Elden Ring Review
Ring Around the Rosie
The open world has become the endpoint for many series. The operating logic with many sequels is to offer something similar to the original, and the current school of thought appears to be taking small, insular levels and transforming them into a sprawling map to give players a greater sense of freedom. The transition to open world is a gift-wrapped opportunity to breathe new life into a concept in danger of growing stale even when the task of constructing one of these worlds is daunting to say the least. This is quite possibly the situation FromSoftware found itself in when designing Elden Ring. While clearly a continuation of the Dark Souls games, Elden Ring is a natural evolution of that style but delivered in a package that is bigger and more breathtaking than anything the company has done before.
Elden Ring takes place in the Lands Between, a deathless continent once ruled over by Queen Marika the Eternal, wielder of the eponymous Elden Ring. When her demigod son Godwyn is assassinated, reintroducing death into the world, she breaks the Elden Ring and is locked away. Her demigod children all take a part of the shattered Elden Ring, stealing away to their keeps and letting their lands fall into decline. The player takes control of a Tarnished, an exile who is called back to the Lands Between upon the Elden Ring’s shattering. It is up to the player to regain the shards, repair them, and assume the mantle of Elden Lord. While the setup is similar to Dark Souls, by virtue of the game’s sheer size and length, Elden Ring has more characters and factions that play into the story than before. This gives more chances for players to latch on to something in the narrative, though much is found off the beaten path and can be more easily missed by those not on the lookout for it.
However, it is hard to imagine someone who isn’t inclined to scour every corner of the map. FromSoftware has seamlessly managed to translate the intricate nature of its level design to a massive open-world map, one that will regularly surprise the player with just how large and dense it is. This is in no small part thanks to the game’s hands-off approach to player direction. Littered across the land are Sites of Grace, Elden Ring‘s bonfire equivalent, which also serve as fast travel locations. Sites of Grace on the main path guide players towards main story progress, but otherwise players are left to their own devices. Remove the Sites of Grace and the Lands Between are still a sight to behold and navigate. Careful consideration was given to design of the open world, which presents the player with vistas of towering structures and geography to draw the eye. It’s almost certain that players will naturally stumble across numerous things on the way to those points of interest that will branch off into miniature adventures all their own. This is a key element to giving the game a realized sense of space and to let players make discoveries in an organic way.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Elden Ring‘s open world is how, on paper, its elements are shared with many other open-world titles. The Lands Between are filled judiciously with repeating location types — tombs, caves, mines, etc. — throughout the map, but rather than feeling like filler, more often each location provides just the appropriate level of variety to keep each feeling fresh in its own way. The fact that these locations all come with their own unique rewards reinforces their worth. Even when the reward is not something a player can utilize, it both adds flavor to a location and its denizens while also giving the player a glimpse of the sheer amount of variety available to them. Discovering these locations is a joy of its own as well. Rather than filling the map with the usual array of question marks, Elden Ring‘s detailed map naturally highlights distinct points of interest, letting players make the discoveries on their own. But even forgoing these more traditional elements, Elden Ring finds constant ways to surprise the player. Around every corner, over every hill, at the bottom of every ravine there is a chance to uncover a new merchant, or a passage to a new location, or a treasure chest that will teleport the Tarnished across the map. In a game filled with amazing moments both big and small, it’s how often the player is rewarded, even in small ways, that lets it shine.
A map of that size would be torturous to traverse without aid. Enter Torrent, a spectral horse with a brisk gait and a double jump that should come standard on every video game horse. Torrent provides a faster means of crossing the game’s huge maps and helps players tackle the far more vertical levels. While Torrent cannot be customized or improved, underlining its function as a tool first and foremost, it does allow for some freedom in how players engage with the open world. Torrent’s speed outpaces most of the enemies in the game, letting players circumvent many overland threats and obstacles. Attacking while riding Torrent is also viable, allowing the Tarnished to use hit-and-run tactics to mitigate difficult encounters. In fact, with the exception of enemies and environmental storytelling, the open world is largely without incident. It’s a beautifully constructed world with intricate details throughout, but the primary interaction with it is fighting enemies or moving through it on horseback. It creates negative space between the more traditional Souls levels and encounters, but don’t expect a new swath of emergent systems. And if there was a worry that FromSoftware would lose its strong level design in the transition to open world, those fears were unfounded. Elden Ring contains multiple classic areas denoted as Legacy Dungeons — where Torrent is disabled — that are every bit as tightly designed as those in the company’s previous RPGs. If anything, the addition of a jump button has expanded the ways in which levels can creatively hide secrets and shortcuts.
