It would be an understatement to say that Elden Ring was hyped up more than a coked chimp on the edge with nothing to lose, with even the most hardcore Soulsborne veterans even daring to consume any and all content relating to the gameplay, plot and character creation at risk of spoiling something, due to their starvation and hunger for information. It was definitely a long time coming, long enough that I believed it to be a myth, like King Arthur or Keanu Reeves.(And he said unto thee…Wow!!)
Having a new-born son makes it difficult enough to play something quick and casual, since my attention is otherwise occupied, and there are plenty of top priority responsibilities, but I managed to get a couple of days where I sunk in a lot of hours…creating my character mostly, and just farting about trying to figure out how I feel about this new take on a tried and tested formula.
(It’s like falling asleep in Narnia and waking up in fucking Mordor!)
Elden Ring was marketed as a proper open-world game, with new and nightmarish lands to travel, but with a lot more freedom in how we can get there, but I did have concerns on whether this would actually work. Dark Souls and the other variations were semi-open, allowing some exploration, but this allowed locations to blend together naturally, made each region unique, and it meant you didn’t always end up in an area far too beyond your level.
So, does Elden Ring work as an open-world game? Yes, and it works very well. Beyond the tutorial dungeon you are free to go wherever you like, the map is blank, for the most part, so a lot of the regions are obscured and it’s not clear how big the overall world is. The scale of the starting area was massive, and just seeing the large structures in the distance, knowing I could go there made it feel like those movie moments were the cast just stare into the distance to their destinations. I started exploring immediately, looking for enemies to start attacking, because that’s what sane people do when they find themselves in a hostile world.(“Fuck thee in particular!”)
I took my Cobra Kai life rules with me to some surrounding locations to get a feel for the controls, which are a little different to the conditioned fingers of a Dark Souls vet, and came across some wondrous sites, finding it wasn’t just massive, but immersive as well. My jaw hit the floor that hard I nearly went unconscious. Crafting is now available, with resources scattered everywhere from flowers, to smithing stones to animal bones, all of which can be used to put together some nifty items, saving you from spending your hard-earned cash with the numerous merchants that casually sit around waiting for the one customer to just turn up.
(“Oh, fuck off Zubat!”)
Enemies litter the land like locusts, from the basic to the gigantic, and in typical FromSoftware fashion they are tough. The variety is astounding, from lumbering masses with tentacles, to crazy pygmy things with spears, to giant bats that only appear at night thanks to the day/night cycle, all the way to actual wildlife like sheep and deer. Anything that moves can be attacked and killed, and almost everything that can be attacked will likely attack you first.
(“This is un-bear-able…heheheheeooooo I’m going to die…”)
Elden Ring is very similar to the games of old, so many of their mechanics still exist, just named differently. Instead of bonfires to light up and use for levelling and item sorting, we have Sites of Grace. Little hovering lights that will operate exactly as bonfires do, with the exception of having a fast travel option to move to any Site previously rested at, outside of combat. Borrowing themes from all past games, Elden Ring allows players to view areas from afar, from above, and even below. I happened across many random interiors just from wandering around, and I still couldn’t process the sheer size of the forests, long roads and giant cliffsides that dwarfed me.
It felt like a real journey, and I could always find something intriguing, even feeling proud when I get a reward at the end of it all that always felt like it suited the struggle to obtain it. Instead of souls, we earn runes, which operate exactly as souls do. They are used to spend on items, purchase upgrades and to level up your stats. Getting around is much easier than just travelling by map, or by foot, as we are given a trusty steed to carry us around, making for a speedy exit from an unwanted encounter or to feel the virtual breeze through the player’s scalp. This steed, Torrent, can sprint and jump, making the terrain less obstructive when trying to find the straightest path.
(“Four legs are much better than two.”)
The combat was always a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and Elden Ring didn’t try to reinvent the wheel with what is one of the franchise’s strongest qualities. Rather, they somehow managed to tighten the screw just a little without causing any damage and added in some nice perks. DS3 introduced skills for each weapon, Sekiro added the posture meter and Bloodborne emphasised aggressive play. Elden Ring melted those down and merged them into one system to rule them all…ahem…and now we’ve got some options in how to approach a fight.“But if you’re not spamming magic spells to cheese your enemies what are you even doing with you life?” – Gerard Kennedy
First of all, and one of my preferred changes, we can now jump. There is a button dedicated to just jumping, and with that comes jump attacks as well as making getting round much easier. A jumping heavy is capable of staggering enemies, who now have an invisible posture meter, which is also affected by charged heavy strikes. This also improves how we can handle encounters with shielded enemies now that we can break their guards and put them in a downed state for a critical hit. If directly confronting someone fills you with anxiety, then sneaking around them will let you secure the first hit, or to avoid fighting altogether, with a button for crouching.
