Dark Souls and its ilk have a reputation for tight combat, deliciously well-hidden secrets, and level design that breathes character into the ravaged towns and landscapes while simultaneously accentuating the gameplay. No game tells a story like them, with vague references to lost kingdoms, larger-than-life bosses, and creepy seers. Elden Ring is all that and more. Rest assured, this is FromSoftware as we know it, but reinvented with open world in mind, instilling freedom and awe throughout. This latest work should serve as a firm lesson to all publishers and developers that doing things differently can be scary, but doing so not only pushes the limits of game design–it creates a new standard for what players can experience.
Elden Ring’s story is as clear as any previous FromSoftware game–murky at best. In the Lands Between, you are a Tarnished, setting out to gather great runes to forge the Elden Ring. Seems important for reasons. The merchants, fortune tellers, and other Tarnished add flavor and substance through exquisitely creepy voice acting, whether it be cackling or a warning. Picking up equipment adds some history, but for the initiated, know that this is a definitively Dark Souls experience.
If Dark Souls has taught me anything, it’s that a good story doesn’t need to be clear or outwardly told. Sometimes looking at the ruins of a fallen kingdom, a shattered statue, or a blighted garden can drive emotions just as well as exposition or dialogue. Do I know exactly what’s going on? Oh, heavens no, but I feel it. I feel what’s going on. That’s satisfying. That’s different. Most RPGs can only hope to make a player feel something. As for George R. R. Martin’s influence, I’m honestly not feeling his hand. Elden Ring is another Hidetaka Miyazaki work through and through. That’s not bad. Whether or not GRRM’s name is in the credits holds no weight for me. I like the world building, no matter who’s at the helm.
Though it’s derivative for any reviewer or critic to say, I’m going to say it anyway: this is Dark Souls. If you want an experience where most battles can end in your death, your constant vigilance and focus are required, and treasures to set the eyes aglow are just around some corners, then you’re at home here. If you want Dark Souls, you will adore Elden Ring. Full stop.
But what about the new features? That’s what we’re all curious about, right? Okay, so the story, combat, and level design are the same, but what about everything else? Well, the level design’s a little different. Each catacomb, castle, and mineshaft feels like old Dark Souls design, but there’s the entire open-world aspect. Imagine if each linear path you followed in Dark Souls wasn’t linear at all. Instead of going from one hostile location to another, there’s space in between. Now, why does that space in between matter?
Because Dark Souls has, in large part, also been about discovery, and the team at FromSoftware capitalizes on this strength by embedding secrets throughout this gigantic world. Dungeons and sidequests are littered everywhere, but they can be pretty hard to find. I’m constantly looking around while running or riding on horseback because the world is not only captivating to witness, but littered with goodies. I could find a new boss to get thrashed by, a more powerful shard to upgrade my unique weapon, or a recipe book to craft…perfume?
Every tree, patch of grass, and cliff feels individually labored over. The amount of work that has certainly gone into handcrafting this gigantic place is staggering. At times, assets can feel reused, such as finding yet another catacomb or magma salamander, but most of the world feels absolutely unique. This creates a sense of place. I’m not playing a video game here, I’m exploring the Lands Between. This is a real place with real history, and real people who’ve been changed by sin and ambition. I believe the illusion. Isn’t that what we hope for when we invest time and money into RPGs?
Not only is the landscape detailed, it varies drastically from place to place. I almost have a sense that an ecosystem exists here where the monsters or magic that inhabit in a specific place shape the nearby land. Even the wildlife has its own behavior and unique animations. The eagles, deer, crabs, and everything else move and act in a way that doesn’t suggest they’re inconsequential–because they certainly are inconsequential for the most part. But they add substance. They create a reality.
The horse mechanic is fine. You’ve ridden horses in video games, right? This is a means of getting around without slowly running to and from each destination. Initially, towers of air create a means of navigation unique to the steed, but this mechanic falls off heavily as the game progresses. As is often the case in video games, it feels as if the mechanic was excitedly introduced, and then the developers realized it wasn’t worth the effort or clashed with what they were going for down the road in terms of map design.
Recipe books offer the opportunity to create all sorts of goodies, most of which feel meaningless. I think of them more as collectibles, but some players will find these creations useful, I’m certain of it. To support the recipe books, flora and fauna are peppered throughout the landscape, so you can spam the collect key as you approach a vibrant flower while holding the run button on your horse. The addition of recipes and crafting materials isn’t a negative but wasn’t something I dabbled in too much.
Combat’s a little different, too. I don’t mean the mechanics–again, this is Dark Souls; it plays identically. What’s different is that if you find yourself up against an impossible foe, there’s literally an entire continent for you to explore. Hit a catacomb you left behind when it was too hard ten levels ago, smash that boss, get the runes (souls), level up, upgrade a weapon, find armor, etc. Dark Souls had a habit of leaving some players feeling blocked by a gruesome boss, with occasional opportunity to go back to an old fork in the road, but the experience was also constricted in its nature. Elden Ring’s open world shatters that limitation. Grinding against skeletons or that one troll whose number you’ve got is always an option, but why do that when there are nigh-limitless places to explore with artifacts waiting to empower your build or inspire you toward a new one?
Before I stop praising the gameplay, I want to make one thing clear: I dislike open-world games. A lot. I find the worlds vacant of personality, desolate, and creating cheap illusions of exactly what Elden Ring has done so capably. Elden Ring makes me want to give open worlds another chance. But maybe only if FromSoftware is leading the orchestra.
Violins! Deep, somber strings! Music that’s haunting and evokes a sense of gloom without any visuals necessary, though the visuals certainly help. While I’ve experienced some graphical challenges like flickering lighting and random black bars over my screen, I’ve almost entirely learned to ignore these issues because, most of the time, the world is engagingly dreadful. Some players just aren’t into grays, browns, and washed-out greens, but I somehow love this horrible place. Not saying I’d like to be there, per se, but bearing witness is exciting and addictive. If the gameplay wasn’t enough, just exploring these horrible places would be enough to keep me going.
It’s been my sincerest pleasure experiencing FromSoftware’s latest work. Elden Ring is a landmark title that I hope shapes the future of what this industry can do; maybe we can one day point at this time in 2022 and note that this is when gaming took a giant leap. At risk of “laying it on thick” and coming off as hyperbolic, in my more than 30 years of gaming, I have almost never played a title that so neared perfection. I’ve devoted 80 blissful hours to Elden Ring, and at no point was I not enjoying myself or captivated by this world. My wish is that this team continues to receive the support it deserves and graces us with more opportunities to lose ourselves in the fantastic.