I got to play six hours of Elden Ring ahead of its release on February 25, and it's good. It's really good. Let's get that out of the way immediately; this is a game that's promised a lot and seems at first inspection to be living up to that promise, having built on the lessons of Bloodborne, Dark Souls, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice while trying out some new things along the way. Sure, I can only account for those first few hours of Elden Ring, but what I experienced has made me very excited to get the finished game. Call it my masochistic streak.
My Elden Ring hands-on preview started from the beginning of the game proper, rather than just dropping me into a later level with preset powers, and that meant starting off with character creation. Ten classes of varying flavours and abilities, ranging from burly Conans to sly assassins, and even one confused character who appeared to have a bucket stuck on his head. In the end I picked a mage in a snazzy bathrobe, as swords are all very well but there's something to be said for killing people before they can get into stabbing range. Besides, if FromSoftware never plays fair, why should I?
This sorted, I was given the usual impenetrable lore cinematic, a quick supposed-to-lose boss fight, and filtered through a rather gentle tutorial before eventually being pushed out, blinking nervously, into a wide expanse of rolling, sunny fields. "Go get 'em, tiger," said a nearby NPC, watching with poorly-concealed schadenfreude. "And if you're stuck on where to go, I'm sure that big Doom Castle in the distance is lovely this time of year."
Well, who am I to argue with creepy strangers in porcelain masks? I meandered down a nearby country lane, picking a few flowers, marvelling at the grand vistas of giant gold trees dominating the distant skyline, when suddenly a vast shadow fell across me. I was blocked in my path by a twelve foot knight astride a ten foot horse, and barely had time to hold out a hand in friendly greeting before a hoof spread me across the landscape. You died.
And here I was, worried FromSoftware was getting merciful in their old age! I respawned up the lane again, hitched up my britches, and went marching right back – boiling with righteous indignation. This time I was ready for the bastard, firing off several magical projectiles the moment he came into view… which he immediately absorbed into his shield and fired back at ten times their strength, reducing me to dust.
Eventually I managed to pick up on the lesson that was being taught here – you're not meant to fight this maniac, or at least not yet. That's why we have an open world now, as well as a few of the stealth mechanics that were prototyped back in Sekiro. It's not a gimmick, but a core mechanic that you're meant to use whenever it's available, giving you more choice both in how and when you take on various challenges. So rather than take on Mister MegaPaladin again, I went waddling through the bushes around him, keeping a wide berth until I felt I was far enough away to make a mad dash for safety. Moments later I found a bandit camp full of regular human beings, which proved a much more achievable goal – meaning I only died four or five times before victory.
Of course, the last attempt worked out best because night had fallen, and now all the cutthroats were settling down around the campfire, suddenly turning me into dark fantasy Jason Vorhees. In their attempt to realise an open world, FromSoftware has incorporated a lot of real-world rules, including a day/night cycle that changes the behaviour and even availability of certain monsters. One later boss fight on a bridge only triggered when I showed up after dark, but riding up during the day meant that it was instead host to a whole platoon of low-level goons. Another reason to be cautious – the threat that killed you last time might not be the threat that kills you the next.
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What's perhaps most surprising is how optional most of the enemies ended up being in Elden Ring. It wasn't long before I'd been given Torrent, my own magic horse that could be summoned at any point, and as a result there was very little that could catch up with me if I didn't want it to. In fact, on the other side of the bandit camp was a military blockade standing between me and the Doom Castle, the path choked with soldiers and barricades..
Torrent couldn't have cared less. Weapons don't mean much when they're aimed only where the target was several seconds ago, and barricades are pretty laughable to any animal that can double-jump. I went through the entire thing like a cannonball, whooping and making rude gestures at every apoplectic border guard I left in the dust.
Still, you can't do this forever. Torrent can't be summoned inside buildings or dungeons, and some bosses are big or fast enough to keep pace. Besides, you have to fight enemies sooner or later, or you'll be woefully underleveled and underprepared for the mandatory boss fights gating off certain items or areas.
Nonetheless, Torrent and the world design both give you a lot more power to how you address these challenges, and sometimes it's just fun to explore, racing past every foe and opening up the map, seeing the environment shift organically from grasslands to clifftops to marshes to ashen wastelands and more besides. Miyazaki's team have always been magnificent worldbuilders, but I've never played a game of theirs that felt so much like a genuine world, fully-formed, organic, and laid bare for plunder and peril alike.
A world of pain
Exploration mechanics are good, but it's the creativity that makes Elden Ring actually worth exploring. And while monster designs are sometimes traditional, like big dragons, sometimes they're bizarre, eerie, or even comical. In just those seven hours, I encountered falcons with sword legs, spiders made of human limbs, a robot cat statue, Swamp Thing's big brother, a one-man ghost ship, a nun with a colossal meat cleaver, wolves that drop out of the sky (though that might've been a glitch), and yes, even those horrible bead enemies that feel like something the Cenobites would bring out to get the party going.
Beyond all of that I have criticisms of Elden Ring, but I'll admit they're fairly minor. The biggest is probably fall damage, which seems pretty inconsistent – sometimes you drop down ravines with no harm done, sometimes you step off a roof and just Wile E. Coyote into the dirt. Dungeons are fairly common and just don't feel quite as exciting as being out in the wider world, a bit of a step back design-wise. Torrent's fun to ride but fighting on him isn't quite as elegant, and there's some horseback bosses where you feel at a disadvantage either way. And while crafting is now a mechanic, hoovering up plants and pebbles and combining them in your inventory, I never found a pressing need for it. So while it isn't offensive by any means, it seems a bit vestigial so far. But on the other hand, it was a preview build, so maybe this'll all be resolved by launch day?
Even if not, these were minor issues, and Elden Ring so far seems like it's shaping up to be one of the best FromSoftware games yet, maybe even on a par with Dark Souls 1 or Bloodborne. Its strengths are evident from the start, and the sheer openness of it all means you can drop the main quest at any point and just go wandering, finding boss fights, treasures, and strange, hostile realms over the horizon.
It also might be one of the most approachable FromSoftware games, though that's obviously a massively qualified statement with a thousand asterisks hanging off the end like a string of cheap tinsel. No, Soulsborne games are never friendly, but Elden Ring is at least willing to meet its players a little more in the middle, encouraging them to navigate around challenges and explore all possibilities before committing to one suicide mission in particular. There's even increased co-op options, meaning you can call on a specific friend to hold down whatever enemy's been tormenting you while you go for an easier kill.
Or you can do as I will come February 25 – start as the class who's equipped with little more than a loincloth and optimism, and go marching out into the world to pick a fight with every looming horror you can find. It won't be easy, but it's got to be done.
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