Elden Ring Is More Soulsy Than Souls, And We Ain’t Mad

Elden Ring Is More Soulsy Than Souls, And We Ain’t Mad

Over the weekend, we got a chance to play From Software’s new open-world fantasy game, Elden Ring. Naturally, thoughts rushed into my head like opening the floodgates of New Londo Ruins.

There’s a lot to this game. So we’ll go through all of that below. The good, the bad, and the grafted.

Oh, it’s Souls-y, you betcha. And everyone right now is adjusting their expectations accordingly. Me? I’m just fine with a Dark Souls 4. Just fine, indeed.

But given the messaging so far, I think people may have expected something different. So we’ll tackle that first, and just how similar the story is.

The World Might Be Mended

A knight sits next to a maiden, next to a point of grace, and they both reach out their hands to each other
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | Touch the demon inside me

I should be careful of reading too much into the small strip of land they gave us, and everything it contains. But this was the start of the game, with all its tutorials and mood-setting and establishing of the world.

So far, everything important seems to be a 1:1 with Dark Souls. Souls? They’re Runes now. Bonfires? Points of Grace. Undead? Tarnished. Fire keepers? Maidens. The First Flame? The Erdtree and Elden Ring.

So far, so expected. Even thematically there seems to be a lot of the same things playing out. An era of powerful beings is fading, allowing the Tarnished back into the land to prove themselves, gain grace, depose the former rulers and perhaps even become an Elden Lord.

It’s the story of every Dark Souls game, with the proper nouns changed.

Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls were known for being highly experimental, and we all watched as the sequels felt obliged to trot out the same Souls-y tropes. Not complaining, they were fantastic! But the switch in name to Elden Ring, in addition to From’s ventures into games like Bloodborne Sekiro, probably led some to expect something different.

On top of that, there are the expectations that come with having A Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin on board to help flesh out the world. Did the minds of Miyazaki and Martin genuinely land on the same thing Miyazaki’s been flogging for a decade? Or was Martin’s involvement more of a branding exercise?

Again, I should be careful not to read too much into this small section we were shown. It doesn’t really matter anyway, because I’m going to play the bajeezus out of this game, and there may be a saving grace with the story…

NPCs Are the Saviour

A knight with a shield and spear stands and talks to a merchant sitting on the floor, dressed in Santa clothing
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | “What’re ya buyin’?”

Though the overarching story is… “familiar,” there’s still much potential with the interwoven interactions of NPCs.

This has always been a highlight of Souls games, and my interactions with a samurai-like NPC impressed me. This is one of those NPCs you see at different points along your journey, and having played through more than once, I spotted different lines of dialogue depending on what I had done in the world.

Had I had fought the dragon, or not? Did I kill the NPC invader or run away? He would know and directly bring it up. Things I didn’t expect him to notice, he did. He was watching.

As for whether he would behave differently? He’s a hunter of invaders, so my guess is he’ll be pretty chill until I start bursting through the ephemeral doors of other players’ worlds like the Kool-Aid Man.

This seems like a very positive sign to me. I know how deep these decision trees have gone in previous Souls games, so I have an idea where From’s head is at. The potential of this kind of interactivity combined with an open world is easy to see.

So I think we’ll see some new, innovative storytelling after all — it’ll just come in the form of NPCs in the world.

But when it comes to the gameplay, the question of 1:1 parallels to Souls games becomes trickier…

What’s New in Elden Ring?

Two knights face each other with their shields up
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | Waiting for an attack so I can Guard Counter…

Gameplay is the section I expected to be most like Souls, especially given there’s a developer quote floating around that Elden Ring would be “more like Dark Souls than Dark Souls”, with more weapons, gear, etc.

It sure is tempting to make that call when you see it. Movement in the engine feels the same, and it’s hard not to notice all of the same gear and spells from before. It’s led many to call it Dark Souls with an open world.

But when you start tallying up all the little differences, the whole becomes not-so-little:

  • Open world
  • Day/night cycle
  • Ashes of War (these are effectively Weapon Arts and ascension in one, but now you get them as rewards for exploration and boss kills)
  • Much wider variety of NPC behaviour according to paths and timings in the open world
  • Mount and mounted combat
  • Stealth
  • Jump, and jumping attacks
  • Guard Counters (more on this later)
  • Consumable ashes to summon temporary NPC help
  • Crafting of consumables from low-value items gathered in the world

So that’s not just “Dark Souls in an open world,” it’s Dark Souls with… quite a lot of new features, actually.

