At the risk of offending equestrian lovers, I have to say most mounts in videogames suck.
Now I’ll have to admit my experience of anything equine in real life is basically limited to the ponies you used to be able to ride at the school fair and putting in a bit of small change on the Grand National a long time ago. But in videogames, I’ve ridden a lot of them, and they always come up short.
If you were a 90sd kid like me, your first memory of riding a digital stallion was probably Epona in Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Wasn’t the stamina management with the carrots and the way she’d come to a stop if you tried to approach an obstacle at just the slight wrong angle annoying?
That said, the practicality of riding an odd-toed, hard-hoofed mammal was great for getting around Hyrule, and so it’s not a surprise why, with games going open world, having a mount has been an integral part of getting from A to B. I just wish it felt more enjoyable.
Take The Witcher 3’s Roach. Can’t bloody take him anywhere. I have my fair share of issues with CD Projekt Red’s overrated RPG (don’t get me started on the combat) but riding around in that game was a pain. It may have more to do with its environments, but my memories of traversing Velen and Novigrad mostly involved Roach getting caught in trees or coming at a standstill over a rocky incline. Unless you were willing to let the system auto-pilot you on an established – but long and winding route – you were better off just hoofing it or using fast travel, the latter usually a telltale sign that your open world has failed.
Remember all of Rockstar’s talk about realistic horse testicles in Red Dead Redemption 2? I didn’t really spend much of my time examining that detail myself, instead I remember trying to use its cinematic camera intended to make you feel like you were in a sweeping epic Western only for it to turn into a slapstick as your inability to control your mount had you crashing or pratfalling face-first into the dirt.
It’s probably going to be sacrilege to have a go at the horse in Shadow of the Colossus given that finale, but even with all the supposed realism put into its behaviour, there’s probably a reason why Fumito Ueda named your steed Agro.
In the end, the most pleasant virtual riding experiences boils down to those bits in Uncharted 3 and The Last of Us (being Naughty Dog games, you’re just pushing up anyway) or the mounts you can unlock in Final Fantasy 14, which is more an extension of yourself and barely faster than sprinting.
So what makes me so excited about horse riding in Elden Ring after sinking hours into the Closed Network Test last November? While that beta only allowed me to run wild in a small fraction of its open world in Limgrave, the player’s steed – known as Torrent – wasn’t just a huge highlight, but it’s clearly going to be an important part of the core gameplay.
FromSoftware have, of course, included horses in their past games like in Bloodborne and Sekiro – but only as part of enemy design. This is the first time you can ride a mount in one of their games, which does make sense for getting around conveniently in Elden Ring’s massive open world, moreso than it would in the tighter, more labyrinthine maps of Dark Souls.
Of course, there’s reason to be wary about how horse-riding would work. After all, movement in FromSoft games have a typically, and deliberately, clunky feeling – so wouldn’t this also be the case for mounts triple-fold? You needn’t worry though, as it appears that the devs have studied riding in other open world games and just gone, “nah, screw it, let’s have some actual fun with this.”
The reason why Torrent is such a good horse is that he’s not, at all, a simulation of a real horse. Mate, he’s a frigging ghost horse with horns who immediately materialises out of thin air with you on his saddle at the blow of a whistle. Not waiting around to find him stuck in the scenery, he just appears instantly and you can hop off just as quickly, no messing around. Take that, Roach.
To that end, there’s a lot of licence the game takes with what you can do. Movement feels responsive because Torrent is just being controlled by the player – you don’t have to wrestle with the reins or anything more finicky or advanced. The spectral steed doesn’t have to stay grounded like real horses, and I mean that literally. Sure, it looks cool using air currents to make Torrent leap up cliffs, but the real special thing is he can jump at all. No nonsense with whether a fence can be galloped over or not, but instead you can leap and bound with the same dedicated jump button that your character has.
And what’s better than a horse that can jump? A horse that can double-jump.
This is a steed who laughs (neighs?) in the face of obstacles. It speeds over the terrain deftly, without pause, whilst other videogame horses would fail at the first hurdle. Elden Ring may not be going for Breath of the Wild-levels of being able to go absolutely anywhere, but that double jump is a statement of intent. It is simply made to allow you to reach places that would otherwise be impossible. The developers have probably tucked away rare items, only reachable by horse, or even smuggled in a way to sequence-skip using Torrent. That alone is going to make traversal fun; as you gallop around the Lands Between trying to reach the top of its enormous ruins or looking for a way to scale a seemingly insurmountable mountain face, you know Torrent is always there. Eager to help.
But perhaps the real special sauce is that Torrent is also going to be a tremendous aid in combat. My memory of horseback combat in any game isn’t particularly memorable, but in Elden Ring it’s surely going to be one of the ways to make some of the tough challenges more approachable. That much was clear when, in the Closed Network Test, I had the opportunity to head down to Lake Agheel and come face to face with a huge fire-breathing dragon.
On foot, I would’ve been toast in a matter of seconds. But with Torrent, I can easily duck in and out of combat, avoiding its fiery breath that sets half the lake ablaze, and also catch up with it when the dragon decides to take to the air. An optional boss that feels like one you shouldn’t mess around with until you’ve grinded for about 10 hours is suddenly something you can have the confidence to tackle, reins in hand.
Of course, you still have to time your attacks. That clunkiness requiring you to commit to your actions is still present in horseback combat as in the rest of the game, but when the attacks connect – like when you’re charging into a crowd of enemies or wailing on the legs of a troll – they feel terrific. One of my favourite things is riding while charging up a sword attack, with the blade running along the ground (please let there be DualSense support for this), before releasing the trigger to swing it up straight into your enemy’s face.
And if it all goes wrong, Torrent is also your escape route. Overwhelmed by terrifying enemies? You can just bolt it. That’s another crucial difference in Elden Ring compared to the unforgiving environments of Dark Souls. Where you’re often forced to fight against everything trying to kill you, the open world of the Lands Between means you can really pick your battles, so if you cross into some godforsaken hellscape, just ride on through, no pressure (at least for the open world sections – it’s only a shame that Torrent won’t be able to accompany you in the game’s dungeons, which flow a lot more like traditional Dark Souls experience).
I’m looking forward to getting deeper into Elden Ring’s world, its lore, the combat and no doubt fountains of secrets that FromSoft are so celebrated for. But just on Torrent alone, I can tell that this game is going to be worth ponying up for at launch.