Let’s Talk About Elden Ring, From the Perspective of Someone Who Has Only Played Dark Souls 3 For About Two Hours
Just wanna get a quick one out while I have the energy; I haven’t been playing a lot of games recently but Elden Ring has been one of them and I have Thoughts about it.
For those not in the loop, Elden Ring is the latest game developed by FromSoftware; a Japan based studio known for making the titular Dark Souls series and adventure classics such as King’s Field and Armored Core. To tell you straight up, I have barely touched any of their games. My girlfriend has tried to get me to play Dark Souls 3 a few times and I got too frustrated to continue after a bit. Elden Ring is the first time I’ve decided to try a FromSoft game at launch because I never owned any console or computer that could run them. I imagine and have seen that it is many other’s first time trying a FromSoft game as well, particularly due to a particular gigantic name in fantasy fiction being attached to it. I’ve seen their games get covered before, but never have I seen to this extent so many people at once being excited for a game like this.
I’m going to talk about my first 50 or so hours with Elden Ring. I have not finished it. It is extremely expansive and I probably will not get to finishing it for awhile due to its size and also due to reasons I will explain later on.
Now about that big name attached to it. Elden Ring was created in collaboration with George R.R. Martin, who as far as I can tell wrote the main scenario and backstory for the world, from which Hidetaka Miyazaki (basically the father of modern Souls games) and the rest of the team worked on every other facet of the game. Trying to look into it deeper, it seems Martin really only was involved in the preproduction of the game and afterwards the team was left to their own devices. Basically he just wrote some words for it. Despite his small amount of involvement, this game does have a markedly different feel from other FromSoft games ofthe past. They’re often known to delve into high fantasy settings and while this one is no different, the world feels closer to something Tolkein-esq rather than previous Souls games, despite their similarities. I’m not really here to talk about the story because that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. It’s a backdrop for the game to take place and while learning about it through item descriptions is fun to do, it isn’t really what I want to talk about. In short, I think Elden Ring’s backstory and plot are pretty cool. There’s some demigods who have been fighting each other for an unspoken amount of time and have been in a stalemate after an extremely violent war that left most of the land scarred. It works well. I know enough about it and other Souls stories to get a feel for it. Let’s talk about a game now.
From my limited experience with Dark Souls 1 and 3, I can pretty much say the core gameplay here is almost unchanged from previous games. It’s combat and exploration focused and encourages trekking every bit of the map in order to find all sorts of secrets. Talking to friends with experience tells me this game’s core combat is closest to Dark Souls 3, so that will be my baseline comparison for this piece. The game is set in an open world a la Breath of the Wild or Red Dead Redemption. This is not a new thing to the AAA sphere, though it is for the Souls series. Outside of that major difference as well as the horse you can call to ride in order to get around faster at any time, Elden Ring is mostly the same in terms of actual content compared to other games in the series. You have rechargeable health restoring flasks, a dodge roll with invincibility frames and there are big sprawling dungeons in which you take out hard as fuck bosses at the end. Did I mention the game is hard?
Elden Ring’s strongest suit really is its density. The moment you step into the first area, you’re greeted with rolling hills, an npc to talk to, a checkpoint to rest and level up at and a boss roaming in the near distance. From here you’re just let free. You can go along a semi linear path to figure out your main goals for the story, but you’re pretty much set loose here (at least until you realise you need a horse because it takes forever to get anywhere). That’s really the gist of the entire game. You explore, find things to fight, find dungeons, get new weapons, level up, keep progressing to harder areas, fight bosses etc etc etc…
As a “newbie” to FromSoft games I was acutely aware of their difficulty. You can’t fuck around in these games and despite what a lot of hardcore fans tell you, getting your ass kicked can feel extremely punishing and bad if you’re not prepared for it. If you’ve never played a FromSoft game before, just know that dying is a part of the process and a lot of the fun you will get out of the game is figuring out how to avoid dying in the 50000 different ways the game tries to kill you at any one moment. Enemies hiding in plain sight, boulder falling down stairs, taking jumps that were too high off cliffs, that random bird that somehow followed you and decided to attack you. Did I mention you can’t pause the game? Learning to live with dying a lot was a part that made me end up enjoying the game more than I thought I would. It can be straight up slapstick sometimes in the ways it tries to kill you. It’s absurdly funny in a pretty twisted way. Dying to something for the first time is almost always an entertaining experience and each death is a chance to learn from mistakes and continue on. Getting into the mindset that something will always kill you is what will get you through these games and I am not being hyperbolic in any way. In many ways it just feels like absurdist humor half the time.
