Back in 2014, I was 15 and in my freshman year of high school, and one day a close friend of mine gave me his copy of Dark Souls. Now, I’m 23, and the series has been one of my favorite franchises, Bloodborne being my second favorite game of all time, and the latest outing by FromSoftware, Elden Ring, has officially hit the shelves. These games are pretty important to me, having been a part of my life for more than a third of the time I’ve spent on this Earth, but they are also important to the industry as a whole. The series made by FromSoftware has defined the last decade with numerous titles that have been influenced by the studio’s works, giving birth to the popular Souls-like subgenre. Defined by its punishing difficulty, indirect storytelling, and fantastical worlds, Elden Ring looks to review the history of these games and not just be the biggest game in the series but also the culmination of everything that came before. Now, the series that inspired all those other games is taking a swing in an open world. So, let’s rise, Tarnished. Welcome to my review for Elden Ring.
Story: A Shattered Yet Beautiful World
While marketing has plastered Games of Thrones author George R.R Martin all over this game, the storytelling fingerprints of Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware are still deeply embedded in this game’s DNA. Our tale takes place in the Lands Between; a realm ruled over by the Elden Lord, the holder of the titular Elden Ring. Some time ago, the Elden Ring was destroyed in an event known as the Shattering, with the children of the lost Queen Marika the Eternal taking shards of the ring, each of which corrupted them and plunged the realm into chaos. You take the role of a Tarnished, someone who was banished from the land and did not receive the grace of the Ring. You are sent to the Lands Between to reform the Elden Ring and, in the process, become the Elden Lord. While the trope of tracking down a set of characters that hold an item that you need to bring together to decide the future of the realm will be familiar to series fans, the details of the world’s lore make it a welcome addition to the collection of stories from the likes of Lordran and Yharnam. That is my major takeaway from the game; it brings together the best of FromSoft’s past outings while also providing unique and exciting experiences. This description fits all facets of Elden Ring from its gameplay, presentation, and lore.
The game’s lore continues the tradition of being primarily told through interactions with characters and item descriptions, with cutscenes usually acting as a spectacle for boss battles, with story-significant ones being scattered throughout the game for significant plot progression. It is left up to the player how much they want to delve into the game, and there is a lot to chew on here. In fact, it’s a seven-course meal.
Even with enough obfuscation that the lore keepers will still need to review a lot of details and pants descriptions, Elden Ring’s story is more clear-cut than most of the stories from the series. Characters are more straightforward with their dialogue, providing much more information about them and their stories. The player has extensive dialogue prompts themselves that allow them to ask about characters or what is going on in the story. This was present in the previous games, but I didn’t need to review my Elden Ring notebook to understand the world and characters as much as its predecessors for a first playthrough.
The game does a fantastic job of portraying a world that has long since been in disarray, with The Shattering having happened a long time ago, but its ramifications are still being felt all this time later. Structures of that former world are scattered throughout the land, some still standing tall, clinging to a golden age that has long since passed, while others have been reduced to rubble and debris. Seeing a piece of rubble that is larger than some of the structures you see in villages around the world gives these areas their own character and story that sells this as a once-thriving, now dying world.
As you traverse the Lands Between, there are several characters that you can interact with. Many of these characters have their own side quests for you to complete. As I said before, each of these characters also provides exhaustive dialogue, which can pertain to the world, their history, motives, or quests that they will want your help with completing. Though, in series tradition, they are hard to fully complete the first time through. The characters that I meet are as engaging as they are enigmatic, and while I enjoyed the snippets I saw of them the first time through, I look forward to delving more into the stories on subsequent playthroughs.
Even after over 80 hours into Elden Ring for this review, I still feel that I am only scratching the surface, and it will take another playthrough, more than likely some Wiki dives, to fully grasp all the game’s content. For many players, this might sound like an absolute blessing, a nearly endless amount of content, and a majority of it being great content, but for someone like myself who prefers more condensed experiences provided in previous Souls titles. Ah yes, previous Souls titles.
Gameplay: Prepare To Ride
As I said earlier in this review, Elden Ring feels like a celebration of all that came before, from story to gameplay. The great thing about these retained features is that they are not simply carried over but have been tweaked for the better, improving the systems or translating them to the open-world system present in Elden Ring.
