To Die or Not to Die, That is the Die.
Elden Ring. Now that’s a name with weight – palpable gravitas. Sometimes, a game’s reputation far proceeds its release. But Elden Ring’s assumed prestige was something else. The game was announced to roaring applause and soared through pre-release seemingly fated for mass acclaim. Mere mention of the game would conjure deafening hype from across the gaming community. Even a Soulsborne novice like me felt the sheer magnitude upon Elden Ring’s release; it was Earth-shattering – soul-staggering – an event primed to leave the gaming landscape changed in its wake. And for all intents and purposes, it has done just that. You cannot have a conversation about open-world design without Elden Ring’s shadow casting over the entire topic. It’s everything people love about proper Dark Souls design, while simultaneously the antithesis of tired contemporary AAA design. All this is to say, I should really, really like Elden Ring… It’s pretty good, I guess.
After a prologue introduces you to a new, familiar FromSoft world – with an ostensible George R.R. Martin flair – you’re thrown into a dark cave with hazards and monsters to spare. Once emancipated from the depths of this frightening tutorial, you’re touched by the light of The Lands Between. The magnificence of the omnipresent Erdtree inviting you to submerse yourself into this new frontier. Immediately afterwards, you’ll likely be massacred by the brooding, horse-bound Tree Sentinel. Despite what contemporary open-worlds might’ve conditioned you to expect, this world is far from accommodating. No matter where you turn, you’ll tend to find death awaiting. That’s really the gameloop of Elden Ring: go somewhere, die, either go somewhere else or defiantly throw life after life away clinging to the hope of success.
Welcome to Hyrule
That loop goes a long way. The hand-holding guidance seen in AAA game design is absent here. The closest thing to it, a crumb trail projecting from the odd save point, quickly leads you to boss you’ll be egregiously ill-equipped for. Had the Tree Sentinel not taught you the ways of The Lands Between, Margit, The Fell Omen undoubtedly will. This is a ruthless world; there is no easy way through it. Like a massive wall blocking all progress forward, you’ll only overcome Elden Ring by laboriously chipping away at it. And that’s the appeal. There’s a freedom in such a notion. The game is not designed with your success in mind. You are an intruder in these lands, and if you want to conquer it, it will take all the might, cunning, and determination you can muster. Again, there’s liberation to be found in a game asking the player of their sincere efforts.
If you're like me, you'll spend 3 hours against this guy stubbornly holding out for a win
Really, though, that’s typical of a Soulsborne. A testament to FromSoft’s level design and game philosophy that, so many entries later, their games’ difficulty and subsequent intent shines through. Provided the player’s willingness to chip away, Elden Ring’s world is as rewarding as it is punishing. And just as its level design has stayed consistent with its predecessors, so too has Elden Ring’s input/output design. Every movement in Elden Ring feels extremely polished. Attacks feel purposeful and dodges finetuned. That does not make movement particularly graceful. Though its stiffness and struggle does lend itself to the game’s themes of hopelessness and despair. What is doesn’t lend itself to is actually being fun.
There’s a fascinating discussion to be had about meaningfully subdued input/output design (yes, that’s what I’m still calling it). Look to the bygone era of survival horrors utilizing ‘tank-controls,’ for instance. There’s a group of staunch defenders for said relics of the 5th generation. Those who would call the active depowering of agility a fixture of such games’ horrific caliber. Despite what they might say to the contrary, I feel completely justified in calling tank-controls objectively atrocious. While I understand the lack of ability may augment and intensify the attributes these games strive for, that doesn’t make the struggle to simply walk in a straight line or quickly change direction any less infuriating. It’s a challenge that comes not from perfecting the details of inputs, nor understanding how your outputs might affect the game world. Instead, the challenge comes from grappling with a fundamentally broken and unintuitive design. And broken, unintuitive design remains broken, unintuitive design, regardless of whether it’s thematically or aesthetically apropos.
