is limited and can only be replenished at a saving point.
Sadly there is nothing surprising in the combat after beating an enemy once. After learning the moves of an enemy the second time I knew exactly what to do to end the fight quicker and without problems. This wouldn't be such an issue if there was a higher variety of enemies forcing a continuous learning curve on the player's part, but such is not the case with Lords of the Fallen.
The bosses are the cherry on top of the difficulty cake, the battles with them are challenging and some can be a little frustrating, but as soon as I understood the mechanics behind their moves everything turned into standard fights of patience and execution with a risk for greater damage taken. Bosses have different stages of combat which are triggered when their health reaches a threshold, which adds new abilities to their existent set of skills. Even so, many of the bosses were desperately yelling for new and more powerful abilities to defeat me and in some of the fights I felt like being the boss fighting a poor demon that is a Roghar Lord just with the name. The game is designed to penalize players for their own mistakes and reward them for their combat skills and in some battles this is true, timed blocks or dodges and calculated attacks are the key to victory, but as the game progresses, most enemies can be easily overpowered, ruining the concept behind this system.
No reason to panic.

The combat style is directly affected by the items, the lighter the armor the faster the dodging rolls to hit the enemy from behind or run away from their path. There are three stages of speed, affected by the type of armor and each of these stages is made to further differentiate the classes. Each weapon in the game has a different attack animation, which makes weapon picking more interesting as players want a weapon with higher stats, but also the new weapon animations have to be learned or they must fit with the play style used. All weapons can be worn with one or two hands, affecting their attack speed and damage. This allows for compromises between higher damage and survivability depending on the fight ahead. But the weapons balancing doesn't seem too fair, with two handed weapons hitting way too slow and not having enough damage to compensate for it.
To assist the player in combat, especially when fighting more than one enemy (which doesn’t happen that often), the camera can be locked on a target. This is a good and common feature used in action games, but what I found odd about it is the fact that it allowed me to slide past enemies easier, avoiding their attacks and hitting them from behind with much more ease.
Overall, the combat tries to be realistic and tactical up to a point, but I wanted the battles to feel like a duel between adversaries. I imagine a good combat system as a player versus player fight from various online games. The enemy has to be challenging, smart and not always predictable, otherwise the end result will always be an exploitable and predictable combat. I understand the reasons behind these mechanics, the game penalizes the player for his mistakes and the combat adjusts to this idea, but if the player knows what to expect the probability of mistakes lowers considerably. Surprise attacks that would put the player on a spot where he has to rely on his reactions and the fast judgment of an unexpected situation would clearly make the combat not only challenging, but more realistic and satisfying at the same time(not to mention frustrating, after all aren't these games all about that?). Despite all the problems listed above, I have to say that I did enjoy my time fighting demons left and right, using weapons that suited my style and of course abusing my gigantic shield.
Come to papa!
For those disappointed with the fact that the game is easier than they expected, don't be alarmed, Lords of the Fallen has a hidden difficulty that made me try the first boss for more than 30 minutes before actually killing him, for real, for the first time. My game crashed so many times and I had to restart entire areas and go fight the same enemies over and over again that my nerves were pushed close to the edge. And if crashes were the only problem, things would have been easier, but Lords of the Fallen is riddled with bugs and so many issues, it feels like a game in a beta test. The corpse physics is terrifying with bodies getting stuck to my character all the time annoying me and impeding my movement. Walls have no hit detection and weapons swing through like a lightsaber (but without the awesome melting effect). And after 9 hours into the game and close to 80% completion I managed to finish it early by falling into a pit from which there was no escape (must be some sort of secret ending!).
But probably the most annoying bug of them all is the camera control, I haven't seen such an annoying free look camera since the release of Guild Wars 2, but compared with that game, Lords of the Fallen has much more enclosed areas with dungeons and lots of tunneling areas where I was forced to fight most of the time. The camera kept coming all over my character and going crazy through walls blinding me, costing my character its life multiple times.
Looking back after I finished the game, I’m pretty sure bugs cost me more than 50% of my deaths, which is a terrible statistic for a game of this type.
The end...
Hard to describe what is going on here.

Probably this game’s strongest point is the tech and the production value that comes with it. Lords of the Fallen was conceived using the Fledge engine together with some Nvidia effects and PhysX. Even if the game doesn’t have the most artistic design, the graphical fidelity does manage to make up for this with its absolute beauty. The game looks spectacular, one of the best looking 3rd person games since Witcher 2. The particle effects are impressive and together with the volumetric lights and shadow effects of the highest quality I couldn't get enough of the images in front of my eyes. The textures show some weaknesses here and there, especially when it comes to body models and some of the walls and the water effects look like they are important from a different and less powerful engine reflecting non-existent surroundings. Even so, I found myself stopping from time to time to admire the gruesome view of the monastery, the sinister demonic realm or my badass looking character.
To complement the graphics and the combat itself, the animations are incredibly fluent and realistic I enjoyed them immensely. Is been a while since the characters I control in a 3rd person game didn’t have the movement of an animated doll. I wish more developers would follow this trend and if their engines can’t support some proper animations maybe use Euphoria animation engine which does an awesome job at this.
Imagine the tides!
I look awesome!

The sound seems to be designed with one main goal in mind, to enhance the combat experience as much as possible. I found the battle sound effects thrilling and they made every fight more enjoyable, as I was engaged in combat and I could hear the sound of enemy weapons hitting my shield and being repelled by it and the fully armored bodies of demons I’ve slain crushing to the ground lifeless and the chink of their weapon sliding on the ground causing me a sadistic pleasure.
The music is subtle, but extremely well done and provides a perfect balance between combat and moments of ambient silence. If there was something that bothered me related to the sound it is the voice acting, which seems rather out of context with the world and combined with terrible or no lip-sync saddened me as everything related to this was so perfect.
Only if you could hear the sound from this bridge.

Lords of the Fallen doesn’t want to be a Souls game, but uses most of the mechanics seen in that series and tries to differentiate itself by having an easier to grasp gameplay, but losing depth in the process. The game still tries to look like an experience that penalizes the player for its own mistakes, but it seems like it penalizes him for buying the game too soon. The amount of bugs and issues make the game insufferable and waiting for patches seems like the wiser thing to do at the moment. Even so, patches won’t be enough to fix this game completely, many of the problems being part of the game design and the small amount of content.
I did enjoy the moments in the game when bugs didn’t make me so furious that I wanted to throw my monitor out of the window, but this doesn’t make Lords of the Fallen less of a flawed game.
The developers never said that they wanted this to be a franchise and it will be up to discussion if the game sells well, it remains to be seen if future content through DLCs or maybe an expansion will transform it into a better game. And if a sequel is on the table, I do hope it will learn from its predecessor’s mistakes.

+ Great graphics and animations
+ Amazing sound effects
+ Awesome armor and weapon designs
+ Risk-reward XP system
+ Engaging combat
+ The setting

- Glitchy camera
- Lots of bugs
- Game length
- Crash fest
- Mediocre story
- Small enemy variety
- Poor optimization
- Questionable voice acting
- Lack of a ranged class


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