You know what's weird about people in The Elder Scrolls series? Everyone is remarkably cool with the existence of magic. If you're a goatherder driving your flock across the rolling hills of Cyrodiil, you're unlikely to see out your first week before you round a patch of scrub and find yourself face-to-face with a loudly incanting necromancer, strolling through the pickable wild flowers like a demonic Julie Andrews. But no-one ever does anything about this. Necromancers, demons and angry ghosts are just accepted as part of life on Nirn, like they were mosquitoes – even though what's really called for is for all the town guards with working knees to go up into the hills and give them a good kicking.
The citizens of the upcoming third-person, Dark Souls-inspired fantasy Lords of the Fallen take a more sensible view. After defeating their evil god (the titular Fallen) and purging their lands of his demon army, they created a harsh, puritanical society with no tolerance for maleficence and magic. The punishment for perceived wrongdoing (if you hadn't guessed from the pictures below) is to have a record of your crimes not just made public, but scrawled all over your face in permanently tattooed runes – which is why pictured anti-hero Harkyn looks so much like the frontman of a Finnish heavy metal band.
“They insisted that it was possible to purge humanity of all evil,” Tomasz Gop, Lords of the Fallen's creative director and previously senior producer on The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings tells Red Bull. “That ideology demanded results: criminals were branded, tattooed and shunned as the dregs of society.”
But in the tradition of so much good fantasy, it's funny how quickly people change their assessments of a hero's worth once a demon army rocks up at their village again waving swords and torches. In the world that German studio Deck 13 and Poland's CI Games (developers of Lords and the Sniper: Ghost Warrior series) are building, Harkyn isn't a knight in shining armour riding in on a white charger to the cheers of a grateful kingdom – he's simply the only chance they have left.
“To uphold the appearance of their own 'purity' at any cost, nobody would want to have any contact whatsoever with even a hint of the evil or the divine,” says Gop of Harkyn's predicament. “[The people's] reaction to the rumours of the reappearance of demons was 'send someone who is already tarnished and forsaken'. Harkyn is simply a hard man whose life was spent honing all sorts of violent and utilitarian skills. He holds no illusions as to the evil side of human nature and is ready to deal with it and with anything else in his way.”
It's an ugly situation brought about by ugly characters – but fortunately, that ugliness isn't something that seeps through into the game's visuals. The blustery snowscapes of the demo we've seen are a bright, refreshing contrast to the murky browns our eyes have become so adjusted to on the past generation of consoles. Armor gleams and fabrics ruffle.
Then, just to mix things up (and keep its plated boots planted firmly in the genre) we see the inside of a creepy old monastery; all gloomy, candlelit and swirling with dust. And while you won't be able to explore Lords' world as freely as you might Skyrim (it's a more linear experience than Bethesda's open worlds, though you will have reasons to backtrack through certain areas), Gop and the team are working hard to squeeze as much history and character into the game's environments as possible.
“We're looking at the game world as the iceberg beneath the tip that a rush through the main plot will show you,” Gop says. “It's less about map design and more about philosophy. From telling little stories through the environment, to hiding loot in remote corners, to seeding locations with additional lore, exploration to us means digging deeper and getting to know the world and the characters really well. I don't want Lords to compete with open world, non-linear RPGs, but we're putting quite a bit of effort into proving that a gameplay-driven game can still paint a fascinating vision of the world and tell great stories.”
But while Gop is keen to sell the world's lore, combat is the real star for Lords of the Fallen, drawing some (not entirely unfair) comparisons to Dark Souls with its focus on brutal, unforgiving scraps between the iron-clad player and (usually) just one or two enemies. A hack and slash, Dynasty Warriors experience this is not: despite his armour and beefy appearance, any false steps Harkyn makes in combat against the demonic Rhogar are punished severely.
Caution is the watch word in Lords' combat system. When you first encounter a demon in need of exorcising, you'll need to hang back, learn the enemy's attack patterns and figure out how best to use your skills and arsenal of weapons to slip through the cracks in its defense.
