Look, the statement "I liked a game the more I played it" shouldn't shock anyone—heck, I liked Lords of the Fallen the first time I played it, too. I do, however, think the amount of fun I'm having now on my second go around makes me wonder why the irritation of my first trip was necessary.
When the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in 1597 that "knowledge itself is power", he was talking about Dark Souls. He just didn't know he was talking about Dark Souls.
Anyone who's played and beaten Dark Souls will remember the power rush of going from terrified adventurer to tearing ass through the Undead Burg. Learning a soulslike's ambushes, hidden items, boss tactics, and of course "getting good"—that all serves to turn these games from nightmares to power fantasies. Lords of the Fallen, though? I've never felt a gulf of enjoyment between my first and second characters this strong before.
Some context, in case you've not read my review. Lords of the Fallen's a pretty dang good game. Combat feels great, weapon variety's massive, the Umbral Lamp's a unique, if underutilised, touch. I enjoyed it.
Unfortunately, my experience was dragged down by enemy placement so hostile it bordered on obnoxious in the mid-to-late game. Ambushes are extremely common, creating weird fluctuations in difficulty that—even as a seasoned soulslike player—I just found annoying, more than anything else.
That made my first 33-hour long stay at the casa del Mournstead a complete rollercoaster. One moment I'd be grooving to the back-and-forth rhythm of a great boss battle, or marvelling at an Umbral vista. The next I'd be sighing as an unseen imp ejected me off a ledge—after the game asked me to go into the Umbral realm where death is permanent, of course. There's also the enemy density thing. You get swarmed a lot.
Hexworks has already been fine-tuning the game, slowly but surely addressing my complaints. The first patch lowered the damage of most zombie-type enemies, while another patch massively sped up the animation you do to retrieve your vigor (souls) from the dirt after death. But that's not really why I'm having a better time.
Lords of the Fallen's most frustrating elements—its biggest difficulties—lie almost entirely in its surprises. It's obsessed with sweeping the rug out from under you whenever it can, and its first-time experience suffers for it.
I'm having a better time because those annoyances—the ambushes, the crowds, the archers, the dogs (don't get me started on the dogs)—I know where those are now, because a lot of them killed me at least once. The elite enemies, which are eventually accompanied by gangs of mooks, are far less annoying because I've got their movesets down pat.
The lack of atmospheric pressure lets me actually enjoy exploring the world, too. I'm not having to blitz through the next hurdle anymore, so I can find shortcuts, nooks and crannies that I would've loved to discover on my first playthrough. I didn't, though, because I'd already died by three separate flavours of ambush to get to that point—and I was often looking for a place to plonk a checkpoint anyway. Usually pursued by packs of enemies I'd already killed, and really didn't want to kill again.
The reason this better version of Lords of the Fallen sticks in my craw is because it's a sign of what the game could have been at launch, if only Hexworks had pumped the brakes even a little on the axe maniacs crashing out from behind boxes. I rarely ever felt challenged by that stuff, I just felt overwhelmed, like wrestling an out of control vehicle in an empty parking lot. You're not going to hit any walls, it just takes a while.
I am ultimately having a much better time. The things I like about the game—and there are a lot of them, I swear—are shining through. But that kinda just proves how much my issues with its capricious, ambush-heavy enemy placement and encounter design cast grey clouds over the whole experience.
I'll be very curious to see where the scales balance. Hexworks have, to their credit, shown they're open to loosening the clamps just a smidge—the game's already slightly less painful measured against the one I reviewed thanks to some quality of life nudges. I just wish I didn't have to feel so dang conflicted about enjoying myself so thoroughly now, rather than thirty hours ago.