It was in 2011 that many felt they were falling out of love with the Legend of Zelda series with the release of Skyward Sword. The newest release was too linear, too handholdy, and almost nothing similar to the original NES title; which was one of the first games to embrace the idea “go anywhere, do anything” that inspires so many open world games to date. It was in that year that a new player emerged. Dark Souls, a game with little renown was perhaps the best Zelda title in years, with a dark fantastical twist. Dark Souls never held your hand, and players could famously explore multiple paths to start the game. It was a first step in the series that would wind up dominating the fantasy genre for the better part of the last decade.
Elden Ring feels like the apotheosis of what Dark Souls started. There are few titles that feel as open, as mysterious and as fun to explore in recent memory. Staying true to the rock solid formula of purposeful combat, non linear exploration, and a balance of risk and reward, the developers at From Software up the ante in delivering all the highlights expected out of the series, but within a massive open world brimming with even more secrets and puzzles to explore. While there are some minor missteps pertaining to difficulty and balance, Elden Ring still stands out as not just one of the best fantasy worlds of this generation, but in modern gaming.
Elden Ring succeeds in presenting us with one of the most masterfully crafted fantasy worlds in the medium, with insanely detailed environments that are almost alien in their construction, with distinct and varied biomes that stretch beyond the typical “grasslands, desert and tundra tropes that the genre has gotten used to. Each of these seven open world areas are distinct, and contain visually interesting environments that also transition nicely, making the continent of “The Lands Between” fantastical but also believable in its own right. Not only are these areas gorgeous, sometimes in twisted ways , but they are also chock full of content; there are so many secrets packed into these areas they could very well burst. Even forgetting about the standard dungeons that you can expect to explore for much of the game, there are memorable characters, mysterious lore and picturesque landscapes in hidden nooks and crannies that make this game a joy to comb through meticulously. With how great this content can be, it's almost a shame how hidden some of it feels. Souls games always had a certain esoteric nature to them, but this was far more manageable when those games were much more contained. With such an expansive open world, a bit more guidance would have been appreciated so that completing some of the side content wouldn't outright demand the use of internet guides.
Each environment is stunning and a joy to explore
This isn’t to say that dungeon exploration outside of the massive open areas is an afterthought. From Software had always specialized in delivering well-crafted, intricate dungeons and curated gauntlets of bosses that were often horrifying as they were creatively designed. In Elden Ring, they manage to expand the scope massively, without sacrificing the quality of these explorable areas. Elden Ring’s dungeons come in various forms. Some short caves take no more than a few minutes to get through, and usually finish with a “boss” that is typically a more powerful open world enemy. The real meat is within the “Legacy Dungeons” which are large, unmissable fortresses that are similar to previous dungeons in the Souls series. The best thing that can be said about these is that they are just as good as what we’ve grown accustomed to from From Software. Within, expect a gauntlet of challenge, twisting, interwoven pathways and breathtaking views and sights befitting a Souls dungeon.
When creating a game of this size, it is simply not possible to deliver an experience that felt as lovingly handcrafted as the previous installments of the franchise. So while Elden Ring’s world is probably more grandiose than every previous game put together, there is more noticeable repetition when it comes to certain bosses and enemy types. I would still wager that Elden Ring has more enemy variety than contemporary open world games, but there were still a few moments where I asked myself “hadn’t I seen this guy before?”, especially when it came to some of the optional bosses. How you feel about this tradeoff will depend on whether you enjoy just exploring the massive continent in the Lands Between, or if you come to this series for the boss battles. The exploration here is by far the best of From Software’s work, while the bosses can be a mixed bag in comparison to the lofty expectations of the series.
Character design as always - is top notch
Each of the main “Demi-God” bosses are breathtaking, original fights that match any of the best designs we’ve seen from From Software, and are brutal challenges that will test even the most seasoned Souls veteran. So challenging in fact, that I felt they could use a little more tuning to give us a more balanced experience. The struggle with retaining a core fanbase of games predicated on being challenging is that the developers must constantly raise the stakes in each installment, otherwise they run the risk of players figuring out the formula and having these fights grow stale. From Software has made an effort to subvert expectations for returning players who have grown accustomed to the typical Souls boss’ moveset. In Elden Ring, bosses often have extended windups, throwing off the timing for when players know to dodge, often alternate between separate combos with little warning, and overall grant the player far fewer openings to attempt to attack safely. I understand the thought process behind this decision, and in certain bosses this design philosophy does get a chance to shine. However, especially towards endgame, this pursuit of challenge just feels far too oppressive to deal with given the toolset players are offered. It’s simply not very fun to dodge upwards of ten seconds of enemy attacks, draining your stamina bar, and then having a split second window to follow up with a counter of your own. To top it off, many of these bosses directly read your inputs, so many actions such as healing, using items or even attacking have even fewer windows to use without risking damage. As a primarily melee user, there were parts in Elden Ring where boss battles felt less like a fun back and forth and more like me watching the boss perform combos while I waited to actually get to do something.
Fortunately players can use several new tools to organically lower the difficulty. The spirit summons are perhaps the biggest, and strongest addition. For a certain mana cost, players can summon a spirit of some of the many foes they will encounter in the lands between, which will aid them as an ally in boss fights. While one could always cooperate with other living players and AI human characters, spirit summons let you conjure anything from skeletal soldiers, wolves or even jellifish to assist in challenging situations.
Difficulty spikes aside, combat has never felt more natural than it does here. Earlier games in the Souls series were often derided for being slow, or too methodical in nature, but Elden Ring retains the purposeful nature of previous From games, while also speeding things up to keep fights fast and active. A few key changes make this entry the smoothest and most mechanically interesting game in the series to date. The stamina bar that controls player actions refills more quickly to match the faster pace of combat, which is a good change from the sluggish pace in previous entries. There are also several new, imaginative weapons on tap here, but the new spells are where From’s ingenuity really shines. As someone that usually plays these games as a strictly melee user, I even found myself investing in faith to take advantage of the holy power of the Order, the absolutely insane dragon spells, and even blood magic. The inclusion of a dedicated jump button grants the player greater optionality in both exploration and combat, and I utilized this often to avoid low, sweeping attacks and execute my own airborne leaping strikes that had been much more difficult to pull off in early entries.
One of the many weapon enhancements that players can experiment with
A huge change is the introduction of “Ashes of War”, which function similarly to Dark Souls 3’s weapon arts. Each weapon can be infused with one of these ashes which allows the execution of unique abilities. Players can equip abilities that infuse their sword with lightning or other elements, those that allow them to phase through enemies while dodging, or even the ability to summon eruptions of molten lava while thrusting their weapon towards the ground. From Software’s creativity on display is incredibly impressive, and showcases why Elden Ring has some of the most satisfying combat in not just the series, but the medium of video games.
Though there are problems that crop up in the endgame, Elden Ring is still one of the freshest open world releases in years. The amount of content packed into the massive continent of the Lands Between is staggering and makes the effort of similar games in the genre almost embarrassing in comparison. While From Software still falls into the trappings of the open world genre’s penchant for repetition, it is somewhat forgivable considering the sheer scope of this title. Minor criticism aside, if you have any interest in Souls games, gigantic open worlds, or even fantasy in general, Elden Ring is a must play experience that you’d be remiss to pass on.