Longtime fans of FromSoftware's Souls series (no, Tormented Souls is not a part of it) and its spiritual brethren often say that the key to appreciating the games is letting go. You can shake your fist in the air upon losing all of your carefully-hoarded currency for the umpteenth time, or you can let go. Accept your losses. Learn from your mistakes. Adapt to the situation accordingly, and always be patient. FromSoftware's latest release, Elden Ring, feels and plays like a Souls game through and through, and should be approached as such.
Elden Ring is an open world action-RPG, but don't go confusing it with Breath of the Wild, or even Skyrim for that matter. Powerful enemies are wont to burst out of the ground randomly like in the former, but there is much more emphasis on dense combat mechanics here. In that regard, it's more similar to something like Dragon's Dogma. The design of the world is similarly dense. What might appear to be a simple cave may turn out to be a sprawling mine with myriad passageways.
The True [Obsession] Starts Here
I'll get to my Elden Ring impressions shortly, but first let me share some of my background with the Souls games. I've been a fan since Demon's Souls was released for the PlayStation 3 in 2009. I found out the hard way that the game does not hold your hand. It beats you to the ground until you embrace its unique mechanics. It punishes you mercilessly if you try to rush to the boss of an area.
And I loved every moment of it.
I saved Boletaria from the clutches of an evil fog in Demon's Souls. I rekindled the First Flame in Dark Souls. After that, I, uh, lit more flames in Dark Souls II and III. I earned platinum trophies in every game in the series, including Bloodborne and Sekiro. I even completed a couple on different platforms just to see how versions compared. So yeah… you can say that my expectations for Elden Ring were rather high.
After years of anticipation, enter Elden Ring. The much-hyped successor to Dark Souls touts a massive open world and a story partially written by George R. R. Martin. The story does its job adequately, but often feels like the result of a Dark Souls Mad Libs sheet filled out by the writers. Instead of Hollowed, you have Tarnished. Instead of bonfires, you have sites of Lost Grace, and so on. For all intents and purposes, however, this is a Dark Souls game.
So what is new or different? Elden Ring maintains the nonlinearity that defined its predecessors, but opens the world up a whole lot more. Whichever direction you choose to head in upon emerging from the Stranded Graveyard, you can likely just keep going. And going. You might want to acquire a spectral steed first, which you can do pretty early on. You'll find plenty of resources to gather and ruins to climb, and maybe even a crestfallen NPC to interact with. And eventually you will find a boss – or to be more precise, a boss will find you.
Let's talk about those bosses. My favorite part of any Souls game is the boss battles. Bosses are always creative in design and programmed to mercilessly pummel and humiliate you. The bosses in Elden Ring are no exception, and the wide open nature of the world ensures that you'll run into one that is far beyond your skill level sooner rather than later. The good news is that, outside of dungeons and story-related bosses, you can fight most on horseback. Using hit-and-run tactics while mounted can make a daunting battle significantly easier.
Don't Give Up, Skeleton!
Difficulty in video games and how it relates to accessibility has been a hotly-debated topic recently. The Souls series is often cited as an example of difficult games needing more difficulty options so they can be enjoyed by a wider group. Elden Ring has no difficulty options, but does make some notable changes that make it more accessible than its predecessors. For starters, you rarely have to endure an enemy-filled gauntlet between a boss and the closest checkpoint preceding it. Grace sites (which can all be teleported to) are scattered about generously, with secondary checkpoints called Stakes of Marika located even closer to sites of major battles.
The game is also surprisingly generous with its reusable healing item, the Flask of Crimson Tears. You begin the game with three flask charges that can be separated to restore either health or Focus Points, which are used to cast magic or perform special attacks. Flask charges are restored when you rest at a Grace site, but they can also be earned by defeating groups of enemies or a particularly strong individual foe. This encourages a good balance of exploration and combat, as you will often seek out groups of enemies to replenish your flask.
New Combat Mechanics in Elden Ring
Guard counters are another new mechanic that can give you an effective edge in combat. After successfully guarding an attack – whether with a shield or a weapon – you can perform a powerful counterattack by immediately pressing the heavy attack button. Not only do you get a satisfying sound effect, but the counterblow will often stagger your opponent, allowing you to perform a critical hit. It's a handy little tactic for taking down foes with less tedium.
