FromSoftware’s penchant for vague storytelling is often told through subtle channels, leaving players to piece together the overarching story is front and centre Elden Ring. You know by now what you’re getting into when sitting down and playing a game from the mind of Hidetaka Miyazaki – tragic characters dealing with unfathomable situations. This is a trend that many of the publisher’s stories tend to start off with and it’s up to the player to piece together their own version of events that are transpiring.
One of the biggest draws this time and will be one of many reasons Elden Ring will pull in players normally averse to FromSoft titles, is George R.R. Martin has served as one of the key components to establishing the world, the lore, the history of the Elden Ring. I know my circle of friends outside of the gaming industry have shown interest because of the famed author’s involvement and for good reason — the man knows how to keep readers invested.
You play as a ‘Tarnished’ human, your place here is to stand up against the Demigods, and become an Elden Lord in your own right. What I’m noticing is that the more I play, the less of R.R. Martin’s influence I’m finding in the Lands Between — everything feels wholly FromSoft from the lore to the land. That isn’t a knock against the famed author behind A Song of Ice and Fire but a testament to how similar Hidetaka Miyazaki works when developing a new game. Much of the fun when a new game from this developer launches is figuring out how the lore pieces together and understanding the bigger picture.
For those who have never played a game from FromSoft, a degree of patience is your ally when attempting to enter this often decrepit, dingy ecosystem. For those who’ve been to Boletaria, Yharnam, the Kingdom of Lothric, then you’re right where you belong and you know exactly what you’re getting into, after all, masochism is the art of turning punishments into rewards.
My preview period came with pre-loaded characters to use. In the final retail release, players create their own ideal character via a blank slate. Your first task is to create the perfect avatar (something I look forward to seeing is how the public utilizes the system) and then select the origin of your character. Picking one class over another will affect a few things at the beginning, including your loadout. Generally, the way the Souls game works are to pick a starting class that determines the early hours of your experience. Some players like myself, like to stick to tried and true classes like a Knight (Vagabond in this case) while more experienced players prefer something along the lines of the Wretch for a real challenge.
Depending on how comfortable you are with overcoming obstacles at the expense of sometimes having to repeat sections, your choice is important. Attribute points will bolster your choice from the start so it is imperative to select the right upgrades. As a Vagabond, I primarily focused on improving my Strength, Dexterity, and Endurance. It never hurts to improve your healthy pool either so sinking points into Vigor won’t hurt and by selecting the right keepsake, you can have a larger pool from the start.
Keepsakes are gifts you can choose when creating your character. These bonuses offer an advantage at the start of your journey and some are often more useful than others. I chose the Golden Seed which grans me an additional Sacred Flask — one the restores health of magic. Newcomers might prefer the Crimson Amber Medallion, an item that increases your maximum health. I’d recommend either of the ones I mentioned or Stonesword Key, an item that is rare but allows you entry into a locked room.
The golden order is broken to its core
As I mentioned in my preview last year, Elden Ring is a game of refinement. What I meant is that without Bloodborne, Dark Souls, or Sekiro, this game would not exist. You can see each game’s DNA being utilized in some exciting ways and FromSoft has really homed in on this idea with Elden Ring, the first open-world game from the developer. Small things such as how you allocate your flasks came from Dark Souls III, the ability to jump pulls from Sekiro and the combat feels like an amalgamation of those that came before. Somehow, the hearty meat stew that is Elden Ring fills your belly but also leaves you returning for additional servings.
The Lands Between is a large open world, filled with what seems like never-ending landscapes. Within moments I was encouraged to explore this vast, chaotic, and unyielding landmass while eradicating the cannon fodder of undead soldiers and wolves roaming pathways, camps, and hidden caves. For the first time ever, the world is no longer segmented like previous games. Instead, there is this sense of scale and fear the world offers to the player, it isn’t the most welcoming place, and the expansive lands will pull you in like a siren’s song, making it far too difficult to pull away from the evocative beauty of this fascinating new world inspired by George R.R. Martin.
Had the studio decided to scale back exploration and given us hub areas instead of the massive open-world that is the Lands Between, I don’t believe I would have enjoyed my time so far as much as I have. Even from the earliest moments where Stormveil Castle calls to me, begging for me to enter its gates and take what is inside, I knew this world could only sell itself as being truly open. Seeing a convoy procession trudge through a valley while staying hidden to avoid being discovered and most likely wiped wouldn’t work as well if all I could do is run to a location just out of reach. Instead, I was able to hop on a questionable lift that sent me into a more perilous valley where I immediately died from my inexperience.
Had Yharham or Boletaria been an open-world the likes Elden Ring and this would be a different conversation — those worlds were often about seeing the cosmic horrors in the distance over being able to walk right up to them and engage them. This signals a massive change in the developers have adapted and overcome recreating their greatest hits; by adding new layers to the world.
