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Elden Ring is the latest action-RPG developed by FromSoftware, the Japanese studio behind the Dark Souls series, as well as a number of other Dark Souls-adjacent titles.
For years now, this particular type of action-RPG has been getting more and more popular, going from the humble cult classic of Demon's Souls that established a lot of the sub-genre's conventions, to Elden Ring that without exaggeration can be considered one of the biggest releases of the year.
To FromSoftware's credit, their previous successes didn't make them complacent. Instead of resting on their laurels and counting on Elden Ring to sell like hotcakes either way, they went all out here, creating an absolute behemoth of a game. As such, it took us a while to get through the game, but now that we have, you can find your thoughts on this particular title below.
The Old and the New
To start things off, let's consider what even is a Souls game. And Elden Ring is most definitely one of those.
Essentially, it's a third-person action-RPG designed in a way that punishes absent-minded button mashing. You spend stamina to both attack and avoid getting hit, be it by blocking, dodging, or running away, and as such, coming up with an actual strategy for how to approach encounters without running out of stamina and just standing there unable to do anything becomes an integral part of the whole experience.
On the most basic level, you have to study your enemy's attack patterns and use whatever openings they give you to counter-attack. That's the action part. Then comes the RPG part, where you have a great many ways to build your character.
You have an impressive list of primary and secondary attributes that you can increase by leveling up. These determine which gear you'll be able to equip, how strong you're going to hit, and how much health and resistance you'll have when you inevitably let an enemy hit you.
In order to level up in Elden Ring, you'll be using Runes that act as both the game's experience points and currency. You get Runes by defeating enemies, trading, and using special items. You also lose whatever unused Runes you have on you upon dying.
People oftentimes point to this fact when trying to paint these games as exceedingly difficult. What they don't tell you is that Souls, Runes, or whatever they're called in any particular title, don't really matter. You can always get more, and it's relatively easy to do.
You even get a chance to get your lost Runes back. Here's how this works - when you die, you get sent back to the nearest Site of Grace or a Stake of Marika. The former act as checkpoints where you can level up, manage your spells, set up your healing items, and so on, while the latter simply let you respawn near some dangerous spot.
But even if there's no Stake nearby, the thing that a lot of newer Souls players don't realize is that they can simply run past most of the game's enemies without any issues, which removes all of the annoyance you would think goes hand in hand with a game where enemies respawn whenever you rest at a Site of Grace.
And here's the kicker. Your character's attributes, while certainly important, and even more so in Elden Ring due to how the game is structured, are not what actually defines your playstyle. Your gear and personal preferences play a much bigger part there.
Depending on what you like and feel comfortable with, these games let you become a walking tank laughing from behind an impenetrable shield as enemies get staggered simply by hitting you, a nimble warrior dodging through every attack and responding with a flurry of blows, a wizard, a spellblade, a cleric, a pyromancer, or a mix of any of the above. The game's systems support pretty much all of it. In fact, playing as a naked guy wielding a tree trunk is a very much viable playstyle here.
This level of freedom is a big part of what attracts me to these games, and why I didn't enjoy Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the series' more actiony spin-offs, that much. As opposed to those two games, Elden Ring really leans into this idea of letting you play however you want.
I would go so far as to call Elden Ring the Texas of Dark Souls. Everything's bigger in Elden Ring. When you're just starting your journey and get your first map piece, you think to yourself, "Wow, this place is quite large." But then you keep playing and at some point, realize that what you thought was the game's world is actually just one of its many regions. And once you think you know how large the map is, you discover that there's another subterranean layer to it with its own regions and secrets.
Usually, I'm not too fond of open worlds, but Elden Ring doesn't really follow the standard AAA formula, and instead gives you a large map and plenty of freedom. If you don't want to follow the main path straight away, you can just pick a direction and go.
