Listen, I know the horse (or Spectral Steed) has well and truly bolted on reviewing Elden Ring. I’ve seen the lunacy of FromSoftware’s latest release consume every corner of the internet. I’ve seen it peak at more concurrent players on Steam than Innersloth’s party game Among Us ever amassed, and that’s considering the time where it felt as if Among Us may overthrow God. Chances are if you were ever going to play it, you likely have in this last six weeks (and I hope you’re okay). Still, I couldn’t review a game this size without first putting a frankly shameful amount of hours in, so here we are. Fashionably late, I’d like to think.
For over a decade now, the sadists at FromSoftware, helmed by creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki, have been pretty consistently churning out badges of honour cleverly disguised as action-RPGs. The Souls series and their creatively adjacent titles (2015’s PS4-only adventure Bloodborne and 2019’s samurai-based Sekiro) have found increasing popularity online, due to their deep and immersive worlds and (sometimes extremely) challenging combat gameplay.
The speed-running community kindled the flame brighter than ever. “Oh, you beat Dark Souls, did you? So did I. In an hour and twenty. With a starting weapon. On a fucking dance mat.” As you might’ve guessed, the Souls games are not exactly vertical slice-fodder, they’re a fairly hard sell for the uninitiated. Cold, unforgiving, give-and-take titles you need to grind to “git gud” at. The difference with seventh instalment Elden Ring starts with the incorporation of an open-world.
Previously, the series had gone for the 3D Metroidvania approach, meaning you could wander a few paths along your way but they all ultimately led to the same thing. To truly advance, to clear an area, there was a boss to beat. In Elden Ring there’s no obligation to do so. If you’re feeling under-leveled to take something on, you can just tuck your tail between your legs and start exploring elsewhere in the enormous Lands Between. Do be warned, however, that the grass isn’t always greener. Several times during my playthrough I avoided certain oblivion, wandered for an hour through the stunning scenery of a Limgrave, or a Liurnia, only to find the fabled “even-more-certain-oblivion”.
You assume the role of Tarnished, a race of men exiled since the catastrophic ‘Shattering’ of the titular ring. You’re expected to defeat its ‘Shardbearers’, powerful demi-gods who intend to keep you from your prophesied position as Elden Lord. That’s about as good as you’re getting re: a plot summary, because you’re directly in control of where the narrative shifts. That, and this game’s main line route is around 40 hours. If you do wanna get crazy, there’s more lore than there is time to get through it without phone calls from concerned friends.
As touched on earlier, the map is almost overwhelming to think about in early-game. I fell victim to a transporter chest before I even had my bearings, and spent an afternoon getting dunked on. Nothing’s more sobering than the combination of grotesque giant prawn with a staff and nearby poison swamp. When I finally realised where I was on the map versus where I’d been pre-abduction, I cancelled everything and accepted my fate: poor posture and takeaway for the foreseeable (that distance, by the way, only about a fifteenth or so of the game’s full size).
So, is this Dark Souls 4? Yes, in a way. There are so many odes to franchise history they’re impossible to ignore. But where Dark Souls 3 was criticised by some for being a reminder of how good the series’ ideas were at the dawn of the 2010’s, Elden Ring is very much alive with them, improving upon them, giving them quality of life buffs. New players might wonder how loyalists survived without quick-travel, a dedicated jump button, spirit summons, or a horse.
I could probably write a full second piece just on Elden Ring‘s plethora of bosses. Their many unique skins (70+), impressive move sets, instant memorability and the like. Because the game is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure epic, I fear I cannot get indulgent here without spoilers. If you haven’t guessed by now, I really want you to play this for yourself. However, I can safely say already that this is my favourite batch of big-bads in any game ever. This is an industry benchmark in creative design.
As is tradition when FromSoftware release anything, there’s been a huge conversation online surrounding franchise accessibility and the difficulty of these games. Here’s my take: I don’t believe accessibility and difficulty can be conflated. Accessibility concerns things like captioning, audio cues, control mapping, easily readable UI; it’s about ensuring everyone can access the experience.
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As alluded to earlier, difficulty in this case is the experience. It’s the genre, so directly affecting that nothing would work properly in its absence. It’s the bedrock of what’s being made; it’s what scares are to horror movies. It should be fairly uncontroversial to say that, if you don’t like blood or swearing, you skip the 18-rated movie. If you fancy a few easy hours half-playing something, maybe don’t pick up Elden Ring. The idea is that everyone faces the exact same uphill challenge, and everyone must adapt accordingly. Whether you choose a Warrior, an Astrologer, a Vagabond or a Wretch, if you don’t figure your shit out soon you’re going to die. Well, more so than usual.
Elden Ring is a Half-Life 2, or an Ocarina of Time. It’s one of those rare works that so captures the imagination of those who play it, they wonder if anything will ever be this good again. I’m only not wondering that because there’s no way this doesn’t pivot From’s future. You might’ve heard that the Japanese developer hadn’t sold 10 million copies in combined company history until DS3 released in 2016, and it’s not as if they weren’t making games before the series began. Elden Ring, alone, sold 12 million copies in a month. This is absolutely the birth of something. I mean, they had George R. R. Martin on the marquee for this. It really doesn’t get much bigger in the fantasy genre.
Buy it, play it, play it again. If you were hesitant for whatever reason, you owe it to yourself to give it a go.
Elden Ring is out now on multiple platforms.