“Well, it’s a beautiful story…” and so begins this excitable yet reflective conversation between Saul Gascon, executive producer and head of studio at Hexworks, and Cezar Virtosu, creative director at Hexworks. They’re about to share with me the development story of Lords of the Fallen, which launches today on Xbox Series X|S. Reminiscing about the initial stages of pre-production at the end of 2019/early 2020, which coincided with the establishing of Hexworks as a new studio, both developers recalled that very early on any follow up to the original 2014 game of the same name had to be a soulslike action-RPG.
“The original pitch we had signed off by CI Games was for a much smaller, narrative focused game that would follow the struggle of a templar-like character,” Gascon explains. “But we expanded it significantly because of the potential we could see. We’d have small strike teams that would work on a particular feature for enemies, the player character, bosses, etc. There was obviously a dedicated strike team for Umbral, and then every two weeks they’d check in with us and the game’s other directors.”
Ah yes, Umbral. Lords of the Fallen offers players the unique opportunity to traverse from the in-game’s realm of the living – Axiom – and that of the dead, Umbral, at will. This mechanic, possible through a mix of hardware (the Xbox Series X|S’s ultra-fast SSD) and software (the game is one of the first to launch built using Unreal Engine 5) provides an exciting and innovative gameplay experience. Using a powerful and mysterious lamp, the player’s character can peek into this supernatural and nightmarish realm in real time, or even transport themselves to it on demand to solve puzzles, overcome enemies, and more.
Umbral also works as a second chance for players; a notoriously challenging genre, Lord of the Fallen’s take on an action-RPG sees the protagonist wake up in the realm of the dead the first time they’re defeated by an enemy. That’s one more chance to take them down and eventually find their way back to Axiom, or suffer defeat once more and perish. “Umbral came to be from several seeds that we planted with Cezar,” Gascon says. “We wanted to be disruptive and change a bit of the action-RPG’s death loop gameplay. It’s such a key part of the genre, we wanted it so when you died in Axiom you arrived in Umbral… somehow. And at first, we didn’t know how.”
We wanted to be disruptive and change a bit of the action-RPG’s death loop gameplay. It’s such a key part of the genre, we wanted it so when you died in Axiom you arrived in Umbral… somehow.
“Umbral became our unique selling point to make us distinctive in the action-RPG genre,” continues Gascon, before Virtosu quickly adds that the journey to iterate on the idea was elusive. “Saul and I had Soul Reaver in our heads as one of the points of inspiration,” he says. “But Umbral expanded beyond those references in time. To be perfectly honest, for the first year and a half of development we weren’t sure if it was going to deliver on our vision. For some time, it was the same layout as Axiom but in a different hue… however, we were fortunate to be able to take the early versions out to playtest, and the feedback was very positive.”
Gascon explains how the iterative process Umbral worked: “We started having dynamic spawns; we tried a dynamic defense mode so when you died, you’d control the protagonist’s ghost in the realm and have to defend your physical body from otherworldly spirts until you generated enough power to resurrect,” he says, before clarifying why the mechanic was cut. “Simply, it didn’t work well if the player died during boss battles.”
Ultimately, it was the Umbral strike team that went rogue and – in Virtosu’s own words – “did a black op” without the directors’ knowledge. The idea of a lamp that would allow players to gaze into the realm of the dead was always part of the player’s toolset, but because of various technical and design decisions, it mean it was only usable when standing still. What the strike team did was work out how to make it dynamic, so players could look into Umbral while still moving around in Axiom.
The results wowed Gascon, Virtosu, and the others; they knew it was what they’d been looking for. “It became the lynchpin of the experience,” reveals Saul. “We basically had everything confluence around that idea of Umbral,” he adds in satisfaction.
While developed remotely with staff around the world, the cores of the team were based in and around Spain and Romania, two countries steeped in religious and spiritual beliefs. It was therefore perhaps inevitable against this cultural backdrop that Lords of the Fallen’s development would be inferred by the two cultures – especially the gothic and superstitious stories of Romania. A Bucharest native who splits his time between the Romanian capital and Barcelona, Virtosu sheds some light: “Romania has a religious and spiritual people; we’re afraid of ghosts and superstition. We have a reverence for death.”
He continues, “For instance, during funerals we take a long and twisted route to the cemetery so the dead cannot find their way; when the procession crosses a bridge, we put pile of money on a towel and then remove it so the dead cannot pay the toll. During the development of the game, we looked to tap into this rich tapestry woven across Romania and wider folklore – the fear of the dark is such a primal fear.”
A lore bible was produced very early on, a source of reference for the game’s locations, characters, and more. For instance, for the game’s overwhelmingly foreboding monastery, the duo would pose their questions like: Where was the aqueduct in relation to this towering landmark? How did the monks bring the water into the abbey? Where would the rich pray in relation to the poor? “We had a lot of lore to work with, that’s why it was easy for us to make rapid progress,” says Virtosu.
“Most of our team are at senior points in our careers, so when we encountered a challenge there was like a symbiotic relationship between us all that meant we were able to quickly overcome it,” Gascon tells us.
Virtosu adds: “We iterated relentlessly; we didn’t have to find things to remove because anything superfluous to the game was cut early on: Confusing layouts, removing things for better navigation. In those early months we were just 12 people and approaching the first deadlines. But it looked good! We did a lot of prototyping,”
He smiles: “Saul would say it was like lightning in a bottle.”
Or maybe, perhaps, it was like a mystical and otherworldly lamp shining a way forward for the action-RPG genre.
Lords of the Fallen is out now on Xbox Series X|S.
Lords of the Fallen
Pre-order Lords of the Fallen now to receive the following bonus content: – Exclusive Bronze, Silver and Gold Armour Tincts, used to re-colour any in-game wearable armour item
– 3 x XP items – used for boosting XP
– 5 x MP items – used for replenishing mana – 5 x HP items – used for replenishing health Lords of the Fallen introduces an all-new, epic RPG adventure in a vast, interconnected world more than five times larger than the original game. After an age of the cruellest tyranny, the demon God, Adyr, was finally defeated. But Gods… do not fall forever. Now, aeons later, Adyr’s resurrection draws nigh. As one of the fabled Dark Crusaders, journey through both the realms of the living and the dead in this expansive RPG experience, featuring colossal boss battles, fast challenging combat, thrilling character encounters, and deep, immersive storytelling. Will your legend be one of light… or one of darkness?
Dare to Hope. Explore A Vast, Interconnected World
Journey across two expansive, parallel worlds in your epic quest to overthrow Adyr. While the living realm presents its own brutal challenges, untold terrors lurk in the nightmarish realm of the dead. Define Your Own Legend Fully customise your character’s appearance from a wide array of visual options, before selecting one of nine character classes. Whichever starting path you take, develop your character to your own playstyle by upgrading stats, weapons, armour and spells. Master Fast, Challenging Fluid Tactical Combat Only those that master the deep, tactical combat can hope to survive. Choose from 100s of uniquely brutal weapons, or forgo metal for magic with devastating attacks of the arcane. Unite or Fight in Online Multiplayer
Experience the expansive, single player campaign alone, or invite a second player to join your adventure in uninterrupted, online co-op. But be warned – heroes from other realms can, and will invade. Wield a Device of Ungodly Power Your lantern possesses the ungodly power to cross between worlds. Use this dark art to reach forgotten places, unearth fabled treasures, and even manipulate the very soul of your foe. Rise from Death Fall in the world of the living, and rise again… in the world of the dead. You now have one final chance to return to your living state, as all manner of hellish creature descends upon you.