The lingering feeling that “this is Dark Souls IV” stuck with me throughout the ~150 hours I’d spent on my first playthrough of Elden Ring. Though it’d been six years since I’d been excited about a proper iteration of FromSoftware‘s successful thread of dark fantasy third-person action role-playing games beyond the indomitable Dark Souls III this game doesn’t cannibalize much of what you’d expect from the mechanical successes of interim development found on Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019). It is clear within moments of firing up the celebrated development team’s first true foray into true open-world design that Elden Ring was built as a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, a polished-over patchwork of animations, archetypal characters, cryptic storytelling and various other series staples that are in direct evolution of that mainline ‘souls’-titled series. We’re offered more preset class options to kick off with, a different take on magic systems and various alignments of good, evil and even a bit of grey area depending how you’ll play… but for all intensive purposes all of this amounts to “the next Dark Souls game” more than it does a new franchise or, any sort of vision for the future. This familiarity and lineage is not at all a weakness, mind you. If anything the major success of Elden Ring is that it manages an enormous open world that is entirely bespoke as expected; Beyond a few glaring moments of repetition, each region of the greater Pangaea-esque continent of “the Lands Between” doesn’t hardly feel lived-in but there are all manner of unique, seductively set areas that ensure every nook is explored, and more importantly that everything you see from cliff to shore to chasm has some purpose in your usurpation of all corrupted thieves to the power of Goddess Marika and (most of) her pouting, contemptuous offspring.
My total exposure to Elden Ring prior to the day of release involved one trailer, the first one shown at E3 in June of 2019, and about twenty minutes of PvP explanations from an random YouTube source who’d been part of the late 2021 network test/demo. This wasn’t for the sake of story spoilers, I don’t think there is a meaningful way to spoil games with such light and/or cryptic narrative and if that wasn’t true then how could several folks literally make a living explaining the lore of FromSoftware‘s games on YouTube? No, the main reason for holding back was that I knew that this game had to be a personal thing to pick up and experience on my own time and without the interruption of thirsty, try-hard internet mutants mucking up my enjoyment of the game. It didn’t entirely work that way, folks pointed me to the Meteor Staff + Rock Sling sorcery combo for early game Astrologers really early on and this ultimately obliterated the game’s challenge, but it’d all be entirely fresh as an experience otherwise. This’d been particularly crucial beyond my recent experience with the Demon’s Souls remake, a completely lifeless husk that’d left me wondering if Elden Ring would be worth a shit and if I still had any interest in their increasingly quirky brand of dark fantasy role-player any more.
The only thing that this game takes from that first one is the inability to spend soul items (aka rune items) without a forced exit of the inventory menu for the animation, all else resembles a bigger vision beyond Dark Souls III. Bigger does not necessarily mean better in this case, though, despite of course the obvious appeal of an open-world video game being exploration in every case. The first twenty or so hours of familiarizing yourself with the vast, largely unfocused sprawl of Elden Ring once you’ve exited from the tutorial, and likely being killed by a sewn-together mass of sword-bearing arms, will likely be a bit of a difficult slog within the Limgrave and Weeping Peninsula regions; This is simply because next to nothing you’ll find on your first pass of these areas will prove itself viable for mid-to-late game difficulty ramps nor will any of it cut deep enough within the larger enemies and brutal dungeon bosses you’ll encounter along the way. The experienced Souls-like player knows exactly what needs to happen when faced with lackluster arms, go off the beaten path and start loot running for rune items, contested grabs within mobs, and generally scouring the countryside for anything that’ll provide an advantage. Well, of course Elden Ring makes this easier-than-thou with a horse-goat, a “spirit steed” named Torrent whom is summoned with an item you’ll get early on and comes pre-equipped with a speed boost and a mid-air double jump. Before I’d completed even two dungeons in Limgrave I’d already run around and gotten about thirty Sites of Grace (the fast travel Bonfire equivalent in this game) and had enough fresh gear and level-up items to make a considerable leap forward. If you want to make sure you don’t miss a thing, I wouldn’t recommend this as you’ll have to backtrack later and fill in the blanks. Nonetheless, I handed the game’s ass back to it from that point on.
