The open-world formula saw a major rise during the last generation (or, I suppose, the current one due to the still-rampant console shortage), to the point where it became the norm when it came to game design. One of the obvious downsides of this rise is the inevitable stagnation that comes from iterative design and the oversaturation of the market; everything became an open-world, no matter how ridiculous it sounded or how unsuitable it might have been. While that did work in some games’ favour (see Halo Infinite), the overwhelming majority fell into the nebulous aether of mediocrity (see Ubisoft’s entire catalogue).
All of this brings us to the announcement of Elden Ring, an ambitious collaboration between revered Souls series developer FromSoftware and just-as-revered A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) author George R. R. Martin. What was originally pitched as Dark Souls on a massive scale has finally graced us with a truly open-world take on FromSoftware’s Souls-borne genre, and it has set the gold standard for open-world game design in the ninth generation of gaming.
One of FromSoftware’s most prominent talents is in its environmental design — not only in the always-captivating progress that’s inherent in Metroidvanias, but in the way it manages to play with environmental storytelling. The Lands Between are dripping with atmosphere and detail, littered with little nuggets of lore and glimpses into the lives of the people who live there. It’s an impressive feat for any game, let alone something as grand as Elden Ring. The world feels absolutely massive; the playable area is honestly so big it’s almost ridiculous, but it also just feels so much bigger than what we see on our journey. Much like the worlds explored in previous Souls titles (and Bloodborne), The Lands Between is a kingdom in the midst of its downfall. The difference here is that due to the game’s sheer size, FromSoftware has been able to add myriad details that only deepen our understanding of the world we’re travelling through.
Take, for example, the early-game trek to Castle Morne, which is prompted by an NPC you meet on the side of the road, surrounded by corpses. Following the road further, we see an area littered with more corpses and a group of strange winged, humanoid creatures hacking away and feasting upon them. What seems like a typical open-world encounter quickly takes form once you reach the castle: those bodies were the castle’s residents, who died when those creatures – the Misbegotten – rose up in revolt and forced the residents to run for their lives. This is a more obvious example of how storytelling has transitioned into open-world design, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg; FromSoft has managed to squeeze intense moments of revelation into the most innocuous of events, like the end of Ranni’s quest line that conveys everything you need to know in a single frame. It’s truly amazing.
I could go on and on about how Elden Ring is a masterclass in the art of “showing and not telling”, because it is — not just in terms of its world design but in terms of the much more digestible premise and increased focus on NPC stories — but I don’t want to give too much away. In the interest of not spoiling the game’s grander moments, of which there are many, and also moving on to discuss the actual gameplay, I’ll just say that The Lands Between is a world that will captivate you if you let it, and if you do, it’ll reward you generously for your time. That’s representative of the game’s core design as well: exploration is rewarded with useful items, gear and cool nuggets of mechanical and artistic creativity. And it’s all accomplished without map markers, intrusive UI or microtransactions, which just makes Elden Ring’s stellar combat stand out even more.
There’s really never been as much mechanical diversity in a FromSoft title as there is in Elden Ring, which features elements from across the studio’s illustrious library to create a compelling gameplay loop that challenges you, sometimes unfairly, to get better and stronger until you can earn the reward: that feeling of euphoria you get when you see “ENEMY FELLED” stretching across your screen. The pillars that made the Souls series’ combat so memorable are all present, refined to a mirror shine with almost limitless build diversity. This does, however, come at the detriment of the “pure” builds. Players using pure strength builds, for instance, will find that enemies and bosses will counter more and more of their offensive and defensive options as the game wears on, almost forcing the use of magic in order to increase utility and situational effectiveness. This isn’t to say that pure strength or pure magic builds aren’t viable, though. They definitely are — they’ll just take a bit more persistence and mechanical skill on your behalf in order to make them work.
There’s really no way to sell just how good the combat is in this medium, though, because so much of it just comes down to feel. You might know what I’m referring to if you’ve ever played a game that tries to imitate a Souls-borne game, but there’s something about the heft of every sword swing, or the split-second decision making where a single input could change the carefully-crafted pace of a dance-like boss encounter that makes FromSoft’s efforts unique… and it’s something that can’t be replicated. Suffice it to say that Elden Ring’s combat is as satisfying as it is challenging, and well worth the effort for the eventual payoff.
