I've just been slaughtered by a Tree Sentinel. Given a proper hiding. Slapped around the starting area of the Elden Ring closed network test from pillar to post, with nothing to show for it besides a bruised ego and a thirst for vengeance. I suspect this hulking, heavily armoured, steed-mounted knight is one of the first enemies I'm faced with here for a reason – a stark reminder that, yes, this is a much bigger and more open world than we're used to in FromSoftware games, but don't dare think for a second its foes are any less punishing.
After taking a kicking from horse and horseman alike, I respawn at the nearest Site of Grace (this game's answer to Dark Souls' bonfires), dust myself down, and hurl myself from my vantage point back onto the battleground below. Crouched low in the tall grass, the Tree Sentinel hasn't spotted me. Not yet, at least. Every inch of me wants to take another run at him, slash him across the back, chop at the legs of his four-legged friend. But I don't. I give him a wide berth, weave between trees and bushes like an alpine skier, and stumble upon a herd of harmless sheep. They look at me, I look at them, we both look at my Winged Spear. And they're gone.
At this point, I've barely scratched the surface of Elden Ring's closed network test, let alone the sprawling action RPG saga it promises come full release in February next year. And yet being a dick to its friendly sheep is already one of my favourite pursuits. Why? Because, for me, it speaks volumes for the game's open world.
In previous FromSoftware games – Demon's Souls, the Dark Souls series, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – the player's place in the world is regularly undermined. Far from a conventional hero, you enter their stories, not at the beginning, but in the wake of a series of unfortunate, humankind-threatening events. You step in, fight a load of baddies, topple a few area-specific bosses, then conquer an uber-powerful, end-of-game antagonist before watching the credits roll – unsure if you've actually fixed anything at all. In that process, you'll die, a lot, and will be plagued with the constant feeling that you're a wee bit inconsequential here; that these worlds exist, and could persist, with or without you.
In the little I've played of Elden Ring so far, it seems the same formula very much applies but with a twist. Our own Austin Wood is absolutely right, despite the ways Elden Ring is different from Dark Souls, it's already the most approachable game FromSoftware has ever made. And while making you feel insignificant is integral to the developer's style, this feels even more the case this time around – with packs of harmless wildlife roaming its plains, swimming in its waters, and climbing its crumbling ruins; minding their own business and generally existing in their own habitats. For the first time, then, it feels like the player's insignificance in the world is not solely story-driven, but also scale-driven; that Elden Ring's setting is so big that you're naturally a small part of it from a logistical point of view.
Act the wool
Dark Souls has trained us to trust nothing and no one – from paintings to sun-praisers and Patches – therefore my first encounter with Elden Ring's poor old sheep was an odd one. I half expected one of the wooly wonders to take a run at me, in the same way a boar did later on when a gang of guards had me cornered in the grounds of a castle. But the sheep ignored me. Which is hardly cutting edge game design, but it is markedly different to what we've come to expect from Souls games, where everything bar the odd group of docile Hollows is out to get you. In turn, the exchange, or lack thereof, made me appreciate the richness of this setting, where for the first time in Souls games, we'll be able to explore every nook and cranny like the best open-world adventures – you know, when we're not getting our helms handed to us by a mounted OP foe. In the aftermath of these defeats within the closed network test, I took out my frustration on an unsuspecting gathering of sheep. Every single time. The cutest stress balls there ever was. Poor bastards.
Again, it's no coincidence these contrasting moments occur in the opening five minutes of Elden Ring's closed network test, but that's credit to FromSoftware for hinting at what's possible from the outset. There were so many times in Dark Souls 3's Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City DLCs that I wanted to explore their gorgeous-looking but definitely unexplorable backdrops, simply because they looked lovely. Roving wildlife, knife-edge cliff faces and sun soaked vistas drive home the scale of Elden Ring from the off to great effect. Slaughtering sheep offers next to nothing in the way of reward, by the way, but it's a sure fire way of feeling powerful after taking a kicking from Mr Tree Sentinel. And I'll always grab those ego-boosting moments from FromSoftware with both hands, on the rare occasions I get 'em.
Our comprehensive Elden Ring guide tells you everything you need to know about FromSoftware's latest upcoming action RPG.