It’s weird to me that Dark Souls is only a decade old. Here’s a game that completely shook the cultural zeitgeist surrounding action RPGs, completely changing how we discuss, design and digest them. The fact that it remains so high on the list of most influential video games alongside games like Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy while still being relatively recent is proof that FromSoftware came up with a concept that was so utterly ground-breaking at the time.
It’s been a tumultuous few years since it was first revealed at E3 2019, but FromSoftware is finally ready to launch Elden Ring, a game also utilising the “Soulslike” formula as each of the studio’s games did beforehand This action-RPG subgenre is characterised by deep character levelling, sprawling worlds filled with many secrets, and high level of difficulty.
If Dark Souls 3 was the resplendent end to a series’ legacy so powerful it completely dismantled how we designed action RPGs, then how on earth do you make a follow-up to that legacy? While all the pre-release marketing for the game definitely feels like it’s more of a ‘Dark Souls 4’ than its own thing, having now spent 40 hours playing through Elden Ring from start to finish, that idea couldn’t be further from the truth.
NOT JUST DARK SOULS 4
Although it has the same formula existing in its DNA, Elden Ring is a radical departure from the Souls series. Each of its new features feel somewhat borrowed from those that came before, but fleshed out more to become their own thing. The biggest improvements come in the department of three areas: exploration, narrative, and combat.
For exploration, Elden Ring features an open world not on the scale of anything we’ve seen before from the developer. While I’m usually an advocate for smaller worlds with dense content (thanks, Yakuza), this time the sheer size of the Lands Between feels earned. This is easily the biggest FromSoftware game ever created, not just in terms of how much ground the setting covers, but also with how much content there is to experience. Dungeons, secrets, and a countless number of bosses are each awaiting your arrival.
To help you get around this seemingly-unscalable world, you have a map that you need to fill in by picking up fragments at specific stone obelisks. This will help you chart your journey and familiarise yourself with certain landmarks. I was initially sceptical about having a map in Elden Ring, and even refused to use it for the first couple of hours of my playthrough. I liked how the original Dark Souls didn’t have a system like this, and half of the fun was making the map up in your head, mentally piecing the world together as you went along.
But considering the size of the Lands Between, it’s impossible to ignore the map here. It’s your friend, and it’ll help you get around frustration-free. There are still plenty of unmarked locations you can only see by exploring, and all the best discoveries will be found if you let curiosity in. The inclusion of a map certainly doesn’t take away from any of the fun of discovery.
You’re also given a horse to gallop around on called Torrent. Not only does this allow you to cover more ground in less time, but Torrent’s magical abilities such as his double jump gives you access to hard-to-reach places. You can also perform certain combat moves from atop him, which opens you up to more options when approaching battles.
But what I especially love about Torrent is clear: the controls. It seems that lots of game developers really struggle with designing horse riding controls. Red Dead Redemption 2 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey did it perfectly just a few years ago, but I always hated the horse controls in Breath of the Wild, The Witcher 3 and Skyrim. Thankfully, despite no previous games featuring player-controlled horse riding, Elden Ring’s Torrent controls feel fluid, responsive, and not at all annoying. I love it.
Not only that, but despite there being no dialogue between both Torrent and your player character, a bond between them is still felt. The more you play the game from horseback, the closer your relationship to Torrent feels. He’s a trusty steed, and will have your back more times than you can count. Shoutout to Elden Ring for making me care so much about a sodding fake horse.
Such is FromSoftware’s style, Elden Ring’s story is very minimal in its presentation. While there is a deep plot there, much of it is told through environmental details, item descriptions and cryptic dialogue. In fact, even after rolling credits there are still so many aspects of the game that I need to think about and revisit in a second playthrough. Elden Ring, much like its predecessors, packs a lot into a little.
What’s great about this is it allows you to piece together the story yourself using your own clues you’ve picked up. Your own interpretation of what’s going on might be different from another player’s, and even a decade later the Dark Souls community still isn’t struggling to come up with new theories and discussions, so it’s safe to say the same will happen here with Elden Ring.
But here’s the short of the premise: taking place in the realm of the Lands Between, the eponymous Elden Ring has been destroyed, with its remaining shards (known as “Great Runes” scattered throughout the kingdom. These shards are now possessed by demigods corrupted by power. It’s up to you, as a lowly Tarnished – a warrior summoned to the Lands Between following the Ring’s destruction – to become Elden Lord by defeating each of these demigods and restoring the Elden Ring.
What makes Elden Ring particularly interesting is it’s a collaboration between Hidetaka Miyazaki – the writer, director and designer of nearly every Soulsborne game previous – and fantasy author George R. R. Martin, the writer of the A Song of Ice and Fire book series. Miyazaki has previously stated that Martin’s work served as an inspiration for some of his own games, so this creative partnership feels like the background of the entire FromSoftware library finally coming full circle.
We have a rough idea of Martin’s involvement in Elden Ring; he was brought in to write the history and mythology of the game’s setting, while Miyazaki then worked in the narrative around that. If you’re a fan of Martin’s work, you’ll definitely notice bits and pieces of his writing style interwoven into the Lands Between. His worldbuilding style is notable for incorporating magic and surrealism in a way that feels authentic to that specific universe, and the more fantastical elements of Elden Ring’s setting complement that greatly.
