You’re allowed to break the rules of game design if you give people something they didn’t know they wanted. It’s the unwritten rule: when you have something truly unique and desirable, you get to throw out the rulebook.
Counter-Strike did this before the turn of the millennium. In a time of rocket jumps and instant respawns, here was a game that asked you to wait for a whole minute after dying. Some called obnoxious – but inherently tied to this wait was knowing that if you were the last one left, all eyes were on you.
Then along came Demons’ Souls, and it did the same thing. No pause button? Losing your progress after two deaths? Traps that troll you? Bare-bones tutorial? Understated and seemingly absent story?
You should hear the things my friends who teach game design said about Demon’s Souls before they “got it” and became Souls evangelists. I firmly believe the Souls formula brought enough to the table, and influenced modern triple-A combat enough, to be considered an era shift akin to the pioneers of new styles in the worlds of art or architecture.
Yet – Souls games weren’t for everyone. As the exemplar of “tough but fair” gameplay, it became a target for approachability and accessibility advocates. Why, so the debate raged, can’t Dark Souls have an easy mode?
Elden Ring is the refinement of that formula, with enough new and different elements that From Software felt a new franchise was warranted. While everyone was stuck in a false dichotomy of “hard vs easy,” From Software found a way to provide both hard and soft tacos. Like some kind of freaky game design horseshoe theory, it somehow leaned harder into its own style and ended up on the side of pleasing non-Souls players without compromising anything.
It all came full circle in, funnily enough, a game named after a Ring. The secret? Player choice. Under every rock and behind every tree in this open world is player choice.
What’s An Elden Ring?
First, the basics.
Elden Ring takes place in the Lands Between, a continent under a massive, glowing, magical tree known as the Erdtree. The source of all religion and power, the Erdtree is calling the “tarnished” to return to the Lands Between to challenge its lords and perhaps become one themselves.
For those unfamiliar with the mechanics of a Souls game, the main features of the combat system are its stamina bar and dodge roll. Everything costs stamina – attacking, blocking, rolling, etc, and you have to use it wisely. Rolling gives the player invincibility frames, allowing you to time a roll to avoid dangerous attacks.
Every weapon has its own moveset and attributes, which means in Elden Ring you’ll discover new playstyles with every new piece of gear, figuring out how to take on all the challenges in the Lands Between with your finite stamina and your finite invincibility frames.
With 93 hours under my belt and just shy of finishing the story, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this game. I think the ending I’m heading towards is the “quick and easy” ending, which is reachable after taking out less than a handful of bosses.
But boy do I sure have some thoughts. 93 hours of ‘em. So here goes.
The Dark Souls of Open-World Action RPGs
People don’t understand how big Elden Ring is. Even people playing Elden Ring don’t understand how big Elden Ring is.
In discussions with reviewers and content creators, you could tell that after 20 or so hours, they still thought the first few areas were “the game.” I bit my tongue and waited for their amazed messages.
You play a bit of Elden Ring, then you find a new area, then you check your map. Hmm. It’s zoomed out to accommodate the extra space. Then it zooms out again. Then again. Surely that must be it?
“Hey I’m in the northern part of the map, can you help me out?” a friend will say. When you sleuth where they’re at, it’s the northern part of early-game. Content creators start creating guides for keys and weapons and crafting, planning for the areas they know about.
They expect to be done shortly after launch. Again, I bite my tongue.
They’re forgiven, of course, because if the whole game was the starting area of Limgrave and the areas around it like Mistwood and Lurnia, that’d actually be fine. These areas are densely content-rich, and Souls fans would be happy with that. A lesser company would have sold these areas as Elden Ring and packaged the rest as two years’ worth of DLC.
Instead, your starting map just gets bigger and bigger. You move to a new area, it zooms out. You get teleported here and there, and it zooms out. You hear from a friend about a new area you’ve never heard of. Then you find out there’s an “underground” below everything you’ve been traversing. How big does this thing get?
The capital city of this map and its outskirts alone have more explorable space than any previous Souls game. And Elden Ring doesn’t lack for density of content.
It’s big y’all.
This allows for a huge level of player choice. There are very few points you’re forcibly funnelled through to progress (though some of the back paths take some finding). If you want to start a game and gallop straight to the important gear for some galaxy brain build you’ve concocted, you can do that.
The architecture is also amazing. No one really creates long staircases leading up to a momentous encounter like From. And there’s so much of it – I found myself marvelling at the scale. Someone had to make all of this.
Without spoiling anything, this really hits home when you find your way to the capital city. “Grand” doesn’t begin to cover it.
But what’s it like to play through?
The Old, and The New
Let’s lay it all out on the table. Many will call this Dark Souls 4, and they’re not wrong, as long as due credit is given to all that’s new here.
There’s an open world that facilitates more player choice (more on that later). There’s a day/night cycle that governs encounters.
To traverse the open world you have a mount, and mounted combat is surprisingly well-implemented.
