In just a few short months, HexWorks will release its upcoming reboot of the Lords of the Fallen franchise, which should be on the radar of Souls-like fans everywhere. Before that happens, MP1st was fortunate enough to not only get some hands-on time with the game, but we also managed to talk to the studio about the upcoming action-RPG.
Speaking to the site is head of studio Saul Gascon, and Creative Director Cezar Virtosu. We asked the devs about its gameplay design philosophy regarding Souls-like games, why the game is only releasing on current-gen platforms, comparisons to Elden Ring and loads more.
HexWorks Talks Lords of the Fallen:
MP1st: How long is the game’s single-player, will there be incentives to replay the game? New Game Plus modes?
Saul Gascon – The single-player experience for us, like we know whatever enemy spawns, we know everything about it, think around 25 hours. For a new player, it’s gonna be somewhere around 30 or more.
Cezar Virtosu – Seeing that the tutorial area takes more than an hour and a half. For us, it takes like 25 minutes tops. So we are looking; I have some 30 hours or something.
Saul Gascon – 30 plus, more or less. Then you have different endings. Like you have three different endings depending on which factions you align with, so that’s one of the replay values. Plus the different classes, so you want to try different types of builds and etc.
On top of this, is NG+. We have quite a few surprises waiting for players. Just as a brief one, you’ve seen (referring to our hands-on experience) that you have the Ancient Vestiges that are always there, they are present. You have the ones Vestige Seedlings that you can build yourself.
So in NG Plus, there is only one Ancient Vestige, all of the others are out, and it’s in the hub, and any vestige you want, you need to build it yourself. That means mastery of the environment itself.
It’s funny because this is how we originally designed the game crafting Vestiges. The first iteration of the game only had one Vestige. But then, through the playtest, we saw that the dark souls or souls like veterans were super happy about it, “oh, It’s amazing,” right? But then anybody you know was in the rest of the world “That’s too hard, man, you went too far!”. Then we kept that original vision, but only for NG plus. Plus a couple of extra surprises that you will find NG+.
MP1st: What’s involved in building those (Vestige)?
Cezar Virtosu – A rare resource called the seeding vestige, which you get by defeating bosses or buying them with hard currency at one very distinct spot in Umbral. So they’re not readily available, and when you craft one, the previous one is destroyed.
MP1st: Can players expect a performance and quality mode at launch? What resolution frame rate is the game targeting?
Saul Gascon – For consoles, we have the performance and quality modes. Performance is at 60 fps on PS5 and Xbox Series X/S. Quality mode is at 30fps, but the resolution is quite higher.
In terms of resolution, for 60fps, we’re looking at upscaled 1080p, which is kind of the standard in the industry. For quality mode, it’s 2K upscaled to 4K.
MP1st: I know I play in quality mode, I like to take it in. I’m pretty rare, though, as I know I read a report that performance is preferred by a lot of players these days.
Cezar Virtosu – I don’t wanna blow out our own horn, but the performance looks good.
Saul Gascon – Even in performance, the game is great.
MP1st: In terms of post-launch content, does Hexworks have something in mind already, or is the game more of a traditional action rpg in the sense that once you’ve finished the single-player story, you’re essentially done?
Saul Gascon – We have several things in mind that will all depend on us from the community feedback – how people ask for more, right? So basically, we have to pass ahead, which is our original plan, working on the next one. But if the community asks for more content, we might have a bit of an effort to create more content for this game we’re launching right now, this year. It’ll depend a lot on that.
Then on top of this, we’re gonna be supporting post-launch with free updates for people, like improvements, requests, and feedback. We’ll be doing that for at least like six months to one year after launch, based on the request that we receive. That’s something that we’re going to be doing post-launch.
MP1st: Why is the game only available for current-gen platforms? Is this a technical issue where the PS4, Xbox One, etc., can’t handle the game or something else?
Cezar Virtosu – We’re using Unreal Engine 5. It uses Nanite & Lumen and the requirements for the GPUs are quite high. The PS4 and Xbox One, cannot handle Unreal Engine 5. We are one of the first AAA games to launch with Unreal Engine 5.
MP1st: I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of that now as we finally get out of last-gen
Cezar Virtosu – We are one of the first AAA games to launch with Unreal Engine 5. We’re trailblazing; let’s see how technology evolves. Maybe there will be a port, but right now, it doesn’t seem very likely, and we cannot engage with this at this time.
