To say I’ve anticipated Elden Ring for a long time might be an understatement. I’ve salivated over the vaguest teases of the time, passed around rumor circles as “a Souls collaboration with George R.R. Martin” long before it was officially announced. Last week, I cleared out most other responsibilities just so I could spend all my work time on it. Six days after receiving a PlayStation 5 code and about 45 hours of playtime later, I still feel like I have barely scratched the surface. As such, I don’t feel comfortable writing a final review right now.
If you’re looking for an opinion on whether you should buy Elden Ring: Yes. Souls fans pretty much know what they’re getting here and probably don’t need to be sold any further on it. I am not yet sure whether Elden Ring is quite Hidetaka Miyazaki’s finest, but it’s definitely his most ambitious, and plants a flag in the ground for other open-world games to surpass.
The framing that has run through my head since the beginning has mostly held firm. If Dark Souls is the Super Mario World of this Souls genre, then Elden Ring is its Super Mario 64. Feel free to sub in any other FromSoft game in the first half of that sentence and the latter part still holds true. Elden Ring uses familiar concepts and theming to make you feel comfortable, but mostly just gives you the tools for success and sends you on your way.
The passé comparison is always used to measure a game against Dark Souls, but it might be just as rote at this point to compare a game to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There’s no running away from that juxtaposition, though, as Elden Ring borrows many of its open-world ideas and concepts from the 2017 Nintendo title. From the outset, it begs you to go in any direction you want, in any order you want, to die to anything you want. It’s not just an option in Elden Ring — it’s an absolute imperative. Its structure does not want you beating your head against walls forever. It wants you running into walls at full speed and then trying something different somewhere else when you go splat.
As an example, one boss fight gave me tons of trouble for hours. I talked to other reviewers who said they found a teleporter to just get past that fight. I consulted Senior Managing Editor Steven Strom for tips (who informed me they just beat the boss in one try, probably while laughing), but I just couldn’t beat it. So I’d try for a while, give up and go explore somewhere else, get a little stronger or become a little better, then try again and get further into the fight. I still haven’t beaten it, but I’m nothing less than completely confident that I will.
Elden Ring absolutely does not want you to get so frustrated that you quit; it wants you to explore the world until you make it your own. FromSoftware has greased the wheels a bit by massaging various frustration points, such as essentially eliminating difficult runs back to the boss. Some still take a few minutes but they’re mostly enemy-free along the way. You’re also given NPC summons called Spirits, which can make-or-break boss battles and demand you to create strategies beyond just letting them draw aggro. Spirits won’t dodge enemy attacks, so using them to your advantage and keeping them alive is key.
It’s remarkable how Elden Ring keeps the same difficulty as previous titles while making small quality-of-life improvements to lessen the frustration factors that may have kept people away.
However, the most impressive thing about Elden Ring is its world design. If something on the map looks interesting, it probably is. Whether that interesting thing is a side quest, a shopkeeper, a grace (the bonfire equivalent), or a giant monster that will wreck you is up to you to find out, but it is always worth checking out. More than any of the Souls games before it, Elden Ring does not want you to be so precious about keeping your Runes (the souls equivalent) that you’re too timid to explore.
And explore you should! There are paths the game will actively discourage you from checking — there are too many tough knights there, an NPC might tell you — despite them having vastly important items or power-ups deep within. Players should feel absolutely compelled to eventually circle around and check out the path not traveled, even if it’s harder. You’re able to skip around roadblocks in Elden Ring, but to what end? Sure, you got around, but did you actually make it out better than you would have if you busted through?
I’ll close this not-review out with an anecdote of all the game’s systems and caveats working together for and against me. In one small area, I came across a closed gate. Within seconds of approaching it, a giant with a large sword landed on me and began swinging with reckless abandon. I’d defeated a few giants by this point but was still relatively early in my quest, having peaced out from fighting the first major boss after several frustrating attempts. This giant was tougher than the previous few I fought, and I was doing paltry damage to him.
It occurred to me that I could lead the giant to a nearby bridge full of enemy armaments, which had earlier done their damndest to turn me into a smoldering spot in the stone with their flaming catapults. I had observed in a previous encounter that environmental weapons from other enemies could theoretically hit the giant instead, so I gave it a shot. I eventually pushed the giant past his boundary and lured him to the bridge, where an arbalest with flaming arrows felled him. After nearly half an hour of dying repeatedly as I tried to execute this strategy, I had finally won.
The gate still didn’t open.
It was only with uninterrupted time that I discovered I could have just run to the side and scaled the castle walls from the outside. On the way, amongst man-bats and harpies dotting the cliffside, I met the archer that killed the giant for me and rewarded him with an epee to the face. It was here I decided this is a very good video game.