The world is positively packed with minor dungeons along the lines of mines, caves, and catacombs. These usually have some theme to them, a few valuable items, and a boss. But even on the overworld itself, you'll find plenty of enemies to fight, chests to open, and bosses to face. In fact, the game has a day-night cycle, and some of the bosses appear only at night in specific spots, making you wonder what other kinds of hidden events the game has. Aside from that, you can discover plenty of assorted points of interest that range from giant-driven caravans to walking mausoleums and various environmental puzzles.
And every once in a while, you'll navigate yourself into one of the so-called Legacy Dungeons that put you into some castle that serves as a master class in level design and features multiple ways to advance, secret passages, architecture that loops around on itself, and all the other awe-inspiring stuff you're used to seeing in FromSoftware's games.
There's this sense of wonder that permeates your entire journey. FromSoftware's games are known for their impressive visual design, and Elden Ring takes that to a new level. Wherever you go, you can stumble onto some breathtaking vista.
Beyond just that, while, in the usual Dark Souls style, Elden Ring is set in a dying, or rather undying, world, things aren't quite as dire here as they were in Lordran. You get plenty of meadows and neat little groves where harmless critters skitter around, birds overlook things from their perches, and even turtles make an occasional appearance. And all the while, the ground is littered with skulls, mad undying warriors are still hanging around their ruined outposts and Nazgul-looking riders patrol the roads at night.
This combination of life and death really makes the world feel unique and makes you want to explore it.
And this brings us to the original question - what kind of game is Elden Ring? It's what you want it to be, really. Some people treat these games as an opportunity to fight some tough bosses and see everything else as a mere distraction. Some play them as rhythm games, boiling the gameplay down to pressing the dodge button at the right time and counter-attacking afterward, progression systems be damned.
Personally, I view these games as vehicles for exploration. You scour the world for cool-looking locations and bits of lore, in the process discovering plenty of gear and upgrade materials. You combine those with your understanding of the game's systems, and all of a sudden, even the toughest encounters become merely a test of sorts - were you able to put together a character capable of defeating this tough enemy without much effort? If the answer is yes, you get to advance. And if it's a no, especially in Elden Ring, you can always go explore some more, or just look for some hidden sequence-breaking path allowing you to bypass your current roadblock, explore the next area, and then return much stronger and wipe the floor with the previously tough opposition.
Speaking of upgrade materials. You can upgrade your weapons in Elden Ring all the way to +25 for the regular weapons and +10 for the more unique special weapons. This is a bit of a double-edged sword because once you know where to find the smithing stones you need to upgrade your stuff, you can make your weapons really strong really early. On the other hand, this creates a scenario where upgrading your weapons is more important than ever because the difference between an upgraded weapon and a basic one is staggering.
If there's anything negative to say about Elden Ring's world, it's that it is perhaps a little bit too large, which resulted in a number of compromises that don't exactly improve the overall experience. Multiple bosses in the game are just iterations of the same boss. On top of that, the game even borrows some enemies from its predecessors.
Imagine you're fighting this big tree spirit with a big hammer, but it's not actually a tree spirit, it's essentially Asylum Demon. And there are quite a few of those in the game. Everyone's favorite Capra Demon also makes a few appearances in a new form. At some point, you just get bored of fighting the same bosses, but now with extra poison, and start running past them. Thankfully, they tend to be entirely optional. And at the very least, very few of the game's boss fights are jokes or gimmicks where you need to solve some puzzle before you can damage a boss. Off the top of my head, I can only name one fight like that, and that's a very welcome improvement from some of the earlier Souls games.
Regular enemies can also be a bit suspect, however. While there's no level scaling of any sort in this game, there's enemy scaling. So for example the humble rat that harmlessly bites your ankles in the early game, when encountered in a late-game area, would generally be able to withstand a couple of hits from a decently-upgraded weapon and do enough damage to kill an under-leveled character in a single bite. Though admittedly, the game's enemy variety is pretty good and most areas have unique foes for you to tackle.
In general, the game's later areas, especially the optional ones, seem a bit overtuned. Just about anything there tends to kill you in one or two hits regardless of how much health you have. Enemies like to swarm you, and terrain seems to be designed with the express purpose of getting you stuck on some rock to make the monsters' job easier for them.