Now, to end this whole tangent exactly where it began: Elden Ring is pretty mediocre to control. While nowhere near the horrendous level of tank-controls – I did already call Elden Ring’s input-output design polished, the exact opposite of broken – I still find the game fairly lacking in that department. And like tank-controls, I don’t believe there’s much justification for it. Sure, it’s undoubtedly intentional and refined for what it is. But it’s clunky and unsatisfying. So much so that I can’t recall a single jump or slash that thrilled me per se. At times, I well-timed dodge from a daunting attack or successfully landing a strike on an enemy would be exciting. But I’d attribute that to the enemy design more than anything. A lack of traversal options beyond horsie riding compounds the disappointment. A thought experiment: let’s place the playable character of Elden Ring in a blank void of a level. There are no enemies here, no actual level design; there is nothing to interact with or discern. Nothing but the inputs of Elden Ring to engage yourself with. How long might one find amusement in such a circumstance? I’d reckon the game’s utter lack of visceral, tactile gamefeel would become all too apparent in a manner of minutes. It may even come off as any generic Eastern game with seldom a budget and nary a bit of originality. I might say the mere breadth of input options does make up for the lack of viscera, but that’s a very small consolation.
Horsie is a good horsie, though
Far less damming, but still worth mention, is the lack of game logic systems seen in Elden Ring’s world. There are no fires to spread. There is no interactive weather. Nor some elaborate time scheduling. The open-world lacks dynamism. This complaint is debatably moot. Elden Ring never advertised itself as any sort of simulation. And the absence of such features is not necessarily detrimental. But it still feels at odds with the current state of the industry. It's reminiscent of the worlds seen in late 90s/early 2000s Western RPGs. Filled with ornate and engaging details, yet untimely flat. The world is like the paper props of a stage play; they give the play setting and context, but they aren’t an active participant in the performance. It's a far cry from the seemingly living, breathing worlds seen as of late. Take this paragraph as you please, though. This is more of an observation than a scathing criticism. In fact, I'm sure some would find the omission of ‘cutting-edge’ programming refreshing. Me personally, I find a 2022 open-world missing anything of the sort a tad antiquated.
On a positive note, LOOK AT THAT GORGEOUS ART DIRECTION
But I digress. I’m not one to dwell excessively on shortcomings. Especially in the presence of a game full of successes. So we’ll move on to the second stage of my review process: rating the game’s effectiveness as seen from several different angles. So, without further ado…
Imaginative Vigor – 4/4
The Lands Between make for a fantastical setting. Brimming with gorgeous vistas and inimitable residents, there’s no open-world on the market quite like it. A lot of the setting might come off as typical fantasy fair, but the essence of it all goes a long way to differentiate Elden Ring from anything seen before. This is a melancholy world, glimmers of hope always just barely illuminating the most barren and hopeless of places. It’s not about race politics or lineage, The Lands Between are a wholly unique staple of the fantasy genre. That is, perhaps with the exception of Elden Ring’s own kin. Show Dark Souls and Elden Ring to the oblivious bystander, and they likely couldn’t tell the difference. However, between the strength of the game’s individual character designs and the innovations FromSoft brings to their formula, the studio’s creativity shows true regardless. I’ve no qualms calling Elden Ring extraordinarily imaginative.
Entertainment Value – 3/4
Elden Ring can be a blast. Due to its freeform design and variety, it’s a delight to explore its world. Fights can be positively thrilling, as well. Consistently high-steak and distinctive, I’ve faced off against some of the greatest bosses a singular video game has ever offered. And such an abundance of them, too. It was a great time. Yet, I cannot give the game the highest of marks in this area. Aforementioned errs with input/output design hold the game back. Nothing about player abilities, specifically, is particularly fun. And even besides that, FromSoft’s trademark difficulty did not always make for the most enjoyable of times. I was certainly never bored, but I wasn’t constantly besotted either.
Here's a thing: Got horsie to the top of a fountain
Emotional Resonance – 3/4
Do you know fear? You will. While no horror game, Elden Ring can frighten through intimidation with ease. It’s effortless. Likewise, what was meant to be grotesque and pitiful is just that. The game can elicit wonder and excitement with leisure elegance. The game has no grandiose emotional exhausts. But it’s overflowing with feelings. Good feelings, bad feelings – hopeful, horrid. All of which feel intentional. There did seem to be a lot of try-hard comedians with sexual favors on their minds and the need to share that with others through the game’s system for sharing messages. So your resonance may vary. Personally, however, I felt wholly engaged in the world of Elden Ring and what it had to say. Though the lack of any truly poignant feelings leaves Elden Ring as an adept, not exceptional, demonstration of resonance.
