Lords of the Fallen faces a considerable challenge. In a post Dark Souls world, where the soulslike has become a well-charted and ever extensive genre unto itself, how do you make a dark RPG game stand out? FromSoftware has delivered over and over again, starting with Demon’s Souls, then the Dark Souls trilogy, Bloodborne, Sekiro, and most recently Elden Ring. Throw Nioh, The Surge, Blasphemous, Wo Long, and dozens of others into the mix, and you’ve got a potentially saturated buyer’s market, where any new soulslike might struggle for attention. But CI Games, creators of Lords of the Fallen, also see value in the long-reaching legacy of FromSoftware’s original opus. Speaking exclusively to PCGamesN, ahead of the Lords of the Fallen release date, creative director Cezar Virtuso and art director Alexandre Chaudret discuss the thrilling challenge of making a modern soulslike.
A remake, reboot, and reimagining of the 2014 original, Lords of the Fallen takes place between two dark fantasy worlds, Axiom and Umbral. Equipped with a lantern, while you navigate the living world of the Axiom, you can peer into the dead world of the Umbral, and your actions in one will affect the nature and structure of the other. In the era of the soulslike, this is one way that CI Games intends to stand out.
“We’re not going to hide that we have common ground,” Chaudret tells PCGamesN amid the chaos of Gamescom. “It’s the same genre. Call it soulslike, or animation-driving fighting, or dark fantasy RPG, we know we have common ground. I think what makes us different is our world. It’s much more allegorical. You go from a Gothic fantasy to something much more cosmic horror, almost Giger-esque with bones, giant statues, skeletons moulded together. It’s a question of resonance. You need to touch the very soul of people and go into deep thematics, not just the surface of fantasy like shiny armor and dragons.
“All of the armor is rusted,” Chaudret continues, “so it shows I didn’t have time to brush them – I had to fight again and again. Why is that guy crying? Why is this guy, who represents all the golden hope I had in fantasy stories when I was a kid, sad and with no more hope? It’s more about the torment of the people that were in here.”
Combat in Lords of the Fallen is weighty and physical – as you lug your tired, armored character into yet another battle, there’s a terrific sense of ardor which matches the game’s depleted and anguished world design. On the contrary, combat options from the original Lords of the Fallen have been greatly expanded and improved, and nimble, lightly-armored builds now offer a refreshing alternative. Inspired by the work of FromSoftware, Virtuso explains the challenges of making a great soulslike.
“The FromSoftware games are excellent,” Virtuso says. “You could dislike the genre, because you like soccer games or something, but these games are so masterfully crafted. They introduced so many new ideas to the table that we, the rest of the industry, can only be inspired.
“We were humbled. We went in with high ego, because we’re the Redditors, the guys posting s***. We come from the trenches. And we thought we knew a lot. But we were humbled by how little we knew in terms of creating compelling combat. Designing combat [for a soulslike] is incredibly challenging. The feedback came in, and we had to create ancillary systems and rework it and make it good.
“And then the level design has to be absolutely on point,” Virtuso continues. “These games live and die by their level design. The world needs to feel lived in, needs to feel real, and you need to see landmarks and not get lost. You need to go, discover, return, come back. It’s like working a Chinese puzzle box. It has to be bulletproof.”
But even if you get everything right, in a world of so many soulslikes, where the tropes and tenets of the genre are so well established, is there a risk of becoming lost in the crowd? Virtuso and Chaudret say they are worried about the amount of soulslikes out there, but also believe that if a game is good, players will come to it regardless.
“Yes, we are worried,” Virtuso says. “But at the same time if we’re true to ourselves and dig deep into our well, no one is going to reach the depths that we have reached.”
“It’s worrying in the sense that we want to succeed from a business standpoint,” Chaudret continues, “but I think players are not at all against just having more good games. If we do a good game, people will be super happy. It’s our job to make it as good as possible and then it will stand out because they will just like what they are playing.”
The goal, then, is to continue building and improving upon the FromSoftware formula. There might be a lot of soulslikes, but that doesn’t mean CI Games, Lords of the Fallen, or any other developer needs to abandon or upend the genre entirely. On the contrary, Dark Souls, Elden Ring, and the rest serve as inspiration for future, more individual interpretations of the concept. The answer, Virtuso says, is not to create the “anti Dark Souls,” but to continue searching for what makes these games powerful.
“This is a storytelling trick,” Virtuso concludes. “We, as humans, are more open to negative emotions. The bitter stories stay in your head more than the happy stories, because your brain tells you to remember the bitter story, so you can avoid the same outcome happening to you. That’s the secret. The fact it ends in sorrow, it makes it much more poignant.
“You can’t do the anti Dark Souls. You saw what happened to all the World of Warcraft killers. You cannot do a game that is the antithesis. You have to be true to yourself and reach as deep as you can into your well.”