When I started this review for Elden Ring, the latest action RPG brought to us by FromSoftware, developers of the acclaimed Dark Souls series, it struck me that with such a vast amount of material to cover, I did not really know where to start.
It is no coincidence that this is the same feeling most players will have when they begin their journey in ‘The Lands Between’. The name of the sprawling game world.
This massive open-world adventure is definitely FromSoftware CEO Hidetaka Miyazaki’s most ambitious project yet. Without a doubt, it will demand your full attention right from the get-go. It will take you on a journey of emotions. Refusing to release its icy grip until it has taken everything from you. Blood (thankfully just the metaphorical type), sweat, and tears.
Elden Ring Lore is Buried Deep
In true FromSoftware style, the opening cinematic paints a vague picture of the world, and your purpose in it. It will probably leave you with more questions than answers. George RR Martin’s involvement in creating the world and lore was heavily publicized. Truthfully though, he hasn’t exactly made things any clearer for the player than Fromsoftware usually does. Most of the plot will need to be uncovered by speaking to NPCs or reading item descriptions.
The Elden Ring has been shattered, and Queen Marika’s offspring have each taken a piece for themselves. In the ensuing power struggle, none of these Demi-Gods have been able to seize control. So the war has reached a stalemate. Remnants of this war can be found all over The Lands Between, much of it is covered in ruins and devastation.
You, a lowly ‘Tarnished’, are tasked with rising up and restoring the Elden Ring. Becoming the Elden Lord in the process. The story leaves just enough breadcrumbs to give the player sufficient motivation to proceed.
Martin’s involvement though, almost feels a little pointless to be honest. This is not unlike any of the other worlds or lore created by FromSoftware. So it’s difficult to really know what Martin added, other than his name being in the credits for a little more credence.
The Path Ahead
When choosing a starting class, it is worth noting that your choice won’t lock you into a specific melee or magic path. You can easily focus on leveling up your other attributes to change your playstyle. When you reach a certain point in the game, fairly early on, you can actually completely reset your stats and realign them. So it’s never too late to change your mind. This is really useful and encourages experimentation without feeling like you’re trapped in a certain build.
The game wastes no time in throwing you out in the wild. Emerging from a dark tomb, players find themselves in Limgrave. As far as Souls-like areas go, Limgrave is fairly inviting with its rolling hills and lush greenery. Powerful enemies lurk as far as the eye can see though, and you only have to move the camera around a little bit to get a sense of the huge task on your hands.
Grand buildings and structures can be seen just off in the distance in all directions. The golden Erdtree sits just out of reach on the skyline. Almost beckoning players to reach it. It’s daunting for Dark Souls veterans who are used to things done on an (albeit slightly) smaller scale. So I can only imagine how newcomers to the series would feel.
The world looks absolutely gorgeous, despite some frustrating framerate dips (even in performance mode on PS5). Each area of the map has its own distinct look and feel. From poisonous swamp areas to mountainous volcanos, the change of terrain and enemy type really helps to keep things fresh and diverse. The fact that you can freely move between areas also helps.
Elden Ring‘s art design is jaw-droppingly good. FromSoftware tends to set the bar very high with their world and enemy design. They certainly haven’t disappointed here in that regard.
The game does have a frustrating inconsistency when it comes to fall damage though. Cliffs and hills loom everywhere. Whether on horseback or not, judging whether you will take fall damage by dropping off a certain piece of terrain to access whatever is below, feels more like pot luck than anything else.
A Familiar Fight
Finely tuned combat systems are a staple of FromSoftware’s games, and one of the biggest reasons they are held in such high regard. The same light/ heavy attacks and evade/ roll mechanics all feel even more responsive than in previous FromSoftware games. In a small yet significant change though, the player can now jump during combat by pressing a button. Something FromSoftware obviously had success with in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. This adds a whole new dimension to combat. With jumping attacks playing a key role in success. While I was initially unsure about how they would fit in, they are implemented so brilliantly that I now have withdrawals about going back to play a Souls game without the ability to jump during combat.
The huge range of weapons available includes swords, staffs, clubs, maces, daggers, and claws. All of these have their own strengths and weaknesses. So I recommend you test them out as you find them, before deciding on one to use. They are balanced pretty well, with most builds viable with the right upgrades. I find short-range weapons like daggers and claws more difficult to wield as you have to get closer to the enemy to land a hit. Giving less of a window for getting out of harm’s way.
There are even more options at your fingertips now. The new ‘guard counter’ ability allows a small window to unleash a brutal attack immediately after blocking. This does not require anywhere near the same precise timing as the parry mechanic from Souls games. In this regard, it is a much more inviting option for newcomers.
There are also many ‘Ash of War’ abilities that you can find and fuse to your weapon. They range from heavy-hitting moves to evasion techniques. Some even grant you temporary buffs. They give you even more freedom to customize your loadout.
Activating your Ash of War is simply a case of two-handing your weapon and hitting a button.
The pick of the bunch is one called ‘No Skill’ (the irony!). Equipping this to whatever weapon is in your offhand will basically default to your main weapon’s Ash of War, allowing you to use it one-handed! This is a really useful addition that can make all the difference in combat.
These Ashes of War are usually your reward for exploring a new cave or tomb or defeating a particularly tricky mini-boss.
Game of Clones
Elden Ring‘s world is absolutely huge. Thankfully there are dozens of mini checkpoints all over the map called Sites of Grace. Dying will see you lose your accumulated upgrade points- called ‘Runes’- and return to the last Grace you visited. While small golden rays of light will subtly point from one Grace to the next, you are absolutely free to explore as you see fit. And honestly, explore you should.
