The Elden Ring network test opens with a sight as old as time. Or at least as old as 2006, when players first crawled out of a sewer in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion only to be digitally blinded by the light of an expansive open world. It’s a visual oft repeated: more recently in the equally influential The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Elden Ring starts you underground so it can dazzle you with a horizon pockmarked with places to go and things to do. Most of which, I’ve found, is none of my goddamn business.
Take the first enemy I found as an example. The lumbering giant would give Yhorm a run for his money. Yet he wasn’t categorized as a boss; he just walked up and down the same stretch of beach in the distance beyond my starting point, calling attention to himself. I myself was just a little guy with a wagon wheel around his neck. I chose this “Priest” class for its funny looks, but wasn’t laughing when my dinky little club barely scratched most foes I would encounter. I simply ran past the giant altogether, but the viking resting by a campfire farther north still killed me just as good.
Then there was the enormous crab nest by the lake. They popped out of the earth and pummeled me into paste as I tried to retrieve an item glittering in the water. Later the woods started speaking to me, asking for help I didn’t know how to provide. Then a dragon flew into view and started devouring nearby zombies. A single, dark room in a castle finally housed some horrible, cloaked abomination that cut me to ribbons in the shadows.
Open-world games — the best open-world games — scatter themselves with unique things to find and do, as well as ways to tackle them. Elden Ring has the latter on lock. Perhaps responding to light criticisms of Bloodborne and Sekiro, the game is chock full of combat options. My Priest didn’t just have a club; they had a magical claw they could scrape through the ground and let erupt beneath enemies in a fan of low-blow blades. The cast time was long, but the damage was obscene, and pretty quickly I had a way to deal with most foes in the demo.
Most. Airborne beasts still gave me trouble. Squads of man-bats and falcons with swords strapped to their talons could harass me where the claws didn’t reach. That was until I bought some cursed laser eyes. This new “Incantation” launched homing beams out of my face — particularly up at flying enemies. The laser eyes did appear to be cursed since I built up some sort of negative status whenever I used it too much. But it was a small price to pay for anti-air capabilities.
The aforementioned monsters weren’t nearly the weirdest creatures I encountered across the whole demo. The really awful and scary stuff? The enormous, pale dragon? That was easy to avoid if I wanted. Fast travel, a map, and a spectral horse that turns on a dime make exploration and escape equally simple in Elden Ring. Being an open-world game means you can fuck around. Being a From Software game means you can also find out just as quickly. And horrible death by crab is not something I need to experience more than three or four times in my life. If I ever encounter a forest of angry, floating jellyfish with skeleton bodyguards in real life, I will also simply decide that’s none of my business. I will ride on past like I did in Elden Ring. I will look for safety and the next (hopefully friendlier) event in the great chain of my existence.
Approaching the network test like this allowed me to see just how much deadly variety is there in the early hours of Elden Ring. It seems like a lot. Eventually I also beat my head against the same boss over and over again, as one does in more traditional From games. That felt good in its own way. My Incantations (which is just the Elden Ring name for faith-based Miracles from Dark Souls), felt punchy and unique. Their long windups made me fight differently than I normally do in this pseudo-series. But it’s the density of things to discover (and die to) that make the game stand out compared to older entries.
The two blend very well, though. Those “things” — the sword-burdened birds and strange voices in the middle of nowhere — are bizarre and unpredictable in the expected From Software fashion. Each of the new discoveries stands out all the more for how cautious I reflexively get around them. The impact of finding a big, weird helmet shaped like an old man’s head isn’t lost — seeing as I had to kill a caravan of guards and their giants escorting it.
Just how dense and wide this remains across the entire game isn’t clear from the little sliver I played. What’s there now, though, stuck with me. Just like the exploding ballista bolt some undead soldiers shot into my face. What are they guarding up beyond that gate of theirs? Do I really need to find out that badly?