Early comparisons to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in terms of exploration vs. reward had me concerned since the rewards for that game were sluggishly dealt and the gameplay was all about managing impermanent resources, often tying the best rewards to bland iteration on dungeon types and actions. This doesn’t apply to Elden Ring but you will however find a lot of arbitrary dispersion of items, as if to suggest they’d made a world that was too big for the potential number of rewards they had planned. So, the solution seems to have been the Ashes of War weapon customization system which spreads its most effective skills in thin numbers across the land to the tune of about a hundred items. This system seems poorly planned since compatible weapons are typically of a breed you’ll overlook based on their average traits compared to magic and ‘ready skill infused weapons, which scale better when left alone in many cases. This is further complicated by certain stat/skill reductions associated with infusions, such as losing 100% damage reduction on shields for the sake of a magic attuned parry skill — A skill which negates the skill of your Right hand weapon unless you sheathe the Left hand (ash infused kill bearing) shield first. Most players won’t notice this because there is no real compelling add from Ashes up front and they are not well explained. The most savvy players out there exploiting some of the broken Ashes of War are now finding those skills directly ‘nerfed’ in subsequent patches, this being an unprecedented sort of thing from FromSoftware who’d previously largely stuck to patching their games for the sake of PvP later in life, and rarely touched the general unfairness of invasions/arena fights. You will nonetheless be rewarded for every bit of exploration in Elden Ring, the question is if you’ll necessarily need, want or even know how to use those systems and this’ll likely leave a few sections glaring in mind as open world padding.
Beyond the Ashes of War skill infusion system being convoluted and largely missable the game’s situational summonable sidekicks, Spirit Ashes, are the worst bit of communication the game serves up front. In fact they are special reusable items in the form of spirits who can be upgraded via a young lady whom you’ll have join your central hub area early on the suggested natural path of progression available. These are generally meant for boss fights and in some cases they can viably replace the necessity of summoning cooperative players later in the game’s life. They also comprise a fairly small chunk of reward types gotten from dungeon exploration, caves and catacombs which lead to a lite puzzle of “find the switch” before a boss fight can be accessed. These crypts also contain the upgrade materials needed to make Spirit Ashes imposing tools so, there is some strong incentive there for folks willing to use these ashes to enter the catacombs. I’d appreciated that the placement of Spirit Ashes tended to have some contextual tie with enemies in the area they were found, or, had some tie to that area’s lore itself. Since I’d played roughly 90% of the game offline and only summoned human players for a couple of dungeon boss fights early on (and the two toughest bosses of the late-game), I made good use of a few Spirit Ashes along the way and recommend this as a totally reasonable option against bosses you’re stuck on for hours. Rather than wait for other players to help or simply abandon a too-tough fight I’d found these summons were the distraction I needed from the overtly aggressive launches of most bosses, all of whom overwhelm even at level 170. There is no shame in making a brutal, unforgiving game slightly easier and only a festering goon bag would think otherwise.
The Sorcery focused Astrologer class I chose to start was largely out of habit, a build which I tend to modify from its default min/max progression with a balance of Strength/Intelligence as a sort of “Magick Knight” capable of strong Sword and Shield combat as well as the option of spells and heavy armor. Although this felt familiar in its timing and movement it is clear that they’ve worked to make Sorcery an approachable option in the open-world where mob heavy encounters are a breeze thanks to the Glintstone Arc spell culling clustered groups easily and the Glintstone Pebble spell basically scaling well for 70% of the game, unless you’ve built enough casting speed to just rail off 5-6 volleys at each enemy. This choice of class began to feel like a mistake before I’d reached the Caelid and Liurnia of the Lakes regions of the continent since the lack of new spells available in Limgrave was noticeable and I was still firing off the same stupid fucking pebble spell (with decent damage) for hours on end. The build eventually came together but, before I’d gotten there the regret was thick for ~20 hours as most of the best loot, lore and NPC charisma you’ll experience early on seems to suggest a Faith/Strength/Dexterity build is recommended and that walking into Elden Ring as a Paladin (Confessor) is probably ideal if you’d like to, I dunno… Use the Dragon Cult’s spells, use all of the incredible Incantations (Faith-based magicks), get the best ‘normal’ ending, have any sort of Holy defense in the late game, and use some of the most insanely powerful weapons to hit a FromSoftware game, ever.
