How to talk about Elden Ring, probably the most anticipated title of the year in a big year for gaming, without spoiling its innumerable surprises and qualities? I’m caught between waxing lyrical about this incredible feat of creation and being as vague as possible in order to allow others to go in as unprepared as I was for just how good it is.
TL;DR for anyone avoiding spoilers or who just wants the point: This game is almost unbelievably good, a landmark in open-world design, and everything you hope it will be. It also makes a good starting point for new players, as long as they are prepared for less hand-holding than almost any other major game out there.
Announced in 2019, Elden Ring was billed as the next “big” game by the creators of the Dark Souls series, From Software. Having capped that series off with the excellent Dark Souls 3, blown off some creative steam with the intense Sekiro, and observed the recreation of prequel Demon’s Souls, From promised a grand new adventure — with creative assistance by none other than George R. R. Martin.
When gameplay was finally shown and described, it was clear what we were looking at was “Open World Dark Souls.” And this gave many pause. After all, open world games can be empty and lifeless, or enormous task checklists, or else aimless sandboxes. Could From, whose expertise was in creating haunting and claustrophobic architectures and locations through which the player travels more or less in order, make an open world game that felt better than the others?
Having played the game for about 30 hours now, I’m very happy to say that yes, it can. Not only is Elden Ring probably the best open world game ever put out, it is probably the best game of the year and for many may displace some beloved title from their top 10 of all time. From has hit a grand slam, sprinted to the pitcher’s mound, and thrown a no-hitter.
Two caveats: First, I’ve been a fan of this style of game and storytelling going back to the original Demon’s Souls, so I may have slightly rose-tinted glasses when it comes to the usual weirdness that the series features. Second, I’m only on the second “major” boss, partly because I’ve been enjoying exploring so much, but also because she’s super hard. So the game may for all I know completely tank in its second half and I’ll have recommended it like a fool. But I think that’s very unlikely, because this is one of the most well-crafted worlds and games I’ve ever encountered.
Without drifting into spoiler territory, I will say that the characters and story, while quintessentially Dark Souls in theme, are unique and strange. It remains to be seen whether this game has as memorable a character as unofficial series mascot Solaire (“Praise the sun!”) or a boss encounter as iconic as Ornstein and Smaugh. I’m a fan of Pot Warrior Alexander, though his tale is just beginning in my game. But the vast world has room for more stories than ever, and more locations in which to tell those stories.
And what locations! The Lands Between are themselves huge and varied, with huge hills, valleys, misty forests and stagnant swamps. And everywhere you go you trip over ruins hidden in the trees, or a mysterious tower on a hill hiding a horrible power. Or a catacomb hinted at by an eldritch statue. Or a deep tunnel full of ore that pops you out in an unexpected location. Or one of the sprawling “legacy dungeons” that are adventures in and of themselves. And meanwhile looming over you is inevitably your goal, some high castle or spire in which one of the main bosses performs their dark deeds.
Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I want to emphasize how incredible the locations in this game are. Not only are their individual details like the fluting of the columns, the sculptural designs, the paintings and tapestries, the enemies and creatures within, all beautiful and strange. They are themselves wonderful and terrible architectural feats, self-consistent and full of stories. And they sit in landscapes sculpted around them, not simply a locked castle door at the far end of the map but a towering, always visible presence.
Like Breath of the Wild’s feat of always having a new place of interest come into view on the horizon, Elden Ring accomplishes something similar but accompanied by a sense of pleasurable dread, since you know what awaits you at some crumbling edifice is not a friendly face but some new horror. Everywhere you look you think “Oh god… what now?”
And then I entered one of the legacy dungeons and… well. You’ll find out.
I can’t tell you the number of times I entered a new area or landscape or even just a large room and had my breath taken away. Originally I had a screenshot I took myself as the lead image, a vista so beautiful, but also so indicative of the care and craft that went into the game, that I had to sit and take it in for a while.
What’s funny is at the time, I thought I was looking at the rest of the game. I soon realized this was only the second major area of the game. In the end I decided that players should have that moment for themselves as well, and all these screenshots are from the press kit.
Suffice it to say that Elden Ring is the only game in recent memory to truly evoke a sense of awe, of the sublime, through a remarkable combination of its creators’ unique vision and its designers’ impeccable execution.
Oh, the game itself
Right, the game! Well, if you’ve played Dark Souls at all you’ll feel right at home here. The details have changed, and there are quality of life and balance changes, but all in all it’s the same swords and sorcery action gameplay we’ve known and loved for years. The addition of the horse, and of superior stealth options, makes for a bit more variety in one’s approach to combat situations.
New players will find the same obtuse and arbitrary systems as before, but with considerably more freedom to experiment without fear of punishment.
Incidentally, I played this on PS5 and PC, and found the console version looked and played extremely well while there were frequent hiccups on the Steam one. But patches are expected to hit after launch that should smooth things out.
Difficulty, ever a prickly subject, is a mixed bag. It’s hard, obviously, and careless play will be rewarded with a swift death from even ordinary enemies, let alone dragons and slouching monstrosities. But this is tempered by your absolute freedom to go elsewhere, gain a few levels, find a new shield or spell, and so on. In fact I spent most of my time doing this. Coming back to a familiar boss with a better loadout and more experience means more confidence and a more forgiving encounter.
I do wish, however, that From would include any kind of difficulty or accessibility settings. I understand completely that they consider the game’s brutal difficulty as a creative choice, forcing the player to overcome adversity. But as gaming has continued to grow in popularity and diversity, huge achievements like Elden Ring are left unable to be played by many people who for one reason or another cannot meet the exacting physical requirements of playing them.
An “easy mode” that let you trample the godlike foes you are meant to hunt would certainly cheapen the process, but having some settings for people with low vision, or an extra-life option you can turn on after 5 consecutive deaths to the same boss, or what have you — there are creative ways to let more people experience the game without compromising it too much.
Other huge and complex games like Ratchet & Clank and Horizon: Forbidden West have included such a wealth of accessibility options that it’s beginning to make From Software look a bit backwards in this respect.
With that weakness noted, I’ll just conclude by saying that the game has already proved well worth the price of entry and I’m not even sure how far into it I actually am. This is probably 2022’s game of the year and arguably From Software’s best work, which for some puts it in all-timer territory. I look forward to seeing how the community embraces and explores this enormous and consistently surprising world.