Up until Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, FromSoftware’s games had a specific pattern. They used the same recipe of putting the player in a diverse world filled with menacing adversaries and engrossing NPCs, along with the more or less similar pattern of dying and then living again to fight another day. One has to wonder if at some point this long-running mechanic would eventually become trite and FromSoftware would have to do away with its “try, try, and try again until you succeed” approach with video games. After all, there is only so much one can do with a tried and tested formula before apathy sets in.
But then, FromSoftware announced Elden Ring, an open world Souls-like game. To be honest, I was skeptical about this approach. Initially, Elden Ring seemed to me like Dark Souls 4 but set in an open world. But after spending dozens of hours with the game, my skepticism was washed away. Even though Elden Ring does what every Souls game before it has done, it also manages to do that in an open world that generates a quenchless desire to explore every possible nook and cranny. The end result is an inconceivable adventure, an experience unlike anything in any of FromSoftware’s previous works.
Games developed by FromSoftware have an unusual way of telling their stories, which is one of the many reasons why their experiences stand out amongst the competition. Elden Ring is no different in this regard. The Lands Between, which is the setting of the game, are filled with a mysterious and an engaging NPC cast, as the game weaves an intricate tale of the player embarking on a treacherous journey to restore the titular Elden Ring. There is a close association of the main story beats with the side quests, and they all interconnect in an alluring way to tell a tale that will hold your interest consistently. As expected, most of the lore is told in an indirect manner, whether it be through conversations with NPCs, descriptions of items, or through exploring the world. Yes, the world of Elden Ring “speaks” to the player, not in an explicit way of course, but thanks to FromSoftware’s brilliant art style and its composition of dark, orchestral, and eerie music, the environments have a story of their own to tell. It’s up to the player to connect these beads and derive the narrative. This method of storytelling is what adds to Elden Ring’s world-building and makes the game a joy to explore. Yes, not much has changed in the way FromSoftware tells its stories, but that can never be a bad thing given how expertly it’s been done here.
"Even though Elden Ring does what every Souls game before it has done, it also manages to do that in an open world that generates a quenchless desire to explore every possible nook and cranny. The end result is an inconceivable adventure, an experience unlike anything in any of FromSoftware’s previous works."
The open world is easily one of the biggest highlights of Elden Ring. Featuring a massive map that is divided into different locations, the world has all the ingredients that FromSoftware is known for. From secret locations and tunnels to dungeons and ruins, from towering castles to dilapidated residences, Elden Ring is home to some of the most eerie, dark, and depressing environments in the medium. However, what makes the open world truly stand out is that each and every location rewards you with something. In my travels across The Lands Between, I found hidden items, side quests, merchants, and what have you. If you reach a location and if you have the will to brave the dangers within, you will always be rewarded for your efforts. The game creates a sense of curiosity to visit these locations, so if you reach a ruin, for example, you will be compelled to go inside and find out what secrets it holds. The critical path, barring the open world structure, remains similar to what we had in previous games, but the side quests can take you across the map, too. Both, as expected from a Souls game, are excellently designed, and the experience is elevated with each new tidbit, thanks again to the open world structure of Elden Ring.
Elden Ring’s open world also benefits from its vertical design. There are underground locations, which are more or less as big as the ones found in Dark Souls 3, and it’s all smartly connected to the main map. Level design has always been one of the strongest elements of FromSoftware’s Souls series, but in Elden Ring this has been notched up to an altogether different level due to the sheer size of its world. Legacy Dungeons are where we see most of this excellent design in action, but unfortunately, some of the smaller dungeons have a samey feeling to them. This is a clear case of reused assets and implementing some sort of a procedural process to develop these dungeons. Given that there are so many of them in the game, I understand the need to use the shorthand approach, but some players may find issues with its aforementioned shortcomings.
As noted previously, Elden Ring features a massive open world, but thankfully you have Torrent at your disposal for faster navigation. Using this mount is ideal for collecting resources scattered across the world and also to reach the game’s various Sites of Grace.
Despite having such an enthralling open world to explore, however, FromSoftware have missed the opportunity to make it a bit more emergent than it already is. In my time with the game, I didn’t see any impact of the time of day on enemy patrols, for instance. So, even if it’s day or night or if there is a change in weather, enemy patrols use the same routes. It also doesn’t seem that we can lure enemies to attack one another. I did come across a few such encounters, but those were clearly scripted and would happen repeatedly every time they were reset at a Site of Grace. To be fair, there are a few bosses, enemies, and NPCs encounters can only be triggered during a specific time, but in my playtime, there were only a few such cases. The game also lacks an activity log of sorts that would have helped in tracking activities and points of interest in the world. It’s easy to get lost and forget things in a world as big as this, but I can’t help but feel like the inclusion of some sort of tracking feature would have made exploration even smoother.
