In case I wasn't clear in my Elden Ring hands-on preview: this is one FromSoftware-ass game, y'all. If the test build I played was leaked before Elden Ring was announced, I probably would've assumed it was Dark Souls 4. It looks and plays very like a Dark Souls game, and like the games it builds on, it has nothing but scorn for the player, at least outwardly. It's an openly, almost comically hostile game at times, and its rules are transparently punishing.
That's what I thought, until I played more of it. Because the more I played it, the more welcoming Elden Ring felt. By using its RPG elements to cut through the ruthless reputation of the Souls games, Elden Ring enables and empowers players in ways that previous FromSoftware games never truly did, creating an approachable sandbox that loudly tells you to overcome challenges however you see fit. As a result, it's on track to become one of the studio's easiest, most enjoyable, and most approachable games.
FromSoftware is your friend
Like the early Castlevania titles and many other retro releases, FromSoftware games are traditionally built in a way that punishes players who rush through and approach challenges linearly. Simply grabbing a sword and charging forward will see you fall for every trap, ambush, and special attack laid out for you, and the whole game will likely feel like some bullshit. This is where a lot of that sterling FromSoftware reputation comes from. If you treat these things like any other action game, relying solely on reflex and reaction, you'll get tossed around like a chew toy. I think this is why a lot of people treat the games as some paragon of difficulty, even though they're often quite forgiving – and even though their difficulty is far from the best or most important thing about them.
The greatest trick FromSoftware ever pulled was convincing players that its games were designed specifically to kill them. They weren't. They were designed to be beaten, like all games are. Games are problems meant to be solved, and FromSoftware's games are no different. They act mean, and they regularly conceal the path to victory, but they do fundamentally want you to succeed. Much the same is true of Elden Ring, but it really wants you to succeed.
The striking thing about Elden Ring is that it directly goes against the way FromSoftware games have been trending for the past few years. Look at Bloodborne, which not only removed the shields that got countless players through the Dark Souls games, but also further incentivized aggressive play through its combat mechanics, like letting you heal if you could land some attacks immediately after getting hit. Sekiro took this a step further by forcing players to dodge and parry with near perfection and with exactly one core weapon, actively promoting a specific and aggressive play style, albeit with the cushion of stealth kills to fall back on.
Elden Ring is on the total opposite end of the spectrum. There are a zillion ways to play this game, and if you fold in a single ounce of strategy, you'll have a much easier time than you would blindly rushing in with a sword.
Elden Ring is in your corner
Let's look at shields, which are stronger in Elden Ring than any previous FromSoftware game. I started my hands-on session with the Enchanted Knight class, and it comes with a shield that can totally block all physical damage. From the second I start the game, as long as I have stamina to spare, I can negate any blockable physical attack, and that's not all. Thanks to the new guard counter, after I block an attack, I can perform a hard-hitting follow-up that staggers enemies. This isn't as effective as using my shield to parry attacks, but it's a whole lot safer, and it clearly communicates that baiting hits, blocking them, and then countering is an effective approach.
The Enchanted Knight also starts with basic projectile magic that trivializes many encounters. You can divide your healing flasks between HP and FP (Focus Points, or mana) like you could in Dark Souls 3, and since some of your flasks are replenished after you defeat groups of enemies, you can sustain a ranged magical assault for quite some time just by carefully managing FP. Later in my preview, I found a spell that could chew through dozens of enemies from an absurd distance, and another that could one-shot damn near everything around me. It's hard to overstate just how good sorceries and incantations are. Would I rather smack a troll's heels with a battle axe and perfectly i-frame every swing of his club, or effortlessly shred him from a safe distance with floating swords? It's not a hard choice.
Then there's the phantoms you can summon, which remind me of the partner characters in Code Vein in that the better ones will basically play the game for you. Summoning a powerful phantom dramatically reduces the danger you face in group encounters, and because bosses will often target phantoms as well, they just make everything so much safer. On a whim, I had a low-level mage phantom join me for the hardest boss fight in the network test, and it made a world of difference. The boss spent a lot of time chasing my phantom, letting me get loads of free hits on his back. And when it eventually went after me again, my phantom would squeeze in some chip damage from the rear. You get access to two phantoms almost immediately, including the weak one I used for that boss fight, and for a readily available single-player option, phantoms make Elden Ring a much more comfortable experience.
This feels like cheating
We haven't even gotten to multiplayer, and summoning a fully armed person is obviously way better than a bargain bin phantom. You can even summon two players to help you. Two! I barely had to lift a finger after enlisting a decent phantom, so you'd better believe that playing with a buddy (shoutout to our friends at PC Gamer) made Elden Ring infinitely easier. I cleared the entire network test three times, twice solo and once mostly with a friend, and the co-op experience couldn't have been more different. I can't even imagine what summoning two players would feel like. You may as well head off and make a sandwich while your buddies sort things out.
You see where I'm going with this? Because I can keep going. The mini-checkpoint Stakes of Marika let you respawn closer to many boss fights and avoid losing valuable health or FP while making your way back for another try. Fighting on horseback lets you whittle down basically anything in the open world that's not on horseback from relative safety. I can tell you from experience that the invincibility frames on Elden Ring's dodge roll are on the more generous side of FromSoftware's games. And you can even put enemies to sleep or just outright stealth kill them from the frickin' grass like it's Metal Gear Souls out here. Remember, this is all stuff that I discovered in the early hours of the game. I'm sure later areas will be more difficult, but who knows what new tricks we'll learn along the way?
Elden Ring is undeniably a challenging game, but if you pay attention and leverage its flexible and multifaceted combat, I guarantee you'll find it to be much less intimidating and demanding than previous FromSoftware games. It's more about creativity and less about raw mastery. You don't have to pull your socks up and learn The Play Style. You can define your own style using a wealth of tools, and run circles around enemies that gave you hell when all you had was a sword and a dream. I still consider Demon's Souls to be FromSoftware's easiest action-RPG, but I suspect my opinion may change once I'm able to properly play through Elden Ring come February. And I'm not at all bothered by this, because I reckon Elden Ring may also be my favorite FromSoftware game of all time thanks to its massive, inviting world.