To do what Elden Ring does takes ambition. To do it well takes expertise. FromSoftware, the developers behind Bloodborne, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and the Dark Souls series, happen to be blessed with both. Their latest action-RPG epic takes the leap to an open world, and in doing so staggers with its depth and breadth. It’s an experience that in equal parts delights and enrages, one that will surely be remembered for generations to come.
A lot of expectations tend to come with the release of every FromSoftware game. This is understandable, considering their track record. Luckily, Elden Ring meets all those expectations in nearly every way. It manages to keep the spirit of its design while simultaneously taking the formula in an exciting new direction.
Elden Ring can be purchased for PlayStation, Xbox, and PC for USD $59.99.
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STORY: UNFOLDING HISTORY
The integration of story in FromSoftware’s titles has always been unique, and this game is no exception. Plot threads are primarily contained within item descriptions, passing comments from NPCs, and environmental storytelling. Worldbuilding and lore are paramount, while an active sequence of events takes something of a backseat. However, Elden Ring differs from past games in key areas with regards to the way it tells its story.
The plot of the game follows the player, a Tarnished, coming back to the Lands Between to make a pilgrimage to the Erdtree and restore the power of the titular Elden Ring. That’s a pretty simple goal, and it doesn’t mean much by itself. But Elden Ring gets you to care about it. The game is filled with friendly NPCs and has much more dialogue than past games. Bosses will taunt you, monologue, and drop subtle hints towards their goals and backstory. Characters will string you along quests that often have emotional conclusions. In contrast to FromSoftware’s previous stories, the plot is much more direct and purposeful.
Essentially, the game allows you to engage with the story to whatever extent you wish. It forces very little upon you and doesn’t demand that you come to any conclusions. This is nothing new by itself, but it feels more meaningful this time around. The presentation is much more grandiose than its predecessors in a way that feels tasteful and earned. If the player wants, Elden Ring can be a revolutionary epic, in which ancient doctrines are overturned and generational conflicts come to an end. Or, it can just be about a very angry recluse killing a bunch of monsters. Whatever works for the player works for the game.
GAMEPLAY: SHARDS OF A WHOLE
By far the greatest triumph of Elden Ring is its brilliant open world. The Lands Between are fascinating and dynamic, majestic and terrifying to equal degrees. There are no objective markers here other than the player’s own desire to explore. The path ahead unfurls organically, in lockstep with the player’s understanding of its vastness. It’s constantly expanding, even long after it feels like you’ve seen everything. Points of interest naturally reveal themselves as you progress. It’s up to you to decide which ones you’ll pursue.
The wonder of this open world truly cannot be overstated. It’s incredible what the developers were able to achieve with their first ever attempt at the genre. Comparisons to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, as trite as they are, are practically invited by this design philosophy. The exceptional world design that the franchise has been known for since Dark Souls is on full display here as well. New discoveries are perpetually around the corner. Surprises are less of a rarity and more of a constant aspect of the experience, one that it would be a crime to spoil.
Dotted throughout the landscape are a number of small dungeons to explore. Caves, catacombs, ruins, castles and the like all await you on your journey. These are generally teeming with monsters, traps, and treasure, favoring short bursts of challenge over more long-form expeditions. While it is impressive how many of these they’ve managed to fit into the map, they can get a bit repetitive. Although fatigue may set in, they’re still enjoyable and often outclass similar content in other games.
On the contrary, the main dungeons are all superb. They display some of the finest level design in recent memory, with shortcuts, hidden paths, and optional challenges abound. No matter what you do, it never feels like you’re stuck with no way to proceed. While there aren’t as many of these dungeons as fans may have come to expect, what they lack in quantity they more than make up for in quality. Each mainline dungeon hosts at least 2 major bosses, which, with few exceptions, are all great tests of the players strength.
