Elden Ring Review | Guided by Grace

Here we are, a month after Elden Ring has been released to the world. 12 Million units sold and counting, this game has dominated much of the discourse in the gaming space these past few weeks. This makes the prospect of writing a review now a little odd, in the sense that it might appear like just heaping praise or criticism at the game because that is what everyone else is doing. It took me this long to hit the credits while taking my time to truly appreciate the experience Elden Ring and developer From Software are trying to provide. After an unexpected playtime of 101 hours, I can confidently say that Elden Ring is a landmark release for the open-world genre and a tremendous achievement. There are a few shortcomings that hold back the game from perfection, but these shortcomings mainly feel like minor knocks against all the well-defined and well-executed aspects of the game. 

Elden Ring is an open-world action role-playing game developed by From Software and published by Bandai Namco. Similar to From’s critically acclaimed series Dark Souls, Elden Ring is set in a dark fantasy world known as “The Lands Between”, a world teeming with crumbling civilizations, towering monstrosities, and twisted beauty. The game’s marketing made sure to emphasize contributions made to the game’s world-building and underlying narrative by famed author George R.R Martin, most well known for his fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, which was the source material for HBO's Game of Thrones

As is shown in the opening cutscene of the game, the titular “Elden Ring”, a symbol of grace that presided over The Lands Between, has been shattered, and its shards find their way into the hands of the demigod offspring of the ruler Queen Marika. In the wake of the shattering, these demigods become corrupted with their newfound power. This corruption breeds war and suffering for the people of The Lands Between. You play as a “Tarnished”, a person who had previously lost the guidance of the Elden Ring’s grace, but is once again beckoned by its golden aura to recollect the shards, restore the ring, and become the new Elden Lord. 

In typical From Software fashion, the narrative is opaque and many details of the overall story aren’t explicitly shown to the player in cutscenes, opting for nuggets of lore being discovered in the descriptions of various items you collect throughout the game. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have cutscenes. Bosses and big cinematic moments often have cutscenes to really emphasize their grand spectacle, but we will discuss the bosses in more detail later. While From Software’s narratives are typically a little difficult to grasp, and Elden Ring doesn’t stray far from this trend, it does somehow feel a little clearer for players this time around. There are still names and places that feel completely foreign or shrouded in mystery, but altogether I felt like I had a better grasp of the overall narrative in Elden Ring than I have in other From Software games, with the exception of their previous game Sekiro Shadows Die Twice

Gameplay in Elden Ring feels like a culmination of various lessons learned from all of From’s recent catalog of games. Because of this, it is hard to discuss Elden Ring without drawing comparisons to Dark Souls and From’s other titles. To attempt to cover this in a clear way, I will split the discussion of gameplay to highlight arguably the biggest shakeup to the gameplay, the shift to an open-world, and then focus on specific changes made to combat and movement. 

Dark Souls games have been praised for their meticulously designed open-ended worlds, but they never really crossed the line into being a true “open-world” game. The term “open-world” carries with it specific expectations in regards to gameplay mechanics and ways the player interacts with the world itself; things like waypoints on the world map, quest logs to keep track of ongoing quests, item crafting, material gathering, etc. Turns out, the decision to switch to an open-world is wildly successful in more ways than one. 

The game as a whole is massive in scope, to the point of it catching me off guard throughout my initial playthrough. Like other open-worlds, The Lands Between are separated into a number of different regions that are visually distinct and offer numerous places to explore, people to meet, dungeons to stumble upon, and, of course, challenges to overcome. The map screen at the start of the game is blank and as you explore you will discover pieces of the map that not only fill in the blank areas but also expand the borders of the map. Multiple times I was caught off guard by the borders expanding, witnessing in real-time the world grow larger and larger before me. The physical size of objects in the world adds another layer to the larger-than-life sensation The Lands Between gives off. Serving as a centerpoint, the massive towering Erdtree in the center of the map is visible from just about any location. As you get closer to the tree, it becomes so physically large it easily takes up the majority of the game screen. Similarly, castles and keeps loom large and are immaculately detailed from intricately decorated rooms to creepy nooks and crannies. There exists a jaw-dropping vista or tantalizing landmark or item just about every way the player decides to turn their camera, even more impressive when you realize all of this has been accomplished with nearly no loading screens (outside of loading after death to reset enemies). What surprised me most was how detailed and handcrafted the world felt scaled up to this level. I anticipated the traditional dungeon areas to feel handcrafted like levels from Dark Souls or Bloodborne, but just about every area of the map I explored felt placed with purpose. 