Alongside this is a combat system that is deeply fun in a way that allows for a lot of experimentation and is more or less class based at heart. Elden Ring is a roleplaying game at its core and it really shows with the variety of weapons and magics you can wield in the game. In my playthrough I decided to go for an Intelligence and Dexterity build, which in its current state has led to me using stuff like glintstone sorcery and the whip as my weapons of choice. Sorcery is a good way to chip at an enemy’s health from far away, while the whip staggers most enemies if used correctly, despite its lower damage output. Basically, if you don’t think certain weapons or magics suit you, go find something else. The game will allow you to eventually reallocate your stats to different skills later in the game if you don’t like your current build. Really, this highlights the game’s biggest strength overall; its flexibility in letting you do whatever the fuck you want. Outside of building your character, the extent to which you can change the way you wield single weapons or dual wield multiple weapons, the way you can set arbitrary handicaps on yourself by not using summons in boss fights and ESPECIALLY the way you can just give up on something that is too hard, go find something else to do in the world and come back later when you feel more prepared gives the game this sense of freedom in a way that gives agency to the player without holding your hand in the first place. By giving the player so many options, it allows them to feel like they’re in control of the pace of their story rather than the game doing that part. In a similar (but markedly different way) sense to Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring lets you do whatever, whenever, however you want to do it.
Elaborating on the world; the overworld is one of the densest things I have ever witnessed in a game I have played, and it’s not only dense but large. It’s large as in “I saw the entire second area of the game on a cliffside and thought that was the rest of the game, but actually it turns out that was just one fifth of the entire map”. A small but intriguing detail on a first playthrough is that the game’s map doesn’t give you a sense of just how large it is until you actually uncover said parts of the map. This leads to a sense that you’re actually uncovering the world along with your player character in a way (this is what silent protagonists are good for!). My favorite thing about playing Elden Ring was just riding around on my horse (he’s a ghost horse by the way) and just choosing a landmark to try to get to and seeing in which way the terrain would stop me from preceding. This led to moments where I would search around the area and find intentional shortcuts and secret caves and passages that would let me progress deeper and deeper into the map. The actual sense of discovery found from doing stuff like this is what got me to keep playing and it’s still one of the main things that sticks with me. Being the way that I am, I attempted to beeline it to the end of the map to see how far I could go before I got absolutely, positively roadblocked. This only happened about 28 hours in the first time. Finding the shortcuts that would let me pass by large story objectives was not always easy though and often the obvious solution would be the biggest one in the map; one of the game’s many large dungeons.
The marketing for Elden Ring coins these large structures as “legacy dungeons”. They’re styled after the castles and crypts found in the Souls games and are sprawling labyrinths filled with traps, enemies and secrets everywhere. Imagine the best Zelda dungeons, but they’re more focused on traversal rather than pure puzzle solving. They’re also hard as fuck. In my 50 hours, I only really experienced two of these dungeons, as well as two minor dungeons. If you asked me what my favorite part of the game is, I wouldn’t be opposed to say that the large dungeons are at least ONE of them. The actual intricacy of them is absurd. If you know what you’re doing you can pretty much head straight for the boss of the area, but exploring the areas rewards a lot. Raya Lucaria Academy, one of the two legacy dungeons I was able to finish was a multi level, deeply layered structure that at some points made me feel like I was cheating the way I was able to sneak around and scale on rooftops. After the first part of the dungeon; a graveyard like area filled with the undead and sorcerers and undead sorcerers, you’re asked to jump onto and ride a waterwheel up to the academy itself. From there you have only about one actual option to progress forward, but the waterwheel leads you to about 3 other optional places that end up being worth exploring. The design of the dungeons makes room for being openly explorable. If it looks like you can get somewhere with the tools you have on your character, most cases you can do just that. Corridors and rooms loop back on one another and lead you in such a way that makes you feel like you’re lost in a fun way. All of this culminates in probably the one aspect FromSoft games are known for: the actual bosses. I didn’t fight many actual mainline story bosses in my playthrough so far, but the ones that I did were extremely engaging.
