FromSoftware is almost certainly waiting until next year now to release Elden Ring DLC Shadow of the Erdtree, so in the meantime, how about a more traditional take on the Dark Souls formula? Developer Hexworks is resurrecting the Lords of the Fallen IP following its forgotten 2014 instalment with a bigger and hopefully better game that's boasting of ideas you won't see anywhere else in the genre. We recently had the chance to play the PS5 title's opening three hours, and it is the duelling worlds of Axiom and Umbral that will separate it from any other Souls games not made by the famous Japanese studio.
Without the presence of two linked — but quite different — worlds, Lords of the Fallen would be just like any other Souls-like. Having created your character and selected one of the nine different classes, you're thrust into a dark, damp, and depressing world full of enemies looking to deplete your health bar. Bonfires are called Vestiges, the currency used to level up is Vigor, and a hub area awaits with NPCs telling you vague tales of the universe. There's even a class that looks like it's been ripped straight out of Bloodborne — aesthetically, at least. Lords of the Fallen is unapologetically a Souls-like; it's not afraid to wear that badge on its sleeve.
There have been a lot of copycats over the past 10 years, though — the original PS4, PS3 game was actually one of the very first — so Hexworks has brought some of its own ideas to the table. The most impactful is its structural decision to have two concurrent worlds running alongside one another at the same time. Axiom is the world of the living while Umbral is the world of the dead. Your character is equipped with an Umbral lamp, and with Axiom acting as the default play space, you can use it to peer into Umbral and get an idea of what's happening on the other side.
This is vital for progression as you'll encounter roadblocks in Axiom that force you into Umbral in order to get around them. Be it a swamp stopping you from getting to the other side or a path that's succumbed to the weather, you must step into the world of the dead to find a way forward. The thing is, though, getting back isn't nearly as easy.
The Umbral lamp will happily transport you to the land of the same name, but it's not interested in taking you back to the living. Instead, once you've done whatever it is you need to do in Umbral, you'll have to keep going to find an Emergence Effigy — only interacting with this returns you to Axiom. And the journey to find one isn't going to be particularly smooth, either. While you're in Umbral, a new mechanic called Dread continually ticks over. The longer you spend there, the more powerful its enemies become.
As such, Umbral presents a risk-reward conundrum where part of it is essential to progression, but then you can choose to stay there for longer in order to source more Vigor off better enemies. In the first three hours of play, at least, the mechanic seems well-implemented. An abandoned village eventually gives way to a church (your hub area) and then an awful, swampy setting that could be just around the corner from Blighttown, and the Umbral lamp came in just as handy as the sword and shield in our tight grip.
Moths hang around in the environment when there's something to see, and then you can make the decision to transition to Umbral or remember the spot for later when you come up against an obstacle. The Umbral lamp also introduces the concept of Soul Flaying, which pulls the soul out of an enemy and slows them down. With limited uses — it's refilled in Umbral by absorbing charges — you can get some easy damage in on a more powerful foe.
And while the Umbral lamp hands you the choice of visiting the world of the dead, you won't have a choice when you perish yourself. Dying in Lords of the Fallen automatically places you into Umbral to give you a second chance at a boss or another shot at progression. It's sort of like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, except you're transported to a darker version of the world when you're resurrected. Then, it's another Emergence Effigy you'll need to return to Axiom.
Returning to more familiar Souls-like surroundings, Vestiges are where you'll restore health, fast travel, and access online functions. Your character can be upgraded across Strength, Agility, Endurance, Vitality, Radiance, and Inferno. In a cool twist, you can actually plant your own Vestiges out in the open world in specific flowerbeds to go alongside the set checkpoints.
We played the game on a PC using an Xbox Series X|S controller, and our only real concern is the frame rate. Obviously, we were playing a pre-release build ahead of the 13th October 2023 release date, but the game was suffering very heavily during boss battles and encounters with a lot of enemies. A quick check of the settings revealed our build was targeting 60fps, but it failed to do so when named combatants were on screen much of the time. Since release is still a few months away, we're hoping the issue will be cleaned up in time.
On the whole, though, the experience seems to be coming together nicely. The duelling worlds of Axiom and Umbral are doing a lot of the heavy lifting to set Lords of the Fallen apart from its peers, but as they're so vital to the core of the experience, they feel very well implemented rather than tacked on. In them, you'll find a typical Souls-like undertaking that's — based on the first three hours, at least — setting itself up to land in the upper echelons of the genre. We've got a Nioh 2 on our hands rather than, well, a PS4, PS3 era Lords of the Fallen.
Lords of the Fallen releases for PS5 on 13th October 2023. Are you excited about this new Souls-like experience? Let us know in the comments below.