Purposeful design is the core that Elden Ring relies on, directly linking to arguably the game’s strongest aspect, its sense of exploration. All of the best games in the open-world genre have spaces that are fun to explore, that actively pull players to wander and discover secrets in the furthest corners of the explorable area. Elden Ring seemingly goes out of its way to put something surprising around every corner, both good surprises and bad. A small keep full of bat-like creatures and ghostly warriors contains half of an item used to activate a shortcut much later into the game, a small outcropping over a tall mountain ledge invites a risky jump with the promise of a mysterious glowing item, or a seemingly innocuous treasure chest traps the player and teleports them to a completely foreign and hostile location. These are but a fraction of the various ways Elden Ring subverts player expectations and reinforces how important exploring its vast world is. Once you make your way across a perilous ravine, you may find a unique armor set on a corpse that you will wear for the next 20 hours of gameplay, or you may find a giant, ready to kick you to your death. Both outcomes offer something beneficial to the player, a reward they can use to customize their character, or knowledge of a difficult area and a potential place to return to later. 

It’s the idea of “returning later” that really differentiates Elden Ring from From Software’s past releases. Many people who have given the Souls series a try, specifically newer players, often lament about coming across a roadblock. Some sort of boss, trap, or group of enemies that they seemingly just can’t get past no matter how they approach it. It’s a shortcoming of a game that has a more linear design, if you get stuck, there's really not much you the player are able to do. Elden Ring solves this problem quite simply, if you are having trouble, go somewhere else. Now, Elden Ring didn’t invent this philosophy by any means, but it feels more substantial when implemented in a game that proudly wears how challenging its gameplay can be on its sleeve. There were several moments in the game where I was dying over and over, beating my head against a certain boss or a difficult trap in a dungeon. When I realized I was getting frustrated, rather than progressively getting more irritated and ruining my night, I just left and told myself I would come back later. I would go explore a new region, go collect crafting materials, explore a mine hunting for upgrades for my sword, and eventually after some time had passed and I had a few more levels under my belt, I would return and overcome these previous obstacles with newfound excitement. This change to a more open design makes Elden Ring feel more approachable, which is why we are seeing so many new people playing the game this past month. 

There are a number of specific decisions that were made in regards to the open-world that have been the topic of some pretty heated online debates these past few weeks. Unlike other open-world games, Elden Ring does not feature a quest log to keep track of quest phases or characters. The game rarely marks things on the map or screen outside of a few small side quests, instead opting to use light rays from sites of grace to suggest a direction to go to fight the nearest story boss and beacons of light and map markers the player can place themselves. There's no list of objectives, dungeons explored, or upgrade materials found. I think the absence of these features allows Elden RIng to stand apart from the competition in an otherwise jam-packed genre that sees multiple games released in a similar style every year. Expanding upon the previous point about exploration, I feel the absence of these more mechanical information tools allows the game to create an air of stress-free exploration. The game doesn’t require the player to remember every character, every place they have visited, and the game doesn’t need to tell players directly where to go because it trusts the player that they will eventually find their way. The game is fine with the player missing things or not having the full picture. I don’t think that every game to release in the future should remove these features, many games are benefitted more and are more fun to play with their inclusion. However, I think the lack of these more traditional open-world features in Elden Ring provides a much greater feeling of player agency and presence in the world that gels well with the From Software design ethos.

Another key aspect that makes the open-world work as well as it does is movement, specifically referring to the addition of Torrent, the player’s trusty steed. This is possibly one of the most fun and useful implementations of a horse I have experienced in a game. Torrent is a spectral steed that can be summoned from under the player's shoes nearly anywhere while exploring the world. No waiting for it to trot over from afar, with a press of a button you are riding your horse, and with another press you are back on foot. Not only can you call Torrent from anywhere, but he also has a double jump. You read that right. As a result of this, Elden Ring builds in specific platforming puzzles that can be completed on horseback, as well as boss fights that can be fought from horseback, adding entirely new ways to interact with the world and the combat. Torrent has a fine degree of control that mimics how you control your character, meaning you can move across the world with relative ease because controlling the horse feels like an extension of controlling your character. Torrent can be staggered when hit which is occasionally frustrating but seeing as your character can be staggered during combat it makes sense that the same balance would be applied to mounted combat. Not only does the implementation of the horse allow you to efficiently move throughout the world while exploring, but it also adds in gameplay variety from boss fights to platforming that ensures the player is never bored while they explore. 

