Elden Ring | Developer: FromSoftware | Publisher: Bandai Namco | Played on: PC | Year: 2022
Descending upon the faithful at last, Elden Ring is a beguiling, awe-inspiringly epic video game that celebrates and innovates in equal measure. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Elden Ring box art showing a knight kneeling under a bright symbol in the night sky

Elden Ring

I come to my senses just as “YOU DIED” graces my screen for the first time playing Elden Ring. I was barely fifteen minutes in before one of its many callbacks to the Souls sister franchise — in this case an overpowered tutorial boss — vanquished my Confessor before she could even leave the training zone.

This embarrassing defeat didn’t phase me because within my failure is another story waiting to be told. This wasn’t me being rusty, this was me being in awe of the open world now unfolding before my eyes; as I sat there mesmerised at my controller, struggling to take it all in, let alone fight back.

I tell my brother and he isn’t surprised in the slightest because the same thing happened to him as well! Imagine that: two grown men being so overwhelmed by the grandeur of a video game that their combined years of expertise abandons them almost immediately. On the plus side, that unmistakeable sense of community was back again and players like us would now spend years swapping stories about this wonderful time.

Whilst Sekiro was excellent, it was missing a few crucial ingredients in this sense. Elden Ring reinstates the player messaging system; it brings back the multiplayer gameplay and the character builds, and restores that feeling of togetherness last felt in 2017 with The Ringed City DLC for Dark Souls III.

Summoning a pair of co-op buddies is easier than ever and together you’ll enjoy a huge action-RPG in an open world full of possibilities. And my goodness is it beautiful. Bear witness to the gorgeous milieus of the Lands Between; a place whose domains are characterised by the busyness of indigenous communities, by suites of ambient music, and remarkable terrain whose boundaries expand in scope every time a precious map fragment is found.

How did FromSoftware get so good at this? Or as one player message I saw asks: “Why is it always beautiful?”

Well, the improved creation tools make beautiful characters for one. These heroes are called “Tarnished.” Shunned by demigods will they hunt down the Great Runes needed to mend the Elden Ring and ascend the throne of Elden Lord. Author George RR Martin contributed to this backstory; his influence being felt in the finger motifs and the vaguely political machinations of godly forces behind the scenes. Certain elements of the saga resemble a dysfunctional family squabble, only one where entire realities are at stake, not just an imposing-looking throne.

Elden Ring also builds upon FromSoftware’s own trademark flourishes for moody storytelling. NPC quests are more intricate and affecting than ever. The winding tales of Roderika and Lunar Princess Ranni are gripping, and I shouldn’t downplay the brilliance of the lesser characters including a magnificent rascal lamenting how things went “tits up with the Erdtree”, or the giant blacksmith who refers to himself — in dulcet Welsh tones — as an “old codger who refuses to retire his hammer.”

Memorable figures like these are met in every corner of the Lands Between; a place whose otherworldly sights and epic proportions come into full register after many hours spent exploring. These locations stretch out further and further afield before giving way to “legacy dungeons” which feature the more complex, shortcut-driven level design we’ve come to know and love.

Players also ride into battle on their horse, Torrent, who brings with him an entirely new way of charting this hostile realm. Mounted combat is fast and deadly, with even the most armoured of enemies being quickly toppled by a horseback charge. Other mounted enemies and field bosses are designed with this strategy in mind, which gives players room to experiment on the battlefield.

Within that remit are hundreds of weapons and spells to consider. Skills can be assigned to weapons using collectibles called Ashes of War. These bestow everything from lunging attacks to lightning bolts, as well as elemental infusions and status effects. Even sweeter is being able to freely adjust it all with minimum fuss.

That being said, the Ashes of War menu is tricky to make sense of at first. These games are starting to resemble Pokémon with the number of different mechanics they have competing for space. A separate collectible called “Ashes”, confusingly, can be used to summon spectral allies to fight alongside you. These helpers are enormously powerful, to the extent that I avoided using them myself for fear of making things too easy.

Elden Ring skews harder than Dark Souls to make up for this potency. The returning combat system has been sped up yet again, with certain enemies and bosses capable of devastating combos. Concessions have been made for new players (managing stamina and reallocating stats is a breeze), but make no mistake: this remains a diamond-hard experience for the most part.

FromSoftware have some work to do in terms of balance. For every abusable spell or overtuned Ash is another that feels really weak, and I’ve seen invading players using the same pair of overpowered samurai swords time and again. These concerns would be a sorer point, only Elden Ring makes PvP an opt-in affair now. Human invaders are exclusively matched against parties or against other lone adventurers who manually flag themselves for PvP. There’s no dedicated arena for competitive brawling yet.

On PC the multiplayer is stymied by connection errors presumably brought on by heavy server traffic. It’s not so bad when delving into side dungeons, but it’s likely someone will disconnect from a 3-player session when navigating the open world. Whilst my GeForce RTX 3080 Ti handles Elden Ring at max settings very well, it’s worth noting the performance problems other people have reported about the PC version. Aside from the disappointing graphics options, it seems buyers should expect frame dips and stutters when playing on older hardware, at least until some relevant fixes can be patched in.