It honestly feels like those late-game areas were designed by the Dark Souls II team. Thankfully, Elden Ring never devolves into the nonsense that was Dark Souls II, because it gives you all the tools you need to overcome these "unfair" challenges.
First of all, you can summon and ride Torrent, a spectral steed that makes you hit harder and allows you to just not be there when monsters try to hit you back. Challenging areas also allow you to summon spirits. These range from mildly useful to extremely overpowered and can help turn the tide of many a battle. Defeating enemy groups or tough enemies in the world also restores your healing supplies, of which you usually get a limited number per rest. If all else fails, certain spots allow you to summon other players to help you out. And it's only up to you which of these options you deem too cheesy.
The one area where it legitimately feels the developers just gave up is the Dragonbarrow. It's essentially tuned like an optional end-game area, but you can visit it in the early game, and have to explore in mid-game to advance. Well, you don't have to, as there are ways to progress without going there, but they feel sequence-breaking, and chances are you won't find them on your first playthrough anyway.
So basically, you have to find a key in this area where enemies all have ridiculously bloated attributes. Some parts of it are just filled with copy-pasted dragons Lost Izalith-style, and right around where the item you need is located sits a giant dragon that does absolutely nothing but has obscene amounts of health. But if you have access to an attack that does percentage-based damage, you can kill that dragon in no time and get a ridiculous number of Runes for that point in the game, completely trivializing the next few areas. Basically, if you want to have a good time in Elden Ring, avoid the Dragonbarrow. Get in there, get the key, and get out immediately. That place is no good.
Another tool you have at your disposal in Elden Ring is the new crafting system. Basically, finding or buying recipes and gathering enough materials allows you to craft various stat-boosting items, throwable pots, arrows, and so on. Much like every other game with a crafting system, Elden Ring would've been a better game without a crafting system.
Here, it's not just that I don't like crafting in general, which I don't, it's that having crafting in the game means that crafting materials now pollute the item pool. Until you've played the game, you can't imagine the disappointment of going off the beaten path, engaging in some precise platforming, or maybe fighting some tough enemy, and on the other end of it, you get some flower or three mushrooms you'll never use.
On the other end of this, the combat system is a joy to behold. While on the surface, it's the same old Souls combat, there are enough meaningful changes here to make things more exciting. First, you now have a dedicated jump button, and a slightly different control scheme because of that. Jumping isn't just useful to get around some obstacles in the world, it's also a combat tool that allows you to perform jump attacks unique to each weapon type and also avoid a variety of ground-based attacks, which can serve as an alternative to the dodge roll.
If you prefer using a shield, you can now weather an attack and then perform a guard counter move that can be very useful. You also have these so-called Ashes of War that are essentially active skills you can add to your weapons. Not only do they allow you to make your sword be unlike any other sword in the game, they also let you adjust its attribute scaling, making it so you can use certain weapons with a build that otherwise wouldn't support them.
What I also like is that no combat style seems to be the ultimate answer now. Sure, you may have a shield that blocks just about anything, but certain weapons can go around it, while some special attacks ignore it completely. Also, while you can parry a lot of the game's bosses, you need to parry some of them several times in a row before you can go for a riposte. Even dodging is not a complete invulnerability button, with certain attacks being best avoided by jumping over them.
The game's enemies also got an upgrade. Gone are the times when you were mostly fighting skeletons clearly telegraphing their attacks. Elden Ring's enemies oftentimes delay their attacks to catch you off-guard, they press their advantage when they see you retreating, or they launch some devastating attack when you lock yourself into a healing animation. All of this makes the game's combat significantly more fun and engaging.
And even though the game is positively overflowing with mechanics, it's easily the most approachable FromSoftware title to date. For starters, the tutorial is pretty good now at actually explaining what's going on and how things work. Sure, it might not cover the advanced stuff, like what partial parries are, how generous backstab windows can be, or that you can actually slide down ladders instead of going one rung at a time, but it goes over enough of the basics to prepare a newer player for what's ahead.