Trying to wrap up thoughts on the open-world, I need to touch on the reasoning for exploration, which are the rewards. There are so many different ways the player is tangibly rewarded in Elden Ring, and nearly all of these rewards feel consequential. Just for fighting enemies you will receive runes that act as experience points in other RPGs. Like past Souls games, runes can be used to level up your character or purchase items from vendors. You can find items that increase the amount of healing flasks and the amount of health they restore. You can find new weapons, armors, magic spells, or ashes of war which bestow unique secondary abilities that can be applied to different weapons. You can find upgrade materials that allow you to improve your gear, sometimes upgrade materials are only found in specific regions or locations like catacombs. As I mentioned above, Elden Ring’s map screen is initially blank, and throughout your journey, you will collect map fragments that fill in parts of the map screen with a hand-drawn map of a specific area of a region you are in. There are also crafting materials strewn across the land which will allow you to craft useful items like arrows or elemental wax that can coat your weapons and buff your damage. In order to figure out how to craft specific items, you need to find recipe books out in the world or purchase them from vendors. Going back to that idea of purposeful design, every random item you come across feels important and helpful to the player. There is an astonishing amount of visually distinct weapons and armors that are highly detailed. The game uses these impactful rewards as the justification for exploration. If you put in the time to look around the dark spots of the world, the game will reward you in helpful ways. Every system of the design is connected and dependent on each other and the open-world. 

Now to talk about the other side of the From Software coin, the combat. The combat is going to feel familiar to Souls veterans, but for new players, Elden Ring is an action game where you need to balance things like positioning, stamina usage, wind-up times, and exploiting weaknesses if you want to come out on top. Heavy swords take more time to swing than a dagger but typically deal more damage. Likewise, spells may take a few seconds to cast and drain FP (focus points) in order to use them, but they will allow you to deal damage from a distance. You can fight enemies head-on, at range, or try and circle behind them to get the ever-satisfying backstab. Enemies can be staggered, but so can the player. You will have to be cognizant of all these mechanics while engaging in any aspect of combat from taking on large groups of enemies, going toe to toe in PVP with an invading human player, or challenging one of the game’s massive boss fights. 

As I mentioned above, the combat in Elden Ring is closest to the combat system of Dark Souls. Due to the variety of weapons the player can find, the game allows for a number of different play styles and ways to build your character. You can play as an armored tank, two-handing greatswords, a powerful mage that blasts magic from afar, an agile warrior that wields a mace and a shield, or a jack of all trades. If you find a weapon you like, you can build your character around that weapon and with enough practice, that build should be viable in most combat situations. Some enemies may require you to change your weapon or tactics like attacking faster or firing upon you from afar. And some bosses may require you to approach them differently than any other enemies you have fought before. Ashes of war bestow special moves to weapons. Late in the game, I applied an ash of war to my claymore sword that allowed me to throw a small arc of fire from my hand and if I followed this up with a heavy swing attack, it would cover my sword in fire for a short time, increasing its damage. Some special weapons have ashes of war that are specific to them like weapons based on the different boss fights which goes a long way in making them feel unique. The way combat feeds into player customization isn’t really new or groundbreaking in this game, but it does feel more refined than it has in previous games. The combat isn’t as demanding, requiring the player to pull off perfect parries like Sekiro or Bloodborne, although elements of those combat systems like jump attacks and counter-attacks are folded into Elden Ring’s combat seamlessly. Elden Ring attempts to refine Dark Souls signature gameplay style vs reinventing the wheel and offers a large amount of combat options for players to customize and tailor the combat whichever way suits them best. The back and forth dance of combat is as fun as it has ever been.

And it wouldn’t be a From Software game without epic boss fights. Each one of the story-specific boss fights in Elden Ring offers a difficult challenge and a massive feeling of satisfaction after beating them. There are a couple fights in this game that rank up with the best boss fights from other From Software games, both in their difficulty and their spectacle. Specific boss fights that were incredible include Malenia Blade of Miquella, Starscourge Radahn, and Mariketh. These bosses all have fairly different mechanics and ways the player has to approach these fights that are quite different from other boss fights we have seen in past From Software games. When the epic orchestral music kicks in and the adrenaline starts pumping, there are still few games that match that level of quality and excitement in their boss encounters.

