Imitating the infamous Souls-like formula is no small feat, and Lords of the Fallen knows it. You can’t just copy and paste Dark Souls and call it a day anymore, which is forcing developers to find new ways to innovate the genre. Already this year we’ve had the mechanically tinged take in the form of Lies of P, but Lords of the Fallen takes it one step further by delivering a distinct mechanic that completely changes how you play the game. But is it enough to proudly stand as part of the Souls-like pantheon? Well, the answer to that is a decidedly mixed bag.
Lords of the Fallen drops you a thousand years deep into a timeline established by the 2014 game of the same name. The demonic God Adyr, imprisoned for millennia, is back with a vengeance and spreading their evil across the lands of Mournstead. It’s up to you, a Dark Crusader and Lampbearer, to defeat Adyr and end their malicious rule of tyranny. True to the genre, Lords of the Fallen takes a laid back approach to its storytelling, and for the most part lets the world do the talking. From frosty peaks to swampy bogs, you’ll soak up each and every detail of its world, and it’s a brilliant feeling as you piece it all together.
If you’ve ever played a Souls-like before, then you mostly know what to expect. Crunchy combat, difficult enemies, shortcuts to unlock, and Vestiges (bonfires) to activate. Earning Vigor, the game’s currency, you’ll steadily upgrade your character’s stats and weapons, which you'll come to use when you face off against one of the game’s bosses. This part of the game, when looked at in isolation, is good, but not incredible. Combat never feels quite as finely tuned as something like Elden Ring, enemy variety leaves much to be desired, and the space between Vestiges can seem unfairly far apart. Even the boss encounters, while fun, don't really evoke that sense of awe that you can find elsewhere in the genre. Thankfully, this is where the dual world mechanic comes in, elevating the entire experience above being just another Souls copycat.
In Lords of the Fallen, there are two concurrently existing worlds: Axiom, the world of the living, and Umbral, the world of the dead. With the help of your Umbral Lamp, you are able to peer into this other world, or even transport yourself there entirely. On initial impression, this mechanic may seem a little gimmicky, but spend a bit of time with it and you’ll realise that Axiom and Umbral are woven into the game's DNA.
At its most basic level, Umbral unlocks new pathways for you to progress through the world, with ladders, bridges, and opened doorways that aren’t present in Axiom. However, this mechanic also effectively gives you a second life, as whenever you die in Axiom, you’ll be sent to Umbral with one more chance to carry on. The thing is, Umbral can be more of a curse than a blessing. You will receive a Vigor multiplier, but creatures of the dead will now be on your tail on top of the regular enemies that roam Axiom. The longer you're in there, the more hostile and overwhelming enemies become, before eventually, your healing items are locked off and you are pursued by a near unstoppable creature.
Partner this up with the Vestiges that are few and far between, and taking a trip to Umbral becomes seriously risky. Certain points allow you to transport back to Axiom and you can plant temporary Vestige seeds, but they need to be clear of enemies, which often left us sprinting through packed corridors with thousands of Vigor on the line, praying for a way out. Moments like these had us gripping our DualSense like our life depended on it. It’s utterly thrilling.
Once you become accustomed to the risks, switching between Axiom and Umbral becomes a proverbial game of cat and mouse. You can access Umbral walkways by simply peering through the lamp, but you're exposed. If an Axiom spawn point is nearby, you can switch to Umbral to gain the ability to earn your entire health back, rather than using one of your precious healing items — but there's also the risk of losing it all. Later on in the game, there are pretty damn tough enemies that call Umbral home, but some of the best resources can be found there. Deciding when and when not to switch between Axiom and Umbral adds an entirely new dimension to Lords of the Fallen, and it's easily our favourite part of the experience.
Part of what makes this entire mechanic work so well is the visual presentation. Running on Unreal Engine 5, Lords of the Fallen is easily one of the best looking games on PS5, and similar to the Demon’s Souls remake, you’ll feel the history in every castle wall or abandoned village. Peering through the lamp or switching to Umbral instantly transforms your surroundings into some mutated hellish landscape. It’s exciting to have a game that's fully embracing current-gen, and even 40 hours in, we're still impressed by how flawlessly the two worlds tie into each other.
Sadly, performance-wise, the PS5 version of the game has some issues. The title was in a pretty rough state when we first received our review code, but a couple of updates later solved almost every problem we had. That being said, just a day before release at the time of writing, the game still suffers the occasional frame rate stutter and the odd issue with audio. In its current state it never quite spoils the experience, and we suspect a day one patch will iron out most of the remaining issues.
As a final note on the PS5 experience, DualSense haptic support is pretty decent. The vibrations in particular are well attuned, although never quite hitting those PS5 exclusive levels of detail — and adaptive trigger support is a little muted.
Lords of the Fallen is an exciting kind of Souls-like. Whereas many others aim to perfect the formula, Lords of the Fallen’s goal is to innovate. It certainly has its own array of problems, like lacking audio, repetitive enemy types, and combat that could be tightened up a little. However, when the game sinks its claws into you with its thrilling dual world mechanic, you won’t be able to get enough of it.