Elden RingFebruary 24th, 2022
PlatformPC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Since the release of Demon's Souls, From Software has become synonymous with many things: hardcore and brutally challenging action role-playing, unique storytelling, amazing level design. With each following title, the studio has upped the ante more and more, improving on the original formula a lot while staying extremely faithful to it. The only exception to this was Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a game that, while rooted into the Souls series, played radically differently, with a huge focus on stealth and unique combat mechanics like parrying, showing the world that the developer does know how to break away from its successful formula.
On paper, Elden Ring looks like a dream come true for many types of players, no matter if they are fans of Dark Souls or not. The game marks the return to the Souls formula following Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, but with an open-world setting, the first-ever created by the developer, enriched by worldbuilding and lore created in collaboration with George R.R. Martin (in case you've been living under a rock, he's the man behind the A Song of Ice and Fire novels adapted into the massively popular Games of Thrones TV show). A collaboration that felt very unlikely but natural at the same time, given how skilled George R.R. Martin is at creating worlds with a long history and coherent lore.
With so much going for it, Elden Ring's expectations have been massive since the day the game was announced. The risk of disappointment was extremely high as well, even more so for fans of both the Souls series and George R.R. Martin like me. Still, after having spent tens of hours with the game, I'm comfortable saying that Elden Ring isn't just From Software's best game to date, but also one of the best open-world games ever released, if not the very best. The bar has been raised so high that all future open-world titles will inevitably be compared to it.
Elden Ring's story presentation stays true to what From Software has done for its previous games, with the introduction providing details on the world and its history. Players are mostly left on their own to piece the rest together via environmental storytelling, item descriptions, dialogues with NPCs, and sparse cutscenes.
Right from the intro, it is clear that the Elden Ring's lore is incredibly deep. The game takes place in the Lands Between, lands that were once prosperous thanks to the rule of Queen Marika The Eternal and her children, the Demigods. The people of the lands were blessed by the Erdtree and the Elden Ring that was generated from it, which kept the Golden Order of the land in place. The Elden Ring itself was maintained by the balance between the different Runes it housed. The history of the Lands Between took a turn for the worse, however, when some mysterious figures stole the Death Rune and killed one of Marika's children, the Demigod Godwyn. This event brought the end of the Golden Order and turned the Lands Between into the state they are in at the start of the game. The player is only one of the Tarnished, whose goal is to recover every Great Rune and restore the Elden Ring to become the Elden Lord. The Tarnished were all blessed by the Erdtree and the Elden Ring, but now only some of them retain the benevolence of Grace, which also guides them toward their destiny.
Understanding the story of Elden Ring to its full extent will take plenty of time, that's for sure, as George R.R. Martin and From Software have created an extremely rich world that is filled with mystery, and piecing everything together is part of the charm of the experience. Many of the elements found in the game help players understand more of this world, from enemy placement/behavior and items to dialogues with NPCs and so on. Almost everything in Elden Ring tells a part of the story: there are some enemies in a specific area that seem to be worshipping something, and solving a puzzle in the area will reveal what these people are worshipping so reverently and protecting so fiercely; other times, you will find groups of enemies fighting against one another, revealing the hostility between different factions; moreover, you will see powerful creatures that have been seemingly enslaved by others much weaker than them. Players may read wrongly into these elements, but that is the nature of old, almost forgotten legends.
While the Elden Ring story is presented in the typical Souls series fashion, some noticeable differences make it a tad less obscure and closer to the Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice story presentation. The introduction manages to get players pumped up with a combination of beautiful artwork, great music, and masterful voice acting; the game also features way more NPCs that try to give players more information, although often in a very cryptic way. Many of these NPCs are the main focus of selected questlines, letting players learn more about them and what they are looking for in the Lands Between. Standard fare for the Souls series, sure, but a fare that has been elevated not only by excellent writing and voice acting but also by how the game actually plays.
Elden Ring is one of the very few open-world games that can make the player feel like they are really on an adventure. Following the starting area, which features a nice tutorial that teaches the basics in a very effective way, the player emerges in the proper Lands Between, free to go wherever they wish. While doing so at the start of the game is somewhat tricky due to lacking essential tools like the spectral steed Torrent, it is definitely possible, as there is very little barring the player's way. If one is skilled enough, it is possible to take down enemies that are meant to be taken on with better gear.