I made a note about the boss fights being “story-specific” earlier, these are by far the best fights in the game. Elden Ring also has a large number of side bosses that will appear in the open-world and in dungeons. While these fights are fun to take down, due to the size of the game, many of them are utilized multiple times to a distracting degree. Reusing content in this way is to be expected in a game of this size, but when these games put great significance in their boss encounters, there are diminishing returns when you have fought your fourth “Tree Sentinel” or “Crucible Knight”. And many times, in order to escalate the “difficulty” of these side bosses, it boils down to just fighting two or three of the same boss in a tiny arena. This is an example of poor implementation, while the fight is “harder”, it's only hard because there is less opportunity to attack and less room to move around. The fights are not designed differently nor the bosses given different moves, it's just now you fight two at the same time, which feels like a cheap and less interesting way of making a fight more difficult. 
On the whole, Elden Ring maintains From Software’s trademark difficulty, though it does make some concessions to help the adventure feel a little less soul-crushing this time around. Throughout the game, the player gains the ability to summon “spirit ashes”, basically spirits of fallen warriors that an AI will control to aid them in battle. The game only allows spirit ashes to be summoned in specific areas, the most important being in boss rooms. The immediate reaction to a mechanic like this might be that it would trivialize the fights. While spirit ashes do make some fights easier, many of the bosses in-game start to use attacks that cover a wide area of effect or start changing directions unpredictably so it seems that most of the fights in the game were designed around the player having access to this ability. The game’s enemies also do not scale up with the player’s level. This means the more you level your character up, the stronger they will become and the easier enemies will be to take down. While these systems are in place to help players, the game still has large groups of enemies that will try and overwhelm you, traps that kill in a single hit, large enemies that attack more times than you would expect, and more poisonous swamps than you could even imagine. If you have bounced off of From Software’s games in the past due to their difficulty, you likely will feel a similar sensation while playing Elden Ring. But for those who appreciate the balancing act between difficulty and satisfaction of overcoming its challenges, the game reaches to the highest highs of the games that came before it. 

Elden Ring is one of From Software’s most “painterly” titles when it comes to art direction. The landscapes visually have a gorgeous flow about them, objects litter the horizon line in such a way that it looks as though artists composed every conceivable angle the camera could have been turned to make everything look amazing. Perhaps the designers are well aware of the work that was put into this seeing as there are collectible paintings from a traveling artist that depict different locations around the map. Architecture is imposing and at times impressively well detailed from dirty cobblestone streets to grand castle dining rooms. Enemy designs are incredibly varied from giant trolls to sentient flowers to threateningly large dragons. Nothing feels out of place in this world despite how out there some of the designs become. It does take quite a few design cues from Dark Souls, but it is different enough to stand on its own from a visual standpoint. 

The sound design and the music once again are deserving of praise. Voice performances in these games are typically under-discussed in this reviewer’s opinion, but the performances in Elden Ring are truly great. I loved the jubilant expressions from Iron Fist Alexander (the jolly pot warrior you may remember from previous trailers), or the foreboding words of Malenia, Blade of Miquella as she claims she has never known defeat. The dialogue is all well written, but the performances really bring the writing of the world to life. The sounds of weapons clashing, spells casting, and monsters thrashing all sound incredible. And the music in the game is unsurprisingly epic in scope. There seem to be less standout musical pieces, to be fair it’s hard to top Ludwig the Accursed from Bloodborne, but there are plenty of tracks that work well to establish the tone of the gold-tinted fallen world of The Lands Between. 

I’ve spent the majority of this review talking about all the things the game does so well, but I did open the review stating the game has some shortcomings. I mentioned above things like the repeated side boss fights and their haphazard implementation, and this is probably the biggest gripe I had with the game after 100 hours of playtime. My remaining criticisms fall into two camps, technical/mechanical issues, and a more amorphous or subjective list of feelings towards different aspects of the game that don’t quite add up. 

To start with the technical, while the vast majority of Elden Ring is pretty tightly put together, there are a number of areas where the seams start to split. I played the game on PS5 in performance mode, and while the framerate never dropped to the point of being unplayable, there were clearly moments where the game did drop frames which were noticeable, usually in moments where a lot of things were happening on screen, but occasionally I experienced drops just while riding around the open-world. There are plenty of instances of texture pop-in in regards to foliage and certain areas loading in detail too late after walking into a room or coming out of a fast travel warp. There was a weird visual bug I experienced in a late game area where the shadows appeared jagged and broken. Certain weapons and armor clip inside of each other when equipped at the same time. Again, while these are technical issues, none of these were ever severe enough to hamper gameplay, but they are immersion breaking and directly contrast with how hard other aspects of the game are working to keep you pulled in. 