While I may prefer the more condensed and focused games of the past series, this game is still as good as an open-world version of this formula. This is one of the most engaging open-world experiences I’ve had. Even if I don’t find every piece of the open-world thoroughly engaging (something I expand on later), nothing ever feels bloated, with each portion of the game from the small village in cliffs to the Capital City of Leyndell, each feels like it has care placed into their every facet. From the moment you step out of that starting cave, Limgrave demands to be thoroughly explored, and you can find yourself going through this first area for more hours than you would but in other fully-fledged games, only to find the Liurnia just beyond the Stormveil Castle or the crimson-bathed badlands of Caelid over the hills. The game world of Elden Ring is densely packed with content, with that quantity be mostly matched in quality.
Elden Ring has reviewed the familiar gameplay formula of the series also wisely makes slight adjustments when exploring the open world. These changes allow the game to retain its difficulty while also letting the player wander about the offered environments. You have the return of bonfires/lanterns/Sculptor’s Idols, this time being called Sites of Grace. These are the locations where you will be able to level up, manage your items, and as an addition to the series, change between times of the day, which can lead to different types of enemies filling the world and some side quests which can only be found at certain times. These also act as fast travel points which can be accessed through the map. While you can fast travel anytime you are in the overworld and not in combat; they still get the dungeons you explore to retain that tension of trying to make your way through a level with your limited resources by not allowing you to fast travel while in a dungeon until its boss is defeated.
In addition to Sites of Grace, there is also another place that you can respawn upon death known as Stake of Marika statues. These idols are found near large overworld encounters to make it easier for players to try an encounter again. It is a welcome change since it allows the open world to better space their Sites of Grace (although there is still an abundance of them) while also making the runs to bosses less of a hassle.
The success of the game’s open-world is mainly thanks to how it can synergize with one of the critical elements of these games: discovery. You discover weapons to fight with and details to piece together the lore, and you search high and low in every area for items, resources, or sometimes entirely optional areas. This design philosophy of incentivizing the player to scour locations is taken to its logical extreme with the open world. The best part of this transition is that just as the game retains its indirect storytelling style, it also retains that feeling of discovery in both its open world and its more focused locations, similar to the levels of past games.
This sense of discovery is achieved in the open world through the lack of any signposting, with locations only being marked on your map after being discovered. The game gets out of the way and allows you to immerse yourself into its world to your heart’s content, even if you end up running into a dragon that decides to eat said heart. There are no objective markers when characters directly give you a letter, map, or other items that directly point you to a location. Outside of that, the map serves as more of a way to get your bearings rather than something pointing you to the next objective marker. The map’s inclusion works wonders as it allows you to use waypoints that shoot a strong blue light into the sky so you know the direction you want to go and lets them put down markers for things like loot, NPCs, or strong enemies, allowing players to place down the markers for things they deem essential instead of flooding the map with every minute detail or character and leaves only checkpoints and visited locations as constant markers.
The only direction that the map will give you is reminding you of locations you have previously visited and the direction of a major boss in the area. This is done through specific Sites of Grace. A Guiding Grace will come out of the Site when resting at certain ones, pointing both in the world and on the map to the area’s boss. This creates an outstanding balance of hinting to the player where to find bosses critical to completing the game to mitigate the chances of you getting lost or hitting a wall of not knowing where to go while also making each non-critical location feel like your very own discovery, that it was your choice to go off the beaten path to find this location.
You will be making your way across the world riding your spectral steed named Torrent. He is a necessary part of the game’s traversal with the classic horse ability of a double jump and being able to use upward gusts of wind called Spiritsprings to get you up onto high places. As you travel on horseback, you will run into several mini-boss encounters, with dragons being one of the highlights. While you traverse the Lands Between, you will find things like roaming enemy patrols and locations dotted around the map for you to break from the beaten path to explore.
Among these places of interest are also boss encounters that use the scale of the world to their advantage to create some genuinely great battles. From the dragons with different elemental powers to the Erdtree Avatars that share more than a passing resemblance to the first boss of Dark Souls (great to see you, Asylum Demon), to the cast of other unique beasts and monsters that will try to get the drop on you. The free roam nature of the game also makes these encounters not really too much of a hindrance when it comes to your exploration, as Torrent is more than capable of making a tactical retreat if these encounters get too tricky.