I’d eventually get over the perceived lack of options as I worked through the quests surrounding the Raya Lucaria Academy of Magic, found more viable sorceries and a couple of INT/STR/DEX scaling weapons (Crystal Sword, Carian Knight’s Sword) to better approach tough combat situations. None of these compared to the effectiveness of Gravity and Frost spells, though, as these either naturally poise break (stun) or slow most bosses and make quick kills of bigger foes such as the overused Ulcerated Tree Spirit ‘dragon’ field bosses. Despite any number of attempts at flashy sorcery builds or interesting mixes of items (such as the sleep-inducing Sword of St. Trina paired with the too late game to matter St. Trina’s Torch) I’d realized any fuckin’ cute ideas I had for builds largely amounted to idiotic magic tricks as most bosses are immune to trickery like Sleep spells and the damage almost never counts on these special weapons unless you’ve focused on a more universally applicable status effect such as Bleed or Scarlet Rot. Point being? I’d ultimately find myself frustrated with the necessity of specialization, getting slaughtered unless I’d stuck with 2-3 well proven attacks and rarely finding viable options in novel builds. It was out of sheer boredom with the use of limited Sorcery spells that I began to develop skill, spacing and timing with straight swords and even then it was three R1 presses and maybe a roll to avoid damage in most mob encounters. This doesn’t matter much in the bigger picture of the experience, since it is fairly easy to respec and there are plenty of powerful options at hand to rip through bosses but my major point in mentioning the initially dry set of choices at hand is, well, none of this -really- improves upon what Dark Souls III had done with the addition of weapon skills and the options are essentially the same shit we’ve gotten in the past.
Familiarity is a good thing, though, as was able to pick this game up and go to town on it without a moment of trouble, didn’t flinch once at the controls (swap the jump and interact buttons!!!) or sharpness of movement/animation. It is a good thing that I want to try other builds, it is a good thing that other classes appeal to me and it is a good sign that certain aspects of Ash infusion still has untapped potential in my hands after so much time spent in game. The fact that some inspired personal agency and a bit of perseverance is all that lies between the player and this harsh, clobber-beast heavy realm is an exceptional thought and well, I can ultimately see why Elden Ring is already one of the best games everyone has played since… the last FromSoftware title they’d said that about (a few times over) but I’d argue that none of this accessibility or challenge is as new or compelling as the world itself, the exploration of that world, and the world-building attached to it.
The Berserk (manga) stylized “Spiral World Tree” dark fantasy setting we step into with Elden Ring is absolutely blatant in its visual inspiration and resembles a similar state of post-civilization fracture shared by past ‘souls’ series works. The caveat this time around is that the people, demigods, possessed peons and plebs that fill this world are better developed than ever in terms of characterization and design. Costume and character design here pulls less often from world-spanning tropes and gimmickry (though two sets of Japanese armor are included) and instead more from a unified sort of ruddy, medieval earthen color palette for fabrics and metals. Blues set with alabaster white, golds and silvers suggest the color banding of Liurnia‘s sorcery adepts. Yellows, bronzes and deep golds grace Leyndell, The Royal Capital‘s knights and their henchmen all without cartoonish coats of arms, frothing masses under heretical leadership, or any particularly organized militarism on display you’d expect going into a medieval fantasy setting. Point being that the game’s designs present less “humanoid” derived designs (crow people, etc.) and more characters and enemies which are basically just humans in a state of eternal stalemated existence, enchanted and often wearing oversized masks rather than actually being deformed outside of the Demigods and beasts themselves. “The people”, be they zombie or affected NPC, are fractured from reality and largely possessed in unending life beyond death yet their appearance is notably reflective of the grime of the God-sized -human- conflict affecting each region and reign. While still falling within the nearby reach of one greater dynasty, all portions of the continent have the affect of a country originally unified by force, conquered into Order, and soon shattered into war by jilted lovers and opportunistic ambition. The range from goofy squawkish folks to cold and disaffected Welsh, Irish, and regional English accented voice acting in the last few FromSoftware games now finds a more universal, or perhaps more realistic temperament which ranges per character and usually befits their general situation, eh, which is typically dire. It isn’t a believable world by design, quite a fantastic fractured island continent by intent, but the characters you’ll interact with are instilled with a certain humanity nonetheless.
