The makers of Dark Souls present an open world take on the Soulsborne formula that may be the biggest, and most difficult, game of the year.
In just over a decade FromSoftware has managed to go from an obscure Japanese developer, with not a single mainstream hit to their name, to one of the most revered studios in the world, whose every new game is subject to the same level of anticipation and scrutiny as a top tier Nintendo or Naughty Dog title. Much of that is due to director Hidetaka Miyazaki, whose work on the original Demon’s Souls was largely overlooked but who changed the face of gaming with Dark Souls, which made it fashionable for video games to be unforgivingly difficult.
As far as most modern video game design is concerned having a player fail, or not know exactly what to do at every moment, is a cardinal sin but Miyazaki sees both as essential features. There’s no cloying safety net in any of his games, including Elden Ring which despite the name, and the details of the plot, could easily be retitled as Dark Souls 4.
There are two main reasons why it’s not, the first being that it has a much bigger budget, and therefore more technically advanced graphics, than any previous From game. The second is that it is open world. All the previous games were to at least a limited degree but Elden Ring is open world in the modern Ubisoft sense of the phrase. At times it’s very easy to see this as Zelda: Breath Of The Wild’s older, goth brother but the heart of the game is a very familiar Dark Souls style combat system… and the agony and ecstasy that its precision-based action brings.
The names may be different but most of the basic concepts in Elden Ring are the same as Dark Souls, and indeed Bloodborne and Sekiro. Runes collected from defeated enemies are souls in all but name, while Sites of Grace work identically to bonfires, and while you’re now a Tarnished instead of a Hollow the difference is academic.
What being a Tarnished means exactly is never made clear but like all From games Elden Ring’s story starts at the point at which the forces of evil have essentially won. The only plot point that matters for the first dozen or so hours is that the titular Elden Ring has been broken into pieces and you must recover them from the various demigod characters that play the role of the game’s toughest bosses.
Reforge the ring and you will be able to become Elden Lord, although even those unfamiliar with From games will immediately sense that this is not necessarily a role to covet. Nothing is quite what it seems in Elden Ring and even apparent allies shouldn’t be fully trusted, as you’re left to interpret the story from snippets of conversation and item descriptions.
The first thing anyone really wants to know about a new From game is exactly how hard it is. While that’s usually difficult to quantify the easiest way to describe Elden Ring is as the most accessible game they’ve ever made. It is often punishingly difficult, but there are more safeguards than previous games as while you lose all your runes after death, and have only one chance to reclaim them, they’re also often obtained as coins that can be stored permanently in your inventory.
Using a Site of Grace restores all nearby minor enemies to life (undeath?) but you can use fast travel at almost any time to move between them. There’s almost never a long walk to a boss battle and generally the game tries to avoid wasting your time unnecessarily and is less spiteful in terms of inflicting unfair punishments, such as the curses of Dark Souls. That’s all relative to previous games though and if you haven’t played one before you should, as the tagline says, prepare to die. A lot.
Rather than difficulty, it is freedom which is at the heart of Elden Ring’s appeal. Instead of being a puppet for the developer, merely carrying out actions as they’re flashed on-screen in front of you, how you play is entirely up to you, with the only suggestion the game offers coming from Sites of Grace that point you in a general direction.
What you do to get there, and how you handle things when you arrive, is entirely up to you but broadly speaking the game is split between progressing through more enclosed spaces, such as castles that really could pass for something out of Dark Souls 4, and more freeform exploration and levelling up in the open world.
Despite the very first enemy you come across being a mini-boss, that you have no hope of beating for several hours, the first temptation on reaching the open world is to simply tour around, marvelling at the visuals. This is made much easier an hour or so in, when you get access to a spectral steed that you can summon near instantly and which can fall a considerable height without taking damage.
Relatively easy to obtain maps make clear the main points of interest but it’s still incredible what you can stumble on without any warning, even if they later turn out to be part of the main plot. Bumping into evil wizards at what seems to be the site of a meteorite crash, as they summon a giant dark elf for who knows what purpose, is all par for the course in the world of Elden Ring.
At one point we passed an innocuous looking building, unusual only in that it wasn’t a ruin like most others, and found its only contents were a lift. One that travelled seemingly miles into a hollowed earth environment filled with weird moss men that attack in slow motion and strange ghost Vikings that can appear out of nowhere. The area is so big it has its own map, and entirely unique atmosphere and puzzles, and yet we could easily have passed it by with no idea it was there.
There are no fetch quests in Elden Ring – technically there are no missions at all – and while there are some repeated concepts, such as the underground mines that litter the game world, everything feels handcrafted, with secrets pilled upon secrets.
On a technical level Elden Ring is nowhere near as complex as Horizon Forbidden West but its open world is considerably more interesting, and arguably more attractive. The grotesque beauty of From’s art design can never receive enough praise, from the verdant landscapes of the opening area to the disturbing ugliness of some of the enemy designs, which are mesmerising in their horribleness without ever resorting to being obnoxiously gross.