With all of that being said, we haven’t even touched on the new inclusions like Torrent, your trusty spectral steed who adds a whole new dimension to world traversal and combat. You start your journey through The Lands Between on foot, taking what feels like forever to get from place to place, which really helps you appreciate Torrent once you’ve got him — all of a sudden you can traverse this monstrous open world at an invigorating pace, and reach areas (and items) that you wouldn’t have been able to reach without him. It’s a truly freeing experience that encourages you to think about each biome a little differently than the vast horizontal planes found in other games of this ilk. On top of that, both you and certain enemies now have mounted options to add yet another layer to the game’s combat sequences.
There’s also a stealth mechanic that’s somewhat lifted from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It’s not as fleshed out as Sekiro’s — given that it boils down to a simple crouch that decreases your chances of getting enemies’ attention — but it’s effective enough, serving as a way to avoid encounters that might be too difficult, or just too much effort. It also helps with starting encounters too: you can use it to get in for that early backstab before the fight begins in earnest, or to thin the ranks of enemy encampments without having to spend extra time luring them out in a comical fashion.
That’s not to say that Elden Ring’s combat is perfect, though: there are some instances of unfairness, even from a studio that’s known for making really, really difficult games. Some of the enemies are a bit much, with certain attacks tracking the player character far more than they should and others whose hitboxes expand well past the player character, making it impossible to dodge or even plan for. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether these issues are intentional, or just bugs or oversights. A solid example of this is the Crucible Knights, recurring enemies that are tough but overall fun to fight… until they turn into angels of death who can launch a ranged, drill-like attack from their lances that can phase through walls and result in a death I never saw coming. Intentional, or…?
Elden Ring’s boss fights are some of the most compelling fights in not only FromSoftware’s history, but in gaming as a whole. The further you get into the game, the wilder and more creative the bosses get. Some, like Renalla, may feel a little gimmicky, but the spectacle of those fights often makes up for any lack of mechanical complexity. Then there’s Starscourge Redahn, one of the shardbearers us lowly Tarnished are tasked with hunting down… and an example of FromSoft pushing ambition to its limits. His battle is so cool to watch and play in the moment, but FromSoft went so far with his difficulty that it had to nerf him in a post-release update. There’s almost an absurd amount of different boss battles in Elden Ring — some optional, some not — and they’re all well and truly worth your time.
In reviewing a FromSoftware release, you’d be remiss if you didn’t take a moment to talk about the game’s difficulty. I’ve mentioned already that Elden Ring, like the rest of FromSoft’s catalogue, is incredibly challenging and occasionally somewhat unfair. That’s intentional. The difficulty might be a bit much for some, and that’s fair enough, but it’s never difficult just for the sake of difficulty. Sometimes it can lean into the realm of absurdity — see Redahn before the nerf — but it’s a carefully curated form of difficulty that helps to pace your progression through the world. If a fight feels like it’s impossible you can always just turn around and walk away, only to return later in the game when you’re stronger and, more importantly, smarter. To once again reference the Souls-borne imitators, you’ll often find these games to be extremely difficult in a way that frustrates, because the games are made to be hard for the sake of being hard; that’s because their developers have imitated the genre without genuinely understanding it. It’s a common misconception that Souls-borne games need difficulty options, because this is the way the developer intended it; sure, accessibility options that allow you to customise the play experience to your individual needs and desires is one thing, and I wish there were more of those, but that’s wholly separate to making a game easier.
Performance is another sticking point. Across all versions of the game, the frame rate is inconsistent, with noticeable dips into the low 40s in performance mode on consoles and stutters on PC — even on high-end rigs. Although it’s ultimately still playable and not inconsistent enough to ruin the overall Elden Ring experience, it is quite disappointing to see performance issues originating from a studio that should have learned its lesson well back when the original Dark Souls released.
All things considered, Elden Ring is a superb feat of game development. It’s so clearly a labour of love and that shines through in almost every aspect of the game. From the story and setting all the way to tiniest nuances of the play experience, everyone at FromSoftware brought their absolute A-game; the result is one of the most humbling displays of talent the industry has seen in a long while, and a game you should absolutely be buying right now if you haven’t already. It’s this year’s first real must-have experience.
Elden Ring is more than one of the best games of 2022, it’s a must-have experience and a contender for one of the best games ever made.
Ty reviewed Elden Ring using an Xbox Series X code purchased at retail.