There’s a stealthy crouch, and a jump – the latter of which is useful in combat as well as vertical exploration.
There’s additional summoning help in the form of reusable spirits in your inventory. There’s also the Ashes of War system which replaces the affinity/upgrade system.
There’s item crafting in the world, and there’s the Guard Counter system in combat, which gives you a counter-attacking option after you block with your shield.
So that’s actually quite a lot of new stuff. I feel comfortable with this being a new franchise.
Crucially, everything I’ve mentioned above works like a charm and is implemented well. None of them are duds. I don’t think people will be too excited about killing boars and eagles in the wild to craft arrows, but at the same time, I found myself in a few pinches where crafting some fire pots really helped me out.
With the open world and day/night cycle, expect to have vastly different experiences to your mates. You’ll be talking to your groups about what you saw and what they saw, often in the exact same place at the same time, but with different results because some obscure world condition was different for you.
Additionally, there’s an abundance of amazing enemy design, cool gear, and encounters that’ll troll the heck out of you. The undersung element of From games has always been the Japanese horror. Look forward to seeing Elden Ring‘s hand spiders when you close your eyes at night.
There’s so much cool gear in the game, everyone I spoke to wanted to try out multiple builds. Weapons and spells will tempt you towards a Faith or Int build, but in truth, you’ll need to play 10 times before you’ve tried everything.
In my pure Strength/Endurance playthrough, I just had to admire from afar when I picked up cool weapons like the coded sword, a Faith weapon with pure holy damage that goes through shields, with glowing, golden scripture instead of a blade:
Yep, Souls Games Have a Story
Here’s where Elden Ring really is Dark Souls 4. We’ve written before about how many of the individual story elements, as well as overarching themes, are a straight copy of Dark Souls.
Souls are now runes, bonfires are now points of grace, ashen ones are now tarnished, etc. Pariahs coming back to the land to vie to become a lord, old powers fading, manipulators trying to keep the status quo, somewhere there’s a furtive pygmy, yadda yadda. Miyazaki found his find & replace function, and now we have a 1:1 allegory for Dark Souls.
Happily, all of the NPCs and their quests and intrigues are all new, and there’s way too much there for me to have seen in a week. But I did find something interesting.
While previous games focused on you killing former lords for their souls – and there’s certainly a bit of that in Elden Ring – here, there seems to be another way of going about it. Some of the “shardbearers” you’re tasked with finding are simply the lord of their area, a simple boss fight. But some are hard to find and require completing a complicated quest beforehand.
One such quest involved investigating one of the original events that made the world into what it is today. It was essentially a lore enthusiast’s dream, and involved some great characters I wouldn’t normally have come across. This was more Sherlock than medieval combat.
I haven’t been able to complete any of these quests yet (they’re notoriously obtuse, concealing what triggers what) but if you can get story-crucial runes via quest rather than just fighting, this could be yet another great example of player choice in Elden Ring.
There also seems to be an Elden Ring version of Dark Souls’ covenants, but they’re more casual now. I was never asked to commit to a covenant. Simply do the required thing out in the world, bring the requested item to the covenant leader, and get a reward.
I Take It Back. There Are Heaps of Unique Bosses
In my last preview session, I had three straight bosses that were very close to ones we’ve seen in the Souls series before – so much so that I already had a feel for how to play vs their movesets. I thought this would still be okay, as long as there was a lot of content to make up for it.
I now think that was a bit of a fluke – there are repeated ideas, but I’ve seen so many unique, original boss fights in Elden Ring that repetition is a non-issue. There’s so much new here – aesthetically, environmentally, in the encounter design, and in the movesets.
Somehow From managed to find more ways to tease out attack animations to bait you into rolling too early and combos that catch you at the tail end of a roll or attack. The subtle audio/visual cues that signal which attack is coming are also expertly designed.
From has always been the leader in its class here – the many Soulslikes can only hope to come close to it – and it retains this crown in Elden Ring.
So What’s Bad About It?
There are two sets of armour in Elden Ring: the tanky armour with high physical protection and low magic protection, and the soft robes with high magic protection and low physical protection.
It seems From wanted to do away with the mix/maxing and finding armour with great weight-to-protection ratios, so it streamlined most armour sets into being… the same. Finding effective armour given its weight is not really a thing. This is kind of a shame because it eliminates some excitement and theorycrafting. No more Gold-Hemmed Black Set for you, tarnished.
There are some exceptions, and there’s a little more differentiation when it comes to attributes like “robustness” (which protects you from bleed and frost), but in Elden Ring armour should mostly be thought of as Fashion Souls. Pick whatever you think looks best, and if you’re up against a sorcerer, get out your comfy robes.
The camera can also be a bit wonky at times, especially if you’re locked onto an enemy and they fly past you, jerking the camera around. That’s annoying if you were holding up a shield to block more than one enemy, and now you’ve got your back to them. Close quarters exacerbates this.