Never knowing quite how far to push your luck as you explore is one of the game’s primary thrills, but it’s made clear that travelling east is only for the foolhardy. That entire area of the map has been overrun by a supernatural infection, as your journey becomes an almost literal descent into Hell, with especially horrific monsters and a disturbing soundtrack that causes near physical revulsion the further you press on.
According to FromSoftware, Elden Ring can be beaten within 30 hours if you take the golden path through the game. Maybe that’s possible if you’re the sort of person that can beat Dark Souls blindfolded while using a Guitar Hero controller, but we got the game a week ago and that’s not been nearly enough time to explore every nook and cranny.
Others may have different approaches, but we generally progressed by following the main story path until we felt underequipped and then went back to the open world to look for new optional areas and enemies to level up with. This seemed to work well, both in terms of keeping our character battle ready and avoiding getting bogged down at a particular impasse.
Elden Ring is an action role-playing game but another noticeable difference from earlier games is that choosing a character class at the beginning is far less of a stab in the dark than it used to be. There are pros and cons to each but it’s now much easier to personalise the stats to your playing style even if they’re not initially that well suited.
As in Dark Souls, combat can involve any combination of melee weapons, ranged weapons, and magic. A banal statement which grossly underplays the incredible range of different swords, polearms, axes, hammers, whips, Wolverine claws, daggers, bows, crossbows, and shields. As well as a host of completely separate magical disciplines that are so diverse there’s two separate stats governing their use.
Elden Ring is an incredibly deep game, with such a range of different items and systems that you can forget some elements – many of which would sustain a whole other game in its entirety – are even present. Not only can every weapon be upgraded but so can the flasks you use to refill your health and magic points, plus a separate customisable flask you can imbue with more unique abilities.
There are spirits you can summon to help in battle (which can also be upgraded if you help out an otherwise innocuous side character) and collectible Ashes of War that can add extra skills to weapons, as well as elemental affinities such as fire or lightning. There’s a complex item crafting system, a series of talismans that add perks, and numerous one-off concepts such as a strange woman who offers free hugs and an item that can boost your poise stat – an important concept in combat, that prevents your attacks from being interrupted by enemies.
The combat itself is relatively simple, with generally only a handful of moves for each weapon and no combos. It’s difficult, of course, everyone knows that whether they’ve played one of the previous games or not, but arcade skills are the least of Elden Ring’s requirements for victory. Instead, what you’re really being tested on is your attention to detail and your ability to form effective strategies based on available information.
The abilities and attack patterns of enemies have to be learnt, which requires a degree of trial and error, but the vast majority of times you’ll die not because your reactions weren’t quick enough but because you got overconfident or impatient. The bosses are a highlight, in terms of both game design and difficulty, but as in any From game they can be made almost trivial by calling in a co-op player to help, or even just making use of in-game cooperators that can be summoned before a fight.
99% of the time death is always clearly your fault, although the lock-on system can be frustrating as to when it chooses to break its lock and reacquire an opponent, although that generally only happens with less powerful enemies moving in groups. The only other complaint that can be levelled is the awkward platforming, which is a relatively important part of the game but still feels underdeveloped – although simply adding some better animation would alleviate most of the issues.
If there’s a wider criticism to be made it’s that despite it all Elden Ring is exactly what you’d expect from an open world Dark Souls game. The details are exactly as imaginative and unpredictable as you’d hope but the overall concept and structure is not necessarily as surprising and does little to move forward the open world concept as a whole.
Arguably, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which is not technically a Soulsborne game, is the more avant-garde take on the formula but whether that counts as a disappointment depends on exactly what you were expecting Elden Ring to be.
Taken on its own merits this is an absolute triumph and reconfirms FromSoftware as one of the most talented video game creators of all time. If you’re already a fan of their work you won’t need any more convincing from us to play Elden Ring, but if you are intimidated by the reputation for difficulty we can only encourage you to try it anyway.
Almost everyone starts a From game with the assumption that it’s too hard for them but the real magic comes not from the exquisitely complex level design, the perfectly orchestrated boss battles, or the deftly maintained atmosphere but in the fact that the games make you feel better about yourself as a player and a person. Even if you never beat the game, the perseverance and dedication needed to get anywhere is reward enough beyond its other qualities.
Elden Ring follows the best traditions of what has come before but it presents them on a scale, and with a degree of accessibility, that has never been seen before. If it does not end up being game of the year then 2022 will be one for the ages, as Elden Ring already is.
Elden Ring review summary
In Short: A masterful blend of Dark Souls and Zelda: Breath Of The Wild that makes high demands of its players and yet still remains surprisingly accessible and adaptable.
Pros: Incredibly well designed game world, in terms of both the open areas and more enclosed spaces. A near infinite variety of things to see and do, with nuanced combat and varied enemies.
Cons: In strict gameplay terms there’s not actually much new here. Target lock system can be a little fiddly in crowds.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Release Date: 25th February 2022
Age Rating: 16
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