There is an inevitability, that as soon as a new From Software title comes out with that trademark difficulty, there will always follow the discourse about adding easy modes, ‘gitting gud’ and preparing to die. A particular anecdote comes to mind, usually uttered by me when trying to explain to Rich, a staunch ‘not Dark Souls’ player. Remember that moment in the first game when you are plonked into the Firelink Shrine, and you have two immediately visible paths? One of those leads to the Undead Burg, the general starting line for the whole adventure. The other, leads to a graveyard which is inhabited by skeletons that are very good at destroying new players that dare tread that path.
Now, for those that have played and understood Dark Souls, they know that this is the game trying to tell you something. You are NOT supposed to go that way yet. However, if you have the mettle and the skills to get around it, the skeletons are merely a dangerous nuisance and a reminder that nowhere is off limits to a player that knows how to play by the game’s rules. It’s an organic way of doing things and is designed to ensure that players are corralled down a pathway to success, without punishing the player for wanting to push the challenge or to explore further. When it comes to From Software’s latest, this is an anecdote to keep in mind, as the game is full of these moments. It’s a game that offers a ton of options to the player, encouraging them to see more of the world, rather than to beat their heads against a wall until they defeat a certain boss. After all, while people would cite challenging games as From Software’s core appeal, their games are really all about overcoming it.
I had a great deal of scepticism when approaching Elden Ring. One of the truly great aspects of their titles is in the world design. Dark Souls and Bloodborne had such an intricately connected world that it was almost impossible to not be impressed by it. Every element of their worlds felt like they were sculpted by hand, carefully designed to provide a unique and stylistic look, while managing to keep everything feeling like it belonged in the same world. So, the scepticism was born out of the shift to a larger open world. We have seen so many games come before this one, that were assembled using copied assets, with a sea of map markers that lead you to expected outcomes. The scepticism came from the possibility that From Soft would take a similar approach, this would have been after all the easy way to achieve this. Hell, it probably would have been fine. However, what we get is something genuinely amazing and seemingly impossible as a result.
The world of Elden Ring is an absolutely joy to explore and discover. Rather than pepper the map with quest markers and seemingly endless objectives with busywork and non-rewards. From Software instead have taken the approach to include areas that have something new to discover and earn every time. This non-exhaustive list includes townships that have cellars leading to a boss, NPC’s that can offer boons to the player enabling them to use new magic, mini dungeons hidden in caves, invading NPC’s and far-far more. What is most significant is that all of this content is worth engaging with. Whether that be for the Rune currency that allows you to level up, materials that let you level up your healing flasks/weapons or to collect one of the many weapons that could be a game changer to your chosen character build.
Normally at the 30-hour mark in any open world game, I would have had enough and would instead be shooting for the ultimate objective just to see those credits roll, but with Elden Ring, I found myself wanting to take my time as each new horizon offered something unexpected and worth my time. Which seems impossible in a genre that is full of games that offer little more than fringe benefits that are either forgettable or easily ignored in favour of a quicker completion. Also, just when I thought that things were getting the point of being recognisable, I discover all new areas which genuinely made me stop for a moment, just to try and take it all in. for someone like me that still appreciates shorter, linear experiences, i quickly found myself undaunted by Elden Ring, especially when finding that discoveries meant something, more content that i wanted to play.
This is thanks also in no small part to the stellar artistic direction of Elden Ring. Some concessions have been made to keep things running as smoothly as possible, with elements such as shadows and motion blur being reduced/removed on PS5. The general look and feel of Elden Ring is special. Each area of the world has its own personality, from the golden fields of Limgrave to the stark, barren wasteland of Caelid, all the while with the gigantic golden Erdtree bearing down on everything below. There is a real sense of place and history, whether you encounter collapsed ruins or enter a dungeon with colossal statues, each with a hidden story to tell, not expressly told in typical Soul’s fashion, all discoverable through organic world building and the myriad of items left dotted around the ruins.
This excellent design is not just dressing, it is fundamental to the DNA of Elden Ring’s progression. Much like with Dark Souls, you will encounter difficult enemies which will act as a roadblock, being seemingly undefeatable. However, thanks to the generous checkpointing system through the Sites of Grace (this game’s bonfires) you have the option at any time to bug out, go back into the world to level up some more, find a new weapon or upgrade your flask etc. At no point did I feel that I couldn’t do something to better my situation in some way.
Thanks to this checkpointing and the sheer number of things to do, what would typically be a painful first few hours into a new Souls game, turned into something that immediately felt fun and any fear of going slightly off-piste to grab a suspicious looking collectable only to lose my hard-earned runes was gone as I now have more chances than ever to gain them back. Also, thanks to the Marika stakes dotted near bosses and large settlements, those long death runs have become a thing of the past. These are almost too generously distributed, but incredibly welcome as there was nothing fun about barely scraping through a dungeon in Dark Souls, to see one attack from the boss and having to do the big run back to get to see a few more. Instead, you die, you get up and straight back in for another go. That may sound like it is trivialising the formula somewhat, but considering how long this game is without having to run through hordes of enemies to pick up progress, it is most certainly welcome.
