10 Hours with Elden Ring

After three years of anticipation, FromSoft’s Elden Ring was finally released last Friday to universal critical acclaim. Eager to enter the Lands Between, I booted up the game that morning and proceeded to spend about five hours exploring, fighting and dying. Almost everyone else I know (even those with only a passing interest in video games) did the same and I counted at least seventeen of my friends playing Elden Ring across Steam, PlayStation (both 4 and 5) and Xbox. The game is, in many ways, already a cultural milestone for the medium and bound to result in near-endless Twitter discourse over the next few weeks (if not months), likely on the topics of accessibility, difficulty and the general critical response. The game is, unsurprisingly, very good and my first ten or so hours with it have proved to be exciting, challenging, awe-inspiring and frustrating all in equal measure. As regards spoilers, I would ask that you stop reading now if you want Elden Ring to be a totally fresh adventure from start to finish. Due to the game’s explorative and mysterious nature, everyone will have a different experience during their first few hours spent in FromSoft’s and George R. R. Martin’s expansive open world, and it is, therefore, impossible to guarantee any sort of spoiler-free writing. Even after my thorough exploration of the game’s opening section, I was still encountering NPCs and enemies I had never seen before when watching my girlfriend start up a new save. Wary players, please look away now.

I’m not mad (I’m mad).

Elden Ring, in a move that proves it has the biggest balls going, chooses to open with a slideshow. I mean, it’s a really nice, high-quality slideshow that shows off some of the game’s gorgeous concept art, but it’s a far cry from the bombastic CG opening I imagine we all expected (which every previous game in the series, including Demon’s Souls, had). This bizarre beginning is very much a good thing and shows that FromSoft is still in the business of serving up their own unique brand of natural oddness — they defied expectation not because they wanted to, that’s just the way it happened. Things quickly, however, do fall back on a familiar track once the player is put in control of their user-created character. Immediately, the control scheme and general game feel is most like Dark Souls 3 but is also complemented by mechanics introduced in Sekiro (stealth, the ability to crouch and a dedicated jump button). Elden Ring’s opening even features the long-standing FromSoft trope of the nigh unbeatable boss monster, a fight you’re expected to lose so that the game can spawn you into the starting zone. I’m sure, however, that YouTube videos already exist of savvy players besting this nightmarish creature first try. After a short jaunt through a cave, the player is then let out into the lush plains to explore to their heart’s content. In classic Souls fashion, you are completely free to venture into areas that seem way beyond your current capability. This time, however, that option is expanded to encompass a vast world.

My character, El Jefe, stands tall in the Lands Between.

The most talked-about element of Elden Ring during the lead-up to its release was almost certainly the game’s decision to turn the series from a semi-linear action RPG, to a full-on open-world extravaganza. As I mused in a previous article, this was the biggest sticking point for me and I was worried about how the change in scale might affect the Souls series considered, tight level design — would any of it even be left? I’m glad to say that these fears were unfounded, and Elden Ring accomplishes the truly impressive feat of creating a massive map that feels full of life and deliberate design. Mountainsides are dotted with caves and tombs, all of which lead to strange, often terrifying encounters. Eccentric merchants set up shop under ancient pillars, on beachfronts and in the thickets of deep forests. Large, intimidating beasts roam the land (some only appearing during certain times of the day) and make their homes amongst the decaying stone of long-abandoned forts. I could go on and on really, there is something new, something special around every corner. My favourite moment so far has been escaping from a pack of gigantic bears in a dark forest and taking shelter in a strange circular building, only to accidentally activate a lift that took me miles underneath the earth and into the middle of a mysterious, abandoned city. It is incredible that FromSoft have managed to deconstruct the tenets of their flagship franchise and rebuild them in a such natural, awe-inspiring way. I never found myself impressed with the open world of Breath of the Wild, for example (I use this game purely because there will doubtless be endless comparisons to it, as there has been to every open-world game since it was released), which certainly had the scale and interactivity, but lacked the variety. There was a lot of riding around empty expanses in BotW, only to come across another samey-looking shrine with a short, albeit fun puzzle to solve inside. The Lands Between are just as big as Hyrule, but with somehow even more to do — countless diverse enemies, more items (not just endless Korok Seeds) and truly visually distinct, unique biomes. Every time I thought I had reached the edge of the map in Elden Ring, it just got bigger and bigger, expanding to underground areas, teleporting me across the ocean and shattering my expectations every time. The first castle in the game is like a full two or three areas from previous Souls titles, complete with winding pathways that intersect back on themselves and several shortcuts to unlock. The fact that this area is just sat in a part of the map, seamlessly integrated into the world with no loading zones is absolute wizardry: FromSoft running laps around the competition.

Stormveil Castle is bonkers.

Stormveil Castle goes on to exhibit some of the best level design in any Souls game. As I mentioned earlier, Elden Ring takes a page out of Sekiro’s book and provides players with a dedicated jump button. You could certainly take a flying leap in previous Souls titles, but it was a little finicky and usually required a specific combination of inputs (like running and clicking in the right stick or running and pressing the run button again). There is a lot more height and a lot more mid-air control to your character’s jump arc now, which adds an entirely new layer of verticality to the areas. We have honest to God platforming here, no more tumbling awkwardly down ledges and praying you don’t slip off, as was the case in previous games. Stormveil Castle has an expansive rooftop area that can be leapt onto and explored; the game even expects you to skirt around ledges and jump between the architecture in order to get where you’re going. This change, while seemingly minor, further enhances the world of Elden Ring. Remember that chest-high wall that always blocked your progress? You can bound on top of that now and launch yourself to entirely new places. Even the damn horse can jump, but better still, the damn horse can double jump! This extra layer of vertical glory applies to every facet of the game, leading to memorable moments such as scaling huge cliffside tombstones to avoid a giant enemy crab.

I’ll take the biggest sword you got.

So far, after ten hours with Elden Ring (it’s closer to thirty now, I started writing this two days ago), I think that the most impressive thing about the game isn’t even related to how much the formula has changed, it’s how much it’s managed to stay the same. The fact that still, even with large, mechanical changes to elements of the gameplay and the introduction of an open world, Elden Ring still has all the undiluted, net positives of the Souls series. Nothing feels like it has been sacrificed when increasing the scale of the experience with swordplay, magic, leveling, item management, multiplayer and boss encounters being as addictively challenging as ever. Everything that didn’t need to change hasn’t and all the little things that could have been expanded on have. Elden Ring, at least so far, has proved to me that open-world games can still be a magical experience and, I hope, I’ll still be saying that fifty hours down the line. If you don’t like the Souls games, I don’t think this one will necessarily change your tune but, if like me, you consider yourself a fan, I think we may have hit the jackpot.

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