Elden Ring’s recent closed network test served as a fantastic sneak peek at From Software’s upcoming Dark Souls successor. There were menacing bosses to fight, unique dungeons to explore, and vague bits of lore to deduce, but the absolute best part of the whole experience was how I found my way to a small, uninhabited island that at first glance appeared inaccessible.
The first thing I did upon exiting Elden Ring’s tutorial cave was beeline for the nearest cliff. I wanted to get a look at the sun-soaked beach shown off in early footage and screenshots, if only because that kind of environment was so wildly different from anything I’d seen in From Software’s previous Souls games. But as soon as my feet touched the sand, my attention was quickly drawn elsewhere: an island off the coast.
Naturally, my new mission was to get to that island.
As I edged closer to the lapping waves, however, I realised there were no land bridges connecting the island to the main continent. What greeted me instead was a gaping, underwater maw that I knew from previous experience would have no problem swallowing me into its briny depths. Souls characters are notoriously bad swimmers, you see, and Elden Ring also failed to gift its hero, a mysterious figure known only as the Tarnished, with this important skill.
Dejected, I trotted off in search of adventures elsewhere, still unsure if the island was solely meant to be environmental window dressing, or was an actual place players would be able to visit at some point. Maybe, I told myself, it was even a preview of coming attractions outside the scope of the limited demo. In any case, I filed the island and its potential treasures away in the back of my mind as I snuck, spelled, and stabbed my way through other areas.
My wanderings brought me to a beachside cavern known as the Dissenter’s Cave. In addition to its open world’s vast surface, Elden Ring’s environment is dotted with small dungeons begging to be spelunked. Dissenter’s Cave, whose outside entrance gave way to a pitch-black nothingness, seemed like the perfect place to test out my new torch. I equipped the light and boldly stomped into the darkness, the sound of my Tarnished’s armour ringing off the stone and no doubt alerting any nasties waiting within.
The cave itself was, sadly, unremarkable. I dispatched some vaguely human creatures en route to defeating the pair of Demi-Human Chiefs that gave them marching orders and found myself in another, long tunnel. The rocky corridor eventually led me back outside to what I assumed was another section of the same beach. I spun around, scanning the horizon for some hint of my location before finally opening my map to get my bearings. That’s when it hit me: I was on the island.
Yep, during my short trip through the cave, I had somehow gone under the bay and been coughed up on the very spit of land I previously thought was unreachable.
I slowly made my way up a nearby hill leading to the only point of interest on the island, a small chapel that my map told me was the Church of Dragon Communion. The name, I soon found out, was a fitting one when I came face to face with a dead, decaying dragon corpse. That said, despite the terrible status of the creature’s once-magnificent form, a tepid flame still lingered within its mouth. Behind the crumbling building, I found a spell called Dragonfire. My stats weren’t quite up to the task of using it myself, but I knew from other footage that this miracle imbued the user with a dragon’s fire breath.
With nothing more to see on the island, I paid my respects to the dragon and traipsed back through the cave to the mainland.
Elden Ring is full of little moments like these. But while I agree that comparisons to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are totally apt and justifiable, it seems like From Software is more interested in iterating on the open-world format rather than simply using it to paper over the Dark Souls formula that still forms the game’s foundation. Just like my accidental discovery of the island, I often found myself stumbling on beautiful vistas and compelling encounters during the Elden Ring demo when I was least expecting them.
The journey through Elden Ring is less about seeing an interesting landmark on the horizon and ignoring all else as you gallop toward your custom waypoint, and more about organically wandering a world that’s gone through several cycles of feast and famine long before you encroached on its borders. Elden Ring made me feel like a traveller with maybe too much confidence in his ability to navigate a foreign land, something I’ve never felt in another open-world game. It’s the most wonderful, in-over-your-head sensation, and I can’t wait to experience it again when the game is finally playable from beginning to end.