But let’s us be real, then, in suggesting that all games in this style from this developer task us with fighting and communing with what are essentially hopeless dregs of humanity’s most powerful yet defeated souls — or, more often possessed zombies and various great beasts whom act in service to corrupt leadership and this is where the world you’ve explored and its greater design begin to circle the drain as the characterization of the actual demigods, the Shardbearers, lies in the world building, rather than your interactions with (eh, mostly killing) them. It isn’t until we come into contact with the hidden lore, the exposition of their underlings, and their palaces/keeps and realms that we understand the intentionally distant mythic austerity of the demigods. It is important to realize that the player’s character quite literally doesn’t belong to this stalemate of a world wherein all gods are exhausted within their torn apart reality and you are simply there to finish them off and usurp. Consider yourself a home invader targeting broken families with domestic violence issues, unable to heal from tragedy. That’s you, bro.
All of this does admittedly appear meaningless when the player is faced with the most common Japanese RPG trope of all time, suddenly finding yourself tasked with defeating the very god of the Lands Between, the physical embodiment of Order (law, justice, temporality, etc.) as a beast rather than uh, getting an actual ring. In fact there is no Elden ring to wear of course, as it seems to be a piece of a larger parable developed to suggest that the grace and respect shared between leadership, family, and community is the backbone of civilized order, a bond of interconnected nature that -does- have a point of no return. Where does this merger of FromSoftware storytelling and mythos from George R.R. Martin become a bit silly? Well, the story of Elden Ring revolves around the catalyst of divorce. In fact the whole system was fucked up by a child of divorce to start, wherein the truest story of Elden Ring is told through Ranni the Witch‘s bitter-yet-transcendental questline (a necessity for sorcery players) where she was the demigod spawn of a marriage rescinded between a conqueror of the Lands Between (second to last boss and second Elden Lord, Radagon) and and his soon-jilted queen whom serves as the main boss of Raya Lucaria Academy as Rennala, Queen of the Full Moon (also your hub for respec’ing) before he left her, and returned to Leyndell to wed the freed hand of Marika after the first Elden Lord (Godfrey, third to last boss fight) was, well, cast aside by the Goddess because his role was complete as husband after conquering the lands. This is God of War-sized shit happening off-screen and in the past, yet it might take a while to understand that. Ranni casts aside royalty, family and the whole fucking system *shakes fist* by hiring the Black Knife assassins whose pivotal deeds act as the catalyst for decimation described in the game’s opening aka The Shattering. If you were worried about spoilers here, this is most all graciously delivered in the opening cinematic prose, it’ll just be hard to remember without much exposition beyond. The titular Elden Ring is perhaps more obviously named with this realization that Martin‘s outline for mythos is pulled from a less-than-Shakespearean bout of Greek creation myth, its general outline reading a bit like the Cliff Notes for the more jealous bits of the Oresteia only devoid of anything so sordid beyond murder for hire and a bit of religious mockery.
