I’ve really enjoyed Elden Ring’s marketing. The announcement at E3 2019 of another hardcore hack and slash developed by the hyper-talented team at FromSoftware sent a thrill through the gaming community, despite the scarcity of hard details. The fact that the title would feature a world and story crafted by the similarly hyper-talented George R.R. Martin was also cause to get tongues wagging. Since that announcement we’ve only really had a trickle of details filtering down, which is slowly ramping up as we get closer to the February 2022 release date. In the modern age of gaming news saturation, it’s quite easy to spoil an experience by knowing everything about it before it even hits the shelves, and that sense of mystery and discovery can be squandered if you already know every minor detail of its development. For this reason I appreciate the mysterious beast that is Elden Ring, a title which still has plenty of secrets up its sleeve. The good people at Bandai Namco gave me the opportunity to sink dozens of hours into the game during a closed network test, and although the veil of mystery has been partially lifted, it all points at a far deeper mystery that every part of me yearns to uncover.
Let’s get the big one out of the way. Elden Ring is very much open-world Dark Souls. Perhaps that might seem simplistic or obvious, but it as apt a description as one could conjure. The same staples of that specific series are present in absolutely every fibre of Elden Ring’s DNA. There are certainly enough tweaks and new mechanics to set it apart as its own beast, but this is not a Sekiro moment. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Dark Souls will instantly feel at home here, which is far from being a criticism as that series is beyond excellent, but if you were expecting a radical departure from the successful formula then you’re barking up the wrong Erdtree.
The closed network test gave access to a variety of predetermined builds featuring the usual suspects that blended mixtures of combat styles, including ranged, magical, melee-focused and the like. Although I’m renowned for my magnetic attraction toward cowardly turtle builds, I mucked around with a few of the presets and can confirm that the same diverse builds you know and love are all possible to craft, and feel wildly different from one another. My favourite was definitely the Enchanted Knight, who was mainly a melee-focused strength build but with a handful of offensive spells on hand and some investment in intelligence and faith.
After a brief tutorial section, I opened a heavy door just past a pretty little tree of light and the beautiful sun-drenched expanse of Limgrave spread out before me. There is immediately an amazing sense of scale in Elden Ring’s open world, with a quick glance across the landscape revealing rolling hills, a guy in golden armour with a huge axe on a heavily-armoured horse, a dreary lake, an ominous castle atop a hill, and a gigantic ethereal tree looming over everything. This first impression was truly breathtaking, with FromSoft’s deft hand at crafting worlds with beguiling beauty on proud display.
In true fashion, you aren’t really given much to go on once you emerge into Limgrave. After resting at your first site of grace (the game’s equivalent of bonfires), you are informed that the light emanating from it points in the direction of where you need to go next. This is a clever mechanic given the size of the world, and I stuck to the beaten path initially to get my bearings. Traipsing across the beautiful countryside, defeating small encampments of enemies (using a mixture of bashing them in the face as well as the serviceable stealth mechanics), I found myself at a site of grace at the front gate of Stormveil Castle, the same castle I had seen first seen when emerging into the light of Limgrave. There I was greeted by the interestingly named Finger Maiden Melina, who bequeathed upon me a ring capable of summoning a spectral speed named Torrent, and with the newfound freedom Torrent afforded me, the true nature of the game and its open world revealed itself.
Open-world games are often guilty of being big for the sake of being big, their topography impressive in size but lacking in actual intrigue. I can safely say this is not true of Elden Ring. Limgrave is indeed grand in scale, but look in any direction and you’ll see it is peppered with dozens of points of interest. I said before that initially I took the beaten path and let the light guide me, but as soon as I gained access to Torrent I went on an hours-long tangent across the stretches of Limdale, hungry to uncover every square centimetre the demo would let me. So many interesting structures lingered tantalisingly on the horizon, and every time I thought a particular place might contain something interesting or valuable because of how it looked from a distance, I was not disappointed by what I found. The lake it turns out was not only filled with giant crabs, but had a massive dragon in it that had clearly decimated a nearby village. The windy hills were teeming with shambling giants who were quick to show me I wasn’t welcome. Caves, catacombs and ravines were abundant, featuring a menagerie of weird, wonderful and hostile creatures, and several mini bosses ripe for a donnybrook. In one area I saw the odd mechanical-looking bones of some creature of titanic proportions. Moments later those same bones reanimated and became a huge fire-spewing golem. If this is the amount of depth and intrigue to be found tucked away in just a small slice of the game, the mind truly boggles as to what secrets await in the full release.