Saul Gascon – We’re a studio where we hear a lot of the player feedback. We’ve done it for every iteration of our game. Like we’ve done play testing with actual players, with mock reviewers, with different externals, and we’ve adapted a lot of the objectives of our game based on that. And so the feedback from the first game, the original game, if we see a high demand for those provisions, we might put an extra effort to downgrade the game to fit on those platforms.
MP1st: It would be tough, though (chuckles)
Cezar Virtosu – It’s looking like a tough, tall order. It’s doable. I worked on a team that ported Watch Dogs on the Wii. So you can put anything on a dishwasher, but it’s a lot of effort for technical wizardry.
MP1st: Has Elden Ring had any effect on the game’s development, be it removing or changing some gameplay mechanics or design because of it, this is something like a remake or reboot, you know, did that factor in at all?
Cezar Virtosu – I hate this answer, but it is yes and no – It’s a non-answer.What I meant is that Elden Ring caught us by surprise. We were expecting something great, not something groundbreaking. Nobody expected that sort, and it came late in our development, so we had to stick with our guns.
Because the way we do business is that we lock gameplay metrics on placeholder assets early on, and from there we just do tweaks as we create art. This is our way to cut on the iteration time and create AAA in 3.5 years.
Luckily, our industry savviness, we picked our horses differently than Elden Ring. We also overlapped on some of the improvements. For instance, the crafted tankers, the vestiges, we thought we were giving the players a bit too much with manual saves, but then we saw Elden Ring doing the Stakes of Marika and we’re like, alright, we’re good. We were very concerned that we were doing too much accessibility.
Some of the weapons that we’ve done, we found them in Elden Ring. Okay, there’s nothing we can do.
They have a girl that flies and fights with a sword. We have a girl that flies and fights with a sword. They had a small noble. We have a small noble. But we didn’t change them. We left them as they were. We are confident that they have different thematics, different stories than the ones from Elden Ring. They have flying creatures. We have some flying birds and things.
I would say 98% of the game is untouched. But if we saw something that looked like Elden Ring, and we can do something about it in tweaks, colors use, and VFX, that’s what changed.
Saul Gascon – I think you nailed it. Of course, we are very aware of what surrounds us, where and when are we launching, and who’s around like the big one. We took a look, we played it, we checked, and then said, okay, we are good. We don’t overlap with them too much.
And actually, with Umbral, we really are on a different side. We saw as well and compared the main strength of being open world, right? That is something that also we checked as well with our playtests, and people appreciated that we were not open world. So it’s like a different experience. In that regard, it was a very good thing, though, that they brought in the audience, they made the game more accessible to more people, and then from those people who are taking those, are looking for us, for a more intense, handcrafted experience.
MP1st: One of the highlights of playing Soulslike games is the bosses. What would you say makes a good boss not only in terms of design but gameplay as well?
Saul Gascon – I guess it starts with the story, right?
Cezar Virtosu – That’s everything.
Saul Gascon – Who is that character in our world? What does he want? Why do you have to tear them down and kill him?
Cezar Virtosu – Bosses, firstly, are the tragic pillars, one of the architects of the victims of the situation. You turn and tear them down, and then you find out their involvement in the world – stuff like that. Because we write a lot of lore for those bosses, even before we have imagery, with all of it, and it’s not lore for the sake of lore, but the answer to DNA, who are they, what’s their motivations, how they react, why do they do the way they do?
If you are armed with all this information, when we pass it over to art, they have so much to work with. It’s not just to create a cool flying girl. No, they create a stigmata… I don’t want to spoil Pieta, but also want to see how the bosses reflect the world and how they corrupt the world around them.
What is the lore? What is the world? And, of course, then have enough variety, not just just small and large bosses, but everything in between. We wanted unique locomotion for every boss, not every boss, but the big major ones. We wanted transformative phases that challenge your perception in terms of, we wanted “what the fuck bosses” that should drop in their (players) laps without being warned because some floorboards broke under you and you fall into a pit, and somewhere we wanted those things. We wanted something that swoops from the skies and so on and so forth.
That’s how we went about it. And we motion-captured most of them because we wanted actors. For this and some other bosses they might not have seen, they were captured with contortionists and professional actors because having someone walk backward affects the style; it’s not very convincing and compelling. You need the movement of the creature. The fact that he looks backward, looks at curiosity, this sort of characterization of movement and curiosity and reactions, pushes them away from appliances, makes them a bit more immersive, you know, more believable. For us, immersion is number one and number two; immersion is our currency.
