'Elden Ring' Review: An Unmissable Open-World Masterpiece
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Featured Image Credit: Bandai Namco
I hug the wall as I creep down the cold stone stairs into the tomb, dagger in hand. Bitter experience has taught me to be ready for anything. For the last half-hour, I’ve been attempting to find my way to the bottom of this ancient ruin. It seemed easy enough at first glance; a series of narrow corridors all leading straight down. All I needed to do was follow the path.
That’s when a giant set of spinning blades came thundering through the darkness towards me. Before I could react, they’d cut me to pieces and sent me back to the beginning.
Several attempts and 32 minutes later, I finally reach the bottom to discover a green fog door shimmering and swirling at the end of the corridor. I know what this means, but I’m ready. After what I just went through, I can handle anything. I swagger into the boss’ lair… where what can only be described as a colossal undead tree drops from the ceiling and scuttles towards me, all snarling roots and rotting bark. My dagger barely scratches its thick hide as it scoops me up, pulls me into the middle of the room, and devours me whole.
I am dead. Again. But I make a silent vow to myself: I will leave this cursed tomb and get stronger. And when I return? I will wreck that f****ng tree.
This is Elden Ring, and I am utterly besotted. The ambitious open-world successor to the Dark Souls series is maddeningly punishing, impossibly vast, and endlessly rewarding. It’s also, I am delighted to report, FromSoftware’s best game to date; a modern masterpiece that will surely go down as one of the greats.
Like the vast majority of FromSoftware games, Elden Ring’s story and lore will no doubt prove borderline impenetrable to all but the most dedicated of scholars. Given the amount of noise that was made around George R.R. Martin’s involvement, I’d assumed the Game Of Thrones’ scribe had been enlisted to ground things, inasmuch as a fantasy story can be grounded. Not so. If publisher Bandai Namco hadn’t mentioned Martin was a part of Elden Ring, I’m not sure I would ever have noticed. This is Dark Souls’ creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s eldritch baby through-and-through; all decaying kingdoms, unsettling NPCs, and towering, twisted bosses with names like Margit The Fell Omen and Beastman Of Farum Azula.
All you really need to know is that you are a lowly Tarnished, an adventurer who has come to The Lands Between to hunt for the Elden Ring and take its immense power for your own. To do this, you’ll need to explore a frighteningly large open world filled with dungeons, obscure puzzles, and mighty enemies.
If you’ve played a FromSoftware game, you’ll immediately feel at home with Elden Ring.
You have a stamina bar that dictates how much you can attack and dodge before having to back off and recharge. There are special save points (Sites of Grace) at which you can rest to restore health, level up, and manage spells. There’s a central currency, Runes, that you collect from enemies, and you’ll use this to buy weapons and increase your strength. You lose these Runes upon death, and will then lose them forever if you die again before you can reclaim them. At some point, you will lose 22,000 Runes after getting blown up by a fire zombie in a dark cave, and you will scream.
Even the game’s various classes and character builds feel based on Dark Souls archetypes, so if there’s a particular one you already like, you’ll have the advantage of knowing where to invest those precious skill points. Coward that I am, I opted for a sorcerer who’s handy with a blade in case of emergencies, but there’s plenty of room and opportunity to build out a character based on your very specific needs. I can’t wait to see what people come up with, especially when PvP invasions start to take off after launch.
In so many ways, then, Elden Ring is entirely familiar - and yet it still feels completely fresh. This is Dark Souls writ large, a brutal fantasy RPG on a scale we’ve never seen before. Elden Ring’s map is stupendously, alarmingly massive, but there’s purpose to every inch of its beautiful world.
During my time with the Closed Network Test several months ago (which offered up maybe 10% of what’s actually in Elden Ring), I worried that a large open world would work against FromSoftware’s traditionally tight approach to game design. My other favourite entry, Bloodborne, is a completely laser-focused labyrinth of perfectly designed interconnected levels. Elden Ring’s world is completely the opposite. And yet it’s this open-ended structure that propels Elden Ring to new heights.
Where previous FromSoftware games would guide you from one point to the other through their semi-linear design, Elden Ring immediately drops you on a small hillock overlooking a massive field. There’s a crumbling church to the north, a lush green forest to the east, and a drizzly grey beach to the south. What do you do? That’s up to you.
At no point does Elden Ring explicitly tell you where to go. Aside from a few Sites Of Grace which point you along a rough approximation of the ‘main path’ (ie, the route to the big story boss of each area), you’re on your own. You also have a map which you can use to mark down custom waypoints to travel to points of interest you’ve spotted, or to remind yourself to come back to a particular boss or puzzle. But there are no quest journals, and no overbearing fairies waiting to remind you where you need to be. This is adventure in its purest form.