Fans looking to find a traditional experience exploring castles with complex and winding environments will feel right at home with the game’s Legacy Dungeons. To best describe these sections would be akin to the dungeons of earlier titles like Dark Souls. Some of my favourite moments have been outside while exploring every nook and cranny but some of the most memorable moments were spent facing off against the challenging opponents I’ve come across so far.
I’m looking forward to discovering the other instances of these Legacy Dungeons which have been a nice mixture of many older, more familiar elements with a nice bonus of verticality.
Make of thyself that which ye desire
Combat will be familiar to anyone who’s played a FromSoft title as your character has a light and heavy attack as well as dodge and block/parry. The system has always been a poster child for the oldest conundrum in the book — is the risk worth the reward? Do you risk it all for one more hit or play it safe and dodge/block and ensure survival? Paired with the poise mechanic that plays on how much damage you can muster before being stunned it is imperative you keep things in balance or risk your progress. With higher poise you can take more blows before losing it all, finding the right armour will help but at the cost of being burdened with a larger equip load (raising Endurance will counter this).
Additionally, you can forego a physical build and stick with magic and incantations. While not my preferred method of playing a game of this calibre, it certainly has merit in what it offers to players looking to dive into Sorcery or Incantations, two sides of the same coin, as it were. One focuses on Intelligence and offensive skills, while the other focuses on Faith and support skills. You can memorize a spell via the Memory Slots, so be sure to equip them before heading into the Lands Between, but have enough slots to support those skills.
A first for the series, mounted combat is thrilling, and once you gain access to Torrent, your spectral steed becomes a core aspect of the gameplay. Traversal becomes more convenient and sidesteps many issues like The Witcher has faced when using a mounted horse. This spectral horse creates a whole new way to experience the vast world around you. By simply blowing your whistle, Torrent will make his way to you anywhere on the map, and his double jump makes leaps across great distances that would otherwise be a nuisance to get around. The added level of mobility feels unprecedented for a FromSoft title, especially when caught in a sticky situation that would otherwise mean death.
In search of the Elden Ring
What sometimes feels a bit overwhelming is how many systems players can expect to learn about as they venture out into the Lands Between. I’ve only scratched the surface of what you can do in battle; we can now stealth our way through enemies with the inclusion of tall grass. You can now craft various items by collecting the local flora and fauna. Your map is a blank slate at the start, just like your character, so you’ll need to collect Map Fragments to piece together the world. There are Sites of Grace that serve as bonfires where you level up, replenish flasks, and utilize storage. Similarly, Stakes of Marika serve as soft checkpoints, where you can save your progress automatically but with no added replenishments.
Also, you’ll learn early on that you can replenish your Sacred Flasks without having to visit a Site of Grace. If you find yourself in need of health and manage to defeat a group of enemies without dying, you’ll be able to gain additional usage. Don’t get too comfortable with this method, as it should be used as a last resort when in a bind.
The Ashes of War effectively replaces the Weapon Skills from previous games and adds a new layer to combat that makes it much more visceral. You’ll find these items throughout the Lands Between and apply them to your weapons and shields to modify their output. This development offers a lot more freedom to try skills and adapt to any situation in front of you. If you prefer to stick to a melee build but want to use magic with your build, then you can apply the bonuses granted from the skill Ash of War grants.
I’ve always enjoyed interacting with the various NPCs as each game offers unique, memorable characters that generally add something to the plot. Each person you meet has an interesting backstory or tale to tell and while some offer minor rewards, the experience is often the real treasure. Some may have items you’ll want to trade Runes for while another might appear in Roundtable Hold with more stories leading to greater rewards.
While I’ve had heaps of praise for Elden Ring, there are minor annoyances I’ve seen end up in the retail release. Even last year the game faced a lot of stuttering issues in the open world. I’ve stuck primarily in Performance Mode and the game graphically looks good; performance can take a hit at times. Whether or not I’m encountering a placebo effect that’s stuck with me from last year, the performance does feel a bit better but not where it needs to be. This seems to be an issue with many games from the developer that’s been a staple for as long as I can remember.
Without a doubt, Elden Ring is full of ambition and unabashedly a FromSoftware title. Players entering the Lands Between will find beauty but also chaos and danger. Those who become Tarnished will find themselves against the most challenging opponents but will be rewarded for their success. There are innumerable hidden secrets tucked away in the nooks of each location, and even now, nearly 70 hours in, I’m finding something I didn’t expect or coming up against a boss who has no qualms about ruining me. I expect to play through Elden Ring at least several times more to understand the bigger picture truly.
[The publisher provided a copy of the game for review purposes.]