The game strikes its balance between its free-roam area and familiar level design of previous series entries by allowing points of interest like Stormveil Castle and Academy of Raya Lucaria, known as Legacy Dungeons, along with many of the major structures to retain much of the tropes and intricate level design that fans love while giving players the freedom to explore the open world at their leisure. These giant areas are the well-constructed levels that fans of these games have come to adore, with even more options and pathways to explore.
That balance is not perfect, however. As I think back on Elden Ring for this review, I had a few issues with this open world, mostly coming from some of its side content. While I said before that there is almost always a new location for you to discover and explore, these areas can sometimes be pretty underwhelming. Many of these side areas can feel a bit too samey at times and quickly lose their luster for me. What didn’t help was that feeling of diminishing returns when these areas were often capped off with either reused bosses or regular enemies with higher health. This isn’t something that happens all the time, and these zones do sometimes have unique encounters. Still, this reuse of enemies happened enough that not only did I notice it, but it also made me worried about exploring these areas, bracing myself for disappointment.
I never had a problem with bosses reappearing in the overworld since they act as encounters to break up constant traversals, like the dragons and Avatars, and there are some of these areas that do place, late-game area enemies, as their bosses, but it was the constant reuse of bosses and enemies in these recurring dungeons that makes the payoff to them a bit lackluster. Reusing bosses, some being taken from important story areas, led to me feeling disappointed when it reaches completion. It also doesn’t help that some of these bosses don’t feel designed for their arenas. Large hulking monsters confined to a small room can add a lot of tension and fear, but when the body of the creature is clipping through the wall, making it nearly impossible to see what move the creature is telegraphing, it can be pretty frustrating.
After a string of bad luck with several back-to-back similar-looking catacombs and tunnels with the bosses being nothing more than reused enemies with (barely) higher health pools, I started to feel that my worst fears of bad open-world design creeping into the series, that “put as many points of interests on the map as possible” idea that has turned many other games in the genre into a chore of checking off locations. Luckily, I kept exploring, and while these dungeons remain, for the most part, there was a significant amount that was memorable and did at least introduce a gimmick or two that made them somewhat distinct. While I was often left disappointed with some boss encounters in these areas, there was never an area that didn’t at the very least provide a unique reward, with each one giving a non-generic weapon, item, or talisman. There was even a whole NPC in one of the ruins! While sometimes unengaging, I never felt like I wasted my time.
Gameplay: A Refined Age of Combat
Just as the fingerprints of FromSoftware are all over the story and its presentation, the deeper review of the inner workings of Elden Ring’s gameplay will reveal that it is also made up of aspects from its older siblings that have been refined. The trademark difficulty is still here, and the corpse-run mechanic that sees players having to run back to their place of death to regain their upgrade points/currency is called runes. Dying over and over is still to be expected in a game like Elden Ring (a process that got in the way of finishing this review). However, the game does take steps to retain its signature difficulty while also providing avenues to help players in certain situations. The game will punish you hard for going to an area if you are ill-prepared, but it is not unsurmountable. Elden Ring will force you to review your play repeatedly as it is still reasonably challenging, but the game always has another place to go and explore if you happen to hit a brick wall. It rarely feels that you are stuck in place if you can get past an enemy encounter or boss fight.
Elden Ring retains the familiar moment-to-moment gameplay of the series with a vast collection of weapons that players can tune to their play style. The series combat’s foundation is again seen here with light and heavy attacks and an extensive collection of items to help in your battles. Replacing rings are talismans, which serve the same purpose, giving you passive buffs. You can also unlock Great Runes that, once you return power to, can give you some solid passive buffs when you use Elden Ring’s Humanity replacement, Rune Arcs. Also, returning from Sekiro is the stealth aspect. The ability to crouch and use foliage to your advantage can allow you to get through areas and thin out areas before they devolve into the familiar combat. The stealth in Elden Ring isn’t as versatile as the 2018 title but is still a welcome return as it allows for that little extra bit of planning when it comes to going into combat encounters.
The main change that players that like to carry a shield will notice is a significant change when it comes to riposting, and that’s the addition of a mechanic called Guard Counters. This allows players to do a heavy attack after blocking an enemy, which will do a lot of damage to their stance. Doing so on weaker enemies will put them in a parry stance and allow you to perform a riposte. Parrying is still available for those who put the time in and will guarantee a riposte on enemies that can be parried, but this new feature gives newer players a chance to get out from behind their shields more often.