The first of the titular Lords that you'll fight, for example, is a towering, muscle-bound monster that stands easily twice Harkyn's height. He's got armor, a huge sword and a shield the size of a dinner table. He's also got a variety of attacks, but there's one swing in particular that leaves his sword stuck, fleetingly, in the ground – buying Harkyn a precious, tiny window to jump in and start whaleing on him with something suitably hefty.
But where these Lord battles differ to your conventional boss fight is that each of the Lords will change up their combat style when it stops working for them. In the case of this first boss, once you knock off a quarter of his health, he'll start making use of a ranged attack – swiping at the floor and creating a burning arc of fire to catch more defensive players off guard. Keep hammering him and eventually he'll come at you all out, abandoning his shield and launching into a kind of burning ballet manoeuvre, spinning across the room toward you – sword held out at about head-height – like a murderous top. All the Lords follow this multi-stage combat model, the idea being to keep the challenge of besting them fresh throughout.
“One of the key tenets of our design is the belief that learning and adapting is fun,” says Gop. “Our boss fights are built around evolving phases and specific ways of overcoming the Lords' strengths. The other, equally important half of the equation is giving players clues through animations, effects, the environment or even sounds. They can't be obvious – finding them has to feel like fun – but the bottom line is that they also need to make sense, not be arbitrary and too arcade-y.”
That doesn't mean that Lords will force you into being a jack of all trades – like any fantasy RPG, you'll be asked to pick a class and specialisations when you start. These won't be as limiting as you might think, though – a Rogue might have a natural predilection toward knives and faster, lower-damage weapons, but that doesn't stop him from picking up a massive a war hammer and having a go with that for a bit if the situation calls for it.
“The choice of class is unusual because it's made at the beginning and it defines the types of magic available for the rest of the game for that particular character,” Gop explains. “There's a world of difference between the Rogue's sneaky skills focusing on surprise attacks and critical hits and the Cleric's ability to restore and transfer energy but everything else is available for all characters to mix and match to your heart's content.”
“Aside from stat-based advantages, gear directly and visibly influences gameplay: heavier armor offers more protection but restricts movement speed and agility. That in itself requires learning a different timing and cadence of combat. Each weapon category has its own unique set of attacks and animations, many can also be wielded one-handed or two-handed. All this has tremendous implications because we're talking about different fighting styles, not just the same animation played faster or slower.”
The great leveller in the game's battles is magic. Available to all classes, magic won't necessarily win fights for you, but can be used to buy you breathing room – creating a ghostly version of Harkyn to temporarily distract enemies from attacking him, for example. Gop promises that there'll be rewards for players who can defeat the game's tougher enemies without turning to the occult, but if you're just not making headway with a particular Lord, a light spritzing of the supernatural might give you the leg-up needed.
All these interconnecting systems and visual goodies come at the price of Lords being exclusive to PS4, Xbox One and PC – there's none of the current fad of cross-generational fence-sitting that we're seeing with so many other early releases at the moment. But while that will surely disappoint gamers still sticking to last-gen hardware, the extra oomph provided by the new consoles was reportedly necessary to achieve the level of detail the teams at CI Games and Deck 13 demanded.
“We need to remember that at this point the Xbox 360 is almost nine years old!” says Gop. “That's an eternity even by current standards; so different from the PC gaming arms race I remember from the 2000s. [The new consoles gave] us much more creative freedom and more room for small details which would normally be the first in line for cuts in the name of optimisation. Better assets, more details, more animations, more complex lighting... [these are big] challenges on the design and production side. Not having to worry as much about fitting them all in is a blessing, especially for the relatively small team we're building Lords with.”
It's almost miraculous that something built by such a small team could already look so polished. Perhaps it's unfair that when Lords of the Fallen was first unveiled it was tapped as following so doggedly in the bootprints of the Souls series – a Dark Souls-lite. But the more we see of its bright, crisp world and its troubled history with demons and magic, the less we think that sticks.
Lords of the Fallen is carving out its own place among the next-gen, triple-A titles launching toward the end of this year, with a focus on new hardware that could see it stack up very well indeed against the cross-gen stable of the bigger, better-known studios. If you're a Souls fan in need of another hard fantasy fix or a genre newbie just looking to get some mileage out of your shiny new console, Lords of the Fallen should definitely be on your watch list.