When I first saw FromSoftware’s announcement of “Elden Ring” at E3 2021, I was lukewarm. I have always enjoyed challenging games — “Hollow Knight” and “Cuphead” are two of my favorite games of all time — but I could never get into “Dark Souls,” another game by FromSoftware. Whether it was the difficult bosses or the long and treacherous paths back to them, the series was never my cup of tea. However, “Elden Ring” completely changed that for me.
Before I hop into what worked, I have to get to what didn’t. For my fellow PC nerds, I was playing on an rx 570 and an AMD 1700x, which is technically below the minimum required specs. Due to this, the frame rates at some portions dropped, especially when it was raining, but the game never became unplayable. Another issue is the repeated use of some bosses. For the most part, I enjoyed the boss fights in the game; however, I sometimes noticed I was fighting a more difficult version of a boss I had already beaten, except now, it had more health and did more damage.
My biggest complaint about this game — and from what I gather from FromSoftware games in general — is the number of bullshit deaths you have to put up with. Invisible enemies or cheap attacks that will lock you in place and take out your entire health bar are frustrating enough and expected, but sometimes it’s not the enemies that kill you, it’s the camera. Because the game relies on an over-the-shoulder view as well as a lock-on-target system that keeps enemies in front of you, sometimes I couldn’t see anything that was happening, especially facing off against large enemies. This prevented me from seeing what attacks they were about to perform, which inevitably got me killed. For example, the final boss of the game had a flame breath attack that I couldn’t see half the time because I was standing behind him trying to whack him with a sword while his fatass was taking up my entire screen. Although it wasn’t a big issue for a majority of enemies, I did feel cheated when it happened repeatedly against the same boss.
Now onto the good stuff, which there’s so much of. Rarely do I see games that have such vivid and imaginative enemies — they range from your standard rodents of unusual size to an eldritch horror composed of human body parts, but personally, I think the designs for the bosses take the cake. As of the time of writing, I have completed the main questline in about 45 hours. The first major boss, Godrick the Grafted, is an amalgamation of his enemies’ body parts, and in the second phase of the fight, he rips off his arm and attaches a dragon head to its stump. Even more ridiculous was the third boss I fought — Starscourge Radahn (epic name) — who is about the size of an elephant and rides around on a normal horse. Make no mistake; no matter how ridiculous each boss is, their difficulty remains consistent.
When you aren’t fighting Lovecraftian demons or birds with swords on their feet, it’s easy to get lost in the beautiful landscapes. After emerging from the starting cave, you immediately grasp how expansive the world truly is: the large erdtree shining brilliantly in the distance, expansive castles and ruins, cliffs and caves all exist to be explored. Open worlds are not a new concept — for better or worse, they’ve dominated the gaming landscape for the past decade. “Elden Ring” isn’t particularly unique, but it refines the genre almost to perfection; there is something to find or explore in every corner of the map. In my total time playing this game, about half of it was spent exploring the landscape, finding catacombs and raiding ruins. Very early in the game, you get access to a steed, which makes exploring the expansive environments more manageable. Also, unlike “Dark Souls,” you can jump, which not only allows for a certain element of freedom of exploration but a new movement option in combat. Details such as the integration of the horse and being able to jump may seem like trivial additions, but the game would be unplayable without them. For example, there are spirit springs that allow mounted players to scale walls and cliffs instantly. You don’t get as much freedom as you do in something like “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” (there’s no climbing or paragliding), but restricting the movement options ensures the movements they do have are polished, which is vital for arguably the most important part of the game: the combat.
In terms of combat, there are basically two schools of thought: You could be a Chad melee character who gets up close and personal with bosses and mobs with oversized swords and hammers, or you could be a cowardly mage or archer, peppering enemies with damage from a distance. For once, both options are entirely viable; the incredibly slow spell cast times of games past have been cast aside for a quicker system, allowing mage builds to actually have a chance against the speedy enemies and bosses. However, because I went with a melee-focused build, I want to focus more on that aspect. Like most other FromSoftware games, the combat is heavily focused on learning boss patterns, dodging their strikes and spells and then punishing them at the end of the cycle — easy in theory, but a bitch in practice.
