I can't pretend to be entirely unbiased about Elden Ring. FromSoftware is my darling, as it is for so many people, and there's no game it's made since Demon Souls that I haven't played through at least twice (or much more). So bear in mind that these are the thoughts of a Soulsborne veteran, not a fresh-faced adventurer ready to experience his first taste of terror. And I'm a prisoner of that reality, leaving me horrified and fascinated by the idea that Elden Ring really could be the best FromSoftware game.
Release date: February 25, 2022
Platform(s): PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PC
Developer: FromSoftware Inc.
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Even saying it, I find it hard to believe - surely Dark Souls and Bloodborne can't actually be surpassed, right? Those games were bona fide masterpieces, and in the case of Dark Souls, era-defining masterpieces. You don't just improve on something like that, it doesn't make sense. It'd be like Beethoven waving away Ode to Joy as a rushed warm-up to the real thing. We're going to have to unpack this, and start at the beginning - which in Elden Ring's case, is definitely Torrent.
… And the magical horse you rode in on
Yes, it's an oversimplification to describe Elden Ring as "Dark Souls meets Breath of the Wild", but it's not totally inaccurate and works as a starting point for what we're dealing with here. And yes, the DNA of Dark Souls runs deep in Elden Ring, to the point where this could very plausibly have been Dark Souls 4. Even the title screens look the same.
The Breath of the Wild element is all in the world design. Gone is FromSoftware's tangled spaghetti of interlinking paths, and now we have a wide, expansive continent, where rolling plains rise up to ominous mountain fortresses, or descend to… well, poison swamps, mainly. There's a fair few of those. So now you can go wandering in practically any direction and find something new to kill (or, more likely, be killed by).
That's where the horse, Torrent, comes in. More than a simple gameplay gimmick, Torrent has to exist because the sheer scope of this world means walking was always going to be too slow. Consequently, a lot of threats are optional now. The first boss you encounter is a towering cavalry knight you're horribly under-leveled for, but then you realize you could always just… walk around him. Or go in the other direction. Or just power past on Torrent making insulting noises while he shakes his first in impotent rage!
As a result, you rarely get into fights if you don't want to, at least out in the open. Torrent can outpace practically any threat and you can flee in any direction, so when six tons of scaly heartburn drops onto the road before you, you just scamper between its legs and vanish into the sunset like the goddamn Roadrunner. Sounds surprising, but this is the intentional experience - there are a lot of late-game threats spread across the world, even in the early areas, and a big part of how you play is deciding what you're going to confront and what you're going to slink away from until later.
I suspect this is why people have been talking about Elden Ring being the most accessible, or even easiest FromSoftware game. I guess that's half true. It's not that Elden Ring is empirically easier - there are boss monsters here that could give Isshin Sword Saint or the Orphan of Kos a run for their money - it's just that the really punishing elements are basically self-inflicted. You deal with them when you choose. More accessible? Yeah, I'll give it that. Easier? Not so much.
See the world and meat people
But as somebody very used to Dark Souls, I found myself getting into the combat groove quickly enough. It's the same scrappy, stamina-saving stabbing, staggering, and spell-slinging that we know and love, but with a few quality of life improvements, not to mention some bones thrown to those who are getting their feet wet for the first time (something I've no doubt will make the get-gudders sneer). Bows and arrows no longer suck, which was a nice surprise, weapon upgrades have been simplified a bit, tutorials are now items in your inventory you can check at any time, and there's the power to summon helpful NPCs by spending mana. Whenever I found myself getting mangled by goons, I could ring a little bell like a thirsty toff in Downton Abbey and have a manservant with a glaive come hurrying out of the spirit dimension to help.
Between fights I found myself wandering the world, scooping up flowers, and enjoying the scenery, at least when it wasn't spitting horrors at me. There's a crafting element now - all the bits of bracken and bones you find while sightseeing can be combined in your menu to create consumables. It's a bit vestigial though; you don't start with many recipes so the instinct to craft things never really got hardwired into me. Still, it's not offensive. It occasionally served as a means to craft basic arrows, and it did lessen my fear about burning up limited items when I could always boil up some more from the parsley and demon offal stuffed down my underwear.