In a similar vein to the entire rest of the game, you are expected to die a lot to these challenges that each cap the end of an area. Obviously in the overworld you’ll encounter bosses, but the ones that mark the end of the legacy dungeons tend to be more grand. Godrick the Grafted and Renalla, Queen of the Full Moon were both immensely engaging fights in their own rights and were both visual spectacles. Godrick’s body has been twisted into something of a monster by having limbs of the ones he’s killed directly grafted (hence the name) onto himself. He can use all of them like normal limbs, by the way. Halfway through the fight, he tears the head off of a nearby dragon and you watch him attach it to his arm as it comes to life, breathing fire everywhere. As a first proper boss, it left quite the impression just due to the way it defies expectations. On the other end, Renalla’s fight is also split in two parts. The first one has her acting as a protector to the countless sorceress daughters whom she uses the power of rebirth to make live forever attack you with their spells, while the second one has another sorceress interfering and making you fight a version of Renalla who is more or less an illusion of her past self, when she was at her peak in the sorcery world. Both of these fights focus on having you learn how to avoid attacks in a very strict fashion while being spectacles to see on their own. I will say the first half of the Renalla fight felt played out on the 5th or 6th time I fought her (she took me about 18 tries to beat) but it was overall still a very engaging fight.
Elden Ring’s world itself is pretty packed outside of the more closed off dungeons that the game tunnels you through; you can find small dungeons everywhere and groups of enemies to fight and almost everything gives you some kind of substantial reward. It’s a very satisfying feedback loop attacking a random enemy camp and getting some kind of significant reward each time. As mentioned earlier, the actual world itself is dense. There are things hiding in plain sight that you would never expect to find and it leads to discoveries that I’m not even willing to spoil much on just because the act of finding things in the game is so much part of the fun when you first play it. If you enjoyed games like Breath of the Wild or Skyrim in the past, you probably get what I mean. Elden Ring takes that sense of discovery up a notch by having every inch of its world be packed with things. All I can say about it is that there were multiple moments in the time I played where I said “I didn’t know ____ was here! Holy shit! This is so cool!”. That happened on like 20 different occasions. Similarly though, there were a lot of moments where I started to question whether or not I was excited to find something. The game being large in nature means there is a lot of repeated content. The catacombs are probably the biggest example of this, being these tiny dungeons that you can usually get through in about 15–20 minutes on average. They all share the same identity of being closed, stony corridors filled with traps and enemies hiding everywhere. They resemble a lot of the more open areas in Souls games in terms of how you progress through them. I think as a quick distraction, they’re often good to get into to take a break from the absolute gigantic scale that is the rest of the game. In most cases though, I would find myself spending upwards of 40 minutes in one of these places due to the fact that they have no checkpoints and are often filled with cheaper traps and enemy placement than the overworld and even in a lot of cases, the bigger legacy dungeons. After doing about 10 or 12 of them, I started actively avoiding them only to realise that a lot of these little dungeons hid precious items, weapons or spells that I actively wanted for my kit. This led to me continually hitting walls of frustration where I would get into negative feedback loops of trying to complete these things, only to die 5 times and get immensely discouraged. The sense of learning from your mistakes is in some way much harder to get past here because of how fast the areas can theoretically be completed. It led me into this mindset where I would be extremely careful the first few times through the area, only to be frustrated and then start rushing through. Fun fact: you should never do this in Souls games. You will have a bad time. While I am perfectly fine with the areas being designed the way they are, the main thing that would make me want to finish them would be an addition of at least one more checkpoint somewhere, halfway through the area maybe. I am very aware that dying like this is a staple in the series, but I couldn’t help but feel like the game tries way too hard to pick on you in these places.
