I never know how much time I have. Previous From Software games feature parades of NPCs — representatives of worlds twisting in on themselves, literally and figuratively — in hidden alcoves and corners of safety. My ability to push on that world, by slaying giants and cracking frosted-shut gates, might end that safety. A man freed from his cage might murder them while I’m away. A stalwart knight might finally lose his faith upon reaching some horrible truth I revealed. These worries are always in the back of my mind as I play Elden Ring — a game in which I’ve spent 75 hours and barely pushed into the main story. I’m too worried there’s someone or something I have yet to find before waltzing into the foreboding capital of Leyndell.
Luckily, there’s still plenty to do. Elden Ring is dense and deep, not just wide. Not just full of repeating icons on a flat surface you skid across like Teflon. There was a time that I worried it was exactly that — a game like modern Assassin’s Creed and other Ubisoft open-world games, pressed readymade out of the factory with exactly this many of that and the other thing. Certainly, some ideas are reused. The opening area of Limgrave is pockmarked with tombs where bodies of the faithful are fed to the roots of megaflora called the Erdtree. Its golden, glowing branches loom over the entirety of Elden Ring, threatening the watchful eye of expectation. It expects you to reach Leyndell, where the tree sprouts, and repair the titular ring to restore a golden age.
But a golden age for who? This is one of the questions at the heart of Elden Ring — or rather at its outer strata. The game starts you in a relatively safe locale (the aforementioned Limgrave). It’s here that From Software operates at its most familiar. There are hostile zombies, large (but largely humanoid) bosses to fell, and even a few too many repeating side dungeons like the one listed above. Limgrave is a cradle: recognizable territory with just enough legroom to let you explore your options. Attack, heavy attack, guard counter, dodge roll, ride your not-a-horse named Torrent… Oh, the horse can double-jump! Maybe that’s useful. Maybe it could be useful later.
The game does very little to urge you along at this point, or even to point you in a particular direction. There’s a golden shimmer radiating out from safe points, called Sites of Grace, where you can level up and swap out weapon skills. You can follow that gold to deeper dungeon locations that might hold a story-critical boss. But the order in which you tackle them is largely up to you. The centerpiece of Limgrave is Stormveil Castle; there a major lord is seeking his own vision of the golden age by leaning on his ancestor’s good name. He draws in followers to literally graft onto himself. The people, manipulated and scared, are diced up and stitched to an imp who would like to make you believe he’s a colossus.
In the south, there’s a slave revolt by other poor souls who look like they’ve been stitched together from animal parts. To the east, another dimwitted vassal thinks himself in charge of the whole area, including the “demi-humans” he purports get equal treatment under his thumb. They’ve rebelled, too, and burned down the fort. Finally, north past Stormveil, if you know the way, various species of homunculi have escaped their creators and built tiny, obscured villages in order to just live in peace.
The war following the shattering of the Elden Ring (the mysterious event that kicks off the game’s lore) has carved up the earth. Each zone past the cradle layers on unique people, dangers, and puzzles to match these fractures.
Bosses in Limgrave usually have a new kind of checkpoint right outside their door, for instance. The classic From Software “boss run,” where you need to run past or through various traps and enemies on your way to each attempt at the big bad, simply doesn’t exist at first. Then, just before fighting the final lord of Limgrave, it does. There’s a tiny lead-up you can mitigate with unlockable shortcuts. It’s not until finally, after you push through Stormveil into a new region altogether, that the game expects you to handle a proper boss run every time.
Oh, right. Charged attacks stagger enemies. I can use that to knock over this golem guarding a bridge and tear into it from there. Torrent is unwieldy but can reach higher spaces than me. Together we can search the rooftops in this town of invisible sorcerers. Oh, yes, the map does show a road leading into that ravine. Why would there be a road if it didn’t lead somewhere? I better check it out.
Elden Ring gives you access to all these tools almost immediately. How you use them is a process of trial and error. It’s the new boss run — where you beat your head against a particular problem until the smoothest solution clicks into place… Then you die anyway, because a special boss that only appears at night swoops down from the sky in a place you thought was safe and tears you to ribbons. In typical From Software fashion, though, these surprise deaths feel like a meaningful challenge to overcome rather than a cheat.
Your reward for all this effort? For all the poking and exploring? For jumping your mount onto branches that you think can stand on, and sure enough, you can? Brand new bosses, weapons, and game-changing talismans to help tweak your playstyle. There are weapon skills, called Ashes of War, to swap between weapons anytime you rest. You can add a poison mist to that scythe you found, causing bosses to bleed and weaken. You can summon meteorites from that sword you found in that tunnel where miners were digging out pieces of fallen stars for mosquito-priest overseers. There are horrible, beautiful, new things to sometimes literally stumble into around every corner.
Granted, the developer has plenty of history to draw from. And it does so unashamedly. Major bosses and characters echo classic battles and companions from Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro. A couple even share the same names outright. The Erdtree itself calls to mind the metaphysical nature of lands in Dark Souls existing as various trees rooted in an endless, ashen lake. From Software is never shy about calling back to older titles. The Moonlight Greatsword is in Armored Core of all games. But there’s a fun (and perhaps necessary) deliberateness here in particular. It probably helps to populate such a packed open space if you can smartly repurpose old animations. This team has been doing it since at least the PlayStation 2 (look at how the slimes move in King’s Field IV and compare them to Dark Souls 3).
And hey! It works. It works so well that I can’t keep myself from digging into every pit and ruin — hoping to find more secrets. It’s been 75 hours and I still haven’t pushed into the final zone of Elden Ring. I’m too afraid that doing so will lock away a character ready to tell me more about this world, or award me a sword that shoots unholy lasers.
Thankfully, the game often seems to recognize this. Side quests are still tied to wandering characters in the world. You find and speak to them at various points in the vastness to progress their stories. However, missing one appearance doesn’t always completely “break” their quest chain. Not the way it might in Demon’s Souls or Bloodborne. I personally found a courageous, humanoid pot locked in a secret tunnel shortcut. This was miles away from where my coworker, Imran, found him stuck in the dirt back in Limgrave. He still introduced himself as a friend at this point and appeared in a new place later. This may not be true for every speaking character in the game (and there are a lot), but their scattered rendezvous points should help more players find them in such a sprawling place.
And I think, after writing this, I can also bring myself to move on. Elden Ring is too big and too cryptic for me to see everything in one playthrough. Without the benefit of a guide, no less. But I need to see where these stories are headed. I need to know what the game ultimately has to say about its tiny factions squabbling over this nostalgic, lost era. I want to see how my strange friends and rivals fare while I push back demigods. I want to see what’s lurking in that capital city up there.
Then I’m probably going to do it all again on a new playthrough with a guide handy. That’s not something I’ve ever felt about a modern open-world game before.