The combat in these games is only as good as your arsenal to choose from, and Elden Ring has quite the collection. Elden Ring sees the returns to having a large selection of weapons and gear to collect, a welcome return after Sekiro only had one primary weapon. These weapons include a standard fair of swords, spears, and axes and a selection of outlandish weapons like a shield that can become a cannon, all of which provide more options than ever for unique character builds and playstyles. There is also a broad category of items for you to use to help further optimize your gameplay experience.
The Ashes of War and Weapon Skills take the Weapon Art system introduced in Dark Souls 3 and dramatically expands upon it, with the system being made much more customizable. Each weapon comes equipped with a unique ability to the weapon. Ashes of War are abilities that you can discover throughout the game, which can infuse a weapon with a new Weapon Skill. This inclusion adds a new level of customization that can lead to unique ways to play while also not forcing you to switch off the weapon you may have been leveling because a new ability catches your eye.
The addition that I found most interesting is the Spirits. These items are souls that can be summoned to help you in battle. The popular Summoning feature that allows you to play in co-op and against other players is still in this game, but the Spirits provide a little aid to players that don’t want or are unable to use this feature. These can be a group of low-level mob enemies to regular enemies to even some strong adversaries. They don’t do ridiculous damage or anything but are still a welcomed aid for players that need help in an enemy encounter or boss fight. Like your weapons, these can be upgraded, making them another critical part of a player’s build, adding another level of depth for players to explore when it comes to class building.
Also included in the game is the return of unique boss weapons and items, which has also seen an improvement in how to retrieve them. A majority of the bosses will drop their unique item upon death, something I touched upon when talking about the dungeons in the open-world section. Major, end-of-area bosses will drop an item that can be traded in for extremely powerful gear of said boss. These can be weapons, spells, or equipment, but all of them are extremely valuable and powerful, especially if said equipment just so happens to have a place in your build.
Another new feature is the ability to craft—items like arrows, bombs, or resins that provide elemental effects to your weapons. You can find these recipes throughout the world, with each one growing your collection of craftable items. In all honesty, I never really use the system, though I think it could be helpful in certain situations and playstyles. While not that game-changing, it is still a welcomed addition. For this Elden Ring review, I started a new character with a bow and arrow and played a little in the starting area. During this process, I immediately noticed that crafting is more important since you need to make sure you have enough arrows for your weapon.
All of these additions and changes tie into the more approachable nature of Elden Ring. Yes, it’s still challenging, and you will get stomped sometimes, but with a slightly more coherent narrative for the non-Wiki divers, an open world that not only has a lot to do but also allows players to leave an area if they are hitting a wall and try someplace else or explore the world, and this fantastic gameplay with all the refinements to the past interactions will hopefully get players that might get discouraged to stick around and try that one more run at that one boss.
The only real negative from the combat is when you are fighting atop Torrent. The attacking and dodging while riding him feel a bit too sluggish for a game that requires fast reactions. Luckily, there is no boss or enemy that requires you to battle on your horse, but there are some larger enemies that at least seem to be designed with the horse in mind. I tried multiple times to try and find a way to get this mounted combat to feel suitable for this review, but in the end, Elden Ring ends up stumbling here.
The camera can also get a bit weird when standing under certain bigger enemies or when attacks that cover a lot of ground, a problem that would appear in a review for any Souls game and is here for Elden Ring. While I understand that fact, it doesn’t change the swears and frustration felt when the camera puts an end to my best run at a boss, only to lead to that all too familiar downward spiral that getting mad at the game can cause.
Upon review, the bosses in Elden Ring is more than just a net positive; it is overall phenomenal. The bosses of the main story, as well as the bosses in the optional standout areas I mentioned before, are all memorable, with some of the best production values put into the series behind some of these bosses, really selling you on their importance to the world as well as providing an exciting fight both visually and mechanically. Margit, the Fall Omen, is a great introduction boss that is challenging enough yet familiar that new and old series players will have a great time. Meanwhile, Rennala, Queen of the Full Moon, is both a spectacle and challenge that I absolutely will not spoil here. Cutscenes are used to transition between phases, with some of these phases not only bringing out a new moveset but completely changing the area that the battle is taking place or introducing entirely new enemies to the mix, all brought together by the brilliant score that is to be expected in FromSoftware games. The music composers at FromSoft have put on a masterclass here. The music turns these battles into tests of skill into epic confrontations, elevating these fights into full-blown events. Just about all of these bosses show again that the team at FromSoftware are masters at the craft. Many of these bosses, especially the ones found at the end of Legacy Dungeons, are the best that the entire subgenre has to offer.