It's not like the players need to go out of their way to explore the Lands Between, as Elden Ring makes it exceedingly easy to get lost in this massive world and have fun while doing so. Pretty much every structure that can be seen from a distance holds some sort of secret, and moving from one to the other feels incredibly natural rather than "gamey" like it does in pretty much every other modern open-world game. The map, for example, is not cluttered with icons indicating points of interest that have yet to be discovered, and it is up to the player to discover things that may be significant by looking at them. Found what looked like a cave entrance? It probably is. Found a ruin that may be a proper point of interest? It definitely is. Markers and beacons that can be applied on the map make it easy to keep track of interesting things the player may have discovered, but they are the only icons you will find on the map, not counting the locations of the Sites of Graces, the new version of the classic Bonfires that also serve as fast-travel locations, Evergaols (special locations that hold combat challenges against powerful optional bosses), and discovered dungeons. In Elden Ring, the map isn't what guides the player but only a tool to help them experience all of the eerie beauty of the Lands Between.
All this wouldn't matter much with a bad or mediocre world design, but thankfully this is not the case in Elden Ring. The game's world and location design is a true showcase of From Software's capabilities. Everything from the open fields to minor and Legacy Dungeons is masterfully designed, with some extremely personable elements, like the strong winds on Stormhill and the unsettling atmosphere of Liurna of the Lakes. The locations are full of secrets to discover and alternate paths that are more or less suited for specific playstyles and builds. Stormveil Castle, the first major story dungeon, has two different routes that can be used for infiltrating it and even more to reach the Demigod and Elden Ring shardbearer Godrick. The much bigger size of the world allowed Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team to amp the ambushes and traps, many of them ready to surprise players as soon as they set foot in the Lands Between.
Saying how From Software managed to apply its unique design philosophies into an open-world game, while true, would not paint the entire picture, as the team did step up its game considerably in Elden Ring as well. With the ability to jump and ride the already mentioned spectral steed Torrent, the world design had to change to accommodate these mechanics, and From Software proved to be ready for this. All locations have excellent vertical design and feature some light platforming that doesn't feel out of place. On the contrary, it aligns with the developer's philosophy of letting players take risks and reward them. These platforming sequences are not on the same level as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, but it's clear how the game helped shape Elden Ring's prominent verticality.
When it comes to From Software games, the one completely new exploration mechanic is horse riding, a necessity with an open-world game. Soon after starting the game, players will obtain the Spectral Steed Whistle and thus the means to summon Torrent and further explore the Lands Between. Horse riding feels incredibly smooth and responsive and is a highly welcome addition to the formula, not only for exploration but also for combat situations. Some of the enemies and bosses you will encounter during the game use mounts as well, leading to some intense combat sequences that are truly epic. To make an example, I was fighting the Tree Sentinel boss (who can be fought right from the start of the game). After a grueling fight, I managed to take down the boss's health to near death. Out of Sacred Flask uses, I started charging the boss, risking everything on my next strike, and he does the same while it suddenly starts to rain. It's these small touches of open world design that elevate Elden Ring to a whole other level.
It can be argued that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild attempted to do something similar to Elden Ring, making the game feel like a proper adventure. However, Hyrule felt way more empty than the Lands Between. Additionally, most of the discoveries players can make in the Nintendo game don't hold the same importance as Elden Ring's, primarily due to the much richer lore behind the From Software game. And the open-world game by Nintendo definitely cannot compare in terms of mechanical complexity and depth of combat.
Elden Ring's combat mechanics would have been great even if they were the same ones featured in Dark Souls 3, but From Software went the extra mile and tweaked them in a lot of interesting ways, granting players an amazing degree of freedom. Combat, at its heart, is still the same stamina-based system where pretty much every action requires stamina, but the number of combat options has been exponentially increased. Weapon Arts, for example, are more varied than ever and can be switched out easily with the new Ash of War mechanics, which also let players change the affinity of the weapon, thus which stats it scales with, with the added benefit that it can be done without having to use items or spend Runes. Magic spells, divided into Faith-based incantations and Intelligence-based Sorceries, are incredibly varied and generally all very useful. Weapons are just as varied, highlighting the whole system's versatility. The return of a proper, working Poise value, which determines how often the player's action can be interrupted by an enemy's attack, and the introduction of a Super Armor hidden value that breaks the enemy's stance once depleted, make tanky and heavy builds as viable as the more agile ones. A stealth-focused build is also quite viable, thanks to the amazing world design that accommodates stealthy playstyles well and the good selection of weapons, accessories, and usable items, such as the Mimic Veil that lets the user blend with the environment by transforming into an object. The versatility of the system and the excellent combat and world design make sure that players can build their characters however they want and not feel gimped by their choices.
Expanding the basis of the combat and the growth systems seen in the Dark Souls games isn't the only thing Elden Ring does, as there are also some brand new features. The ability to jump, for example, doesn't just influence exploration, but combat as well, since jumping attacks deplete Super Armor faster, for example. Another brand new combat maneuver is the Guard Counter, a special attack that can be unleashed after blocking an attack from an enemy. Interestingly enough, this new technique can be used to take advantage of the smaller openings between enemy attack strings. If timed right, they let the player go back into a guard stance without getting damaged. This is an advanced use of the technique, so great knowledge of the enemies' movesets will be required to pull these off correctly.