So the Lands Between is a big place, but with Torrent at your beck and call, traversing its expanses and discovering its nooks and crannies feels intuitive and organic. Your faithful equine spectre has a sizeable double jump and a swift dash, and while on horseback you can also use your right-handed weapon. Some fights are perfectly geared towards horseback combat, with even large groups of enemies able to be efficiently dispatched by circle strafing them with Torrent and then dashing in for a few powerful slashes. The aforementioned dragon of the lake was a fight that I can’t see being possible on foot, and ducking between its legs on Torrent, taking a few cheeky swings before hurtling out of the way of its taloned wings felt very natural, and very epic. Torrent is not merely window dressing, it is clear that it will be an integral part of traversal and combat, and I’m very much on board.
As mentioned, the game’s systems are thoroughly similar to the Soulsborne titles. You have a pool of health points and focus points that can be replenished by consuming flasks, and these flasks are refilled at sites of grace. Here you can also invest souls runes into levelling up an array of stats. Runes are gained by defeating enemies and using certain items, they are lost on death but can be retrieved by returning to the place of your demise. You know the drill, people. Interestingly, flasks are also refilled to varying extents by dispatching whole groups of enemies in a given area, which is a step towards accessibility that I wasn’t expecting from a game that FromSoft has made. Another step to accessibility is in the generous fast travel system, available from the start of the demo, that could be accessed at any point from a clearly laid out map (a goddamn map!). One wonders how much of the difficulty sting this will take out though, as if you are stuck somewhere on the verge of death with a swag load of runes that you don’t want to lose, it’s now incredibly easy to fast travel back to a site of grace to spend them, rather than having to backtrack and taking the risk of losing it all.
A mechanic similar to Dark Souls III’s Weapon Arts system returns in the form of Ashes of War. Ashes of War can be assigned to specific weapon and give them a special ability which costs FP to use, but can also bolster their stats and affinities, or even the way their power scales with your stats. For instance, I found an Ash of War that turned my normal dual blade into a beastly thing that dealt pure magic damage, scaled highly with intelligence rather than only moderately with strength, plus gave it the ability to summon a huge spectral greatsword for massive damage. I also found a shield shaped like a coiled snake whose special ability was to uncoil and bite people, and who doesn’t love that? I freely admit that I largely ignored the weapon arts in Dark Souls III, but given how Elden Ring expands upon it significantly with Ashes of War system, and how powerful, cool and unique the special abilities are (particularly for the more rare and exotic weapons you find), it’s not something I plan to ignore here.
I also got to test drive the new summoning mechanic, whereby spectres of various types can be called to aid you in battle in certain areas. The good summons cost a hefty chunk of FP to cast, but having an ally is extremely handy and can take the heat off you and help you develop a strategy. I’m completely sure that some of these summons are going to be positively epic. In a nod to classic open-world design there is also a crafting system, with different recipes being able to be discovered throughout the world and crafted using items strewn across the environment. With some ingredients rarer than others, I’m interested to see some of the more exotic craftables and how it will impact the general gameplay.
One thing I’ve been hoping to get from Elden Ring, and the reason I’ll excuse George R.R. Martin for taking time away from writing The Winds of Winter, is that having such a masterful writer behind it should allow a more cohesive story to be told. I’ve loved the worlds that FromSoft have created, but be damned if I have a clue as to what’s going in their games about 79% of the time. I’ve copped flack for suggesting I wanted a more direct story from FromSoft that I don’t have to dive into item descriptions for, but the heart wants what the heart wants. I can’t say the demo really gave me much to go on in terms of story, but I’m sure the Lands Between has a few tales to tell regardless of how it’s delivered, and I’ll be there.
Multiplayer was enabled during the closed network test, and apparently will allow up to four people to play simultaneously, but I didn’t have much luck connecting with others. Perhaps people were content to just play at their own pace, because I left the multiplayer door open and searched for people who needed help, but only managed to join one other in a boss fight. It’s clear that multiplayer is a focus of Elden Ring, and that FromSoft want to make it accessible, but for those who prefer solo play it’s unlikely to be foisted upon you. There is the lingering question of whether easily accessible co-op will neuter FromSoft’s signature penchant for difficulty though, and if the gatekeeping elitists are going to be happy with such a change. In my opinion, the more people who get to experience the game the better, be they hardened veteran or filthy casual.
Elden Ring is shaping up to be something truly special. For the longest time I’ve lamented the homogenisation of the open-world design in games, and the stagnant growth in the genre as a whole. Little did I know that it just needed a healthy injection of hardcore hack and slash to make it feel fresh again. If you’ve got any questions regarding my time with the game feel free to reach out in the comments section or on socials. February 25, 2022 seems like an eternity away, but all indications are that it will be well worth the wait.