Saul Gascon – That in going back to the question on the gameplay part. So long story short, every boss challenges a specific part of our core mechanics. Some bosses like Pieta are challenging you to parry, to dash to avoid the attacks, and to use parry as an offensive mechanic. So you can defeat Pieta any way you want, you can range, and you can defeat her. We are not hard-locking people like you have to fight this boss like this. But every boss has an optimal way of defeating him or her, a weakness.
That weakness is always tied to a mechanic. For instance, Pieta, if you master the parry, it’s super easy. Like we saw today with the playtest, four parries, one guy was parrying, and was like, beep, beep, beep, beep (parry noises), then the next one. Whoa! Okay, that was fast. Meanwhile, others were trying to range (cries in agony) and running around suffering.
But they still beat her. That’s how we designed that. Then the characterization, the personality, and the backstory of that character also go inside the type of attacks they do, the type of how they’re trying to kill is aggressive in trying to get you or is some somebody more laid back that just attacks when needs to.
That was something very important. Even two-phase bosses, you also see this difference. They transform and have a phase two, and then that phase two is a, let’s say, a fucked up state of mind, and then they act completely different. So you need to adapt your strategy, like, oh shit, now this guy is super aggressive when previously they were more laid back and doing range attacks.
Cezar Virtosu – We have a top-down approach to core bosses and enemies. When this cuts on the iteration a lot, this has been to an artist before success, a lot of concept prep work. Examples, a lot of it, and then art and then prototype. The prototypes have their limitations, but limitations show your freedoms. Then we end up with the really unique concepts because we didn’t start with a mannequin that let’s have the attacks and let’s make something cool. We started with an idea, and we ended up with a creature.
Saul Gascon – We’re quite proud actually, and with the places we’ve seen it, that they feel very vari and very different within each other, the main bosses. They’re very unique, each one on its own terms. That’s something that took us a lot of work, a lot of time, but it’s paying off.
MP1st: – You guys kind of had the idea first, didn’t like the idea, kind of drive the design.
Cezar Virtosu – Everything. She’s a stigma of engineering – You can see the character in your head without even writing a design for it. It’s so strong.
MP1st: Right. And then you see a couple of different art, art concepts, and you’re like, that’s the one that was in my head.
Cezar Virtosu – It makes so much sense. Me and Saul, we watch it, this is it, this version two is what we want. We don’t even need to argue. Okay, we can argue about the color of hair. But not even that.
Saul Gascon – It is like that!
Cezar Virtosu – Me and Saul, we headhunted, and we pulled people from our old companies, and we got the hard hitters, the black belts, to work because we don’t have time to fool around. We don’t have time to iterate six years in pre-production, like other games.
MP1st – The new game seems to have a way higher budget compared to the original. Is it now more of a traditional AAA game in terms of scope and budget?
Cezar Virtosu: That is correct, Hexworks was created 3.5 years ago to handle the conception and production for Lords of the Fallen. The 2014 title is still quite the looker even by today’s standards, so as such, a decade later, we couldn’t have fallen short of expectations (excuse the pun). This title is several magnitudes bigger than anything CI Games (our publisher) undertook. That being said, we are under the titans of the industry like Rocksteady or From Software when it comes to budget and studio size. But we more than make up for this with our love for the genre and the fact that being completely remote, we are able to leverage key talent from wherever they may be located. This flexibility gave us an edge, allowing us to recruit the right people for the right jobs, fragment the production floor into highly specialized strike teams and crack on.
MP1st: Will we get a demo for the game before release?
Cezar Virtosu: While the idea of a demo is currently shelved for the time being, we are still discussing this internally.
MP1st: From our understanding, it will feature co-op, right? Is this drop-in, drop-out co-op at any time in the campaign? Or is it a standalone portion of the game?
Cezar Virtosu: The co-op is seamless drop-in, drop-out at any time in the campaign, as you said. One can invite a friend directly into the game from any of our in-game checkpoints (called Vestiges) or beckon a random player. Two players only, the host and the guest. The host is in control of the world state, be that Axiom/Umbral, mechanisms or NPC interactions, while the Guest can only pick up whatever loot drops, keep their accrued vigor, can level up at the vestiges, and interact with vendors, but cannot engage in quests and dialogue options with said vendors. When the guest dies in Axiom, the host can freely resurrect them on the spot by interacting with an effigy that is spawned upon their death. This is a lengthy interaction, and as such, the decision to resurrect that guest is a tactical one. Otherwise, both players respawn at the last visited Vestige, crafted or otherwise.
MP1st: How does the PvP part of the game work? Can players invade another player’s game, or is it a more controlled environment?