"From secret locations and tunnels to dungeons and ruins, from towering castles to dilapidated residences, Elden Ring is home to some of the most eerie, dark, and depressing environments in the medium."
Combat and player strategy in Elden Ring, meanwhile, feel like an evolution rather than a revolution. The core system is very similar to the Souls series, but FromSoftware have included some smart enhancements to make the combat feel more suited to the open world. The game borrows stealth elements from Sekiro, and given how basic it was in that game, one could easily dismiss its inclusion in Elden Ring. However, I found myself sneaking around a lot in the game, thereby avoiding combat whenever I can. Granted, its use is limited only in specific situations, but it feels natural rather than like a system that has been tacked on, and several times I found it a viable strategy in dealing with enemies. There is also a dedicated jump button (which, by the way, also helps in platforming), allowing the player to take on flying enemies and the like. It’s a small addition that makes a noticeable difference in gameplay. And then there is crafting. I mean, open world games and crafting always go hand in hand, right? Players will collect resources from various flora and fauna that are scattered across the world, and they can be used to craft crucial items like arrows, healing potions, firebombs, and much more. Its inclusion encourages exploration and it helps when you are stuck in a no- win situation, like getting badly poisoned.
Elden Ring offers in-depth weapons customization through a new system called as Ashes of War. When equipped, these give special abilities to your weapon, such as lightning, intelligence scaling, damage negation, and a ton of other skills. Using Ashes of War can make a noticeable difference and selecting the right one in the right situation can be critical. In one of my fights with a boss, using the right Ashes of War made it a cakewalk. And finally, we have horseback combat, which I found to be a complete blast. Fighting against the Sentinel Tree whilst I rode Torrent full speed ahead as I stabbed my spear into its chest was a gratifying experience. Other than that, I also found it a great addition for traversal and, well, running away from enemies. Ah, the grand escape!
Speaking of bosses, Elden Ring potentially has one of the largest rosters of bosses in any Souls game. However, thanks to the game’s open world nature, their difficulty seems to be a bit more balanced compared to, say, something like Sekiro. Make no mistake though- these encounters are still tough as nails, and they will take a bit of a trial and error approach if you want to take them out. Bosses are divided into several types- ones that you may encounter during your travels, others may spawn in a dungeon or in a side quest, and the ones that you need to defeat if you want to move ahead in the critical path. What makes bosses so interesting this time around, besides their intimidating move sets and phases, is their visual design and how well they gel with the environments. FromSoftware has poured many details in their moves, armor, appearances, and even weapons. Heck, this also holds true for your average enemy. Elden Ring’s attention to detail is just outstanding.
"Elden Ring can be best described as the accumulation of everything that FromSoftware has learned in the last decade or so. Barring a few issues, it is an exceptional achievement in open world design. Very few games create that curiosity within players to explore their worlds so successfully, and Elden Ring is one of those games."
I played Elden Ring on a PC. It has a decent suite of options ranging from global illumination quality to depth of field, and I was able to run the game at 4K and 60 FPS on my PC with an RTX 3080 Ti, Ryzen 9 5900X, and 32GB of memory. Unfortunately, I faced occasional dips in frame rate, and the game would just lag. It’s a shame because Elden Ring looks gorgeous, thanks to its extensive use of volumetric and lighting effects.
In closing, Elden Ring can be best described as the accumulation of everything that FromSoftware has learned in the last decade or so. Barring a few issues, it is an exceptional achievement in open world design. Very few games create that curiosity within players to explore their worlds so successfully, and Elden Ring is one of those games. I don’t know what the future holds for FromSoftware and whether they will continue to make open world Souls-like games, but if they can literally pioneer a whole new genre, then they may very well elevate the open world genre, which has been afflicted so commonly by bloat and blandness, as well.
So, yes, it’s best you “prepare to die again.”
This game was reviewed on PC.
Excellent open world design; Huge map that is interesting to explore; Solid combat mechanics; Excellent soundtrack; Balanced difficulty; Boss encounters are intimidating as always; Attention to detail is superb.
PC performance issues; Some dungeons feel repetitive; The game needs an activity tracker.