That said, I cannot count the number of times I’d entirely forgotten why I was in the world of Elden Ring, what the main characters were all about, and (at first) why I kept returning to an virtually empty Roundtable Hold. I had to do my own research to feel the impact of certain deeds and understand the tone of certain characters; I suppose the meaningful trade-off here is the same as it has always been with these storytellers — Completely focused on free agency for the player, whom almost never loses direct control or hits a loading screen unless fast-traveling or entering certain boss fights. The aforementioned Roundtable Hold, a small and maze-like area the size of a reference library at a cheap east coast catholic university, serves as a hub area which the player is granted access to once they’ve reached a certain point of progress, allowing direct peaceful interaction with various NPCs and enabling several convoluted questlines attached to basically every single NPC encountered, even the blacksmith. While it does not provide any meaningful sanctuary or exploration per Demon’s Souls‘ Nexus, Dark Souls III‘s Firelink shrine and Bloodborne‘s Hunter’s dream hubs it does benefit from a sort of mystery location which is directly affected by the events of the game’s plot as you proceed past the point of no return in the story (a la Sekiro‘s “the world is on fire” progression. The suggestion to make here is that the best parts of Elden Ring‘s story are these quests and that you will do well to take notes on each NPC quest you encounter, else you’ll either fuck something up and be gated out of certain items, spells, weapons and bosses if you progress the main story too quickly. You’ll receive no shame in looking up various NPC quests and locations, some of them are entirely chance encounters out in the world set to trigger those NPC’s deaths at various times of overstep on the player’s part.
The grand finale of my thoughts are largely centered around two subjects — The major high (exploration, discovery) and the major low (canned boss fights) wherein every part of discovering the ins-and-outs of the Lands Between was an incredible joy ’til I’d begin to tally up the number of repeated boss fight types. Some of these totally get a pass because they are presented in different ways in different circumstances and even with various stronger powers in hand. The best example being the Tibia Mariner fights necessary to get all of the deathroot items (which tie into D.‘s questline, and Gurranq, Beast Clergyman‘s questline, both reaping strong rewards and excellent boss fights) as these take place in what are essentially haunted ruins and large graveyards with tough undead enemy mobs and an incredible move-set from the Charon-esque design of the enemy. Giant spectral skeletons the size of buildings will spawn, the boat itself will flatten you, and the undead skeletons alone will be enough to deal with as they require some finesse to actually kill. Since there are several of these dungeon types to consider each has a set of boss types you can assume lie at the end, such as the mine style dungeons/tunnels (which are full of upgrade materials) featuring Trolls or Crystalians (whom are primarily weak to strike damage, you’ll need an alt-weapon!) or the Catacomb style dungeons generally featuring variations of the Erdtree Burial Watchdogs or Black Knife enemies, though these tend to have region specific fights. For whatever reason the chicken-butted Erdtree Avatar enemies, which are totally animated/designed to resemble the Asylum Demon (Dark Souls)/Stray Demon (Dark Souls III) style of fights, have been fitted into each area and these were probably the least fun of all of the field type boss fights, the Ulcerated Tree Spirits being just a bit less of a bitch most of the time. I don’t point all of these out for the sake of complaining, but to suggest that each could’ve been altered in appearance or perhaps using a broader range of status effects since it felt like Fire, Scarlet Rot, and Holy damage were most of their oeuvre despite Curse, Frost, Bleed, and Madness being completely cursory and virtually unused throughout the game.
That’d all likely be a non-issue if I hadn’t explored every bit of the map twice over during this first 150+ hour playthrough, though, so keep in mind the completionist, see-everything do-everything playstyle will of course land upon some dry repetition of ideas despite the world of Elden Ring ultimately feeling as bespoke and natural in its design as past Dark Souls games. So, instead of fawning over the thrill of exploration I’d rather suggest why this game is so much better than the open world games we’ve all been playing since the Playstation 3/Xbox 360 era began cranking new ones out several times per year. Access to (most) all areas, fine map customization, and unique areas the player must discover on their own rather than getting a map marker (or placing their own). Directional blobs on the map nearby key Sites of Grace point the way towards the main story progression, or, key events that are indicated as either plot important or Great Rune related (Great Runes are boss rewards activated at Divine Towers which lend benefits to the player after using Rune Arcs, a two part system similar to Humanity in Dark Souls but with stat boosts etc.) and I suppose if you are anything like me you avoided those main story markers until the last minute and instead explored everywhere else, slowing chipping away at every nook and mystery available to the world.