You also, for the first time in a game of this type, now have a map. Not only can you leave markers on it, it also points you in the general direction of your main quest, which is a huge improvement over some giggling guy who mumbles something about some bells at you.
Finally, to end this section, I'd like to mention a couple of changes in how the game works compared to its predecessors.
When it comes to attributes, for the most part, everything works the same, but Attunement is gone completely. Instead, you now have memory slots for your spells. You gain them by finding special items in the game's world. Rings are now called talismans, and while you initially can only equip one, beating certain bosses will grant you more talisman slots.
Poise still exists as a secondary attribute, but much like in Dark Souls 3, it doesn't really work. In fact, it doesn't work even more than it didn't in Dark Souls 3. Basically, Poise is the attribute that allows you to continue attacking while taking damage, which is really useful when you have a slow heavy weapon.
In Elden Ring, while wearing heavy armor (one tier below the heaviest) and wielding a big sword, just about anything will still stagger you, making charged attacks more or less unusable. Pretty much the only thing granting you any noticeable amount of Poise, from my experience, is the Wild Strikes skill that allows you to withstand a hit or two before you get staggered.
The Elden Lord of the Rings
With the game's structure and mechanics out of the way, let's take a look at what it can offer in the story department.
The first thing to mention here is that while Elden Ring was developed in Japan, it's very much not a JRPG. And while true, some of the armor designs and cutscenes here are closer to that kind of game than ever before in a Souls title, this is still a very much Western-flavored project and your character runs upright instead of at a 45-degree angle.
Besides, the game's world was created in collaboration with George R.R. Martin, the author of A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels. And while his contributions were apparently limited to the big picture lore, you can clearly feel his influence on the game's story where most of the important characters are connected on some personal or familial level.
That is of course if you bother looking into that stuff. In the true FromSoftware fashion, Elden Ring's lore is primarily delivered through cryptic conversations and item descriptions, and it's up to you to piece everything together. Alternatively, you can just ignore all that stuff and hit skeletons with a big club. Your experience won't be diminished by that approach.
But should you choose to at least try and figure out what's going on in Elden Ring, you'll be dropped into what is perhaps the most complex FromSoftware world to date.
On the most basic level, you'll be tasked with restoring the Elden Ring, a divine artifact that was shattered at some point in the past, plunging the Lands Between into a purgatory state where no one can die for good, and all the nobles who got a hold of the ring's shards were gradually transformed into oversized monstrosities. Collecting those shards will make you the Elden Lord and supposedly restore order in the Lands Between.
Of course, nothing can ever be so straightforward in a FromSoftware game. During your journey, you'll meet plenty of factions and individuals who think they know of a better way to steer the Lands Between into a bright or not so bright future, and even the seemingly good guys don't necessarily have your best interest in mind.
The game's story continues the trend of everything being bigger in Elden Ring. While I can't say with any degree of certainty that I know exactly what's going on in the game after beating it just once, from what I've seen, it combines just about every possible inspiration and reference you'd expect from a collaboration between George R.R. Martin and Hidetaka Miyazaki.
You have plenty of Lovecraftian elements bubbling under the surface, with most of the game's factions being influenced by some Outer God or other. Magic, in the true Miyazaki fashion, once again has something to do with crystals, but this time around they're crystals from outer space. Ancient civilizations are stacked on top of one another like a layer cake. And there's a distant possibility that just about everyone in the world is a mimic thinking it's people.
What was a bit surprising, though, is how much Elden Ring clearly borrows from The Lord of the Rings. The ring part is obvious of course. But then you have these big divine light-giving trees. A race of demigods called the Numen. And one of the main bad guys goes by Morgott. I'm sure there are other less obvious things, but this is surface-level stuff, and there's plenty of it in the game.
