Conquering a Beautifully Brutal Realm in Elden Ring

You got open world in my Dark Souls! Elden Ring holds true to the impressive world design of From Software games while still having a surprisingly open progression system. While you can’t go explicitly everywhere from the start of the game, players have a surprising amount of control in what content they see, and don’t see, in From’s latest hard-as-nails action RPG, Elden Ring. So is Elden Ring the next best thing to Bloodborne, or is it more like Dork Souls? Let’s find out.

Upon starting Elden Ring, players will be thrown directly into character creation, as is custom. After tooling up a character of my own who looks suspiciously like the Giga Chad meme, I chose the Samurai class and began exploring the prologue zone of the game. Elden Ring has an optional tutorial, which while it is very limited in what it actually covers, it still provides more than enough information to get players started. Upon leaving the opening cave, players will find themselves in Limgrave, an area that’s quite massive and a perfect introductory area for players to become acquainted with the mechanics of Elden Ring.

One of the first things players will see, upon exiting the aforementioned cave, is an NPC and an enemy on horseback in the distance. The NPC teaches you that not everything you come across in the game is an enemy, and the large enemy on horseback teaches you that not every foe you stumble across needs to be defeated in order to proceed. The Tree Sentinel, a roaming field boss, will likely crush you in just a quick blow or two when you first encounter him. You can challenge him now and die, die again, but you could just as easily walk around him and continue exploring Limgrave until you can come back and give him what for, after acquiring weapon upgrades and armor.

Most likely the single greatest thing about Elden Ring is how it’s familiar as a Souls game, but most people experience it a little differently. While many of my friends cleared the first boss and went to the area north of Limgrave, like levelheaded and sensible individuals, and pretty much what the game indicates you should do. Should you be stubborn and enjoy smashing your head into a wall until the wall crumbles, however, you could go to the eastern area of Caelid, which is a hellish location replete with crazy hyenas, dragons, and many other nasty enemies. While it’s not easily recommended to do this, after hours of adversity, I wound up acquiring a ton of useful items, upgrade materials, and skyrocketed my player level for later encounters. If you’re up to the task, you can pretty much go anywhere in the game, aside from two major locations that are gated off until you find the appropriate key items (due to story and fire safety concerns).

You might noticed very little information on the story, and that’s largely because even with the Steam equivalent of the PSN Platinum Trophy unlocked, it can be difficult to understand what you were doing or why. You’re exploring because exploring is fun, and the major impetus of the game, the Elden Ring, its shattering, and why any of the shardbearers matter, is conveyed to the player through bits and pieces. You’re given a brief introduction of several of the shardbearers, people who hold pieces of the Elden Ring supposedly, but largely the terminology of Elden Ring is suspiciously similar to the Souls games. Rather than the Chosen Undead, you’re Tarnished. You don’t collect souls, but instead gather runes to both level up and use for currency at the various shopkeepers dotting the Lands Between.

Your character wants to become Elden Lord, but what exactly does that entail? None of it is conveyed via cutscene, but players can piece it together through side quests (which do have nice rewards) and reading the descriptions of most items in the game. You don’t have to do so, however, which is actually kind of brilliant, because you can play the game, have fun, and then be taken aback when a giant pair of hairy zombie fingers appears at the game’s central hub. You’re an undying dude (or dudette) in a medieval fantasy setting, go out and have fun- that’s the name of the game. You can figure out why there are so many fingers and why they’re so randomly hairy later.

Shortly after entering into the “open world” segment of Elden Ring, you should find Torrent, a magical steed that you will call upon endlessly throughout your adventure. You can also attack enemies while you ride your horse, which is fantastic, but it’s important to note that you can’t dodge while on the horse, and if it takes too much damage you’ll fall to the ground for enemies to easily finish you off. You’ll likely also find a character that will give you a bell to summon spectral spirits to aid you in battle in preset locations. You can’t use summon ashes everywhere, typically only in locations where a boss could swoop on you like a magpie from hell. The ashes do tend to be both useful and fun, however, because summoning in a support jellyfish or a literal shadow clone of yourself can be great for keeping heat off you so you can heal after a boss does an eight hit combo directly on your groin.

Elden Ring tries to gently push the player in particular directions by using guiding lights from this game’s safe spots, sites of grace. You can teleport to and from sites of grace, assuming you’re not inside of a cave or dungeon, and you can follow those lights if you feel you need a general direction to work toward. I, personally, wound up ignoring them after the opening hours of the game, preferring to jump all around and explore hidden cities revealed by killing a demigod so powerful that he was holding meteors back from hitting the planet, but players can both be guided to where they “should” go, but also decide to just pick a direction, and they will assuredly find something. That something might just so happen to be an ogre with a hammer that will smash you into a Jackson Pollock painting, however.

