ELDEN RING Review
The first time I saw ELDEN RING's announcement, my heart was in my throat. I'd mourned the loss of the DARK SOULS franchise; I'd squeezed just about every ounce of enjoyment I could from both DARK SOULS III and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. So as the release date for the game approached, I stood by in anticipation for months on end. I try not to hype things up so as not to cause unrealistic expectations, but when I booted up ELDEN RING, I felt physically nauseous. Could the newest FromSoftware title wow me and meet the expectations set by all that came before it?
I'll start by mentioning that ELDEN RING is an amalgamation of the core gameplay mechanics present in the DARK SOULS franchise mixed with a bit of Sekiro, with all of it built upon in an open-world map. This is to work as a frame of reference for any veterans of the aforementioned titles and get it out of the way, as I do not enjoy drawing comparisons between games when making previews and reviews since it does not work for newcomers to the franchises. As such, this will be the last time I mention either of these two throughout the review, as ELDEN RING deserves to be graded for what it is as a game, and not what it is against others.
When it comes to storytelling, nothing holds a candle to FromSoftware's poetic (and riddle-filled) lore, and ELDEN RING is no exception. A short opening cinematic will vaguely explain to you what your role as a Tarnished is in the Lands Between, with a brief introduction to several of the bosses that did not strike quite as hard as I believe was intended due to lack of context. Although comprehensible lore can be scarce to find throughout ELDEN RING, it continues to be almost a tradition for fans to band together and figure out the clues for what the story entails; generally, understanding the lore is almost as harsh a task as finishing the game.
The beginning sequence before the tutorial (the pre-tutorial?) seemingly has no purpose, as it will pit the player against a mid-game mob named the Grafted Scion which will three-shot them before even explaining any controls. Thankfully, I was already used to this FromSoftware quirk where a seemingly-unbeatable boss appears in the tutorial; however, I can see how this would dishearten any newcomer to the franchise.
After trying (and failing) to defeat the Grafted Scion, I was presented with a short tutorial and another boss (this time, significantly easier to beat) before I was set free into the open world... only to find another boss. At this point, it is worth mentioning that ELDEN RING has a whopping 83 bosses, most of which have their own unique tactics and models, but that means that sometimes you'll stumble upon boss after boss. Although I don't personally find this decision grating, with the notorious difficulty of these encounters in FromSoftware titles, I can see how this will be frustrating for some players. Facing three bosses within my first hour of gameplay was a perfect showcase of exactly what I should expect from ELDEN RING thenceforth; it was something I was personally excited to overcome.
The boss quality in the game can vary greatly, as some of them serve more as a mini-boss to a section rather than a fully-fledged boss. All of the more significant bosses, which are the ones that display "Great Enemy Felled" once they are defeated, were an absolute joy to fight; although some were a bit for my skills (as a veteran FromSoftware player), I am appreciative of the lower difficulty in them, as it has made a FromSoftware title more accessible. The other bosses (we'll call them the mini-bosses for clarity) felt far more lacking as their attacks were limited to only two or three moves, making them predictable. It's worth mentioning that this isn't a flaw within the game, as immensely-complex bosses scattered throughout the open world would be far too overwhelming and difficult to handle; splitting bosses and mini-bosses was a great way to balance the difficulty spikes of the game.
Now for one of the biggest questions I had when I stumbled upon ELDEN RING's "open-world" tag: How is this going to work in a soulslike game?
ELDEN RING doesn't necessarily fix the problem where you can simply stroll into an endgame area but instead tries to guide you with some lights that come out of the Sites of Grace (save points, more on that later), guiding you towards the next boss in the area; keyword "area". All of these rays of light will guide you to the next major boss, but if you wander outside of the region in which you're supposed to be, they'll guide you to the boss in that one instead. Although the system sounds complex and needless, I was fond of it. It allowed me to jump into whatever area I wanted and then follow that light to my inevitable demise, allowing for both a "structured" playthrough and the haphazard freedom of exploration offered by open worlds.