IF IT AIN’T BROKE…
First and foremost, FromSoftware specializes in action RPGs. Elden Ring isn’t here to change that. The core of the franchise lives or dies by the strength of this foundation, so it’s a good thing that this latest entry is about as strong as any other. Players are free to build their character in whatever way suits them best. Investing points into any of the game’s attributes is a long-term commitment that encourages players to plan ahead for the playstyle they’d like to have. Two different players could have vastly different experiences with the game. For example, someone who favors magic might find one encounter easy where, say, a heavy weapons user would struggle.
None of this is fundamentally different from what these games have done before, and for good reason. There’s usually no sense in trying to fix what isn’t broken. The game also retains the dynamic experience points system, now called Runes rather than Souls or Blood Echoes. They function the same as they always have. Enemies and bosses drop runes when they die, but so do you. They’re the only way for the player to level up and get stronger, and they can also be exchanged for goods and services. All that’s new here is in the specifics, and maybe some of the proper nouns. It’s not bad, but it follows a clear formula and is far from interested in deviating from it, for better or worse.
FIX THE ODDS IN YOUR FAVOR
One of the most interesting (and controversial) aspects of Elden Ring is the difficulty, and the way it can be molded to suit your skill level. Like prior games, there are a multitude of ways to engage with each challenge. Notably, among the most interesting new introductions are the Spirit Ashes. During boss fights, these items allow you to summon various AI spirits to aid you in battle, at the cost of resources. This is a welcome addition, and a relatively harmless one at that. If you’d rather take on a boss alone, you can simply ignore them. If you want that extra help, your ghostly friends will always have your back.
Elden Ring is full of ways to organically adjust the difficulty. Some may even say that certain builds act as a de facto easy mode. While I wouldn’t personally go that far, It’s clear that FromSoftware intended for a wider variety of players to be able to have fun with this game. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always hold up, as some playstyles are shafted in certain scenarios. Nevertheless, a remarkable effort was made considering this game’s scope.
The malleability of the difficulty is only aided by the open world. If a boss is giving you trouble, it’s often best to put it on the back burner and explore instead. You can always come back and try again when you’re stronger. The inclusion of these options means that, more than ever, the game is only as difficult as you want it to be.
That is, until the lategame. Elden Ring’s final few hours have a myriad of problems that soured the rest of the game for me to an unfortunate extent. For whatever reason, the game devolves into linearity after a certain point. Exploration becomes less fun and more about getting from point A to point B quickly. The enemies and bosses gain abnormally large health pools, and checkpoints between them become less common. Things do eventually come back around, but it’s a shame how long it drags.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO: IMPERFECT BEAUTY
In a climate where developers seem to push for fidelity over aesthetic, it’s refreshing to see Elden Ring’s fantastic art direction. The environments are so stunning that the lack of an official in-game photo mode feels like a crime. Each region of the world is subtly color coded to reflect its environment. On top of the world looking gorgeous, the characters look fantastic as well. Some of the most brilliant and twisted enemy, NPC, and boss designs are on full display here.
Despite not being at the top of the line in terms of raw graphical power, the game still looks amazing. It sounds amazing as well. Orchestral masterpieces accompany practically every boss fight, many of which are very memorable. There’s ambient music in the overworld, which can get a bit grating, but it’s always subdued enough so as to not be annoying. The mixing can sometimes be off, certain sound effects feel louder than they should be, but it’s not a common issue.
However, every piece of praise given about this game comes with a major caveat. While much of it has been rectified since launch, Elden Ring is still utterly plagued by performance issues. The PC version in particular has some major stuttering that can disrupt the flow of gameplay at times. Even on a relatively high end PC (which more than meets the game’s recommended requirements) like my own, I still had to lower the settings and ensure minimal other programs were open to get something resembling a smooth framerate. Even then, it’s far from perfect. It tries to maintain a stable 60, and usually succeeds, but it’s still inconsistent enough to be a problem. In a game like this, even minor inconsistency in performance can severely impact gameplay.
I feel that it would be dishonest to write this review and give the game a 10 out of 10 without bringing up these problems. When combined with the way the game degrades in its final act, it’s a massive stain on an otherwise near-perfect experience. It only speaks to how incredible the rest of the game is that I feel comfortable rating it so highly despite these glaring problems.