The combat isn’t very complex. You also have a wide choice of arms, from staffs and bows to giant axes and daggers, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. To avoid enemy attacks, you can quickly step backward, roll slowly or try to parry, all of which require stamina. You have a limited amount of stamina, which is required to attack, so many fights are not only monitoring the boss attacks but also managing your own resources. I found that the most frustrating part of the combat was the delayed attacks from bosses to punch panic options. During fights with high-level bosses, when players are hit, they tend to try to roll away as fast as possible. However, many bosses have delays between their attacks specifically meant to catch this option. Conquering the combat system in this game required patience and perseverance, and most importantly, the ability to stay calm. I don’t tend to overreact to dying, whether it’s punching my monitors or slamming my keyboard, but this game did make me shout a couple of times — I’m looking at you Maliketh. FromSoftware has perfected this formula, making each boss a treat (in its own way).
As someone who values story as much as gameplay (sometimes even more), “Elden Ring” is… okay? The plot is rather standard: you are the chosen one and must save the world by beating up a lot of people. The story fits the purpose of the game but lacks nuance. However, I would like to clarify the difference between the story and the lore: The story is like a slice of cake. You get to eat and digest that one piece. But the lore is the entire cake. It’s the quality of ingredients and flavoring and the design, it’s what’s behind that delicious slice of cake — and the lore for this game is absolutely phenomenal. Written by my favorite author, George R. R. Martin (“A Song of Ice and Fire”), the game’s amount of detail is absurd. Most fantasy games are written and created by the same studio, or are based on a book or movie. For example, “Shadow of Mordor” was based on the “Lord of the Rings” series. FromSoftware collaborated with an accredited fantasy author and produced something so expansive and detailed that players are still discovering new things daily, even weeks after release. The lore isn’t shoved in your face — it’s something to discover by yourself by exploring new areas, dungeons and even talking with non-player characters (NPCs). The expansive lore flavors many of the side quests, including working for a witch, becoming an assassin and guiding someone to their birthplace (also, there is a character that you can get hugs from). These sidequests are so extensive and intricate, I had to look up a guide for some of them, but they truly are worth it. There are no real relationships to build with the characters, but the side quests provide a glimpse into who makes up the Lands Between. You can sympathize with them, despise them or land somewhere in between. Discovering these backstories is one of my favorite parts of the game.
While I’ve focused on the big things “Elden Ring” has to offer, what makes it truly great are the small things, especially the limited multiplayer experience. I can’t speak to the experiences with invasions or player vs. player duels, but I love FromSoftware’s continued integration of player notes. Comments left by other players show up throughout the game, some with helpful hints about the location of hidden enemies and illusionary walls, and others that are complete trolls. People leave messages in front of random walls with hints like “Secret path ahead” that make you feel ridiculous for swinging your sword into a wall. Other people leave messages like “fort, night” and “try finger, but hole.” I don’t think I need to explain those. These messages are non-essential to the game, but brought an element of relief to me. I felt a sense of camaraderie to others playing the same game as me.
“Elden Ring” is not for everyone: it’s difficult, expansive and not to mention long. I have seen many posts and reviews suggesting creating an easy mode for the game, which would make it more accessible to newcomers, as well as adding a comprehensive guide for side quests. In any other situation, I would agree, but I feel the point of the game is to overcome its challenges. If you haven’t played “Elden Ring” yet, I encourage you to give it a try. It may not be for you, or you may be like me, and this game might make you want to play Dark Souls (something I never thought I would say). This is one of the first games in a long time that lived up to my expectations, and I look forward to playing FromSoftware’s older titles and their new ones as well.
And, George R. R. Martin, if you’re reading this — please release “The Winds of Winter.”
Daily Arts Writer Maxwell Lee can be reached at email@example.com.