February 23, 2022 10:00 am ET
I can hear a song. Discordant and melancholic, it’s like a siren’s verse in some forgotten language. Simlish, maybe. As I turn the corner, I see the songstress, sitting and singing. With scraggly long hair and a wrinkled face, I’m convinced it’s an elderly woman right up until the moment she unfurls. Not stands – unfurls. Old women don’t generally do that. I saw some strange stuff when I visited my grandmother at the home, but never that. Not once. No unfurling OAPs.
Nothing is as you expect in Elden Ring, the next game from Dark Souls developer FromSoftware. Honestly, even the sheep are deranged. This being an open-world game, Elden Ring has a crafting system by royal decree. If you don’t want to buy projectiles, you need to murder animals to create them yourself. Of course, you’d expect a sheep to run away if a knight started sprinting at it with a god-slaying twinblade, but these sheep aren’t any ordinary sheep – they’re FromSoftware sheep. If they see you coming, they curl up into a ball before rolling away like a fluffy armadillo. Feeling normal, looking normal.
George R.R. Martin – the author of Game of Thrones – apparently lent his writing talents to this world. He cooked up the lore, the flavor of the world, and FromSoftware sprinkled the rolling sheep seasoning on top. If no one told you before you played it, you wouldn’t know. You still piece together the story from vague conversations, the state of your surroundings, and abstract item descriptions. Barely animated NPCs still deliver speeches without a hint of emotion. You still rest at bonfires (now called sites of grace), and you still slowly push open double doors to reveal a new area. It’s unmistakably FromSoftware.
What sets this apart from other FromSoftware games isn’t the worldbuilding – it’s the world itself. Rather than a series of interconnected levels, Elden Ring tasks you with exploring a fully open world with dynamic weather and a day and night cycle. If you’ve played a triple-A game in the past decade, you know the drill. But a FromSoftware open world doesn’t feel like any other you’ve explored. If you don’t respect them, every single enemy can kill you. Every landmark exists as a tease for some labyrinthine dungeon. You’re never asked to repeat a series of mind-numbing tasks for the sake of it. It’s just you, your horse, and the world. Go in whatever direction you want.
Lonely battlements, crooked hovels, and rugged ruins litter the landscape. Towering castles jut out of the horizon, overshadowed only by the branches of a great, ethereal tree. There are (of course) poisonous swamps, abandoned villages where magic crackles in the air, sweeping plains, and rotting towns riddled with pestilence. There are battered beaches, frostbitten fields, and creepy caverns. The land is almost as varied as your arsenal, which includes axes, greatswords, katanas, whips, knuckle dusters, bows, clubs, and plenty more besides.
When exploring the world you’ll see giants stomping across the dirt, small armies patrolling the fields, and crestfallen soldiers licking their wounds on the burnt remnants of a battlefield. Beyond all this, there’s more. So, so much more. I don’t want to spoil the sense of discovery because it’s mind-boggling. Every time you think you’ve seen all an area has to offer, you stumble upon something else that leads you down into a new dungeon, or up into an undiscovered area of the map. Like that singing “old woman”, the world unfurls. Constantly.
Souls games have always been focused on delving deep. Outside of their hub areas, there’s barely any respite. Some people love that sense of confinement, where the more you push in, the harder it is to backtrack. In Elden Ring, you unlock fast travel early on, allowing you to easily leave a place if you find it too difficult. There’s always another direction to venture. And when you do push on and make it through one of the many dungeons, there’s a fist-pumping feeling of elation when you reach the other side and emerge, once again, in the overworld. Beating a difficult dungeon here mimics that feeling you get when you leave the gym and feel the wind on your face.
Fast travel isn’t the only way Elden Ring is more approachable than other Souls games, either. Fall damage is much less strict, for a start. You can fall much further, and a dedicated jump button makes platforming feel a lot less like jamming a sewing needle into your urethra. The only downside to this is that it’s hard to judge whether a fall will kill you or not, which sometimes leads to frustrating deaths. Still, Elden Ring doesn’t punish you as much for dying either. Yes, you lose the runes you were carrying (the currency used to buy items and level up), unless you make it back to the place of your death before you die again, but it’s not like you lose a chunk of your health. There’s also no weapon degradation, so there’s no need to stop what you’re doing to find a blacksmith. Elsewhere, stamina isn’t used outside of combat, allowing you to sprint indefinitely whenever you’re not being chased by some twisted granny.
In most parts of the world, you’re free to ride your horse. Not only does this get you around the map quicker, but mounted combat makes many of the enemies you encounter easier to manage. Since I chose the samurai starting class, I felt like Sekiro’s Gyoubu Oniwa, a mounted menace who easily cuts down foes from horseback. It might not be as effective a strategy for mages, but dragons are a doddle when you can cavalry charge them until they drop dead. It also allows FromSoftware to create vast spaces, such as a grand staircase guarded by ballistae and soldiers – charging up it on horseback feels more epic than anything the studio has ever done before.
When you do hit a boss-shaped brick wall, you can summon phantoms – AI helpers who can damage and distract a boss for as long as their health pool lasts. While they’re not as reliable as summoning another player (which will also be an option once the servers go online), they’re a good solution for players who are stuck and don’t have an online connection or prefer to play solo. Bosses also have more forgiving checkpoints – often one right before the boss arena. This solves one of the more irritating features of FromSoftware games, which usually require you to run through a gauntlet of ordinary enemies every time you want to have another attempt at a boss – in Bloodborne, you were arguably more likely to die on the way to The One Reborn than you were to the boss itself.
Many of the bosses are much easier than in previous FromSoftware games, too. Some will stomp you into dust repeatedly, but you’ll find yourself beating many on your first attempt. This is partly because of how they’re designed and also a symptom of the open world. You might stumble upon a mine that gives you access to weapon upgrade materials or find yourself beating a late area earlier than you were meant to. When you eventually get back on the critical path, you might find you’re way overpowered. It also helps that you don’t need perfect parry timing to land counter attacks here, since there’s a new block-parry that allows you to counter straight after a successful block instead of a timed shield backhand.
It’s not all a cakewalk, of course. The final third of the game has some pretty cheap tricks waiting for you. Remember that boss from earlier? What about that other one? Well, now they’ve teamed up and you have to kill them both three times. Enjoy! Whenever you get complacent, Elden Ring reminds you that you’re a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam and punishes you for your hubris.
When I finally reached the last area of the game – 50 hours in – I hit that duo I just mentioned. After a dozen attempts, I could tell it wasn’t going to happen. Not yet. It was time to explore a little more and double-check areas I’d already scoured to upgrade my weapons and maybe level up a bit. After a couple of hours back in the overworld, I’d found two entirely new areas that I’d never visited before. I’m not talking about little caves, I mean whole new areas with their own bosses, enemies, and items – I uncovered one of them because I smacked a wall, revealing it to be illusory. Elden Ring’s world is intimidatingly vast. But despite spending all this time crunching through it for review, I can’t wait to go back and see more of it unfurl.
Written by Kirk McKeand on behalf of GLHF.