Combat has also seen some positive additions. The standard array of light attacks, heavy attacks, blocking, and parries are all present, each having an associated stamina cost. Fights in Elden Ring are precise, a tense dance focusing on stamina management and spacing between the player and the enemy. Attacking at the wrong time or too frequently can leave a player vulnerable and an empty stamina bar puts the player in a stunned state that is easy for enemies to exploit. New to the combat are Guard Counters, a counter attack following a successful block that deals heavy posture damage, and jumping attacks, which also deal a high level of posture damage. Dealing enough posture damage will stun an enemy and leave them susceptible to a critical attack. The wider variety of attacks and defensive options is welcome, though in the later parts of the game enemies begin attacking too fast for most players to be able to get off Guard Counters with consistency. The flask system of Dark Souls III returns, with players choosing how they are split between flasks that refill health and flasks that refill FP. Unlike its predecessor, Elden Ring finds a much better use for FP-refilling flasks, especially for players primarily using melee weapons. Expanding on Dark Souls III‘s Weapon Arts are Ashes of War, spell-like abilities that are equipped to most armaments. While only one can be utilized at a time, they are yet another layer to the game’s combat that also promotes FP use in most character builds.
Character and build customization is the most in-depth FromSoftware has done yet. Due to its length, Elden Ring features a large variety of armaments and spells, as well as lots of time in which to utilize them. Whereas in the Souls games the player’s focus would be on one or two weapons, in Elden Ring it is easy to switch between numerous weapons and tactics to suit different situations. As the player progresses through the game, they’ll unlock items that will let them replace Ashes of War on weapons and even gain the ability to change the damage-scaling properties of a weapon, granting access to weapons whose requirements might otherwise fall outside their build. There are fewer weapon options for casting, but the sheer numbers of spells and incantations, each with multiple types between them, is staggering.
Much has been said about the difficulty in FromSoftware’s games and Elden Ring doesn’t quite cross the tight rope perfectly. In the early hours of the game, players will unlock the ability to use Spirit Ashes, offline-only companions that can be used at specified points in the game. Their inclusion isn’t a problem in isolation, in fact they are quite fun to use. They can make specific stretches of a dungeon easier or be a helpful tool when one is stuck on the boss, and a significant number of bosses, especially later in the game, are so aggressive that summoning is quite likely an intended part of the fight. However, bosses struggle to handle fighting multiple opponents at once and can be made almost too easy by playing a simple game of aggro management. This isn’t a deal-breaker — it can often be fun — but it doesn’t feel as finely tuned as much of the rest of the game. FromSoftware must have realized this, since many bosses have more attacks that hit in larger areas and their damage across the board feels higher, but it does feel like the bosses can be too hard without summoning and too easy with them.
FromSoftware has never been at the forefront of graphical fidelity, but the quality of its visual design is still some of the best in the industry. It has managed to paint a picturesque world that remains evocative throughout its over one hundred hour runtime, an achievement given is has a much larger canvas to fill. All of the game’s primary regions are visually distinct and eerily atmospheric, aided by often understated background music. During boss fights the score makes attempts to set itself apart from its predecessors with a more percussion-heavy focus but it doesn’t take long before the bombastic choirs kick in. Still, the soundtrack is fitting and oftentimes beautiful. It would be nice to say that the game is bug-free, but irregular slowdowns and stuttering were present throughout. It never occurred frequently enough to interfere meaningfully with gameplay, but it was a minor annoyance whenever it did.
It’s hard to review Elden Ring without being comparative; that’s because Elden Ring is an evolutionary step, not a revolutionary one, and one can’t help but see how it’s built on what came before. Here is a massive undertaking of a game, not for the sake of chasing trends but as the natural progression of the style the company has been fostering for over a decade. It’s amazing how smoothly the transition to open world was and how much of the Souls identity is still present. In the short time since its release, it has already left a cultural mark, no doubt a result of the game’s increased approachability. Even after sifting past all the hype and grandiosity, there’s still an excellent game left and Elden Ring is a clear showcase of FromSoftware’s outstanding expertise in the field. Elden Ring really is just that good.
Top-notch exploration in a large, dense world
Widest variety of character builds yet
Interesting secrets to discover throughout the game
Size of the map can make following character stories more difficult
The difficulty around the bosses never finds a good center
Minor but consistent technical issues