Cezar Virtosu: Invasions take place everywhere in the world, and we have PVP-designated areas sprinkled throughout. The invader arrives relatively close to the Host to facilitate quick engagements. The invader has only one life, and if killed, they won’t resurrect in Umbral, only the host controls that realm. Which means that if the invader is standing on an Umbral only structure and the Host happens to be next to an Effigy of Emergence and switches the realm back to Axiom, said invader will swiftly go on a date with gravity.
MP1st: The studio hasn’t shied away from Elden Ring/FromSoftware games comparisons, given the devs are fans of the studio, right? What similarities can we expect from the two titles?
Cezar Virtosu: One chief directive, back when we put the game’s bones in place, was to address user feedback and do market research. A fair number of the points of contention that the community had for the 2014 title brought us closer to Soulslike combat. Our goal is to satisfy the core audience and provide them with an orthodox foundation when it comes to combat (fast and fluid tactical combat, with stamina management, level design-driven encounters, animation canceling, and scarce access to healing). Once we achieved it, then we spread our wings, adding all the bells and whistles that you experienced in the tutorial section, from chaining seamlessly heavy and light attacks, switching stances mid swings, seamlessly alternating between ranged option and melee, multihits attacks and all the myriad of umbral abilities, the withering paradigm and how the two realms interact affecting combat and healing. We were also quite keen to do away with the stand-alone parry mechanic and do it on the move with the last-moment block concept. Aside from the Soulslike combat, another element that we were very keen to realize was the verticality of the level design, harkening to the earlier games to better emphasize the vistas foreshadowing the next areas and being able to look behind and track your progress in the previous areas.
MP1st: How hard is Lords of the Fallen? Does it play like your traditional Soulslike game?
Cezar Virtosu: The game is very challenging, far more so than the 2014 title, from gnarly encounters, deadly verticality, and enemies with a myriad of ranged options, combos, and magic. Raising the lantern in Axiom to peek in Umbral renders one vulnerable to the horrid Umbral natives that would pull the player into their world, effectively killing you. So we throw a lot at the player, but at the same time we offer a myriad of Umbral powers to mitigate these challenges and increase the awareness of ambushes and alternative paths to circumvent said ambushes. Lengthy onboarding to learn and practice the basics, multiplayer, and so on. In a nutshell, we feel that the game is harder than most Soulslikes but we offer a number of tools for the players to mitigate this difficulty if they chose so. Of course, you can also brute force the game via skill or RPG progression, it’s all on the player really.
MP1st: We’ve seen many Soul clones hit the market, and I feel that one of the common misconceptions is around the difficulty and that the harder the game is, regardless of how that’s achieved, the more “Soulslike” it is. There’s a lot more to it than just that, like the learning side, which is where I think some of the satisfaction comes from. How does the team strike that perfect balance with a boss, where they’re challenging but not annoyingly hard to the point that players feel cheated?
That is a fantastic point, and we are in complete agreement. At Hexworks, we believe that the difference between frustration and motivation is knowing what you did wrong or what “the game wants you to do.” Knowing what you need to do to succeed will carry you through that gnarly bit for sure. Or bosses seem intimidating and seemingly indomitable if faced head-on, with the player hoping to overcome them by sheer skill and timing of dodges. Obviously, it can be achieved like this, but if one peeks with the lamp in umbral they might notice that certain umbral parasites empower the boss in one way or another, there might be certain environmental hazards that they can use to debuff the boss or simply outlining their weakness to exploit with a ranged weapon (or when their positioning allows reach with melee weapons). This tactical approach is one of the chief paradigms of Lords of the Fallen, the detective work approach to both combat (bosses or exploration), narrative (environmental storytelling and hidden NPC’s), and navigation.
MP1st: Alright, seems we have time for one final question. How do you guys like to play?
Saul Gascon – My favorite starting class is the condemned (cursed class).
MP1st:: Oh, yeah. I will never touch that.
Saul Gascon – I really like the fantasy of the anti-hero. You start from nowhere, and you grind up to being whoever you want. I always tend to every time I play a full playthrough, I tend to go like an assassin Umba, an assassin sort build of combining Umbra magic with fast-paced two knives, stuff like this. That’s my fun.
Cezar Virtosu – I play as an Orion Preacher because I like religion and I like bringing people into my religion. I want to smite the heretics, to pray to warriors to grant me the strength and tenacity to reach deep into the depths and pull out evil to the surface and searing light. I love this fucking fantasy. It’s just my thought. It’s very thematically.