Speaking of enemy designs, From Software outdid themselves in Elden Ring, with the biggest enemy variety ever seen in a game from the studio. The enemy lineup is massive, featuring all sorts of creatures ranging from your regular fully-armored knights to undead skeletons, giant trolls, demi-humans, beastmen, dragons, armored birds, walking spider-like hands and other monstrosities that feel like they have come straight from Bloodborne. The many bosses are obviously the stars of the show in Elden Ring, and they come with unique designs and movesets that will make some of them fan favorites for years to come.
With a huge open world to explore freely, new combat options, and massive enemy variety, Elden Ring may have been a very tough nut to crack for newcomers. Thankfully, this isn't the case, as the game is the most accessible one yet by From Software, featuring short and to the point tutorials for its main mechanics and some welcome quality of life improvements. A few examples? More generous placement of the Sites of Graces, the new Bonfires, the introduction of the Stakes of Marika, more basic checkpoints that reduce the frustration of dying and having to get back to the point of defeat. More accessible, however, doesn't mean easier. While it is true that many optional bosses can be trivialized by either going back to them after having leveled up and obtained better gear or by summoning spirits, the main bosses and some minor enemies can be challenging even at a high level, mostly due to their movesets or placement. As Elden Ring is all about freedom, players can decide how challenging the whole experience can be. If one were to go straight to the Legacy Dungeons, for example, and ignore everything else, things would be extremely challenging.
The introduction of the already mentioned summonable spirits was pretty much a requirement, given how much multiplayer has changed compared to Dark Souls 3. In Elden Ring, it is still possible to summon other players to one's game for cooperative and competitive gameplay, but it's a little less straightforward this time around, as summon signs only become visible by using a special item, the Furlcalling Finger Remedy, and activating the Summoning Pool in an area. It is also possible to submit one's summon sign to the pool to become eligible for summoning by players that interact with said pool. Additionally, invasions are only possible this time around if you're already in a multiplayer session with other players, which is a change that some may not like, as it does make invasions more in favor of the invaded players unless the invaded player allows for more than a single invader by using the Taunter's Tongue item. These new mechanics also make it easier for players to ignore the multiplayer mechanics and play solo (albeit with features like messages and bloodstains active) without having to worry about getting invaded.
When it comes to visuals, Elden Ring looks way ahead of the previous games from the studio. Thanks to the fantastic sense of scale and the huge draw distance, character models, textures, and lighting, the open-world segments look great. There are some strange visual issues with vegetation's shadows, but they are more or less noticeable depending on what the player is doing. What is apparent, in the PC version of the game at least, are some performance drops in the open areas. They happen mainly in the starting Limgrave area, but thankfully they are not as frequent in other areas and are seemingly absent in dungeons, although they may still occur if both player and enemy start using magic spells. The stuttering issues don't seem to be related to the specs of the system running the game, as I experienced them at every resolution and not just at 4K. The machine used for the test (i7-10700 CPU, RTX 3070, 16 GB RAM) is way above the recommended specs listed by the developer, too.
The day one patch, which promises further tuning, was not available in time for the review, so there is the chance that these stuttering issues may be solved by the time the game launches. That the PC version doesn't natively support framerates above 60 FPS and ultrawide resolutions is not going to be fixed anytime soon (except by modders, perhaps), and it can be a dealbreaker for some players, not to mention something that shouldn't happen in a modern PC game.
I tried hard to find any faults in Elden Ring, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't find any outside of some technical issues that the developers could fix via patches. I firmly believe that perfection doesn't exist and that it is always possible to improve, but I really couldn't think of anything that Elden Ring could have done better. As such, the game wholly deserves a perfect score, an honor I would have given only to a couple of other modern games, not only for its extremely high quality but also for what it accomplished with its open world and for how it will surely influence video games as a whole in the future.
PC version tested (review code provided by the publisher).
Elden Ring is not only the best action RPG developed by From Software but one of the best open-world titles ever made. A masterclass of game design, Elden Ring isn't just a game but an epic dark fantasy journey that no one will be able to forget for a very long time.
- Masterfully crafted world and lore
- Excellent open-world design that grants players the freedom to do things at their own pace
- Intricate dungeon design
- Deep combat and customization possibilities
- Improved accessibility, with tutorials providing information on central mechanics
- Minor, yet noticeable, stuttering on PC
- No support for framerates above 60 FPS and ultrawide resolutions
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