I can pinpoint discovering the Siofra River Valley, an entire underground dungeon the size of its own region on the continent, as the moment I’d fallen for Elden Ring as an experience — Encountering gigantic red-and-white banded fire ants, ice and stone showering beasts, and eventually an naturalistic tribe of beastmen in an enormous open area was a revelation on par with discovering the Dwemer city of Blackreach in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a similarly ethereal and huge cave-like space, yet this area is vitally important to many side-quests, secret bosses, key items, and must be explored at certain points to get at least two of the game’s five different endings. Needless to say, exploration will be your reward even if the combat and dull boss fights leave you struggling towards a respec in the long run.
Four thousand words is still not enough for this first playthrough. I haven’t touched upon my favorite questlines (Millicent, Corhyn, Fia, Ranni) in depth as I’d want to, I haven’t mentioned the incredible addition of the Flask of Wondrous Physick to boss fight strategy, the Hero’s Tomb challenges with one-hit kill chariots, the many Dragon encounters, the situational/emergent background music that elevates the experience, and I’ve hardly mentioned the boss fights that were actually fantastic (Mohg, Malenia, Astel, Fire Giant, Dragonkin Soldier Nokstella, Crucible Knight Ordovis, etc.) much less mused over the joy that comes with building a character with hundreds of options at hand. Elden thicc, mirite?
In terms of the ending of Elden Ring the player can potentially have five of six total endings (only three have achievements/trophies attached) available after beating the Elden Beast depending on your diligence with NPC quests and you really don’t have to make the choice right away. First, one ending (Lord of the Frenzied Flame) has a very obscure cure-all in case you didn’t know what you were getting into (see: Miquella’s Needle) but otherwise you’ll likely miss the Dung Eater related questline and potentially fumble Ranni‘s ending. Instead of going with the standard Age of Fracture ending, which is a bit boring in concept, I chose the direct alternative granted by Corhyn‘s questline involving Goldmask wherein mending the Elden ring with their final item restores Order in the Lands Between under your benevolent rule. Don’t hesitate to look up the paths towards each ending long before you’ve progressed the story, as you might miss out on huge parts of the game for the sake of having rushed through. As for worrying about spoilers, your actions will determine your available endings no matter what but there is some great satisfaction in knowing your desired outcome and making it happen rather than potentially playing through the game 2-3 times and not knowing those options for resolve.
Though it may not have been clear enough by way of such blathering run-on description and analysis Elden Ring is one of the best open world dark high fantasy role-playing games I’ve played to date. There is so much more to experience from a broad variety of class/role perspectives despite having completely exhausted my first playthrough with 150 hours of needling through the wreckage of this world. It isn’t the best looking game out in 2022, nor is it the most polished overall but it is the most fun I have personally had playing a video game since Dark Souls III destroyed me to the tune of 400+ hours in 2016. I’ve already kicked into NewGame+ and intend to pump up FTH and DEX so that I can wield all of those Incantations, Dragon communions, and giant swords I’d missed out on jamming the first time around. There’ll be a lot more of this game to dig into throughout the rest of this year and perhaps the next several simply because this is my jam and of course despite some obvious shortcomings and a few lackluster ideas filling in the greater open world. It isn’t a perfect game but I can’t think of anything else I’d like to play right now, or in the near future (re: Elex II). A very high recommendation.
|PUBLISHER:||Bandai Namco Entertainment|
Action Role-Playing Game
|RELEASE DATE:||February 25th, 2022|
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