When it comes to the combat, this is about what you would expect from a Dark Souls game, only with way more depth than before, which is saying a great deal since the control and speed is based on the third entry, which had a crazy amount of depth to begin with. The weighty, deliberate dance of sword, shield and sorcery is well preserved here. However, adding to all of this comes an even more diverse weapon set, each one providing a viable option for players to carry through to the endgame and ashes of war, which apply new affects and attacks that enrich your move set just that bit further. When I say that you can carry any weapon and make a good go of things throughout, that is meant. Elden Ring never forces you to pick up that boss weapon and get good with it. Instead, if you find a weapon that you are comfortable with, whether that be the damage output, speed, and swing animation then you can upgrade that weapon to become an all-conquering tool in the late game.
This can be achieved in various ways. You can smith upgrades using materials you pick up, use the ashes of war to apply damage scaling that corresponds to your stats, use elemental grease that applies magic to the weapon and so on. Alternatively, if you choose a magic build then you can upgrade your spells in line with your weapon to increase damage or support output to your hearts content. There is genuinely no wrong option here and this is reflected by the hundreds of spectres of other players that you encounter as you wonder through the world. I swear, each time I see them holding a weapon I either have not seen yet, or one that I did not even consider viable due to my playstyle, but with curiosity I feel that I should try out next.
Combat goes further than being on foot also, with the introduction of your main mode of transportation, a steed known as Torrent. Far more useful than simply a traversal tool, you can engage enemies in the open world on horseback by swinging your weapon or engaging in ranged bow or magic combat. This is something i found myself using far more than i thought i would, as in some cases, the ability to hit and run with a powerful sword while galloping at full pelt was just too welcoming a proposition, as opposed to going toe-to-toe with enemies on foot. The ability to summon torrent at a moments notice also allows that added layer of freedom in a fight and makes for a quick getaway from devestating area of effect spells that would otherwise require pinpoint timing to avoid on foot.
As with all Souls-like games, spectres and phantoms come into play again here in typical fashion. As before, you can summon other players into your world to assist with taking on bosses. Only, this time you do not need to fit the usual prerequisites of gaining humanity, instead you have a single consumable that lets you see the summon marks on the ground. Likewise, red phantoms have a chance of invading your world to try and make your progression difficult, however I have yet to encounter any unless I had previously summoned co-operators in. New to Elden Ring, are some unique summons. If you ever find yourself in an area that does not have any players nearby to help, then you can summon spirits of general enemies once earned. Each have their own special strengths and weaknesses, such as the skeletal militiamen who can regenerate after being taken down once as long as they don’t get swiped while they are down, or the jellyfish that excels at distraction and ranged damage. Each of these provide yet another option that bolsters the combat and gives the player some breathing room during some tough encounters, letting them either tank for you, distract groups of foes or to increase pressure on a boss to chip away at their invisible stagger meter.
This marriage of combat styles truly makes Elden Ring feel special and tuned to player in ways that has never been achieved before. There is just so many ways in which you can skin a cat here and no way could ever be considered the wrong way. Having trouble? jump on Torrent and then go for heavy strikes on that larger enemy. Feeling surrounded? Summon some spirits or a friend to take the heat off while you exploit the distraction. Want a stand-up fight, one-on-one? you can absolutely do that, with any weapon of your choice, with any handicap you want to give yourself. The choice is completely yours and the staggering amount of options available never let me feel that a challenge was too great to face, even if the same enemy in a Dark Souls title would be a roadblock that would stunt progress until grinded through.
With all the excitement provided by Elden Ring and the many, many things it does right as an experience. It would be remiss not to discuss the one thing that lets it down. Unfortunately, on PS5 it cannot keep to 60fps in performance mode. I’m posting this review a week after the game had been made available and there is not yet a performance update that has sought to fix this. Now, to some this would be an annoyance and most. I fail to think of anyone that would consider this a deal breaker. As while the stutter does cause for some awkward camera panning moments, at no point did I feel that it affected my ability to play or enjoy the game. There is of course a quality mode, but I would strongly advise against this as while it adds some nice affects, you will want as much fluidity as possible to enjoy Elden Ring’s combat to its fullest.
Besides this one gripe (which will hopefully be fixed in time) It’s still a hefty recommendation from me. It is downright baffling that so much minor detail has been considered in a game that is as large as this. It feels like every small or large moment has been considered in equal measure and to be constantly discovering new and exciting things even a quarter of the way into this massive 80+ hour experience is nothing short of mind-blowing. Games like this do not come around often, or ever in fact. Elden Ring is not just a great game, it should be considered a pillar of the open world genre, one that will be challenging others to up their game for years to come.
+ The most accessible Souls-Like game to date
+ Incredible world and enemy design
+ Continues to surprise, even tens of hours into the adventure
- People will still claim that this is overrated, despite being one of the finest games of our time.