With the spawn of the Souls series, gamers around the world have developed a soft spot for controller breaking games with horrendously difficult barriers of entry. Lords of the Fallen is Polish studio CI Games' first attempt at imitating the franchise's success – but does it stand up to its competitors?

While the Souls series often relies on theory crafting or cryptic messages, this game takes a much more direct approach to storytelling by following the tale of a single character, Harkyn. This means that there isn’t much in the way of visual customisation, but class choices and spell lists allow for a decent amount of personalisation for each adventurer’s play style. The protagonist is only joined by a select few non-playable characters, each fairly dull with simple goals.

The plot shares a similar fate. It’s fairly predictable and bland, but player actions can and will affect the ending. Not only do the multiple conclusions give you an incentive to replay the story multiple times, but in New Game + and New Game ++, new items and spells can be acquired, augmenting an additional reason to further explore the Rhogar-infested lands.

Gameplay focuses heavily around managing an energy bar, player positioning, and attack animations. Overseeing each component is pivotal since even the smallest of enemies can effortlessly kill an inexperienced player. Swinging weapons costs energy, but perfecting the timing of each blow consumes half the stamina, and will even prompt special high-powered animations with certain weapons.

The weapon selection is about what you would expect from a medieval-themed game. One interesting feature is Harkyn’s gauntlet, which can be equipped at any time to fire one of three different upgradable projectiles.

Clearly inspired by the Souls series, Lord of the Fallen shares the same steep difficulty; just when you feel comfortable with the controls and mechanics, something new will come along just to remind you that you have a lot to learn. From the start to the end, this schooling process consists of a curriculum of death and frustration. Dying results in dropping all of your currently held experience in a ghost where you fell, but unlike the Souls series, often times enemies won’t respawn, leaving a clear path for you to crawl back to your spirit. If you’re unlucky and still die on your way to the phantom, that experience will be permanently lost.

Not everything is about punishment, though. Each enemy killed adds to an experience multiplier, allowing skilled gamers to quickly become more and more powerful. Banking experience at a checkpoint will reset this multiplier, so it’s up to you to decide how far you want to push without spending your all-important income.

Player movement is smooth and feels responsive, whether you’re equipped with light armour or heavy armour. Dodging enemy attacks often feels fair, with a generous invincibility window, yet the occasional enemy swing will connect even when clearly outside of the player hitbox. All in all, it’s a satisfying combat system that’s incredibly tough, but a just one if you learn all of its intricacies.

Rolling around the various worlds between the human and the Rhogar realm is visually pleasing, but can feel a bit repetitive at times. Assets are occasionally reused – even to the point of duplicate playable paths – but the overall theme and mood of the game is satisfying. Map layout is generally fairly straight forward and linear, making it easy to navigate from objective-to-objective. There is a little wiggle room with side quests, though, giving enough freedom and choice to those stuck on a particular boss or difficult enemy.

However, the idea of a ‘boss fight’ is a bit different here, as some of the enemies who play more traditional boss roles return as standard foes later in the game. It’s just another reason to always be aware of your surroundings, and always know your adversaries. To make matters worse, it’s not uncommon for bosses to glitch and bug out. Since each boss fight has multiple phases, sometimes your antagonist will become stuck in-between these. This is particularly annoying when they are nearly immune to damage, forcing you to either give up and die or fight a hopeless battle. It might not happen frequently, but when it does, it’s horribly off-putting for a game that’s already pretty difficult.

Unfortunately, you won’t have any friends to help you either. The entire experience is single player here, unlike its immediate contemporaries. It’s a shame that there aren’t any co-operative or competitive features included considering the steep difficulty curve, as there’s a strong chance that you’ll be scouring the Internet for support regardless.

Conclusion

Despite the dull plot, basic character design, and occasional buggy boss fights, the overall mood of Lords of the Fallen is fantastic – even if you’re forced to play it alone. The punishing difficulty may not please everyone, but fans of the Souls series should definitely consider taking a swing at the Rhogar. Those looking for a quick and easy adventure should duck and roll elsewhere, though, as this game will test your patience, skills, and dedication.