Interestingly, Elden Ring’s combat incorporates bits and elements from each past Soulsborne game. You can choose to play close-range and aggressive like in Bloodborne, careful and methodical like in Dark Souls, or stealthy and structured as in Sekiro. FromSoftware fans will feel right at home at choosing a fighting style that works for them. You’d think that an amalgamation of different styles would result in a Frankensteinian mess of a game, but enough care has been taken to ensure that each form of playing is respected and fleshed out in great detail.
Funnily enough though, it’s when I started playing Elden Ring energetically that it started to click properly. A lot of the enemies in this game are best countered when you don’t give them a chance to compose themselves. While I always loved playing slow and carefully in Dark Souls, the fierce aggression of Bloodborne is where I feel Elden Ring best translates. Is Elden Ring a new Dark Souls, or is it a stealth Bloodborne sequel?
Likewise, the enemy and boss variety is also something Elden Ring does really well. Anyone familiar with FromSoftware knows the developer is keen on reusing these assets in new and interesting ways in the late-game cycle. This is absolutely true here too, as early game bosses reappear later with new abilities and extra difficulty. But, on the other hand, the amount of diversity in enemies is also unlike anything seen in the series before. I can’t count the number of unique bosses the game has in total, but it easily trumps any of the previous Soulsborne numbers.
And then you’ve got the diversity in areas themselves. Limgrave is the first area seen in most of the promotional material for Elden Ring, and there were fears that much of the Lands Between would be similar-looking vistas with not much variety to it. Luckily, that’s not the case here. Without spoiling too much, later areas of the game take you to fiery tall mountains, a mysterious academy located above a lake, and a giant underground city. So you won’t just be seeing the same green scenery everywhere.
PERFORMANCE ON PC
Although not as beautiful as Bluepoint’s Demon’s Souls remake, Elden Ring is FromSoftware’s best looking game to date. Art direction will always triumph over graphical fidelity. It’s a welcome change to go from the doom and gloom of Dark Souls’ environments to the greener pastures of the Lands Between. The game is capable of some really gorgeous picturesque moments, such as the screenshot below.
On PC, unfortunately, there are some performance issues. Framerate drops are common when both out in the open world and exploring a cave, and the worst thing is it can happen during a critical moment in a boss fight. There were many moments where I died after experiencing a massive stutter. Tweaking the graphics settings doesn’t do anything. And I know it’s not my PC specs that are the issue (these are listed at the bottom of the page). These problems became less common later on, which lead me to believe it’s a shader caching situation. PR has also informed me a Day 1 patch will address this, so it might not be something to worry about in the full launch. However, be warned that this may frustrate your experience with Elden Ring.
THE MOST ACCESSIBLE SOULSBORNE EVER?
Now onto the question on everyone’s lips: is Elden Ring more accessible than the series’ past? The answer is, confusingly, yes and no.
One of the reasons a lot of players may have dropped Sekiro early on was due to its brutal difficulty. Since the levels were fairly linear, most of the bosses you had to brute force your way through. Increasing your health and damage was also intrinsically linked to beating these bosses, so you couldn’t just go away and grind for a few hours to come back stronger. If you couldn’t get past a certain section, you had to adapt and learn to power through it or not make any more progress. That’s fine design for some, and not so fine for others.
Elden Ring’s massive open world means you already have a dozen different directions to explore in as soon as you begin the game. That means if you head one way and run into a boss you can’t beat, you can simply leave and try another route. Luckily, Limgrave itself is large and easy enough that new players will settle in quite nicely. You’ll eventually get stronger and level up some more, allowing you to come back later better-equipped to defeat that boss. It’s a game that doesn’t give you many opportunities to feel like you’re making no progress at all.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a cakewalk either, and don’t be fooled into thinking that Elden Ring being more accessible means it’s easy. The difficulty curve ramps up quite dramatically later on. Bosses and big enemies will give you a lot of trouble. There’ll be moments where you may rage with determination trying to beat that one dude with a greataxe blocking your progress. The heart-pounding, sweaty moment of getting the big dragon down to a sliver of health is a feeling very few games these days seem to do well.
For Soulsborne fans such as myself, this is the exact reason we enjoy these games. It’s fantastic to see FromSoftware is still capable of making a challenging game that stays challenging all the way to the end. There aren’t many other titles that can instil that sense of drama in a rewarding way. But those who don’t enjoy the difficulty of these games may want to steer clear from the late-game areas.
If Dark Souls was the earthquake, Elden Ring is the aftershock. In a sense, it’s more of a love letter to the Soulsborne fanbase, incorporating dramatic fragments of each past game into a single product that is rewarding and fulfilling. While not perfect, I believe that FromSoftware has followed through on the hype surrounding this game and been able to create something truly mesmerising.
A copy of Elden Ring on PC was provided by Bandai Namco for review purposes.
Tested on a PC featuring:
Ryzen 7 3700X Processor
Corsair Vengeance 16GB RAM
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 Video Card
Feature Image Credit: FromSoftware