How Does ELDEN RING'S Open World Work, and How Did It Affect the Soulslike Formula?
When I first heard that ELDEN RING was going to be on an open-world map, I struggled with cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I was excited to see how the game would work in an open world and how it would affect the soulslike formula; on the other, I've always loathed open-world games, and I hoped it wouldn't ruin my experience with it. My worries carried throughout my experience first launching the game, and I was soon set free in the Lands Between.
As I peered over the horizon and saw the Tree Sentinel roaming, I wondered if this was a confirmation of my worries or not. You see, one of the things that scared me the most about the open-world setting was that there would be no structure to the entire mess. How would I know if I was supposed to fight one boss, and what would be the indicator of how strong I'd have to be for each one? Now that I've spent well over 50 hours in the Lands Between, I have an answer.
How does the open world work?
As you arrive at Limgrave and see the vast world set before you, it feels like the possibilities are endless...ly scary. With the promise of freedom and exploration, every corner of Limgrave (and thus, the Lands Between) feels like it could be a boss arena. That lake to the east? That could be one as well. Just further north? That's definitely an arena.
Scattered throughout the open world are several areas, dungeons, and icons to understand; all of them serve to help guide you on your quest to traverse the map. The first and most obvious change that ELDEN RING has due to its setting is the implementation of optional areas that have bosses at the end. Although FromSoftware is no stranger to optional bosses (who could forget the Nameless King from DARK SOULS III?), these completely optional areas are numerous and vastly outnumber the required ones in the game. The thing is, these actually aren't all optional.
The game's lack of quests and guidelines means that you have the opportunity to do anything at any given time, and always have the potential to stumble upon something new. Are you strolling around on Torrent's back? You might come across a dungeon for which there was no prior indication of its existence. Although this, in theory, makes for great exploration, in practice, it makes ELDEN RING hard to traverse. Each Site of Grace offers you a guiding grace that leads you to your next core boss, and this works mostly fine as a general "quest" guide (unless you count reaching Margit, The Fell Omen too early as an issue); the problem doesn't actually begin until you beat Rennala, Queen of the Full Moon. Upon defeating her, I felt guideless, as, after doing so, I was left in a library with seemingly no exit nor indication as to where I needed to go to be defeated by my next foe. Although Raya Lucaria Academy branches off to a whole new area, I still didn't know what to do once I'd reached the Grand Lift of Dectus. My only "guide" (the guiding grace) only served to tell me I needed to be in the area, not necessarily what I needed to do, nor how to proceed.
I was stumped, dumbfounded, and confused. Speaking to people at the Roundtable Hold net me absolutely no indication, as one of the NPCs hinted at going to Caelid. I spent my time roaming Caelid, thinking I'd find my next mandatory boss, only to hit yet another brick wall as I reached Redmane Castle and found that the festival hadn't started and to "come back later". And at the north of Caelid? A boss named Black Blade Kindred that I had absolutely no hope of defeating, and a sanctum that, once again, led to a dead end. Worst of all, it turns out that the festival (which I spent countless hours trying to trigger) led to an optional boss, and all of my time spent in Caelid was purely for — once again — optional content.
In order to progress through my main quest, I found out that I needed to find two halves of a medallion; one of them was in Limgrave and the other in Caelid, whilst the Grand Lift of Dectus was situated in Liurnia, a completely different region. I was expected to explore the entire regions that I had access to in order to find two “optional” areas in completely random places and with neither visual nor verbal tells on where to go. All of this only served to confirm my worst fears for ELDEN RING.
A lot of the optional areas for exploration feel crucial, as you'll either need to pass them to have enough levels to beat main-line bosses such as Margit, or you'll need to complete them to get items to progress, like the Grand Lift of Dectus.
The lack of quests and indicators work fine when playing through a linear world in games such as DARK SOULS and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, but it doesn't work nearly as well when the world is as large as the Lands Between.
How did it affect the soulslike formula?
A lot, both in good and bad ways.
On the one hand, it affected how vast the world feels and how fun it is to explore it; running around getting my arse kicked has never felt this good. I knew that I could leave, explore other areas, and tackle a challenging boss at a higher level, with better equipment, at a completely different time. This freedom meant that — despite this being a FromSoftware title, notorious for making people get stuck for hours on end — I could leave and return at a more suitable time. This ensured that I didn't fight the same boss hour after hour until my eyes were drier than the Atacama desert.
On the other hand, this sense of freedom meant I stumbled upon bosses and got my arse handed to me very often and also missed some optional bosses. I wanted to experience every boss whilst at their same level to ensure that I didn't just three-shot them, but my efforts were fruitless; I out levelled several of them. This fear led to me fighting several bosses, unsure of whether I was at the right level to be able to defeat them. This, paired with the constant feeling of being adrift at several points of the story, slowly killed my enjoyment of the exploration.
Hunting for bosses is endlessly fun, as you never know when and where you'll have your next boss fight. But not having a guideline to tell you how your level compares to the boss’ made it extremely difficult to continue enjoying that hunt. Sure, the open-world map made exploring so much better for the genre, and it ensured that there was an incentive to do so, but not knowing where to go to progress made the Lands Between look big. Too big.
This problem won't exist on subsequent playthroughs, as knowing what to do and when to do it will make that feeling go away; however, for the first playthrough, it made the game borderline unenjoyable in some aspects. I spent many an hour in search of where to go, wandering through the lands hoping for a stroke of luck that I'd stumble upon the right area.
If built upon and made more accessible, open-world maps can definitely belong in the soulslike genre. There is no greater feeling of fear than walking across random plains and suddenly boss music starts playing; that chill down your spine is inimitable. If done correctly, with more guidelines and information for the wandering player, open worlds will be the next innovation to come to the soulslike genre.