It’s difficult to explain precisely why Elden Ring’s approach to open world works. Going back, for the purpose of this review, to play your bog standard Ubisoft open world game really highlights what Elden Ring does right. Games like Far Cry 4 wants to force the player to look at all the content it has- they want you to climb towers, and reveal all of the activities you can check off on your spreadsheet. Elden Ring, conversely, makes the player want to explain by hiding some kind of useful goodie around nearly every corner- do you want a +8 weapon? Better get searching! What’s to say that last smithing stone you need to upgrade your weapon one more level isn’t in this random tunnel you found along a cliff-facing wall?

A bad open world game highlights all of its activities so it can say “biggest game ever” with no regard as to those activities bolstering player progression. A good open world game gives the player an urge to uncover every secret because the world flows progressively with the game’s mechanics. Elden Ring is clearly the latter case in this regard: You will want to explore absolutely everything, even though enemies might catch you unawares. It’s because the next fight might be easier if you have that next upgrade, that next talisman that boosts twinblade damage by 10%, something will tangibly improve, so why shouldn’t you explore your 15th cave of this play session?

Of course, while I could heap praise on Elden Ring for marrying the exploration and combat of Dark Souls even better than several of From’s past games, not everything in Elden Ring is fantastic. There are things in Elden Ring which are intentionally made obscure, but not exactly to the game’s benefit. From’s approach to side quests hasn’t changed since Dark Souls, but now there’s a much larger world to scour for the one or two random items NPCs may want. Keeping a guide of some kind, like past From Software games, is pretty much a necessity if you want to complete a significant amount of the side quests in Elden Ring.

While on the subject of obfuscation, From Software’s last game, Sekiro, was an absolute tour de force of combat design, and had a meter that displayed how much damage an enemy could take before breaking an enemy’s poise to allow you a critical hit. For some reason, Elden Ring regressed in this regard by having no indicator of enemy poise, preferring instead for an intensely opaque approach that requires significant experimentation or research outside of the game to understand better.

There’s a substantial number of repeat bosses in Elden Ring, as well. Repeat enemies are no stranger to the Souls series- it’s oftentimes a point of pride when a powerful boss that gave you trouble early in the game becomes just another regular foe late-game. Landmarks and bosses are re-used at a pretty constant rate throughout the entirety of the game, which honestly makes sense given the size of the game, but some enemies just outright do not fit in places that the game reuses them. There were at least two boss or mid-boss encounters that were frustrating, not because the enemy itself was difficult, but because the arena was too small and the boss spent half the time inside of the walls (knocking it down for a critical hit, for example, resulted in its crit spot being inside the wall), and the remaining half of the time it was causing the camera to flip out, spin, or get stuck on objects in the arena.

The camera and lock-on mechanics of From Software games have never been particularly good, but as From designs more intricate environments with more ostentatious objects littering the environment, it becomes more clear that they need to dramatically overhaul their approach to the camera in their games. Boss rooms oftentimes have little decorative objects in them but those objects, like small trees or pillars, can break your lock on to enemies which can cause your spells to fly astray or a sword stab to miss (or lock on to a completely different foe through no input of the player, if you leave default settings on). Considering the camera is primarily how the player interacts with visual feedback from the game, it’s reprehensible that many battles will have the player fighting with the camera more than the foe actively trying to make the player meet the business end of their stabbing stick.

The PC port of Elden Ring, like many of From’s previous PC ports, is locked at 60fps. The game initially had a ton of visual stuttering, which was exacerbated by the fact that when the game stutters it would often drop inputs. A good portion of the stuttering was fixed in a patch, thankfully, so players who might have heard about the poor state of the PC port might no longer have to stress about that (though this is wildly inconsistent- some players still suffer from excessive stuttering). Unfortunately, higher than 60fps support will likely not be officially supported, going by From’s history of patching Souls games on PC, and enabling a 60fps limiter removal mod will likely get you banned from online components of Elden Ring due to the game’s use of Easy Anti Cheat.

That being said, while these complaints impacted my enjoyment of the game from time to time, I still had a fantastic time exploring the world of Elden Ring and conquering every foe that dare raise a weapon against Giga Chad. A lot of the environments of Elden Ring are fantastical or terrifying, oftentimes both, as you’ll never know what’s waiting around a corner to stab you in the booty. There are burning fields replete with pools of rot as well as an underground city surrounded by stars and ethereal auroras- a lot of effort went into designing great places for players to explore, and while there are complaints about the camera, for example, the environmental design is absolutely top notch.

Overall, Elden Ring is a fantastic entry in From Software’s repertoire. Open world games are insanely difficult to do right, because there’s a fine line between the busywork of most open world AAA video games and actual, substantive character progression that will keep players exploring for hours to come. There are so many secrets, weapons, armor, and items for players to find and NPC stories with which to interact that you’ll see your play time easily inflate. The core of Souls combat hasn’t really been changed- mainly because it doesn’t need to, and the combat flows so well with the open world design From is known for, that I’ll be eagerly awaiting a potential sequel, should From do it. Hopefully, if they do reach that point, they will finally rework their camera controls a bit!

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