In matters of design though, Elden Ring feels like the epic video game FromSoftware has been building up to for years. It has the expansive level design of Dark Souls, the faster combat and dungeon layouts of Bloodborne, and the skilful weapon design of Dark Souls III. Let’s not forget the jumping and stealth mechanics from Sekiro, nor the grim storytelling that’s been there since Demon’s Souls. Even the proper dual wielding system from Dark Souls II makes a triumphant return, not to mention the upgraded lighting which finally realizes the gloomy darkness and torchlit gameplay Dark Souls II promised yet could never quite deliver. Whilst elegant references are made to this heritage, Elden Ring still forges a strong identity of its own.

“Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential”, says the Agile Manifesto. This is a principle FromSoftware embraced in the most positive sense — I genuinely feel some of Elden Ring’s greatness comes from the things it doesn’t do.

This is an open world game that — against general expectations — has a remarkably clean user interface. By one comparison, I remember years ago saying how small the viewable area was in Xenoblade Chronicles X thanks to status bars and other UI-related clutter. Elden Ring is never like that.

The slightly clunky map screen and opening tutorial present minor foibles, but this remains a very pure FromSoftware experience on a larger scale. Once players are dropped into the open world, there is very little intrusion. Few and far between are the cutscenes players must watch or waypoint markers they must follow. Charting a course is left up to them. If that course travels through an advanced area full of reaper-class enemies, whether it’s because the player explored too far or the game just cruelly dumped them there, the agency of tackling the unexpected is always in the player’s hands.

In a weird sense, the Lands Between are rarely intimidating because of that. After every failure, players will wonder what’s behind that next corner; what item that sadistic enemy was guarding, or what curious landmasses that next map fragment will reveal. Players might discover the village suffering from a strange curse or the mountainside camp where sorcerers are busy teaching magic to the natives there. Even the most familiar cave or dungeon template has its own verisimilitude and FromSoftware doesn’t care if you miss any of it!

A wealth of optional content rewards only the curious player and even if NPCs are generally more explicit about things, their stories and motivations are rarely spelled out either. This arcane mystery and freedom urges players towards dozens of pleasant distractions. Again, the issue of balancing is a delicate one. It’s no fun blitzing through an area your character is overly levelled for. However, it’s uncommon to get blocked by a tough boss fight when there are so many avenues to explore.

The open world does have its trade-offs. Completing an optional dungeon feels anticlimactic when you’re rewarded items or Ashes you don’t plan on using. Hundreds of hours are needed to see everything in one campaign, so there’s also the exhaustion factor to consider alongside the game’s somewhat ropey final stretch.

This is partly due to the game’s disappointing boss battles. Elden Ring has Sekiro’s problem where many of its minor bosses are recycled or clumsily paired to pad out the game’s content. The soundtracks for these encounters are not as melodic nor as memorable as we’re used to hearing. The difficulty ranges from pathetic to insane from one moment to the next, and it hurts me to admit the dragon battles (with one notable exception) are some of the lamest I can remember.

The excessive recycling I mentioned earlier is frustrating because it makes bosses less special and in some cases spoils their appearance entirely. Boss health scales well for cooperative play and repeating attempts is more convenient, but their balance assumes players will be summoning help or abusing Ashes (of both kinds) to stay competitive. There are some epic foes, but I still feel disappointed considering FromSoftware’s strong track record in this area.

There are other quibbles to mention, like how obtuse weapon scaling can be, or how underused some of the new statuses like Sleep and Madness are. There’s also the occasional spot of clunky platforming reminiscent of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter’s worst efforts.

And yet, when I look back at the two hundred hours spent on my first adventure, I look back on many hours of quality. Elden Ring is life after Souls in poignant ways, even though the dark authenticity still reigns in the dire fate of characters met or even just Director Miyazaki’s endless affection for midden and fetid swamps.

In simpler terms: this is one of the most not boring games you’ll ever play; an experience where every minute creates new and exciting memories you’re sure to take into breathless conversations with others under the same spell.

Consider my trek into the Weeping Peninsula a parting gesture. Here I had summoned my brother as a cooperating phantom whereupon we discovered a gigantic ruin that literally grew legs and started slowly pounding towards us. A hostile player then invaded brandishing one of those godforsaken samurai swords I was steadily building a grudge against. My brother engaged (with his own magical samurai sword, naturally) and I became mesmerised at my controller once more. Lost in a bizarre world, I stood watching the impossible sight of rival samurai furiously duelling each other whilst desperately dodging the booming stomps of a sentient structure towering above us all. Who’d have thought these marvellous sights and sounds were possible?

My final thought rests with the future. Elden Ring’s runaway success will spawn a new franchise from here and it’s almost frightening to think what its developers will do next from this lofty pinnacle.

Since 2011, FromSoftware have closed out an entire decade of destruction. Go play Elden Ring now, if only to say you were at the beginning of their next one.

Elden Ring on Steam »