What About Elden Ring's Multiplayer?
Online multiplayer has been a divisive aspect of the Souls games, and featured in every one of them except for Sekiro. Players either relished the opportunity to duel one another in precarious spaces or avoided multiplayer altogether by playing offline. Elden Ring brings back the series' multiplayer, invasions and all, but it's now an opt-in experience.
Players who want to participate in Player vs Player shenanigans now have to use a particular item first. If PvP is your thing, travel to the Roundtable Hold to battle an invading NPC and earn the needed item. While I personally miss the thrill of imminent invasion, it's nice to not be trolled by over-leveled players who just want to make others miserable.
Cooperative multiplayer is available fairly early on. A consumable item needs to be used to see other players' summon signs, but it's pretty easy to come by. And if you prefer playing offline or simply don't want to bother interacting with other players, a new mechanic allows you to summon spectral minions with a bell to assist in certain areas. Whether it's a poison-shooting jellyfish or a gang or demi-humans, the extra assistance makes boss battles far less intimidating.
Lost Grace/Save Data
After spending one week with Elden Ring (50-60 hours) I have almost nothing but praise for it. And that's a big almost. I'm playing the PlayStation 5 version, which had a rather unfortunate bug that caused saved data to be lost if the game was not closed properly. I hardly ever use the console's “suspend” function and am very careful to exit games properly. Unfortunately, anyone who owns a PS5 can attest that the console crashes a lot. Each of those crashes brings with it the risk of losing all progress since the last cloud data backup.
Within one week, I suffered three crashes that resulted in lost save data.
The first was the most brutal. I had the day off work and spent the entirety of it playing. I had read Bandai Namco's warning about the glitch, which recommended closing the game manually before putting the console in Rest mode. Unfortunately, the game crashed as I was closing it. I lost around 10 hours of progress and had to retrace my steps as best as I could remember them. I was as crestfallen as the game's NPCs, but it didn't take long for my attitude to turn around.
The single greatest compliment I can pay Elden Ring is that I didn't mind losing over 10 hours of progress. I certainly thought I minded at first, but once I set out to accomplish my feats once again, I realized just how dense the game's world really was. I discovered new landmarks, NPCs, and bosses in areas I thought I had thoroughly explored. Embarrassingly enough, I had even missed the very first site of Grace outside the starting area, which is fittingly labeled The First Step.
The game encourages you to play at your own pace. If you run into a difficult boss or area that proves to be a roadblock, there are countless other paths to explore. Another path might lead to easier enemies, which leads to more runes that you can use to level up. You might even stumble upon a game-changing item in the unlikeliest of places. Bounce around from area to area until you find a challenge suitable to your skill level, and work your way up from there.
Minor Complaints About Elden Ring
As enamored as I am with FromSoftware's latest, I still have a small number of gripes. Figuring out the precise distance at which a fall will result in death can be a frustrating experience. One fall might result in a small amount of lost health, while another that is barely inches greater will result in death. At least the sight of an exploding spectral horse followed by the character's overdramatic death is always amusing.
The game also has a tendency to teleport you to a random location, which can be jarring. Some chests contain teleportation traps, or you might find a random portal. Either way, being able to simply fast travel out of the new, often hostile location, takes away from the tension.
(Not So) Final Thoughts
Elden Ring is everything I wanted, and maybe even a little more. It provides an engaging open world that is a joy to explore. Combat and boss encounters are as tense and satisfying as one would expect from a spiritual success to the Dark Souls series. The cherry on top is the game's unabashedly weird personality, which tempers the bleak tone just enough to keep things from feeling too oppressive.
Even after 50+ hours, I feel like I've barely scratched the game's surface. I want to explore this world for hours on end. I want to delve into increasingly dangerous dungeons. Heck, I even want to be beaten to a pulp by all the eldritch monstrosities. Balancing all of these things without compromise is a monumental achievement for FromSoftware. I'm sure an Elden Ring 2 is already in the planning stages, but it would also be wonderful to see this open world structure applied to a Bloodborne sequel. For now, however, I'll be content obsessively exploring the Lands Between, looking for just one more landmark.