What's also impressive is the game's commitment to its mystery. If you just play Elden Ring without looking anything up, there's a good chance you'll miss huge chunks of it. Entire large areas here are hidden behind secrets upon secrets. In fact, to fight one of the major bosses showcased in the intro cinematic, you'll need to join the game's "bad guys" acting as Elden Ring's Darkwraiths. Alternatively, you can die in a very specific way in a very specific spot, and then engage in some platforming upon being magically transported to a new area. But that's Elden Ring for you. There's almost always another way.
On the negative side, due to the game's scope, its side quests are now way too convoluted. Without reading any guides or just getting insanely lucky, I don't think it's possible to follow any of the game's side quests to their logical conclusion. It almost feels random where you need to go and what you need to do to advance most of those quests. Thankfully, they're a relatively minor part of the overall Elden Ring Experience.
Ever since the game launched, there have been reports of it being a bad PC port. And while I can't guarantee that you'll be able to run Elden Ring without a hitch, I personally didn't encounter any stuttering or major frame drops during my playthrough. The game crashed on me twice, and that's pretty much it as far as major issues are concerned.
This being an open-world game, it does suffer from numerous minor issues, like the very real danger of getting stuck on some terrain, or the AI not being able to handle elevation. But as far as open-world games are concerned, it's not even close to the worst thing ever.
As opposed to clear bugs, the biggest victim of the game's scope is the attention to detail FromSoftware is usually known for. Certain things in the game, like some of its quests, feel downright unfinished. The covenant system feels like it's supposed to be in the game but isn't. There's a whole system that lets you modify your armor, but all it does is let you remove capes from certain armor pieces. And don't even get me started on how the game's upgrade materials are now separated into sterile numbered tiers, as opposed to being chunks and slabs.
On the technical side, the game's visuals are a marked improvement over its predecessors. But honestly, visual fidelity is not really an integral part of most Souls games. It's all about their art direction. And as usual, it's top-notch in Elden Ring. Music, on the other hand… Well, music has never been FromSoftware's strong suit, in my opinion. Unless you're someone who can get excited by endless variations of somber melancholic plinking, chances are you won't be jumping with joy for Elden Ring's soundtrack.
Much like the earlier Souls titles, Elden Ring constantly saves your progress as you play, while also allowing you to manually save on quitting the game.
Another Souls game staple is the fact that the game really should be played with a controller. You certainly can use a mouse and keyboard for it, but it won't feel right. The game's control scheme is fairly unique and really needs a controller to shine.
The game also comes with multiplayer functionality. The main meat there are the messages you can leave on the ground and have other players see them in their game. This whole system is fascinating. Simply by working with a set of pre-made phrases, the game's community now has its own unique language for communicating things, its in-jokes, and clashing groups of people who want you to jump off of cliffs and those who want to prevent you from doing it.
You can also engage in some PvP, but unlike the previous Souls games, it doesn't look like people can just invade you at will now. Instead, they can only do so when you've already summoned other players to help you beat the game, or when you invite them in.
Finally, one last thing I want to mention is the game's length. Prior to its release, its length was estimated at around 30 hours. That was an understatement of the year. While missing plenty of optional dungeons, it took me around 100 hours to beat the game, and that's without getting stuck on any of its bosses for too long.
And while this number is comparable to some other major CRPGs, you have to keep in mind that Elden Ring doesn't have that much dialogue or cutscenes. These 100 hours were almost all pure gameplay, and as such, the game feels even larger than it already is. And that's not even mentioning the New Game+ mode that's a staple of Souls games by this point.
As you can see, Elden Ring is not a perfect game. It has plenty of flaws. But even with those flaws, I consider it the best FromSoftware game to date. It's an adventure. It's an experience. And I can't recommend it enough to anyone who already likes Souls games, but also those who'd like to give them a shot and see what they're all about.
This is the kind of game that makes you want to discuss it with other people. It's also the kind of game that, despite its considerable size, makes you want to start a second playthrough straight away. And we don't get a lot of games like that these days.