Lords of the Fallen: Harkyn up the wrong tree - Games Weekly

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Lords of the Fallen: Harkyn up the wrong tree

About a year ago we laid down an edict: “Thou shalt not constantly refer to Dark Souls in thine review of every game in existence.” That From Software’s defining action-RPG masterpiece pretty much cuts into the discerning gamer’s appreciation of other titles is one thing, but when a bright and breezy upstart plans on landing a punch right in the kisser of Solaire and friends, the gloves have to come off. Come at the king and you’d better not miss, as Vendrick might say…

Much like our first flailing lunge at the Capra Demon, Lords doesn't quit ehit home, and the results reflect this. Before we get to that, though, it’s worth pointing out that for all the many derivative Dark Souls nods, from the near identical control scheme, to the same emphasis on challenge in a combat system founded upon weight and inertia, we get the sense that Lords pinches its constituent parts out of love rather than a bold attempt to pilfer From’s vault. And some things are different.

Plot or not
For starters, Lords doesn't attempt to mystify with its setting, preferring a more straight laced locale and an equally upfront cast of characters to fill it. As bald and beardy badass Harkyn, you'll encounter a sassy lady sidekick, an old bloke with a staff, and other equally stereotypical fantasy types who you can converse with via dialogue trees. We call them trees, which implies they have branches, but that isn’t the case at all. Linearity isn’t generally a problem, but when your cast is about as interesting as a pensioner eating a bourbon (although with more tattoos than you might expect) you'll have every reason to give less than half a fig about Harkyn's ultimate quest to seal away the game's big bad Demons sorry Lords.

Said engagements do come with a satisfying sense of plodding progression. At first you feel incredibly sluggish, as Harkyn reacts to your button smashing with all the urgency of a Valium laced whale on a beachhead. But get into the swing of things and you’ll grow to appreciate a familiar ebb and flow, wherein timing is everything and knowledge of your foes is power. There’s a depth on offer that’s easy to appreciate as well. Each weapon has a different moveset, and some will be more useful to you than others depending on the situation. An obscure weapon levelling system jogs along underneath your advancement, which intrigues rather than confuses or frustrates.

Is any of this sounding familiar? Yep, pretty much everything good about Lords’ combat was good in Souls first. Unfortunately for Harkyn and co there are plenty of missteps, niggles, and downright frustrations served up alongside this melee main course.

Lord of the dies
Let’s get the big complex one out of the way. Say you’re having a hard time in Dark Souls or its sequel. You go in, you die. You go in again, you die again. Repeat. But with each failure comes a nugget of essential knowledge that will allow you to eventually succeed. Attempt the same fight some 20 hours later and you’ll breeze through it. Doing so will feel awesome. This sense of painstaking mastery is absent from far too many encounters in Lords. Too often, you’ll have
figured out the exact sequence of attacks, dodges, and so on in order to get your strikes in without taking damage. You’ve figured out the puzzle of the enemy then, right? Well, no Lords’ enemies require more hits than Rocky Balboa super glued to a circus elephant to take down, so rather than be frustrated because you’re dead and have to try again, often you’re frustrated because, well, it’s boring. And now you’re dead because you took a second to glance at your watch.
Aside from this reliance on patience over skill, there’s also the potentially more criminal lack of clarity when it’s time to get your favourite short sword unsheathed. Backstabs yes, the exact same ones from Souls rip the camera out of your hands and attempt to frame Harkyn and his foe in a cinematic embrace. Perhaps one in every ten times this works. The other nine you’ll be treated to an extreme close up of a bush or a rock or, if you're really lucky, a particularly fascinating wall.

This lack of clarity permeates into the design of the game world, too. Have a look at these screens and you’ll agree that Lords certainly looks the business. The lighting model in particular is at times spectacular, equally adept at delivering grim fog tinged graveyards as it is blustery marbled halls strewn with glistening blood puddles. But too often the critical progression path is cunningly
tucked away behind an obscuring rock or a red herring lever.

Free falling
In Dark Souls these quirks of the environment were masterfully crafted alongside groundbreaking shared world features. The absence of online functionality here in Lords, which is a wholly single player game, means that these design choices fall woefully flat and feel unfair; something, as tough as it was, you could rarely say about Dark Souls.

There is, though, one thing that might keep you going: the boss fights.

Again these are highly derivative (one scorpion like lady had us rolling our eyes harder than a bowling ball fired from a tank), but it’s undeniably good fun whenever you throw down against one of Lords’ titular behemoths. Each boss boasts the requisite tells, indicators hidden within their animations or sound design, to inspire experimentation in your approach (something many of the
regular enemies lack). Each also encourages a unique approach to best. The Worshiper, for example, summons in friends to help him out, making him incredibly tough to beat. But fire ranged spells at their cocoons before they arrive and you’ll breeze straight through.

So what happens when you swing and miss in a Souls game? You get utterly mullered, of course. Lords has its moments, and is not without redeeming features, combining graphical appeal with a handful of excellent encounters. But overall it attacks what makes Souls great with too little subtlety, and tries so hard to be it that it’s impossible not to measure the pair with the same yardstick. And who really wants to be compared so closely to the defining action RPG of a generation ?

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