Speaking of the lock-on, for some reason, there’s a delay between coming around a corner and being able to lock onto an enemy. This sometimes results in you pressing the button and it locking onto some distant enemy instead of your target. When your real target strafes, it becomes a problem.
These are small things that I can forgive. If I were giving a score, I wouldn’t even dock Elden Ring points for this. Again: when you provide something so unique, you get to break the rules.
But there’s one thing I can’t forgive. It’s objectively bad and needs to be fixed.
I played the PC version of Elden Ring, which suffered from consistent framerate slowdowns. Often in open-world areas, the framerate would get crushed, then the game would speed up a bit as it “catches up.”
Mostly, this wasn’t a problem. While exploring and picking flowers, I didn’t care that much. Even in most combat situations, it wasn’t a big deal.
Then I got into a hard boss fight.
This was one of those fights where every little thing matters and you kick yourself for not getting those last few hits in. It’s a late-game fight and I won’t spoil anything, but this sucker was tough.
The framerate issue had been there all game, but suddenly I cared. After spending an entire evening on one boss, I started to tilt. How am I supposed to perfectly time a dodge roll when the game is slowing down and speeding up?
There’s since been a patch that seems to have helped a little, but not solved the problem. Other reviewers I’ve spoken to on PC had the same issue. Perhaps they’ll patch this out completely, but I have to review what’s in front of me.
So that’s the main downer, and the element that keeps me from saying Elden Ring is damn near perfect. Here’s hoping they fix the framerate issues. Because I think Elden Ring has stumbled onto something really special with the number of options it gives players.
The Key Was Player Choice All Along
At first glance, the list of new features in Elden Ring looks like a standard list of good things you’d expect to be in an open-world game. But the way it’s all implemented – the mount, the open world, the new combat options, the upgrades and summons – it’s all about player choice.
This is the difference between having an open world for the sake of it and having an open world with a purpose.
Don’t like the main quest? There’s another option. Don’t like collecting two sides of the magic medallion? There’s another way. Don’t like the look of the two knights guarding the gate? There’s a back path.
Other reviewers I was talking to went east after the starting area, while I went north. We had completely different games, fought different bosses, found different gear, and saw different NPC stories. Elden Ring is several games within one game.
The same goes for combat. Summon other players, if you want. Summon NPCs or ghosts, if you want. Use range, be a tank, or focus on bleed or poison damage. Even within the realm of theorycrafting and min/maxing, there is an unprecedented level of choice.
An enemy camp is ahead. Do you stealth through the tall grass, taking them out one by one? Do you kite with arrows? Do you run straight through to the next bonfire? Do you kill them all while naked?
Elden Ring solved the difficulty debate. A difficulty “mode” is redundant when you can decide how difficult you want each encounter to be in the moment.
I’m not going to pretend this is Undertale or anything, allowing you to talk your way past bosses. This is still a game about fantasy medieval combat. But the path you take, how you overcome obstacles, and how you fight involves so much player choice that you will always find a way that is more authentic to yourself, and you will always have a different game than your friends.
It Goes the Other Way Too
The above are all ways that give you more options and make things easier, but believe me – if you want a challenge, it’s there.
Certain sections of this game felt like I was doing a level 1 run, even though I was around level 75 at the time. That’s because one or two hits would kill me, despite my Strength/Endurance build with the best armour in the game. I was basically Havel with a medium roll, and I was getting thrashed. Much like a level 1 run, I had to play perfectly.
Crucially, the vast, vast majority of these tough encounters are optional. Whether a dragon swoops on you out in the world, or you find an “evergaol” holding a boss, you have the ability to just ride on past.
There it is again. Player choice.
It’s not even about saying “nope.” Sometimes it’s just saying “nope for now.” I was in an exploring mood one night and rode past several encounters. Later I felt like some boss fights, so I warped back to those bonfires and took on four bosses in a row.
One endgame area has a particularly high NPM (Nopes Per Minute) count, with every 50 square metres or so literally hiding a new world boss. Just call me Leslie Knope, because I noped right out of there.
Good times. Player choice, y’all.
Is Elden Ring Good?
So what do you get when you take my favourite series, the perfect blend of action and RPG, and add a stellar amount of player choice to it?
Subjectively, I can’t see anything else competing with Elden Ring for Game of the Year, and I’m already comfortable calling it one of the Games of my Life. This is a proven formula that has been refined even further, and Elden Ring is an achievement in many ways.
There’s still so much I don’t know about the game, and it’ll take months (years?) of puzzling out the lore before we’ve really deciphered it. At that point, we can start talking about whether the lore is on par with Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls.
Likewise, it’ll take months to see how the PvP balance plays out, and if it’s on par with DS2 and DS3.
It’s a shame about the framerate issues on PC, and I didn’t really spot any George R. R. Martin, but never mind that. From Software has somehow managed to make a game that’s damn near perfect, fitting a Souls fan’s tastes perfectly and appealing to many new players at the same time.
So should you play Elden Ring? For now, dear player, there’s only one choice.