All That Is Golden
HIGH When the highest location on the map is also a climactic story beat.
LOW Scarlet Rot, this game’s version of the “toxic” ailment.
WTF That thing under Stormveil Castle.
When the embargo for Elden Ring dropped a few weeks ago, the number-one thing we were all echoing was how unfathomably massive the game is. I correctly estimated at the time that with 40-50 hours clocked, I was only about a third of the way through it. However, From Software are masters of hiding their light under a bushel, and despite our warnings people are still being caught off guard by the sheer enormity of what this team has produced.
What’s more interesting, though, is that every time Elden Ring presents an Anor Londo-esque reveal – a moment when FromSoft raises the curtain just as players think they’re getting a handle on the game’s scale – it’s welcomed as a good thing. In an entertainment industry that’s grown increasingly focused on prolonged engagement where the average new triple-A release looks more like a list of chores than a relaxing way to unwind after a tough workday, it’s refreshing to see something that actually earns its status as the only videogame we’re expected to play for months at a time. It’s a game so good that it makes other games difficult to go back to.
I wrote up some impressions of Elden Ring back when the embargo dropped. I’ve since tripled my playtime and finished the game, and I’m pleased to report that nothing I’ve seen has dampened my initial enthusiasm. My opinion hasn’t changed – it’s a masterpiece. What has changed is that Elden Ring has since become a massive mainstream success. This may seem to be coming from out of nowhere to anyone who’s been scared off by the studio’s ‘hardcore’ label and dismissed their past work as niche. But to those who have been following FromSoft’s work since they launched Dark Souls, this particular entry feels like the natural conclusion to a years-long journey on the studio’s part.
While the term “soulslike” has been heavily misused in recent years – usually to simply describe any action-RPG that happens to be tough – it’s undeniable that director Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team have essentially created an entire subgenre with its own cadence and vocabulary (souls, bonfires, flasks, etc.). We’re increasingly seeing other developers attempt to emulate the formula, and while there have been scattered successes, playing Elden Ring is like sipping my favorite craft beer again after years of nothing but domestic swill.
In fact, part of the reason that Elden Ring works so well is that FromSoft has the basics down for a while now. Most crucially, the combat is more-or-less perfect. The rapidly-recharging stamina meter has always been a particular stroke of genius in the way that it lends an element of decision-making to every offensive or defensive maneuver. Victory hinges not just on reflexes, but on the player’s understanding of the fundamental rules by which everything in this world abides. Downing a tough adversary under such conditions makes me feel both powerful and smart.
The most immediate upside of moving the FromSoft formula to a truly open world, then, is having a seemingly endless number of ways to engage with that satisfying combat loop. While there are some repeated fixtures throughout the Lands Between – the catacombs with their environmental puzzles, or the mines that yield upgrade materials – everything is individually authored and houses unique rewards. I can boot up Elden Ring, microdose on some of that Souls gameplay I know and love, and always end my session feeling productive.
Although Breath of the Wild isn’t a one-to-one comparison – players cannot literally go straight from the tutorial to the final boss, for example – the spirit of Nintendo’s benchmark is in full force here since the overwhelming majority of Elden Ring is optional. A player’s specific route to the endgame rests entirely on how much of the world they want to see and how easy they want to make future battles via doing more prep work. The game is almost like a FromSoft buffet table, allowing us to pick and choose the components of our perfect meal.
Bolstering that flexibility is a returning emphasis on character builds. While there’s an undeniable joy in games like Bloodborne and Sekiro forcing us to master new tricks, bringing shields and magic back into the fold goes a long way in making this hundred-plus-hour behemoth palatable. Those who like to study boss patterns and minimize the number of hits they take can do so, but tanking is viable again, as is slinging projectiles from across the room. Whatever type of action-RPG we want Elden Ring to be, it can be.
The wealth of options expands beyond how we build our protagonist. The ability to simply bypass entire groups of enemies has never been easier, thanks to both the openness of the world and the presence of a surprisingly reliable stealth system. Is it the silly variety of stealth that mainly involves crouching in bushes? Sure, but it’s amazing how much that doesn’t matter when developers stop striving for cinematic realism and treat these spaces as the abstractions that they are.
Elden Ring becomes more linear in its final hours, as objectives decrease in number and all paths begin funneling toward a conclusion. That’s where I finally started hitting walls, but by that point I’d collected so many tools and learned so much about the systems that I needed only switch up my strategy. I could experiment with new weapons or even respec if necessary. I could summon a Burger King cosplayer to fire lasers at it, or unleash an AI-controlled familiar as a distraction to buy some breathing room. Or, as ever, I could just find something else to do and come back once I had a bit more confidence.
The free-flowing structure of Elden Ring is made possible by a story that is, as always, happy to stay in the periphery. The lore is extensive and fascinating, with new details constantly being pieced together by the community, including further work on at least one genuinely unsolved mystery. However, it’s only there for people who care enough to go looking for it. Everyone else will be focused on the real story, which is the same story that all FromSoft games have – the epic tale of a shriveled-up little weirdo who slowly and steadily works up the power to topple gods, for no other reason than they wanted to.
The overwhelming mainstream success of Elden Ring has resurrected old questions about the approachability and user friendliness of FromSoft’s work that diehards have long stopped caring about. All I can say is that it never occurred to me not to jump down the deep, perilous hole in which the game hides its tutorial, nor does it strike me as bad design that Elden Ring is full of obscure secrets that no one player could ever hope to find on their own. These games simply have their own language. The darkly humorous trolls are part of that language, as is the steep learning curve and the communal experience of sharing notes.
That may sound like an excuse, but it’s hard to argue with the results – FromSoft has stuck rigidly to this formula, and their fanbase has exponentially grown. More and more people are learning the language.
Elden Ring has already become too big for rival developers to ignore, and I worry that many of them will seek to emulate its surface-level qualities while ignoring the real lesson here – that some of us want games made by artists, not algorithms. Chasing trends may lead to short-term gains, but it’s no substitute for a developer spending more than a decade fine-tuning a creative vision so singular that it defies our usual metrics for what can be considered “good” or “bad” design. Whether Elden Ring is perfect is beside the point. What matters is that it’s the ultimate expression of a blueprint first laid out in Dark Souls. It’s made my favorite game of all time feel like a practice run.
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 publisher and reviewed on the PS5. Approximately 160 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.
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.