Picture the scene. I'm playing Elden Ring. My two preschool children are sleeping upstairs, and my girlfriend is sitting on the couch opposite reading a book. "Holy shit," I say. I can't believe what I'm seeing. Elden Ring has surprised me on many occasions to date, but right now I'm speechless. My girlfriend asks what's up, and I tell her I've just discovered a new area in the game that I've been playing almost every single night for close to a year now. And not just any area, a big area. One with tunnels and suspended walkways and loads of new baddies that I've never seen before. My girlfriend says that's nice. But it's not. What it is, is Elden Ring's Subterranean Shunning-Grounds.
Fast forward 15 minutes and I'm swearing like a sailor at my screen, cursing this forsaken level and fuming at everything from its shady enemy placement to its ramshackle layout and needlessly punishing level design. My two preschool children are no longer sleeping, my girlfriend is no longer humoring me, and I'm no longer as enamored by my landmark discovery than I was a quarter of an hour ago. This is not nice at all. In fact, this is Elden Ring's answer to Blighttown – the original Dark Souls' most hated location.
Despite my rage (which we'll get to in a second) the beauty of this, of course, is the fact that even though I've spent over 300 hours with Elden Ring, I'm somehow still making such jaw-dropping discoveries. I won't lie and tell you I've avoided Wikis entirely during my time scouring the Lands Between – some bosses during my first playthrough had me totally stumped; as did where to go next on the main questline at times – but I have by and large kept extra help at arm's length. It's a personal thing for me when it comes to FromSoftware games: that sense of hopelessness and helplessness is something that drives my enjoyment, but it also means I'm less familiar with the quirks and secrets these games offer off the beaten track. Elden Ring is bigger and broader than any of FromSoft's back catalog too, meaning despite having unlocked the entire map, I'm still uncovering new spots.
As such, I totally missed Elden Ring's Subterranean Shunning-Grounds during my first runthrough, and only discovered it by accident during my current New Game+ adventure. Even more baffling is the fact I'm not even convinced I discovered it when I was supposed to. For those unaware, the optional underground area is accessed via the Leyndell Royal Capital, but I didn't stumble upon it until the city was buried in ash right at the tail end of the late game. It's accessed via a well under pre-burning Erdtree conditions, but is simply marked by an open sewer grate thereafter – where you're required to make three precarious, death-defying drops to gain entry. Truth be told: I'm thrilled and absolutely gutted with my discovery, in equal measure.
Because, simply, the Subterranean Shunning-Grounds is a fucking nightmare. Given its placement beneath the opulent sprawl of the Royal Capital, there will be lore tied to this location that I'm yet to read but will now seek out. On the surface, though, it's a wicked spiral of drain pipes and ladders, of enemies that drop down from above or cling to the sides of structures out of sight. It's a labyrinth of tunnels that lead to nowhere, packed with rats, poisonous flowers, banshees and Death Blight-breathing Basilisks. Getting around involves either running the gamut down stamina-sapping thoroughfares with three hulking, dual-sword wielding juggernauts on your tail, or dropping down onto the slimmest of ledges to access new areas, cursing every time you miss the mark and die, and die, and die again. It is, as far as I see it, Elden Ring's answer to Dark Souls' The Depths and Blighttown, two of that game's most derided areas, all rolled into one.
Blighttown was an evolution of Demon's Souls' Valley of Defilement. Dark Souls 2 had The Gutter, Dark Souls 3 had Farron Keep, and Bloodborne had the Forbidden Woods, each of which was defined by their poisonous swamps and incongruous architecture. Elden Ring's Subterranean Shunning-Grounds plays heavier on the latter, but it is easily one of the game's most frustrating and grueling arenas – so much so that I think it's the first location where I've relied on activating shortcuts, as opposed to just finding them helpful. Especially when your reward for all of this is an equally maze-like tomb that houses fire traps, spike walls, falling cleavers, and poison-spewing zombies; and precedes a pretty fierce boss battle with Mohg, The Omen.
The 300 club
Look, I realize there's every chance some of you are reading this and saying, how the hell is he only discovering this place now?! And you might be right. But I guess the beauty of Elden Ring's suggestive lore and optional pathways means it's possible for someone pretty familiar with how these games work to still be discovering such intricate locations with so much game time under my belt. And I love that. I think this is my last big location revelation – I've already cleared Miquella's Haligtree and Nokron, the Eternal City, for example – but I'm now starting to doubt myself.
Does Elden Ring have what it takes to become this generation's Skyrim? I asked that question way back on March 3 last year, less than a week after the game had launched. Almost a year on, over 300 hours in, I'm still uncovering huge underground areas, and I think it's got every chance. Perhaps it's already there. But I guess time will continue to tell.
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