I’ve no doubt some will take issue at the lack of direction, but The Lands Between is supposed to be enigmatic and unknowable. There’s a thrill in heading out into a huge world filled with danger and surprise that I haven’t felt since The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. In fact, I’d argue that Elden Ring captures the spirit of the original NES Zelda more successfully than Nintendo’s 2017 epic. Every second you explore is another second that a monster you’re completely unprepared for can leap out from a nearby cave and tear you apart, spurring you on to do better and fight smarter. Wrestling the world’s many secrets into submission (sometimes literally) is immensely rewarding. Every victory feels hard-earned in the best way, and curiosity is consistently encouraged. And hey, you can still use guides if you want once the game launches and have a great time seeing everything Elden Ring has to offer. Your choice.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about The Lands Between, considering its size, is how little time you’ll spend aimlessly wandering. Elden Ring is so densely packed with bosses, ruins, underground dungeons, hidden treasures, and so much more besides - most of which is completely optional. Where a lot of modern open-world games are content in repeating themselves with the slightest variations on the same tasks, collectibles, and battles, Elden Ring is staggering in its variety - and completely gorgeous to look at. I’ve fought formidable dragons atop crystal clear lakes, been chased by giant mutant crows through a plague-blighted land, chatted to a turtle wearing a fancy hat, and met several sticky ends in a scarlet-red swamp patrolled by forgotten knights. I know I’ve already mentioned several times just how humongous the world is, but I seriously cannot stress it enough: I was constantly and consistently in awe at the size of the lad.
At no point did I ever feel lost, or bored, or stumped. Instead of having a giant tree monster dropped on my head over and over again until I worked out how to beat it, I simply left and went to do one of several dozen different things. And just as I promised myself, I came back a few hours later, with better gear and more experience under my belt, and I wrecked that tree.
The complete and utter freedom to simply walk away from a boss you’ve been hitting your head against for an hour is so incredibly liberating, and the kind of thing I had no idea I needed from a Souls game until now. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice certainly touched on the idea, but Elden Ring has taken to it an entirely new level. You could spend 15 hours in the game’s first region alone, finding every last secret and piece of powerful gear, before heading to the area’s main boss as an over-levelled monster. Or you could go straight down the critical path and put yourself through the wringer. You can essentially choose how much of a masochist you want to be. Heck, I did some more exploring and found out it was entirely possible to sneak around the first castle and its two story bosses completely, so I can only imagine what we’ll see once speedruns really take off.
In many ways, Elden Ring is the most forgiving (I hesitate to say accessible) FromSoftware game to date. Even beyond having the freedom to go and toughen up elsewhere for the main bosses, there are plenty of ways to make the game ‘easier’ for yourself.
Paying careful attention to the game's environments can allow players of a stealthier persuasion to sneak through some areas and go for devastating back-strikes, for example. Others might enjoy hunting down the game's various Spirit Ashes, spectral summons that can be collected and trained to fight alongside the player like a particularly gritty take on Pokémon. And of course you can still call on friendly players (or the occasional NPC) to join you in battle, should the need arise. But if you insist on the kind of white-knuckle fights where you and you alone desperately chip away at a 50-foot-tall knight while you cling to your last pixel of health, you can do that too.
If I have one complaint to level at Elden Ring, it’s that Torrent - the game’s majestic steed - is a bit of a pain to use. Riding around the world on this handsome creature is great, but I found using it in combat was needlessly fiddly, especially when relying on melee weapons. Galloping around while attempting to stay locked on to a boss in the open world can get messy fast, and there were too many instances in which my horsey friend got stuck on a rock or a tree that I didn’t spot, giving the enemy a chance to get a good hit in. Gauging whether or not your own strikes will land as you speed towards an opponent is also incredibly clunky. Fortunately, there aren’t that many bosses where Torrent feels like an absolute requirement - and even those that do will no doubt be beaten without by the best of the community within a week.
Maybe the best thing I can say about this magnificent game is that even after nearly 45 hours spent in The Lands Between, I cannot stop thinking about it. As I sit here, writing these words, my mind keeps drifting back to the locked doors I’ve yet to open, the unmarked portions of the map I’ve not explored, and the bosses that are still waiting to be conquered. Elden Ring is a constantly surprising adventure that has taken FromSoftware’s tried-and-tested formula to delirious new heights. One of the best video games of the last decade, and an absolutely essential release, Elden Ring really does confirm that 2022 is off to an incredible start.
Pros: A mind-meltingly large open world absolutely filled with secrets, challenging bosses, ingenious dungeons, far more freedom than previous FromSoftware games
Cons: Difficulty options would do nothing to hurt this game, Torrent isn’t great
For fans of: Dark Souls, The Legend Of Zelda, Dragon’s Dogma
Elden Ring is available February 25 for PlayStation 5 (version tested) Xbox Series X/S, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Code for review was supplied by the publisher.
Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.