During the (approximately) six hours I’ve spent in the Lands Between during the recent Elden Ring closed network test, my initially-high expectations were quickly met — and then surpassed with ease. The feeling I was left with after the trial period is one of genuine interest and intense anticipation to dive back in. It seems that not a single minute of the three full years FROM Software reserved to develop this vision went by in vain. I was also glad to see that George R.R. Martin’s contributions are present and impactful, his influence seen in some deep layers of lore, worthy of peeling off and revealing one by one.
Elden Ring is an open-world soulsike — and just let that sink in for a moment. Fans of the worlds FROM has created are certainly familiar with the intricate craftsmanship they’ve witnessed in places like Lordran and Lothric, but this is indeed next level. In Elden Ring we have vast areas full of hills that roll on into the distance, but that doesn’t mean the scenery is empty — no, it’s thoroughly sprinkled with tons of secret dungeons or wondrous items waiting behind unassuming rock formations.
Similarly, players will again have to keep a mental map of each area, keeping in mind where skirmishes may happen — enemy positioning still incites those famous FROM “gotcha!” moments, only now they’ve been spread out across miles and miles of in-game world. The result is nothing short of a marvel as the feeling of discovery is still present as it was in the earlier titles that made FROM famous – all of which were significantly smaller in both scope and ambition.
To accommodate such renewed freshness, Elden Ring’s initial philosophy is different than it was in Dark Souls, and in my opinion, it’s for the better. Rather than discouraging players and slapping them down even in the tutorial area (the usual FROM trick) this brave new world is far more accommodating for first-timers. The layout is quite open, utterly captivating to explore, and devoid of minions waiting to attack (at first.) Also, while outside of combat our stamina won’t drain, so we can take it all in as quickly or as slowly as we like.
Furthermore, our character is light on their feet, able to jump and land with a shield-breaking strike, but can also crouch and remain hidden. By opting for a silent approach, I was able to score many backstabs swiftly, never once breaking the flow of play. The ‘bonfire’ mechanic is given an overhaul too. Instead of needing to pause and rest whenever we run low on healing, Elden Ring rewards good play by offering new ways to care for ourselves. For example, defeated groups of enemies always replenish the estus flask. Also, the hills are full of helpful herbs that can be used in recipes, thus creating a wider assortment of healing salves. As a result, whenever I received some damage, I found it preferable to continue fighting or to scavenge around than it was to ride back to the nearest ‘bonfire’.
Such exploits are made all the more enjoyable by the addition of a ridable horse/goat creature. By utilizing a special whistle, the beast materializes out of thin air, instantly letting the character press onward. It can also be called upon during battle, allowing us to outrun a mob or switch to rapid hit-and-run tactics. Plus, while riding we can perform short speed bursts, jump attacks or even double jumps — if paced correctly, we can access some unreachable-looking areas. Additionally, by standing on specific ‘wind hotspots’, we can soar dozens of meters in the air while maintaining control over where we’ll land. The act of traversing this golden-green world on a majestic mount is a blast.
But what about the combat itself? Well, in this sense Elden Ring is a soulslike through and through, though it does mimic Sekiro’s quicker pace, smoother animations and a focus on stealth. That said, it’s still a stamina-based system where keeping a close eye on enemy action is key. The test content was populated by a wide variety of otherworldly horrors, each with elaborate attack patterns begging to be explored and dissected — and, as expected, the many bosses I found were all memorable and disturbing highlights. It might be an open-world experience, but the formula here often distills back to many well-known and well-loved Dark Souls qualities.
Elden Ring might not succeed in luring in fans of the broader action-RPG genre due to the fact that it carries the Souls torch further up the mountain and never lets go of FROM Software’s fundamentals, but for fans like me who expected some well-trodden ground, Elden Ring’s new take was beyond satisfying. I can’t wait to dive into the full version!
Elden Ring will be released on February 25, 2022, and will be available on XBO, XBX/S, PS4/5 and PC.
–– Konstantin Koteski