It’s difficult not to envision the last three years as a fever dream as you take your first, anxious steps into Elden Ring and take stock of your surroundings. Your trip begins in a tiny, subterranean cavern, far from the huge open-world atmosphere that was promised. There’s no horse, no beautiful scenery — just you, your blade, and the darkness. As you reach the cave’s massive stone entrance, you get the feeling that something big is about to happen, that something exceptional is just around the corner. I felt all of this and more when I walked through that door. My expectations were higher than they’d ever been, and I had no idea Elden Ring was going to crush them all.
What is it about Elden Ring that makes it so unique? The Lands Between, the game’s open world. This is without a doubt the most significant alteration to the Souls concept that FromSoftware has introduced: previous titles had some leeway in terms of which places you investigated first, but that’s nothing compared to Elden Ring’s massive expanse. In terms of progression, there is no set order in which you must defeat the game’s major bosses, so you can explore the globe at your leisure.
The Lands Between’s most amazing feature is how sharp and refined it feels. Elden Ring’s environment feels precise and surgical, in contrast to the bloated nature of many open-world games nowadays – saturated in endless collectables and enormous, empty regions. There are plenty of dark tunnels to spelunk in and trap-riddled tombs to avoid rolling through for those willing to venture off the usual road, but what’s truly fascinating is that each of these discoveries comes with a prize. Every seemingly benign hole may conceal secret traders, amazing boss fights, and strong artefacts – in short, something worth seeing – making exploration of Elden Ring’s beautiful world even more interesting.
That’s not to imply FromSoftware has abandoned its heritage, which, of course, include regularly pounding you to death in more linear, well-crafted levels. Huge heritage dungeons dot the landscape across Elden Ring: self-contained places so well-done that they feel like entire Dark Souls games in their own right. Most adventurers (including myself) will be taken to the massive Stormveil Castle as their first dungeon, a gloomy castle that ranks alongside Robert Smith breaking open a can of Monster Energy with Edgar Allan Poe on the gothic-o-meter. It’s breathtaking to behold, and getting through here took me hours due to its hostile inhabitants.
The entire time, I was struck by how intellectual the dungeon was. There are few dead ends in this castle: by the time I stepped through the final fog gate to face the castle’s final boss, I’d spotted numerous additional branching passages that could’ve delivered me here much faster (or safer) if I’d probed in other directions.
This held true in my second legacy dungeon, a lovely magical academy where game designer and FromSoftware CEO Hidetaka Miyazaki poses a hypothetical question: what if Hogwarts received a failing OFSTED rating? These heritage dungeons have the feel of a Souls game – try and try again, and you’ll eventually make it – yet are just as large and dense as entire portions of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, albeit webbed with much more verticality and exploring space.
These dungeons are home to some nasty bosses, as you might imagine. I’ve already talked about how Margit abused and humiliated me, but since then I’ve done some soul-searching and come up with a new philosophy: the art of Fucking Things Up With The Uchigatana. Since the first Dark Souls, the bleed-inducing katana has been my favourite weapon, and the Samurai class lets you use it right away. I’d want to say that this changed my luck with employers considerably – and it’s partly true; I made quick work of Margit – but that would be an injustice to the other hours of blood, sweat, and tears spent behind fog gates that are now burnt into my retinas.
The bosses in those heritage dungeons were, on average, far more difficult than any of the optional bosses I encountered elsewhere in the game. That’s not a knock — the game’s shockingly numerous open-world bosses were nonetheless tremendously inventive and a masochistic pleasure to die to – but the sheer spectacle of these “primary” monsters deserves a lot of credit. Each one I’ve battled has had dramatic turns that remind me of the first shocking (ha) time I watched Smough reduce Ornstein’s body to mushy paste, and magnificent cinematography – something FromSoftware nailed with Sekiro – makes these moments strike like a sledgehammer.
On the matter of these difficult boss fights, Miyazaki has spoken extensively about how FromSoftware has reconsidered their infamous proclivity for difficulty. To cut to the chase, this hasn’t made things any easier for the studio’s legendary bosses. In fact, I’d venture to argue that the standard heritage dungeon bosses were, on average, more difficult than many Souls bosses. However, Miyazaki keeps his word – while the boss fights and dungeons in Elden Ring aren’t necessarily simpler, there are more options for players to overcome their difficulties.
You can use necromancy to call for help in particularly challenging locations, summoning the souls of long-dead humans and beasts to fight for you. There are less of FromSoftware’s weird requirements for online play, and inviting other players to assist you no longer implies remaining human. Most locations, especially in the open world, are meant to allow a stealthy approach, and there were a few tricky situations where I chose to cautiously creep through rather than indiscriminately battering everything in sight. As a result, Elden Ring isn’t just more accessible; it’s also a stronger, more robust game because of its ability to adapt to a variety of conditions.
The complexity of Elden Ring has been reduced, but the plot has been made surprisingly cohesive for a FromSoftware game. The characters of George R.R. Martin may have been twisted beyond recognition for boss fights, but the world’s rich history — a tapestry of medieval warfare, dramatic marriages, and audacious power moves – still bears the author’s bloody handprints. I’m sure there’s still plenty of lore for more ardent fans to pore over, but it’s nice to get so much insight into the world from talking to the Lands Between’s friendlier citizens instead of having to rely on a YouTuber spending an hour delving into the lore implications of a single item’s description.
Attempting to summarize all of Elden Ring’s accomplishments, as well as pinpointing why it seems so unique, is a mammoth undertaking. There’s a beautiful open environment, and FromSoftware has made some ground-breaking adjustments to the game’s difficulty, but that’s not all. Sure, there is now a story to follow, and yes, the boss fights may be among FromSoftware’s best. But that isn’t the end of it. Elden Ring is Miyazaki’s magnum opus, not because of any single enhancement, but because of the totality of its elements. It’s been tens of hours since I first entered the Lands Between, and I’m still amazed at how powerfully it delivers.
Elden RingElden Ring
- Beautiful open world
- Great combat
- Rewarding exploration
- Epic world-building
- Just beware there’s plenty of body shock horror
- Enemy AI isn’t too bright
- Rough camera
$59.99 at Amazon
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