The Circle Of Life

HIGH It’s one of the richest open worlds ever created.

LOW Endless invasions.

WTF Seriously, how is anyone supposed to figure these sidequests out?

Mike Suskie’s main review of Elden Ring is a great one and it celebrates many of the same things that I would. Seeing that we were of like mind, I was content to take my time and be as thorough as possible, combing every area and trying to see as much of FromSoft’s latest work as I could in a single playthrough — it’s unlikely I’ll be replaying a game of such immense size anytime soon.

Now that I’ve finally rolled credits after 210 hours, I’m ready to weigh in on this magnum opus and I still agree with Mike’s verdict. He captured what was good and right about it, and since he already did such a great job of singing its praises, I’ll instead offer a bit of contrast by offering some criticism on areas where Elden Ring stumbles a bit — it’s a marvelous experience, but it’s not perfect.

Let’s start with the storytelling.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of From’s patented ‘cryptic’ approach, but it’s now a concept that’s thoroughly worn out its welcome – and it’s a shame! The writers have done a great job in crafting a host of NPCs that each have a sidequest to unravel, and when all of the bits are laid bare, they’re largely interesting and compelling. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to progress the sidequests (or even find them!) without following a walkthrough.    

For example, one of the characters I cared most about was Millicent, the amputee swordswoman suffering from Rot. Her quest started off just fine, with the beginning portion set in a place that would be likely unmissable, and the next few steps were located nearby. At that point, From absolutely lost me as her next events were in places that I had already been to and had no reason to revisit, or they were in places that I wouldn’t see for another 20, 50, or 100 hours. With a world so huge and the possibility of doing so much of it in random order, trying to locate Millicent’s next narrative trigger (or anyone else’s, for that matter) is like searching for a needle in a haystack hidden inside an invisible barn… on another planet.

Complicating things, it’s often necessary to revisit the same location several times in order to get the whole story.

In any other game, a character would give their exposition and impart whatever item or reward was due, and that would be the end of it. In Elden Ring, it’s common to find a character and then have to leave and come back to get the next chunk of the tale, and then to leave and return again to finally get the item that’s needed. In one late-game quest, I had to leave and revisit the same location four times to finish things off, and I only came back so often because a wiki told me to. Because of this absurd requirement I missed out on several things that would have been obvious in any other game — it’s just a layer of annoyance that doesn’t serve any purpose.   

Another bizarre decision? There are at least two separate characters who have enriching exposition or key quest steps hidden as menu options that never call attention to themselves. It’s far too easy to overlook one extra option on a page full of them – why not have these characters simply show up and address the player? They sometimes do, so the inconsistency is not only a disservice to the player, I struggle to imagine how anyone felt like burying them in a menu was a reasonable, effective choice. I went more than 100 hours without realizing that I had been missing sporadic messages and in doing so, had inadvertently avoided a key relationship. When the time came for that story beat to unfold, it fell flat because none of the groundwork had been laid.  

None of these choices are intuitive or logical — especially with the now-vast and wide-open nature of the world — and these interesting, compelling stories are going to waste thanks to a storytelling system that is critically broken.

My other major frustration has to do with something that is otherwise brilliant – the Ash Summons.

During Elden Ring, players will come across many items which allow them to summon AI characters to assist them in battle, everything ranging from a giant jellyfish to stealthy dagger-wielding assassins. These helpers are key since they draw aggro away from the player and give them a chance to heal, or they provide distractions while lining up a killer arrow or spell. Considering how relentless some enemies are, it’s safe to say that the developers absolutely intended that players use them. Unfortunately, their implementation feels arbitrary in a way that undercuts their utility.

Rather than being able to summon them at any time, players can only summon them when From (apparently) thinks they’re necessary. They’re available in almost every boss encounter, and in some areas which, I assume, the developers think are tough enough to warrant some backup. However, there were many times when I wanted to summon some aid and just couldn’t… because reasons? If there’s any logic to where and when these Ash creatures can be used in the world, I can’t figure it out.   

In a similar vein, it’s high time that From stops being so precious with the co-op/player summoning system and just gets with the program. To be fair, it’s easier and better in Elden Ring than basically every other From game, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. I spent the vast majority of my 200+ hours partnering up with my wife, and we were constantly wishing that we could just join each other in a party instead of summoning each other in specific places. Worse, once the boss of a specific zone is beaten, players can’t be summoned in to help there again. Why not? Who cares if someone wants to explore or just grind for souls with a friend?

But the absolute worst thing about playing in co-op? Non-stop invasions.

I’ve spoken to several Elden players who got through the entire game without ever being invaded by another real player, but when adventuring with my wife, we were invaded constantly. During certain times of the day it was as frequent as every five minutes, and being attacked multiple times between graces was common.  

I understand that the idea is to funnel invaders towards people who already have some backup, but this is in dire need of tuning. After being invaded, it would be nice if there was a ‘cooldown’ timer that prevented another invasion for a certain period, or perhaps a limit on the total number of times someone could be invaded during a session would help. We got attacked so often it was a joke, and having boss runs or exploratory jaunts busted up by people who were geared for one-hit PVP kills was maddening.

There are a few other irritations that could be mentioned. Certain areas feel like they could be trimmed back to promote a leaner runtime or adjustments could be made to how so many of the late-game rewards are Faith-based — it’s a huge bummer for non-Faith players to get an item they can’t use after besting a tough foe.

At this point I’m sure readers are getting ready to send some angry comments my way, so let me just restate that this is a contrasting piece meant to shed a little light on places where the experience could use a tweak or two. Criticisms aside, let me be clear in saying that Elden Ring is an extraordinary achievement that is unquestionably at the top of the open-world genre. The vistas are incredible, the sense of exploration is constant and surprising, and the feeling of finally achieving mastery over this immense challenge is second to none — but like I mentioned at the start of this review, Mike said all of that already.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by From Software and published by Bandai Namco. It is currently available on XBO, XBX/S, PS4/5 and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the XBX. Approximately 210 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. The entirety of play was spent with multiplayer features enabled and the majority of playtime was spent with an active co-op partner.

Parents: According to the ESRB this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore, Language, Suggestive Themes and Violence. There are a couple of suggestive character designs throughout and a bit of mild profanity, but the violence is where Elden Ring earns its rating. This is arguably FromSoft’s most gruesome game to date, with severed parts and mutilated corpses littering the landscape. While it’s fitting with the tone of the world and tastefully portrayed, it’s not for children.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered and/or resized. Audio cues are frequently used to notify players of either points of interest or approaching enemies, and the game doesn’t offer any sort of visual representation of these cues. The lack of visual cues renders an already-obtuse game even more difficult, and forces players to be even more alert. As such, this game is not fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls. (PS controls shown.)

Brad Gallaway
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1 year ago

I haven’t played it (just not my thing), but I love that you dedicated this review to nitpicking shortcomings in what is otherwise a game you loved, just for the sake of not repeating Suskie’s review. I welcome these kinds of reviews. No matter how much we might love a particular game, there are always areas that we feel could be stronger or improved, even if those improvements would not fundamentally change the way we feel about the game as a whole. These aren’t necessarily useful perspectives for people unfamiliar with a series, but they’re worthwhile for longtime fans.