I’ve spent the best part of three weeks playing Elden Ring. I’d put off this review another few weeks if I could, not because I’m unsure about my feelings on the game, but because I don’t want to put any kind of finality on one of the best game experiences I’ve had for a long time.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice did a lot to revitalize my enjoyment of the From formula, but Elden Ring takes the good work in that game and grafts it onto the magnificent monster that this game is. An open-world take on the Souls games that acts as both a greatest hits package and a frighteningly fresh approach.
Elden Ring’s director Hidetaka Miyazaki got into games in part because of PS2 classic Ico, and Team Ico’s haunting expanses found in that game, and in the brilliant Shadow of the Colossus, feels like part of the spiritual essence of Elden Ring’s The Lands Between. Right down to having a reliable steed to ride. It’s a place that is both dead and alive in the aftermath of the catastrophic shattering of the titular ring. Somber, mist-shrouded vistas can be found in almost every direction, and unspoken stories are just waiting to be unearthed in every nook and cranny. Oh and I suppose you can stab colossal creatures in the head too.
The player takes on the role of a Tarnished. This is someone seen as a commoner of sorts, and yet it is this Tarnished that is being pushed towards fixing a fractured kingdom and taking on the title of Elden Lord. Unfortunately, there’s a sizable percentage of the kingdom’s population that would rather see you dead, not least the now unhinged, power-hungry bastards holding the other shards of the Elden Ring you need to fulfill your destiny.
On paper, despite the involvement of George R. R. Martin, the setup is very familiar, even in the opening moments where the oft-repeated corridor of early lessons is presented in much the same manner as it was in Souls games (though it’s possible to miss the more direct tutorial completely). Things really start to change the second you head outside into Limgrave.
This starting area’s introduction does that thing all open-world titles aspire to and paints an exquisite, exciting picture of possibilities and wonder. A Grace Point (Elden Ring’s bonfires) entices with its swirling golden light. The land rolls uphill, several landmarks are tantalizingly close, and the first potential boss encounter is casually riding about not too far away. That’s just what you can see in front of you, and as it turns out, it’s barely a scrap of what this world has to offer.
Without really leaving Limgrave for the first ten hours I was discovering distinct dungeons, dragons, secret areas, sudden boss battles, and uncovering tidbits as to the story behind the world I was inhabiting. Then as I braved the path to the game’s first true test in Margit, The Fell Omen for the umpteenth time, but with clear intent to progress, I found my desire to know more and see more drove me to finally taking that smug bastard down. After that point, it was hour upon hour of new discoveries, bosses beaten, weapons acquired, and new places to gawp at. More than any From Software game before it, Elden Ring incentivizes its challenge with the exciting possibilities of the unknown, then conquering what is discovered.
There is some guidance,a very From Software kind where some Grace Points have an aura that gravitates in a single direction to vaguely point you towards a place of importance. You don’t have to head that way of course, but it’s at least a gentle push towards progression in an often overwhelming large world.
The freedom does give you plenty of time to practice fighting. Combat is a greatest hits compilation of From’s back catalog. There’s jumping (with a much more merciful level of fall damage thrown in), parrying, rolling, and even a bit of stealth. Attacks with a variety of class types and build ideas focused on magic, ranged, heavy, speed, and the like. Finding the right build may be tricky at first, but there’s an opportunity to forge a fresh path as you level up, and even a chance to reset stats entirely at a certain point. It doesn’t stop frustrating stumbling blocks cropping up entirely though, so there may come a time where it’s a straight choice between dragging through the frustration or restarting with a new character.
On the plus side, it does feel a bit more forgiving to begin with. Having stealth as an option means you can get the jump on some enemies. Boss fights don’t tend to have massive treks before getting back to them if you fail, and being able to summon other players to help you overcome the beastly brick walls you come up against can encourage progression.
Oh, there are still a lot of reminders that you’re just a puny sliver of nothing though. As ever, your own confidence is the real monster, pushing you to go up against terrible foes that wipe you out before you even begin to plan your first move. It’s the humbling reality check that’s needed and breeds a determination to come back stronger and do better.
One of my favorite examples of this comes in what is arguably Elden Ring’s grandest battle. It effectively acts like a raid, where several NPCs join you in trying to take on one of the Shardbearers. They are effectively bait to help you take the boss on, and seeing them get annihilated in short order really sells the mad power of your foe. He gave me another way to see that first though. The first time I faced this boss I was dead in seconds. He chucked spears from a great distance and skewered me good and proper. I was stunned and felt horribly out of my depth.
The second time, I figured out how to time my rolls and hide behind small obstacles to avoid his laser-focused attacks, and managed to summon the NPC buddies in to distract him. Unfortunately, by the time I got to him, they were dropping like flies, and I got a closer view of what destructive power this asshole had. I tried a couple more times, went off to do other things, and came back 20 hours later and had an incredibly adrenaline fuelled battle that finally rid the Lands Between of his tyranny. I positively yelped with excitement in the dark, at 1 am.
For all the incentives provided by mere progression, it’s The Lands Between itself that mostly kept me motivated to push on. The open-world format makes exploration rife with discovery in a manner the previous From games couldn’t quite manage. It has more in common with something like Skyrim, where feeding curiosity often leads to an exciting new adventure within the adventure. So many times I saw something on the map or the horizon and investigating it led to a long journey through some mines, or a tomb, and ended with an unexpected boss fight.
I really enjoy the fact you need to pick up individual scraps of the map to get a better idea of what’s out there, and that even then, there’s a delightful ambiguity to it. It makes the reveal of locations all the more exciting. Thinking you’ve covered an area fairly well and finding an entire fort or castle just a little way away from where you’d been is an exquisite and awe-inspiring feeling. Like most open worlds in the fantasy genre, there are biomes of sorts, but The Lands Between feels far more natural in its shifts in visual tone and color, whilst also remaining distinct.
Limgrave is a lush green traditional starting area, peppered with ruin, Liurnia adds a festering, expansive swamp and one of the largest dungeon areas right in the middle of it, and Caelid? That place is the purest realm of sheer horror in the entire game.
Oh, the horrors of Caelid! The whole area is blighted by a fungal rot that distorts the regular wildlife in disturbing ways. The mongrel dogs and simple birds become huge, misshapen mutations, and are far more deadly. It’s such an oppressively vulgar place to go and proves to be one of Elden Ring’s most memorable areas.
It’s a rare thing for me that a game so completely sweeps me up in it that I still find that same hunger for more than a good 80 hours in. Elden Ring achieves that. I’m already envisioning future playthroughs with different builds. Sure there are small grievances. Co-op with friends could be a bit easier to instigate, a sturdier frame rate wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, and as expected, there are a few bullshit boss fights that end up more like manufactured obstacles than true tests of your skills. These really do end up as small fry issues though. There’s just too much dark wonder and bleak beauty to savor.
If another game is going to be better this year than Elden Ring, it’ll have to be truly spectacular.
Elden Ring review code for PS5 provided by the publisher.
Elden Ring is out now for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Series X/S, and PC.