This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Lords of the Fallen.
It is an unfortunate fact of life in the world of entertainment that the unique is rarely successful and indeed that the successful is rarely unique. And when the dread god Cthulhu in his cosmic throne crosses his legs and sneakily cracks one off, causing the stars to align and something to come out that is both unique and successful, it's all but a guarantee that it will not be remaining unique for very long as the imitators arrive to bring out a few golden calves for everyone to worship while Moses is fannying about up the mountain.
Dark Souls, for example, was a great game and pretty unique in this day and age for having gameplay more complicated than a fucking traffic light, so here comes Lords of the Fallen to hoover up everyone still milling around in the same comfort zone. Not that I want to imply that setting out to rip off Dark Souls is lazy. It's not like Flappy Bird where you can have twelve of them out by close of business the same day. Dark Souls is huge, complex, tightly designed and attracts a middlingly rabid fanbase. Imitating it isn't lazy, it's just suicidal!
So you remember how Dark Souls had this intro cinematic showing old timey war between ancient heroes and it wasn't immediately obvious why until later after you meet every single one of the motherfuckers and dodge-roll them to death? Lords of the Fallen does a slightly similar thing. It shows an intro cinematic of the main character having a fight with a giant monster. And again, it's not immediately obvious why, and then I played through the whole game and it still wasn't. Maybe it was some kind of proof-of-concept animation they threw in when they didn't have time to make a proper intro, 'cos at the end of it, a caption comes up that essentially says "Meanwhile, over in the real plot..."
We start in medias res with the protagonist, Harkyn, as in "take that dog into the garden, he's about to start harkyn all over the carpet", entering a monster infested citadel for unclear reasons, and I can picture a conversation taking place between the creators:
"Let's keep the story to the background and let players piece it together from context just like Dark Souls."
"Yes, that way we can have a story that doesn't interfere with game flow."
"But we don't want to be accused of ripping Dark Souls off, so let's also put in a bunch of clunky dialogue trees with twats!"
"Ye-mmm, uh, hmmm."
Another way Lords of the Fallen seems to have taken great pains to differentiate itself from Dark Souls is to take Dark Souls's very clean and efficient visual design and hardcore it up a notch or twelve, so that means Harkyn looks like Kratos cosplaying as War from Darksiders with more belts than a depressive Sunday afternoon whiskey binge and monster-faced pauldrons so large you might as well have strapped a washer-dryer combo to his shoulders. You know, that whole overdetailed "concept artist mistakenly submitted the design he'd been doodling on for the last half hour" school of aesthetics where the first enemy of the game is a huge demon soldier all armor and scar tissue with a flaming skull for a head and one motorbike short of an Iron Maiden album cover. But when you start at that level, you got nowhere to go, have you? It doesn't take that long to upgrade yourself to the point that the starting enemies go down in less hits than a carton of Um Bongo, and suddenly looking badass carries no credibility whatsoever.
Well, so far I've mainly been going on about how Lords of the Fallen isn't like Dark Souls, so let me clarify. It's a hacky-slashy RPG with combat based around shielding, dodging and stamina management; the enemies come back when you die, and your health potions are refilled at checkpoints. So its intention to imitate is written in neon letters on its giant spinning bow tie. There are tweaks to the formula: you can use a checkpoint without bringing the enemies back but your experience multiplier resets when you do, forcing you to weigh up the pros and cons of pressing onwards as playing safe. But Dark Souls had the same dilemma anyway 'cos the enemies did respawn when you used the checkpoints, so we haven't gone anywhere, we've just rearranged the furniture a bit.
It's also a much more linear game. Occasionally there are two paths to take, but only one is the right way and one is a way you're supposed to take later on and you find out which is which by seeing whether or not you're not immediately reduced to the dimensions of a sheet of greaseproof paper. It's also a lot shorter, and I get the strong feeling shorter than the developers originally intended, from the way one or two boss monsters show up without warning or ceremony in areas that have already been used for something else, like a wide-eyed first-timer being suddenly shoved onto stage to fill in a ten-minute gap at the open-mic night.
But the funny thing about Lords of the Fallen is that I do have my complaints about Dark Souls, and Fords of the Lallen takes every single one of them and runs with it. For example, I was annoyed how often Dark Souls II fell back on boring old dudes in armor; common monster here, a boss fight there, those dudes in armor everywhere. And lo and behold, that's pretty much all you fucking fight in Lords of the Fallen! That, and the occasional malformed multi-limbed horror like someone smashed two Plasticine dudes in armor together. Also, while Dark Souls' hit boxes were taking no small amounts of piss, Fjords of the Lawnmower is smuggling two kegs of urine under its absurdly large pauldrons. You can get hit by an attack that happened in the next room on this day four score and seven years ago!
As I said, to deliberately evoke a popular game so heavily always feels like a very illogical move because the comparison is as unavoidable as it is unfavorable. But even by its own merits, Inlets of the Hedgetrimmer falls short. I think the environment artist got as far as writing down "snowy castle" before someone hammered a nail into a wall two streets away and they were immediately stunlocked and hurled from their chair. You are never not in a snowy castle! In fact, at one point you pass through a portal into the demonic realm to meet them on their home turf, and it too is a fucking snowy castle! It's like the dandruff sufferer's annual European heritage sightseeing tour. 'Cos this is what happens when you overdesign. Everything looks the same, buried under unnecessary details and belt buckles. Plagued by invisible walls as well. I have fond memories of my attempt to sneak up and backstab-up a guard being foiled by him cunningly having stood on the far side of a slight incline in the ground.
All in all, Fallen is a game pushing to do too much with not enough, spackling the holes where creativity fell short until the spackle is all I can see. Ambitious, in a way, analogous to setting out to transport nine tons of sand using only your mouth.
Fallen off his chair: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I guess they took to wearing all the belts because their high school bullies kept pulling their trousers down
So few opportunities to use the word 'pauldron' these days