Built within a huge open world map on which kicking over any stone seems to reveal more mystery, Elden Ring revels in its sheer overwhelming size.
It feels less like the big play space of most open world experiences, and more like a grinding testing ground. Elden Ring doesn’t believe in gentle handholding tutorials to introduce you to the game. It merely opens the door to a world full of dangerous temptations and nudges you through.
If you’ve played anything from the maniacs at FromSoftware before, the experience here will be reasonably familiar. It leans heavily on the combat systems of the Dark Souls games and adds heavy doses of RPG to round out the experience. You can choose to have hands full of swords or ranged weapons, or (sensibly) opt for a shield in one hand to use the parry and block functions. When combined with the classic defensive roll, it means that you may just last through one more encounter – or at least dodge one more huge attack – if your reactions are good enough. Eventually, usually through incredible pain and suffering, you’ll find a fighting/defence style that works for you and will have collected the weapons to match.
The handy RPG features include weapon and armour upgrades that look great on your character, and crafting systems to make throwing weapons and helpful potions or other exploration equipment. You can spend some of the in-game currency, collected from fallen foes, to update your character’s skills from one of the basic pre-set options into a fearsome warrior, wizard, or a potent combination of the two. The ability to upgrade weapons and armour also means that you get to hang on to some of the better-looking gear as your character upskills.
The story is something that can only truly be appreciated once you have a moment to rest, or turn off the game. The lore was created by George R. R. Martin and the main story was written by the excellent Hidetaka Miyazaki, so there’s a lot to dive into. For the most part the story is hidden and rewards players for exploring the concealed nooks of this world at great risk to your continued survival.
Exploration is always tinged with danger. Anything that looks too good to be true is a trap. Anything that looks like a trap, is a trap. Basically, everything is a trap and it’ll get you the first hundred times that you try to explore openly. Elden Ring dangles the prizes just out of your reach and dares you to jump forward blindly. Eventually you’ll learn to mistrust anything that isn’t a resting point, as there are no other safe spaces within this game.
Scattered around the map are Sites of Lost Grace, which act as the checkpoints of Elden Ring. These play like the bonfires from Dark Souls and allow you to rest and level up your character, before dashing back to the next fight. These sites also act as fast travel points to zip around the map, as well as return points for when you inevitably fall in combat.
Some of the most magical moments in Elden Ring come from the boss fights. There are multiple tiers of boss types, some crucial to the story, others guarding precious and unique treasure. Every single one of them is not to be trifled with. Almost all of them will destroy you in one or two hits with their monstrous weaponry and devastating array of attack patterns. Some of the most dangerous bosses aren’t even the most imposing. Some will move with lightning speed, some will carve huge swaths of screen with cruel weapons, and yet still, some will throw incredibly varied attacks at you. Elden Ring rewards those who can adapt and use everything in their ever-dwindling arsenal to defeat them – including the summoning of spirits and other online players to support their quest.
“If you’ve played anything from the maniacs at FromSoftware before, the experience here will be reasonably familiar.”
The heart palpitations that you get from defeating bosses, even some of the low-level dungeon guardians, are very real. It’s an exhilarating accomplishment. Especially as you will have probably died several times learning to defend the attacks of your chosen foe. From giant trolls to fire breathing dragons, the variety and difficulty of the bosses in Elden Ring will constantly keep you working different attack strategies.
Other enemy types are not as grand as the bosses, but are no less dangerous. Most have only a few forms of attacks, so learning how to defeat them is much less strenuous, but they still hit hard. Whether it’s giants, pots, giant pots or even walking flowers that kill you with toxic spores, there’s a new challenge at every turn. Singular enemies are easily dispatched, but any additional uninvited guests will spoil the party faster than an unwanted relative at Christmas.
To play Elden Ring is to feel, in the core of your soul, the meaning of “git gud”. The open world allows you to exist in spaces that match your current skill level, and you’ll find yourself spending time naturally gaining skills and upgrading your character until you summon the confidence to take on the next particularly challenging area. In a way it’s a gentler experience than more linear games, as you’re able to pick and choose the battles that you know you have the skills to win. This isn’t really a game of trial and error. It’s about surviving long enough until you somehow, accidentally-on-purpose, defeat your opponent. More often than not, this will not be the case.
Talking about Elden Ring wouldn’t be possible without considering all the things that came before it. All three of the Dark Souls games, Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice have contributed elements from their experiences, which add to the rich stew. Elden Ring is a much gentler kind of torture which is accessible for newcomers, while offering exciting challenges to experienced players.
Elden Ring releases February 25 on PS5, Xbox and PS4.