We won’t get to all of it, but I’ll try to talk about the most important parts.

Elden Ring’s Combat System

A knight holds a torch out to his side after striking a beast man in front of him, lighting it on fire
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | Some enemies don’t like fire…

It’s good, y’all. It’s real good.

The genre of Soulslikes has produced some amazing stuff, and has pushed the boundaries in some ways, but when it comes to boss attack animations that expertly bait you into an early roll, catching you on the way up? There’s just no one better at it than From.

Some of the low-tier bosses in the small dungeons across the land are fun for one or two gimmicks, whereas the important bosses are intricately designed. The arcs of their swings, their timings, their animations that always seem to be on the cusp of letting loose, are worthy of a whole game design course in themselves.

Indeed you’ll study them, as you try to work out what can be blocked, what can be parried, what can be jumped over and what can be simply stepped under to save stamina. And of course the most important: When is it safe to attack?

Nearly all bosses have an “I’m now angry!” phase that increases their combo variety and changes up their timings. Multiple arms and “grafting” also seems to be a theme of the world, and From is clearly having fun with this concept as it allows unexpected attack vectors and combo timings from many-armed foes.

If you criticised From for too many fights that were either in the “big knight” or “big beast” categories, well, here’s a new one for you. Be careful what you wish for.

A boss towers over the player, introducing himself
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | Heavily…armed?

Taking on multiple enemies in the world at the same time will also give you another healing flask, which is a nice way to maintain sustainability, though bonfires are plentiful.

Another big new aspect of the combat is the Guard Counter: By pressing R2 after a block, you’ll hit back with a strong, quick attack. The timing requirement is much easier than a parry, or even a dodge roll.

The only downside here is if you trigger this halfway through a boss’ combo, you’re going to get wrecked. But if you can pick the last hit of a combo, and you’ve got the stamina, this is a safe way to hide behind your shield and get value.

I can see playstyles that pump strength and stamina, go for a tower shield and do this all game. It’s mostly low risk and high reward, and likely to make shield builds stronger. They were already strong to begin with, so I’m not sure this was a problem that needed solving.

But the move is fun to pull off, and perhaps that’s all that matters. It might also encourage some mind games and timing switch-ups in PvP, so we’ll have to see.

Riding Around the World of Elden Ring

The player knight rides on a horse through some green fields
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | Gathering things like berries is easy as you ride along on horseback

With an open world, naturally less effort can be spent on the finely crafted level design that From is known for. The jump button, too, actually limits From here.

I’m okay with this. In Elden Ring, this seems to play out as the occasional fine-tuned area with great level design (usually for areas with story importance), and the rest of the landscape dotted with points of interest like camps, caves, dungeons and natural landmarks that usually have a boss or a chest or some kind of event.

I found this really fun. I think if you presented a Dark Souls fan with a landscape full of small dungeons with different boss fights, they’d love you for it. They’d raise their arms and Praise the Fun.

That’s pretty much what Elden Ring is, and I ain’t mad.

The player knight rides along the beach, through the shallow water
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | There was no gameplay benefit to riding in the water, it was just pretty

It’s also telling that, as you read around the different accounts of those who’ve played so far, just about everyone seemed to have found some content, or done something, that others didn’t. That makes for great conversations, and the post-launch period will be a fun and interesting time.

You’re pretty much guaranteed to stumble on something your friends didn’t, and when they talk about what they stumbled on, you’re sure to be amazed.

My own playthrough finished with an encounter that anyone who persevered until the end experienced. A harder-than-usual enemy with multiple arms, each carrying weapons, thrashed around and made it hard to get a hit in.

Earlier I had seen a locked door, and I was sure that this enemy held the key. After a few deaths and charging back into the fray, I was proven right. It dropped the key, and I returned to the locked door. Surely this would be big. Perhaps even the highlight of this slice of the game.

I opened the door, and… “Come back soon for more Elden Ring.” Dammit, Miyazaki.

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