Hiding in the bushes keeps you out of the enemy’s line of sight and lets you plan your route from the safety of the shade. Skills are now replaced by Ashes of War, which are skills that can be assigned to different weapons, giving unique animations and properties but also costing stamina and focus points. Some weapons have unique Ashes of War or skills, that cannot be replicated, but those I have bought or found have been pretty cool so far, with many more to come across.
Riding on the back of Torrent like some badass Knight is seamlessly combined with swinging your weapon or shooting a projectile, introducing a new element of combat altogether. Some enemies are best fought from horseback as the additional speed helps to move around the battlefield, but it also means backing off when things go sour.
Magic has also become more accessible this time round, with a catalogue of combat spells added that doesn’t just lean towards the wizards, but even melee fighters can find something with low demands to try and give them a sharper edge. I found quite a few already, and they all sound very appealing, but I haven’t even fully explored the starting region, barely half of it, and already I have so much stuff, it just makes me even more excited to see what else is coming my way, and they are worthy rewards to spend time hunting down, even in the early stages of the game when you’re figuring how you’d like to build your character.
The character creator was very detailed, you can quite literally go from creating the most lifelike looking human, to something from the dark parts of a sociopath’s mind, or just a Shrek clone. I made a semi-Japanese looking man, with a whitened left eye covered with a scar and a bit of cloth, because I could, and wanted him to fit the character class I selected. The classes are just your usually archetypes that determine starting equipment, level and stats, but you’re not beholden to what you’ve picked, although my choice was made before the release. I picked the Samurai, he had medium armour that allowed swift movement and decent damage reduction, a longbow for ranged sniping and an uchigatana that, when held with two hands, gave me a unique skill to use light and heavy quickdraw strikes.
It had bleed properties too, and with the Samurai’s higher starting Dexterity, decent Strength and Health, it made him a competent melee fighter that could switch to a ranged weapon, but it didn’t restrict me from increasing stats that would allow me to use lower-level magic. I’m free to choose how I evolve, but with so many different spells and abilities I am spoiled with choice and can create something unique to me.
Another staple of the franchise is the difficulty, and that’s usually felt when coming across a boss for the first, second, third, fourth and fifth time, and every time after that. They are unique enemies with large health pools, they unleash deadly combinations and sometimes have more than one phase because they haven’t used their “final form”. Elden Ring contains at least 5 or more main bosses to defeat to progress with the story, with countless area bosses and optional bosses. Some may be too tough to challenge right away so they’re best avoided until you’re more confident and levelled up enough to start doing some visible damage.
They vary greatly in size and skill, but all are not to be underestimated. I can’t express my fear enough when one actually performed environmental destruction, as in this big bastard on a horse near the starting area started tearing down the wall of a building close by, and the trees next to it. That was the equivalent of someone in GTA 5 stopping the unstoppable train, or a car managing to break through a hedge. I felt my heart come out of my arse at that stage and just legged it off a cliff, thinking death by my own hands would be less painful. I eventually got better, levelled up, persevered and confronted him, and we went back and forth for ages. I still lost a few times, but each time I did more and more damage, until I finally got the better of him. He’s far from the toughest around, but that small victory was a big sign of improvement, and it only pushed me to keep going.
(“Actually, I don’t want to be the hero anymore. Someone else can fight him!”)
As with the other games there is still a multiplayer element, although it appears to be a lot more convenient now. I still don’t fully understand the restrictions, but by activating certain statues it allows allies to be summoned, by consuming an item that reveals summon signs. There are items that also search for players looking to team up in case I just want to hop on the next multiplayer train. There isn’t much else to say other than it was very busy and had no trouble joining a game or having my game joined for some jolly adventuring.
(Riding and dying together, but mostly dying.)
Although, the story isn’t fully explained, it never has been with these games. It’s something to discover by living in the world, interacting the characters you come across, the areas you find and the items and spells you pick up. Sure, it can be oversimplified as killing a few bad guys, taking their items and then saving the world, but you can apply that anywhere and make it seem vague. It’s like saying The Lord of the Rings is just a story about 4 short men returning some jewellery. Elden Ring is bursting with lore and history in the Lands Between that can only be appreciated when they are respected and explored.The combat and magic have made it easier to choose new ways to approach a fight without sacrificing the struggle you need to persist through, and ultimately claiming the reward of victory. The open world design hasn’t detracted from the quality of each location and manages to make discovering dungeons and enemies to be a valuable experience. The weird NPCs, the massive number of enemies and the mysteries that lie beyond in this monster of a game, I just could not find a flaw with any of it, and even though it can be frustrating, and feel unfair, it’s not impossible to progress and there is always a way to win. It’s a spectacular game, and one of the best I’ve played in the longest time.