There was a moment while playing Elden Ring
where I felt like the lead in one of those B-grade The Blob
-style monster movies. I was sitting there, controller in hand, and my eyes widened and my jaw slackened and I let out a soft gasp as internally I screamed, because surely, surely
this game could not get any bigger.
But it did. They need an SCP classification
for this thing, because it feels like every time I think it's done the scope keeps expanding. It's bordering on maddening; horrific in a way, but a positive sort of terror.
And it does it cleverly, too. What I'm about to share is weird, but stick with me on it — I love the way the map
works in Elden Ring. It could be better (I wish I could open the map while in combat, even if I couldn't fast travel until I exited it) but I love it all the same.
It's because they perfected the reveal. Everything about the map is hidden until you uncover it. There's a fog of war that remains until you move through the area, but the map itself is zoomed in and held in such a way that it implies a size that simply isn't accurate. I will avoid going into detail, but you don't even know yet what little you know.
And that's what Elden Ring is. You don't even know. You can be 30 hours into the game and you still won't know what you're in for.
"One guy went full strength and showed up to help me beat a horsey boss in Havel-style cauldron-looking armour, shrugging off attacks that one-shot me while he swung about a sword crafted for a god...”
I played this game as part of a little chat group with three other game critics, because Souls
games are all about community. It wasn't a formalised thing, we just all reached out to people to see if they were playing Elden Ring so that we might have a support group.
We all might have played different games. One guy went full strength and showed up to help me beat a horsey boss in Havel
-style cauldron-looking armour, shrugging off attacks that one-shot me while he swung about a sword crafted for a god. Another showed up to the second main boss looking like Rita Repulsa
from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
rocking a Dexterity-slash
Strength-balanced build that let him fast roll with a huge curved dagger. The third was cosplaying as a Knights Templar
from Assassin's Creed
, but we were at the second boss to help him out because he'd spread his stats across Faith, Strength, Vitality, Dexterity and anything else he felt he needed.
And me? I was wearing a one-eyed prisoner’s mask and rocking bleed stacking claws, pumping everything I could into Dexterity and nothing else. Over my 55 hours with the game I didn't block a single time, because blocking with the claws is basically the same as not blocking with the claws.
When we talked about bosses, half of us hadn't faced the same ones and those who had, fought them in a different order. The bosses that gave me trouble weren't the ones that stopped my fat-rolling strongman colleague. I breezed through regular foes that were hard walls for others. I missed some dungeons where they found goodies and they missed others. We'd share screenshots of our maps and they'd have different landmarks dotted across them.
That's how it is in Elden Ring. It's not randomness, it's just a sheer overwhelming degree of choice. There's just so much going on.
"Some people need stuff written down. Some don't retain knowledge when it's associated with punishment...”
In terms of play, it's open-world Dark Souls
with a proper jump button and a horse you can summon. With all the good and bad that comes with that.
The bad, for example, is a failure to introduce players to the game-world. Sekiro
is my least favourite of the Souls-style games From Software
have developed, but it does the best job of teaching players what they need to do.
Dark Souls games are too often happy to attempt to do it organically — to tell players the absolute basics via text written on the ground, and to slowly introduce concepts like 'fighting two people at once' or 'the hidden archer' as you go through the world, but not everybody learns the same way. Some people need stuff written down. Some don't retain knowledge when it's associated with punishment. Sekiro wasn't perfect, but it was the best a From Software Souls game has ever done at the task.
Elden Ring isn't the worst — Demon's Souls
, after all, let you make your own game essentially unbeatable via an obtuse system that people took years to get to the bottom of. But it's a step back from Sekiro all the same — it encourages you to head into a brief and not very helpful tutorial zone, but once you're finished there it essentially washes its hands of explicitly guiding you.
I think it means a lot of people will bounce off the game, just as they always have with the series, and it's bad for Elden Ring because From showed genuine growth in this area in Sekiro.
"Not so bad when you're moving about the game-world trying to kill sheep, but during tough fights it's literally a killer...”