There are issues that come up while interfacing with the game as well. In many other games, you will press a button to pull up the map and press the same button to put it away and return to the game. In Elden Ring, you press a button to pull up the map, but pressing the same button opens up a sub menu with other options rather than closing the map. Again, not a big deal but it does come off as a bit clunky when trying to navigate the map screen which you do pretty frequently. With the inclusion of a jump mechanic, the developers chose to assign the jump to the bottom face button (X on PlayStation, A on Xbox) which historically has been used for picking up items or talking to NPCs in other From Software games. Now, the interact button has been switched to the top face button (Triangle for PlayStation, Y for Xbox). While this won’t affect new players in any way, Souls veterans like myself will be battling the change and the associated muscle memory for the first few hours. I was constantly jumping mid-conversation and after I picked up items quite frequently. At times these decisions just feel a little clunky and don’t blend as well as they should. 

Another clunky aspect of the game that From Software is no stranger to criticism is the camera. While most of the time the camera works as intended, there are still several instances where the camera will clip into walls or enemies that will obscure your vision and occasionally lead to death. The lock on system also runs into issues highlighting a desired target when there is a large group of enemies nearby. If you are trying to focus your attention on a strong enemy amongst the group, occasionally the camera keeps locking onto enemies that are further back or closer to you which can lead to complications when trying to combat certain threats. It seems with each game the camera improves slightly, but it still has functionality that gets in the way of gameplay that needs to be ironed out further. 

One other aspect that seems to get better each game but is still a pain to interact with is the multiplayer system. Elden Ring has systems in place that allow you to use passwords to more easily connect with and join friends games to engage in some jolly co-op. But should you want to call upon another random player to help you with a boss you may be stuck on, you need to first activate a little statue that enables multiplayer, then you need to use another item in your inventory to be able to see the signs on the ground used to summon other players. Then once you are here, selecting a summon sign may bring a player to your game or they may become unavailable. Likewise, invasions require different items to be used as well. The systems are helpful when they work, but too often than not the entire process of engaging in multiplayer is overly opaque and involved to the point it becomes a hassle. I understand it's trying to be more grounded in the world of the game, but it has the opposite effect when you are left scratching your head while trying to figure out how to connect to your buddy. 

Now for the aspects that I felt conflicted about that are more outside the realm of specificity. I’ve mentioned it multiple times throughout this review, but Elden Ring shares a lot of resemblance to Dark Souls. While the individual parts and the open-world do a lot of the heavy lifting to make the games feel different to play, visually the game does feel at times derivative of that established style. You could probably tell someone unfamiliar with the title that this game was Dark Souls 4, and they would probably believe you. I don’t think this is inherently bad, Dark Souls is very good, and this is more of a good thing. But despite how awesome the art direction is and how fun the game is, it has a familiar air surrounding it, a safe air. From Software has proved over four Souls games and two Souls adjacent games that they can handle fantastical settings. Even DeracinĂ© has elements of this in its visuals in the framework of a VR game. I would like to see this studio expand beyond their comfort zone and try some different styles or genres in the future. I will always take more of this if the quality bar remains high, but like the repeated instances of side bosses, I fear for the diminishing returns that may come about from too many dark-fantasy settings. 

Like some of the other From Software games, Elden Ring has multiple endings which can be accessed by different quests you complete and actions you take during the game. Unfortunately, like those other games, these endings feel pretty anticlimactic and abrupt. The real “ending” of the games for me is usually the final boss fight, the way the action comes to a head and the music swells during the final battle is typically more satisfying than the cutscene you are left with after. The ending I chose in Elden Ring basically shows a quick cutscene, no longer than a minute, describing the choice I made, then fades to the credits. Perhaps it's due to the lack of active presence some of the NPC characters have throughout the narrative, just usually popping up here and there around the world, but these endings usually feel so quick and therefore lack the impact that I feel they should have after closing a 100-hour journey. 

While all of these criticisms are certainly weaknesses of the game, I want to end this review by reiterating that these weaknesses are minute when compared to the grandeur of the rest of the game. You may have heard others say it, but Elden Ring truly is one of the finest examples of an engaging and fun open-world game that the genre has ever seen released. It’s a game that is as wide as it is deep, it's full of sights to see, wars to be waged, and moments to be experienced that you simply won’t find in many other games. And it is a rare example of a game that was released in the modern games industry that is full to the brim with substantial, worthwhile content and no microtransactions to speak of. That alone is commendable in the time of season passes, battle passes, cosmetic stores, and digital currencies. It feels like the product of a bygone era. Above all else, Elden Ring is a game that respects the player and rewards them for the time they invest. It is absolutely worth your time and money to experience. 

Elden Ring is available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. 

Elden Ring | 9 | Excellent

Post a Comment