Just some guys palling around, getting nuts, doing crazy things
Technical Function – 3/4
It would be a disservice to Elden Ring to call its design merely competent. With, of course, the exception of its input/output design, which barely gets off as competent. Where it not for its polish and wealth of options, I would even call it lacking. Luckily for Elden Ring, it absolutely nails its ambitions of being an open-world action-RPG. Ergo, it functions as such terrifically. It’s just a shame; the game could’ve been an unmitigated marvel of design. But as it is, there’s cautionary takeaways to be had along with worthwhile imitations. Talking about more superficial function, though, the game is absolutely playable. Maybe a smidgen of performance issues here and there (I’ve heard the PC sku, in particular, gets rough on occasion), but that does not make the game a barely functioning mess by any means. To reiterate, this time referring to both the function of its core design and playability, Elden Ring is terrific.
Artistic Depth – 4/4
Imma be real wit you: I barely understand what’s happening in Elden Ring. There’s, like…rings – elden rings, I suppose. And you gotta get ‘em. As FromSoft is one to do, the universe presents itself in an obtuse manner. I always had the sense I was missing essential context to the happenings of the game. Now, normally I would see efforts to obfuscate the plot and lore as an artificial means to bolster the artistry. You know, like narrative ambiguity for the sole sake of leaving the audience to apply their own meaning and finality. A collaborative effort that allows a work to masquerade as something deep and intelligent. However, in the case of Elden Ring, that creator/audience collaboration serves only as the game’s form of story-telling. The story is already there. It’s just waiting to be uncovered. And its themes apparent even to those not looking for it. Most inhabitants of The Lands Between feel lost. It’s almost a purgatory. One fraught with danger and confusion. That’s a motif explored through its story, through its art direction, and through its gameplay. In my eyes, harmony of gameplay and theming is the holy grail of artistry in gaming. And Elden Ring’s case is reinforced by having a compelling, thought-provoking theme. The artistry on display is masterful, without a doubt.
Poor unfortunate soul
Despite my criticisms, it’s hard to deny the quality of Elden Ring. In a sense, the game represents what open-world design should be in 2022. Unfortunately, other aspects feel fairly 2002. I suppose that’s why my want to criticize seeps throughout this generically positive review; it’s simply frustrating to see a game succeed in so much just to forgo the recent lengths the industry has gone to explore the psychology of gamefeel. More frustrating yet to see the game generally treated like an infallible pillar of gaming perfection. I don’t think it fair to judge the game based on this context, but I would be lying if I said the thought wasn’t pervading my playthrough.
To that same effect, it’s worth mentioning the open-world fatigue that befell me several weeks prior to Elden Ring and into my play time. Although The Lands Between were provocative, my patience for meticulous exploration was worn before the game made its proposal. Honestly, between my fatigue and bias, maybe any negative feelings towards Elden Ring are a bit inflated. Or, just as likely, my apprehension of being too contrarian has caused me to delude myself into appreciating the game more than I would’ve otherwise. There’s a point to be made about the undeniable subjectivity in reviews and the futility of trying to judge something divorced of intrinsic perspective and extrinsic circumstance.
But no one is here to read my soapbox on subjectivity in professional journalism (how cute that I related my writing to something professional). The point is: Elden Ring. Specifically, is it good? Well…yes. That’s been established in the continuity of this review. But I will say, I came away from Elden Ring feeling conflicted. Truthfully, I was hyped for the game just like so many others. I was hoping to love it. I was hoping it would become the best game I’ve played in recent memory. But it didn’t. I can’t say I’ve become more enamored with Elden Ring than most other quality games I’ve played over the last few years. Despite seeing its objective superiority in several aspects. And that’s the funny thing: I still reviewed the game incredibly highly. Higher than I hypothetically would’ve reviewed many other games of years past. And it absolutely deserves it, too.
For now, I guess all I can assume is I didn't mesh much with Elden Ring. Maybe once I've had more time to digest the experience, I can better understand what I found underwhelming about it. But until then, I must presume Elden Ring is a good game – a phenomenal one, even. The game makes a fool out of many of its contemporaries and you should absolutely play it. Maybe you'll love it. And if you don't, you've the privilege of being lost in a self-reflective limbo with no resolution in sight. Rather apt for a traveler of The Lands Between, I would say.