I am on fire. Figuratively, not literally. Well, at least not at the moment. On my last advance towards the grounds of Stormveil Castle in Elden Ring, while climbing the wind-torn strait that links the decrepit stronghold and neighbouring region Stormhill, I was hit in the face by a flaming arrow. And, believe it or not, that's underselling it. Because not only was I impaled through my actual head with a burning piece of wood, I was hit so hard that I was thrown backwards off my feet, arcing through the air like the very projectile protruding from my skull, before bursting through a spiked timber palisade in the cruellest of crash landings. Let your guard down for even a second in Elden Ring, and, make no mistake, it will kick your arse. Or puncture your face, whichever comes first.
On this advance towards Stormveil, however, I'm sleuthing through the long grass like a ninja. I'm hugging the rocks that border the cliffside like a shadow, and I'm picking off distant foes with a flick of my staff and a brilliant blue blast of Glintstone Pebble. I am Shinobi meets Merlin, Sekiro meets Sauron. I am on fire. And I am enjoying Elden Ring at its absolute best: leveraging stealth, with a magic-focused build.
Dark Souls purists will tell you I'm wrong. They'll say that FromSoftware games are best endured not enjoyed, that summoning pals for boss fights is against some contrived code of conduct that obviously isn't written down, conjured by unappealable gatekeepers who are obsessed with the two words that have plagued any form of nuanced conversation around Souls and Soulslike games for the last 10 years. Git gud. Cringe.
To them, I might be wrong. That's fine, I'm no hot-take custodian, but what I will tell you is that stealth in Elden Ring – something I myself was unsure of pre-release and admittedly wasn't overly taken with during last year's closed network test – is wonderful. For starters, it's great fun. Those familiar with FromSoftware's previous Souls games (and Bloodborne) will know that while there is a degree of flexibility regarding the order in which you can approach things, much of their standard combat involves either a) killing everything in sight, or b) sprinting past everything between bonfires and boss fights. The introduction of stealth to this formula, however, means you can now circumvent enemies entirely – be that in order to get the drop on them with a pre-emptive attack from behind, or to simply access the next area without unsheathing your sword at all. The latter approach isn't sustainable long-term – given the fact you'll surrender stats-boosting runes, crucial for overcoming futute boss battles – but the former allows for huge variety in combat as you pick off targets one-by-one with ranged and close-quarters attacks like some sort of Lovecraftian Cluedo character. Indeed, it was I, Colonel Confessor with the Astrologer's Staff in the windy field.
With stealth, weather is another factor that Elden Ring uses to great effect in combat. I solved the aforementioned face-arrow situation by wandering off the beaten track and tip-toeing around in the brush, Rambo style, using the fierce, howling wind on this stretch of Stormhill (it's in the name, after all) to mask the noise of my advances. Worried that meagre bows and arrows might struggle downstream of the elements – my aggressors had proved their veracity in the opposite direction – I turned to the arcane arts during each offensive, freewheeling between my piercing Glintstone Pebble spell and its sweeping multi-enemy-smiting Glintstone Arc counterpart. Moreover, Elden Ring's day/night cycle means doing all of the above under the cover of darkness adds new layers of possibility to your attacks.
Stealth is a central tenet of FromSoftware's previous game, Serkiro: Shadows Die Twice, of course, but it feels like a new beast entirely in Elden Ring against its open-ended design. The fluidity of its character classes, its Souls-like presentation in mechanical terms, and the size of open-world map make stealth here feel fresh – to the point where it makes more sense to compare Elden Ring's stealth to Sekiro's predecessors; not in direct relation to the Samurai action-adventure game itself.
One of Dark Souls' crowning features was its interconnected map, which built upon the spider graph structure of its forerunner Demon's Souls. But instead of having players warp back and forth from its centralised hub area, a la The Nexus, Dark Souls planted Firelink Shrine at the heart of its playground – something mirrored by Dark Souls 2's Majula, as well as Dark Souls 3's own interpretation of Firelink. First launched in 2011 for the PS3 and Xbox 360 console cycle, the much-lauded verticality of Dark Souls' Lordran was born from technological constraints, but simultaneously tapped into themes of triumph and despair – ascending the Undead Church vs plundering the bowels of Blighttown, for example – whether intended or not. In Elden Ring, the Roundtable Hold acts as an off-campus hub area, but there's so much to see and do at any given time in the wilds of the Lands Between that I've visited just once in my 10 or so hours with the game so far.
And so, here I am, back among the long grass, crouched, eyeing my next ambush. I've laid waste to the Beast of Farum Azula, the Erdtree Burial Watchdog and Margit, the Fell Omen. I've pushed through as much of Stormveil Castle as I can for now, and have fallen foul of Godrick the Grafted's second, fire-breathing phase more times than I care to admit. I'm now back in the thoroughfare that links The First Step and the Church of Elleh, and I've got my eye on the Tree Sentinel. Swaggering back and forth, unflinching like Emerald or Ruby Weapon. With my Astrologer's Staff in-hand, I've just summoned a trio of Lone Wolf Ashes. And now it's time to break cover. Once more unto the breach. Wish me luck. Just keep your voice down, yeah?
Stuck somewhere in the Lands Between? Check out our Elden Ring guide and find your way