Dark Souls by the way of Skyrim, Elden Ring is the open-world RPG we’ve been waiting for. We go hands-on with From Software’s latest...
When I reviewed Dark Souls 3, I spoke of "Explorers" and "Tourists", and because Elden Ring is, essentially, Dark Souls 4, I think it's worth recalling. Explorers want to discover things. They want to cut their way through thick jungle, past dangerous flora and deadly fauna as they try to see the undocumented. Tourists want to follow along on that path later, once it's paved and the maps are drawn and the perils are understood enough to make them no longer perilous. They want an experience adjacent to but not the same as the Explorer.
Neither type of player is "right" or "wrong" or good or bad or anything like that. But the Elden Ring Network Test is, currently, very skewed in favour of the Explorers. It's a first look, after all — nothing here is 'final', none of it is locked in. But very few people are entirely on one end of the spectrum or the other — there aren't many pure explorers or tourists. I'm definitely not a pure explorer, more lost in the wilderness with just enough survival knowledge to get by — but I'm back from my adventure, and I can share with you what I know.
Elden Ring is amazing.
It's an open-world Dark Souls game, which at first blush might not be that appealing. Dark Souls' level design is a very particular thing, and generally the few times the series has attempted to broaden an area it's seen mixed results. Swamps are the worst thing about every Dark Souls game (except for the Bed of Chaos), and coincidentally they feature the series' broadest level design. There's something about the narrow, focused approach that has always worked for the Souls games.
Elden Ring is amazing...
So I was sceptical at first, and I immediately noticed its impact. It initially feels, well, overlarge and empty, and I struggled to find anything to fight. After the initial tutorial area — which is completely skippable, by the way, bearing nothing of any use and not enough souls to be worth the time — you're thrust into the main world, given the opportunity to go wherever you want, but instinctively I headed straight ahead. That's a mistake. The giant, horsebound Tree Sentinel Knight will mess you up, and once you sneak past him it can be tough to find a decent fight in his direction.
That's the tricky part of Elden Ring. Souls games are about training your instincts. The series has spent dozens of hours getting you to form a muscle memory, but you need to reject that impulse to find success in ER. You need to draw from a different well — to win at Elden Ring, you need to think like Skyrim.
The first thing you do in an Elder Scrolls game is head away from the main objective, right? And in Elden Ring, you're presented with your main goal in From's classic understated manner — the giant castle in the distance is obviously where you need to be, even if there isn't an objective marker flashing up for you to follow. In Elden Ring, then, you want to go away from that castle. Head right, and you'll find yourself in a swamp. Again, ignore your Dark Souls instincts — this swamp is actually good. It's also technically a lake, though there's nowhere deep enough for you to fall in and drown (you can't swim in Elden Ring).
If you resist your Dark Souls instincts and explore this mosquito-filled, knee-deep-brown-water-having 'lake', you'll quickly realise how Elden Ring works. How it's a Souls game in a different skin, a wolf in sheep's clothing. How the freedom to go wherever you like is just a new way for From Software to let you tie your own rope.
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And as you lean on your open-world exploration sensibilities, you start to see how the Souls game design philosophy is still there. Elden Ring will happily let you warp around the map at will, fast travelling to any bonfire you've found, but Souls players will know to only use that when they're certain they're skipping well-worn ground. After defeating a boss and technically finishing a dungeon, ER will provide you with the opportunity to warp back to the entrance, but you and I know better than to do that before exploring every inch of the place. I didn't find any hidden walls in my time with Elden Ring, but not through lack of trying.
Souls games are about training your instincts. The series has spent dozens of hours getting you to form a muscle memory, but you need to reject that impulse to find success in ER. You need to draw from a different well — to win at Elden Ring, you need to think like Skyrim.
Actually, that brings up another thing in the Network test — there's no weapon durability system in Elden Ring. And I hope they never ever add one. Suck it, Breath of the Wild.
I definitely got Breath of the Wild vibes from Elden Ring, even if your mobility options in ER are very restricted compared to Nintendo's best game. You can't climb, and if there's a paraglider I never found it, but there are other hints of that Zelda game's influence in the way you interact with the world's systems. The weather effects, the long distance worldbuilding, the way that Tree Sentinel dude reminded me of Lynels — I think Breath of the Wild fans will get a lot out of this game, even if they are just biding time until BOTW2.
But more than that, I thought Elden Ring did a good job of making something a lot of people might enjoy. You can sword and board it pretty easily, just holding block to make sure you don't die when you miss your dodge rolls, and taking single swings when the opportunity presents. The magic options require some learning but they are powerful once you get a handle on them.
The truth is I found it to be quite easy, and there are loads of options for increasing your power that don't involve the sort of "near-impossible" combat the series is renowned for. For a lark, I went ahead and made a brand new character and I had them rocking a killer katana after one boss fight. And it's a giant boss — the second easiest Souls boss-type (after giant blobs).
If I'd gone a Strength and Faith build (The Champion) I could have had him fat-rolling in chunky armour about 15 minutes after I spawned — no boss fight needed. I could have been two-handing a greatsword that nearly three-hits the final boss of the Network Test by then.
I definitely got Breath of the Wild vibes from Elden Ring, even if your mobility options in ER are very restricted compared to Nintendo's best game.
Because Elden Ring is amazing the same way Dark Souls has always been amazing. It's a game where knowledge is king. If you know what you're doing in Elden Ring, nothing can stop you. But here, instead of being locked into a path and utilising that knowledge one beat at a time, you're able to use whatever you know as soon as you're out in the world. Suddenly, it's easy to find something to fight, because you know where to go. And knowing how to quickly unlock your horse — simply sit at three (overworld) bonfires — stops it from feeling overlarge.
The cool thing about being an Explorer is the way this knowledge slowly unfolds for you, but the great thing about going back in as a Tourist is that you know even with the knowledge, the challenge still exists. I found it easy, especially once I knew what I was doing, but it was by no means simple. It still required patience and attention and investment, which is what I love about Souls games.
I don't get hyped for games any more, the last two years have shown that to be a good way to get (Cyber)punk'd. But Elden Ring is doing an open-world game with classic Souls style gameplay, and even though I didn’t think that could possibly work, it's got me fighting my instincts hard.