Shortly after you emerge in Limgrave you will be given Torrent, your horse. The ability to instantly summon him not only makes exploration easier but also changes the dynamics of combat. Staying on horseback when you encounter enemies gives you a new dimension to fight in. It also provides a quick escape route- simply run away if an encounter proves too tough.
The downside to this though, is that I found myself running past large groups of enemies rather than confronting them simply because it is much more convenient to do so. The Rune rewards for killing standard enemies are modest. So there isn’t really much incentive to fight out in the open world.
Exploration is Encouraged
Each of the big bosses has its own ‘dungeon’ area, where the use of your horse is prohibited. In these areas, you will be forced to fight your way through. This is where the game really excels, with these huge interconnecting Souls-like segments. It’s a welcome change of pace from all of the open-world exploration.
Elden Ring constantly rewards you for exploring. Every time you turn a corner you are greeted with something new and exciting. Whether it is a giant Dragon or a huge guarded castle, you never quite know what’s coming next. You will more than likely want to explore every inch of the world. Purely to see what’s out there.
That is not to say that every area is well-realized though. After a while, you will start to notice some of the game’s caves and tombs look very similar. Scouring a carbon-copied cave for the tenth time does become quite tedious. Unfortunately, this extends to the bosses of these mini areas too. Several of them are reskinned many times. To the point where I actually shouted ‘are you kidding me?’ after encountering a certain boss for what felt like the twentieth time. Thankfully though these areas and bosses are all optional. So the second you begin to tire of them, you can simply stop and return to the main game.
In fact, an incredible amount of content is entirely optional. Including a large number of bosses. I spent roughly 80 hours on Elden Ring and saw maybe 80-90% of the world. For those purely focused on the quickest route, it may take around 25-30 hours to do. Or 30 minutes if you are a speedrunner.
However, doing this would mean missing out on some of the most inventive and exciting bosses FromSoftware has created. While a couple of them can prove to be infuriating, they should absolutely be experienced by everyone. Boss encounters range from giant serpents to showdowns on war-torn battlefields. Learning attack patterns and move sets is key to victory and perseverance is needed in abundance.
A Difficult Balance
It’s a little disappointing then, that some of these bosses are so hard to find. Playing through the game without using walkthroughs or watching videos will ensure you get the best possible experience. Knowing what’s coming next just doesn’t feel the same. It takes away the mystery and the sense of impending dread when entering a new unknown area. Yet, some of these bosses are hidden so well, that the average gamer just wouldn’t know where to look. I consider myself to be a FromSoftware veteran, and even I would’ve missed a couple without checking their location online.
Why go to all the effort of creating these incredible fights, only to hide them so well that no one finds them? It’s a little baffling, to be honest.
Another issue is the lack of level scaling. Having so much freedom and land to explore, means that no two people will likely take the same route. This means that the order in which large numbers of these optional bosses are discovered will vary greatly from player to player.
While that doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing, it inevitably trivializes some of these encounters. How far into the campaign you are when you find them and how high your level is will play a huge role in how difficult certain bosses are. This can be slightly alleviated by following the light path from the Sites of Grace. But these are pretty vague at best and don’t always point to the standard progression path, depending on where you are on the map.
FromSoftware’s games are notorious for their challenge. In Elden Ring, it becomes difficult to time when you encounter these challenges though. Sometimes you are greeted with a good, challenging fight. Other times, you steamroll them in three hits because you are way over-leveled. It becomes impossible to know if you are in a certain area of the map too early or too late.
Not an Easy Mode in Sight
Much debate around previous FromSoftware games has centered on the unapologetic difficulty. These games are hard. Miyazaki spent a little time pre-launch explaining that Elden Ring would be more accessible for newcomers than his previous titles. Some gamers took this to mean it would be easier.
This is not quite the case. Though the game does offer you some helping hands through some new innovations.
Firstly with ‘spirit summons’, which are basically past enemies who you can collect and summon to fight with you in battle, helping to tip the odds in your favour. While they aren’t all useful, with some questionable AI at times, one or two of them are actually incredible and go so far as to make the game considerably easier.
There are also convenient checkpoints known as ‘Stakes of Marika’ located right next to most of the bosses. This means that the days of having to run ten minutes back to the boss who just annihilated you are thankfully over. You will be able to jump straight back into a rematch in seconds.
In spite of this though, the game is easily as tough as its distant relations. There are no options to amend the difficulty. However, for every wall you hit, Elden Ring offers ten other paths to go and explore. This helps to ensure that there is always something to keep you coming back. Something aside from taking your fifteenth pounding at the hands of the same boss.
These subtle little additions are probably as close as Miyazaki will ever come to include any sort of difficulty options in his games. Be sure to make the most of them if you feel you need to.
Final Thoughts on Elden Ring
When I look back on my time with Elden Ring, it becomes apparent just how special this game is. The genius minds over at FromSoftware have actually outdone themselves here.
A project so bold in scope and ambition does not really have the right to deliver on its promises. Yet, despite a couple of minor inconveniences, that is exactly what Elden Ring does.
A new bar has been set for the open-world genre, and everyone else has been forced to sit up and take notice.
If you haven’t been a fan of FromSoftware’s previous titles, you are unlikely to have your mind changed here. But for everyone else, either veterans of the Souls series or newcomers who have never tried these games, you absolutely owe it to yourselves to experience this game.
For me personally, I’ll be patiently waiting for the next game in this incredible franchise.