When it comes to Elden Ring’s bosses, you have basic fights that test your ability to remember attack patterns, dodge roll, and pick your moments to attack. These are the challenging ones as they test your skills with the mechanics, but a game full of these encounters would be kind of repetitive, so that is where the more unique or spectacle-based fights come into play, a type of battle present in previous FromSoftware games that would usually lead to mixed results. However, they are some of the best in Elden Ring, with one of the fights being the most unique battles in a Souls game, turning the boss battle into an all-out war.
Several bosses take from the extensive collection of memorable battles from FromSoftware’s past with battles that mix spectacle and a power trip into some fantastic set-piece. Don’t think just because it borrows from its past means that there isn’t anything original because the bosses introduced in this game are also stellar. The encounters that I had to take on in the endgame were visual and audio masterpieces. Elden Ring continues the series trend of having a world populated with absolutely fantastic boss battles, even with a new world design and reusing some bosses.
Visuals and Audio: A Golden Glow
One of the things that FromSoftware has always done well in their games is portrayed scale, and Elden Ring is the studio’s crowning achievement on that front. The worlds of these games are usually just as fascinating as any character you can come across, and the Lands Between and the locations found within are no different. The world is one that players can quickly be immersed in. Many locales are reminiscent of locations in the series past, with several poison swamps and even a poison castle (someone, please stop Miyazaki, the man has too much power!), but some locations will make even longtime fans’ jaws drop in awe. Every direction you look is a picture-worthy vista, with the size and scope of these locals always being impressive and becoming more grandiose as you go further into the game. From the natural plains of Limgrave or the mist-laden lake of Liurnia to frozen tundras and volcanic mountains, and even some stunning and otherworldly areas in Elden Ring’s late game, the environmental storytelling intrinsic to these games comes through in Elden Ring with every turn of the camera. The visuals of the Lands Between are always on full display, and what a display it is.
The man-made locations are just as beautiful. Stormveil Castle, likely the first major location, takes the castles of the series past and puts a new spin on them, as do the several other castles you will be coming across in the world. Each one is distinct not only in terms of content but also in its significance to the lore. The walls filled with holes and rubble but still standing tall, the wounds of long since finished battles still present.
This atmosphere of Elden Ring is helped even more thanks to the game’s good performance (at least I didn’t suffer too many issues). My game stuttered a few times during high-intensity scenes on PC, and I experienced 3 crashes in my 80+ hours. There was also a time that my textures didn’t load in, and I fell through the world after fast traveling from the southeast part of the map up to the northwest. Outside of these hiccups, I had a mostly smooth experience, though, upon further review, Elden Ring has seen some reports of technical problems since the game’s full release, so perhaps look into those if you are worried about it. Still, Elden Ring had very few technical hiccups during my time with the game.
Summary: “Bigger Dark Souls”
In review, Elden Ring is a game that can present a new approach to its world design in a satisfying way while also refining its gameplay to be as tight as it has ever been, taking the best parts of its predecessors into a system that allows for incredible variety in combat. The few noticeable blemishes are easy to forgive with the engaging gameplay, fascinating and expansive new world, and near-perfect presentation in terms of graphics, cutscene direction, art design, and music that makes Elden Ring a game that is a solid addition to FromSoftware’s catalog, with some of these aspects being at their best in this latest outing. It is not perfect, with some stumbles in the open world, but those moments where the game lands are some of the best that you will find in a game.
A celebration of the series as well as a brave new step for it with its own substantial contributions to the subgenre, Elden Ring is everything that you should expect when you hear “open-world Souls game” and even a fair bit more.
- Captivating Gameplay
- Deep Weapon Selection and Customization
- Engrossing World and Lore
- Great Transition of the Souls Formula to Open World
- TONS of Content, Most of it being Absolutely Fantastic
- Many of FromSoft’s Best Bosses
- Stellar Visuals and Music
- A Few Underwhelming Aspects of the Open World
- Horse Combat is Weak
- The Camera can be Frustratingly Wonky at Times
- Reuse of Several Bosses/Making Regular Enemies Bosses was an Annoyance