There's also an issue with the framerate that has caused some significant problems. I'm playing on a very good PC
(complete with the beastly MSI 3080 Suprim X
) and I regularly suffered from massive frame dips at 1440p. Shifting to 1080p did not completely solve this issue either, which means there’s still work to be done. The game essentially halts, dropping to an N64-fan’s idea of a dream scenario – 10 frames-per-second. And then it would kick in again, catching up all at once. Not so bad when you're moving about the game-world trying to kill sheep, but during tough fights it's literally
For my part I closed everything I could think of while the game was running — the minimum specs require 12GB of RAM, after all, which is slightly less than two tabs of Chrome — but I couldn't stop this from happening. My colleagues mentioned suffering the same issue, and dying unfair deaths as a result. It's particularly odd because it didn't happen when I played the game in preview a few weeks ago.
The good, however, especially if you're a Dark Souls fan, is everything else. I mean everything
. Because it's an open-world Dark Souls game. It's a Souls approach to an open world too, where the landmarks don't show up until you've actually visited them — and a map that won't show up until you've literally found a map piece.
"Faith-based miracles are there, with all the classics showing up, but so are "God-slayer" incantations and "Dragon" incantations...”
The bosses are fantastic, and while I think George R. R. Martin
's impact amounts to a few 'ye olde' word choices, the storytelling is surprisingly coherent. There's a wonderful throughline to it that you can follow, and while the game itself doesn't breadcrumb players all that well, the story carries its weight in that regard.
The variety is pure Dark Souls. I mentioned my colleagues' builds, but we barely scraped the surface of what was possible. Faith-based miracles are there, with all the classics showing up, but so are "God-slayer" incantations and "Dragon" incantations. Sorceries too, with I assume many varieties — but I never got to see them all because I accidentally killed the person who sells them.
Souls games are about community, but solo players can get along just fine in Elden Ring. The Spirit Ashes summons system — which is like a grim dark Pokemon
, involving finding the Ashes of enemies who will join you in battle — means even those who can't get the game to play online will have someone to be there with them. For me it was a two-metre-wide jellyfish I called Shelly
, but players are free to choose and upgrade any summon they see fit (once they find them).
Multiplayer is great too, with Easy Anti Cheat alleviating some of the usual Souls-game stress regarding hackers — it's not a flawless system but it will stop the bog standard 'Cheat Engine Infinite HP' hackers from running around impervious when you invade them.
"It's such a carefully considered and executed game that even though it's not Dark Souls, it feels like it could have been a sequel in that series...”
For cooperative play, you can summon two other players to come help out, and the game ramps things up significantly when you do. There's a distinct increase in the challenge put up by bosses facing off against three players compared to even just two.
Horseback combat is great, if simpler than the regular kind, and the enemies come in all shapes, sizes and forms. It's such a carefully considered and executed game that even though it's not Dark Souls, it feels like it could have been a sequel in that series. A sequel that does so much more than it really has to.
There's a fight, and it's completely optional, and it's quite close to an elevator. The enemy was an optional boss near the start of the game, and it now appeared as a regular enemy because that's how Souls games go. I'd beaten him before, but here he appeared to have a few new tricks up his sleeve — one in particular could one-shot me.
This move — it had fantastic tracking, very little telegraphing and it hit like a truck — repeatedly got the best of me. I must have gone up and down that elevator three dozen times. Each time I did it, I'd wait at the back of the elevator so that when it reached the ground, I could run over the button again to send it back up. I'd sneak into the room, I'd grab my runes, I'd prep my claws for extra bleed damage and then I'd lose.
The last time I attempted it — and I'm not telling tall ones here, I'm deadly serious — the last time I attempted the fight, I didn't send the elevator back up. I didn't collect my runes off the ground. I had figured to myself that I wasn't going to return if I lost this fight. I was going to head in a different direction.
And I won. It was the Gattaca
mentality. I didn't save anything for the trip back, and I won. I mean I'd fought the guy 37 or so times by now, and I'd worked out the tell on his instakill attack and I knew how to dodge it while still putting damage on him, but also, I didn't save anything for the trip back.
And Elden Ring feels like it was built with the same philosophy. Surely there can't be an Elden Ring 2, because they didn't hold anything back here. There's enough content for about three games, and I haven't finished it yet. It just keeps on giving. And with that, From Software may have delivered the last game you'll ever need.