Even if you're not going full survivalist, traipsing around the wild is a pleasure anyway. Elden Ring's setting - the Lands Between - has a singular vibe of its own, close to classic Miyazaki with added Norse and Arthurian storytelling stirred in. The life-giving world tree looming over you, the legion of heroic knights and their literal round table, the fallen gods seeking ascension, it's all very mythic in appearance and tone. But emotionally I'd say it's nearest to Sekiro, because this world isn't quite dead on the vine or locked in frantic madness yet. There's clearly some attempt by the rulers to keep order, it's just all been handled very ineptly.
And this bleeds through into the world design nicely. Soldiers march the roads, keep checkpoints at key locations and even create magical jails that hold some optional boss fights. Where civilization and the wild make contact, you'll usually see some kind of brawl between knights and slavering monsters, barricades thrown up to keep out the worst nature has to offer. It's all part of the confusion that's clutching this world: nobody here seems to know who's in charge or why they really deserve it. As a result, your own Tarnished feels like an opportunist, using the uncertainty to grab what power they can while the chance is there.
Breadth of the Wild
The world itself is suitably gorgeous. Each region has a clear visual theme that marks it out, but enhanced by creative design. The swamps and lakes to the West have eerie balloons floating over them, half-visible in the mist. The fiery wastelands couldn't just be singed rocks, they're overgrown with fat, tumorous growths that make it feel like the land itself is diseased. And a dragon the size of a skyscraper has crashed into the gods' golden capital, its body draped over the palatial architecture. Could a world by Miyazaki be anything other?
And though the Lands Between is gruesome or solemn at times, it's also palpably full of life, giving it an optimistic energy no Soulsborne game has had so far. Sheep graze in the grasslands and scatter as a flock as you ride past, while elk flit through the forests and eagles give piercing stares from clifftops. Even the flowers glow with magical brilliance, little torches in the undergrowth that add color and light to your journey. And at any point, you might find a little crevice in a rock wall that leads to a vast underground city, monster lair, or bandit camp. The size of this game still staggers me now.
But I'd say the design peaks in the monster variety and creation, which is pretty jaw-dropping. Even the standard enemies are some of the most bewildering, bewitching horrors I've seen. From the underground aquatic ant-wasps of the Ainsel River, to the cherub-winged hag-dogs of Castle Morne, to the scuttling ringed hand-spiders of Mt Gelmir… It's a little overwhelming. I could spend years building my FromSoftware Pokedex, and the bosses, as ever, are the moment Elden Ring ramps things up to eleven. The usual cabal of legendary warriors and unspeakable atrocities, they come crashing towards you with unbridled bombast, ferocity, and cinematic flourish, as well as an orchestral score that sounds like the world is ending 10 times over and refuses to let you feel anything but total, terrified awe.
But let's address the few issues I have with Elden Ring - the visual design is superb, but the graphics themselves are a little bit unconvincing when seen close-up in cutscenes. There are moments where the openness of the world can make progress feel a bit aimless or uncertain, and much of the enemy AI could be outsmarted by a potato battery. At one point I was taking potshots at a legendary mage of great renown, but my character being partially concealed behind a door frame meant she struggled to work out why her head kept sprouting arrows, refusing to move even as I relocated several quivers' worth of ammunition into her brain.
There's also an argument to be made that Elden Ring's not as revolutionary as it could've been. As fantastic as it is to have an open world Soulsborne, I wouldn't have minded Elden Ring carving out a little more of an identity for itself beyond being "Dark Souls, but wider". It's a small gripe though - being similar to a game I love isn't really much of a criticism, only that I'm ready for a little more of a jump next time.
And it definitely doesn't detract from the overall experience. When Elden Ring hits the rails, the momentum carries it forward and refuses to slow down. My peaks of rage at being stomped on by towering titans never stopped being fun despite that, with that very particular form of masochistic joy you get from wrestling with FromSoftware games. It might not be as groundbreaking as its inspirations, but taken on its own terms, Elden Ring might be the best of its brethren - and that's something I'm still struggling to believe has actually happened.
Reviewed on PS5 on a copy supplied by the publisher.