Thankfully, I would say the rest of the game in terms of difficulty nails what its going for. I do want this to be a proper impression piece from someone who has never properly played through a Souls game, so I’m gonna go through just exactly what it was like to play through this game, learning the ins and outs of just how navigating a Souls game works (I promise that’s a part of the charm), as well as explaining why I believe the game might not be my own cup of tea.
“Oh my gosh! You don’t like the game?” I can hear you all say. “You just spent so much time praising it!”
Yeah. I did. What I can say is that I believe this game is genuinely a masterclass in world design. It’s absolutely my favorite part of the game outside of the combat. I don’t hate the game, but having it be one of the biggest game releases of the year has led to this sort of FOMO complex. It feels like in a lot of cases I’m not even playing the same game as others. If I wanted to attribute it to anything, it’s likely just because the game just isn’t for me. I love the way it blends difficulty and the normalization of death, I love the way a lot of the fights with enemies are genuinely very engaging and require you to learn from mistakes. I like that the dungeons do the same thing in a much wider sense. I wouldn’t have put 50 hours into this game if I didn’t enjoy a lot of aspects of it. Ultimately I think what it comes down to is my own problem, but the game itself is exhausting to play for me. I’ve mentioned it’s hard, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned just how much that takes out of me every time I play it. I love dying in either intentional ways, dumb ways or intentionally dumb ways. In the same sense that the open world leads to moments of discovery, the actual process of dying is both an experience of discovery itself alongside the learning aspect. The appeal of a lot of this challenge in the game is being able to overcome a hard challenge and see that in the form of you actually physically overcoming something in the game. It’s immensely satisfying when it works. For me though, it’s a feedback loop that is more negative than positive. I can’t continue to play and enjoy something that has me hitting my head against a wall for 3 hours straight in order to learn; my brain does not have that kind of patience in the context of playing games for long periods of time. Spending a few hours on a single boss was fun its first time for me but after it started happening multiple times, I started to simply feel fatigued rather than accomplished, even after besting said challenges.
I know I keep mentioning it, but the game is MASSIVE. In my 50 hours with it, I have probably explored about half the map and am about 2/3 of the way through the central quest. It’s a game meant to have a time investment similar to something like a turn based JRPG. In a lot of ways, if you enjoy the Souls formula this game will immensely satisfy you. In my case, I really do enjoy the actual formula itself, but the thing that keeps me from continuing is its size. I can’t realistically enjoy a game this large, this expansive, this long. It feels like asking me to climb Mt. Everest. Which is disappointing to me, because I really really have enjoyed my time with it. It does make me want to try the smaller scale games that FromSoft has made in the past, though. As I stated at the beginning of this article, my current plan is to still finish the game. Whenever that will happen, I don’t know. As it stands it’s simply not something I can enjoy right now due to how overwhelming it is for me. At the time of writing this article, I haven’t touched the game in about a week. I will probably stay away from it for awhile, but I genuinely believe it’s such a good game that I really do want to continue with it eventually. Just for now, it’s going on the backlog shelf.
If you got to the end of this, thanks for reading! I’d love to hear what any of you think of Elden Ring, if you’ve played it. It’s a game deserving of its high praise and despite the above stated, I still do not dislike it. I originally envisioned writing this article before I ever even played this game, so I actually was not sure what my opinion on it would be by the time I would get around to it. To tell the truth, I thought it would be a ride or die situation. I would either love the game or hate it, but as it turns out my feelings on it are much more complicated than that. Let me know if these types of impression pieces are a good way to talk about games. I wasn’t sure about this format, because it kind of feels like a lot of me telling the reader things about the game rather than my actual thoughts on it. I hope to be able to try this format a little more in the future and hopefully refine it more so I can insert more of my opinion. As for now, thanks for reading!!!