Aside from the Sites of Grace guiding you to the crucial bosses in the game, you can venture off the beaten path and explore around the open world and find dungeons — small areas in-game with thematic enemies and a boss. For example, you'll find a crypt filled with skeleton mobs and a skeleton boss, or a place with animated imp structures and a clockwork cat. These areas are generally quite small, offering a reprieve from your main quest and encouraging exploration by giving tons of runes (experience and currency) and unique items. Being able to run free and find new dungeons was very fun; I knew at the end I would not only be rewarded with a lot of runes, but also they were easy enough and a break from the higher difficulty of the main story. That said, the lack of quests and general guidance on what to do felt a bit too empty for my taste; it wasn't so much that there wasn't anything to do, but rather that I didn't have quests telling me to do so. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but rather a different approach to the open-world genre, as the lack of guidelines offers more freedom to explore at your heart's desire since it never tells you where to go. After a bit of playing, I grew fond of the new approach; it prompted me to look at my map and question where I hadn’t gone yet. Not being guided to these encouraged me to look around and find what I’d missed, which I felt was the most incentive to exploration I’ve ever had in an open-world game.
The game's difficulty ceiling is surprisingly not as high as other FromSoftware titles, as ELDEN RING has thus far felt like the easiest to date. A lot of whether you'll feel the game is challenging or not heavily depends on how much you explore, both in a good way and a bad one. For one, if you don't explore at all, you'll find the first "core" boss in the game — Margit, The Fell Omen — far too difficult to defeat with your available resources. On the contrary, exploring too much and wandering into an endgame area will ensure a swift death. This system of balancing your exploration and story progression makes for a nice balance between what an open-world game should offer and how linear games work, and it was definitely welcome.
The numerous forms of approaching each area are great for diminishing the difficulty in-game as well, as there will be far more options for players of different playstyles. Do you like running headfirst without a plan? Sure, you can do that; you'll die, but you can. Do you like using stealth to get around and taking enemies one by one? Although ELDEN RING doesn't offer the polished stealth systems that stealth-based games do, it does have the capability to crouch, hide in tall grass, and pick off enemies one at a time. What about riding into battle like a one-man cavalry? Once you have your horse, Torrent, you can charge into battle on horseback and slay your foes that way. Each of these options offers varying levels of difficulty that are sure to fit just about anyone; I've even neglected to mention the numerous weapons, classes, and builds ELDEN RING has to offer.
Exploration is the most fun it's ever been in gaming for me, as every corner in the game offered a dungeon, a boss, a new area, just about anything for me to discover. The numerous Sites of Grace scattered throughout each region ensures that you have accessibility to level up, save, and heal almost on a whim; losing and dying isn't as infuriating when there are respawn points scattered everywhere throughout the lands. That said, never carry too many runes around on your person, as an impromptu boss fight can lock those away in an unwinnable encounter, often leading to losing thousands at a time.
ELDEN RING has something for everyone at the turn of every corner. Numerous builds, bosses, and approaches to just about any scenario. No FromSoftware game has ever been this easy, as there are innumerable options to ensure that you can tackle the game at your own pace. Be it through different builds, farming runes to level up, or just tackling a different boss and returning to a particularly challenging one later. This level of accessibility is welcome in a FromSoftware title, as we've seen previous controversies spark over this same topic. Although I was disappointed with the lack of quests, I grew to like the haphazard exploration that sometimes led to random dungeons.
As for veteran players? ELDEN RING offers us the taste of what DARK SOULS IV could have never been. Because of the new approach and outlook, the realm of cinders could only dream to be as accessible and expansive as the Lands Between.
Against all odds, ELDEN RING managed to live up to my expectations. With how excited I was for the game, I should have faced a form of disappointment, but I soon grew fond of any quibbles I had early on in my gameplay. Undeniably, a great title, a great game, and a great opportunity to join the FromSoftware fanbase.
ELDEN RING (Reviewed on Windows)
Outstanding. Why do you not have this game already?
ELDEN RING is the most accessible entry to a FromSoftware title to date, with plenty of things to explore, do, and enjoy. Those even mildly interested by the premise should give it a shot.