The first NPC I met in the Elden Ring network test wholeheartedly encouraged me to find a ditch to die in. This was mere seconds after I left the tutorial area. So yes, FromSoftware hasn't gotten any kinder in the past few years, and early hands-on time with Elden Ring (on PS5) has convinced me that the house of Dark Souls has only gotten more devilish, indulgent and creative.
Elden Ring is a familiarly punishing, third-person action RPG woven into a smart and enthralling open world, and more than any previous FromSoftware game, it begs to be explored. It's Big Dark Souls. It's Dark Souls 4 in all but name; a gigantic RPG that I spent 14 hours exploring, like, three percent of without getting bored. Elden Ring is exactly what I was hoping for: the greatest hits concert that FromSoftware has been building towards for over a decade.
Wanderlust in The Lands Between
The first ‘Site of Grace’ I encounter – the game’s new bonfire-style checkpoints, and item one on the "what did they rename everything?" test that comes with it – shines a light of guidance in the direction of a church, and, beyond it, the ominous Stormveil Castle. These guiding lights are the first of many features that make Elden Ring's sprawling world more navigable and less intimidating. Players can have some semblance of direction, as a treat. But you can also ignore these lights, as I do when I first enter The Lands Between after blasting through the Cave of Knowledge tutorial, which can be summed up as: here's how you attack, here are your healing flasks, slap on the bum, and off you go.
Because I stubbornly ignore the game's suggested direction, the first enemy I encounter is a fleshy giant which quickly flattens me. Naturally, I immediately come back and get killed again. On the third try, I lean more on the magic that came with my starting class, the Enchanted Knight, and manage to kill the big guy. I don't know it yet, but this is the start of a terrible addiction to sorcery.
I use up all the Flasks of Tears that recover my health and mana (or FP for Focus Points) in the process of killing the giant, and am therefore relieved to recover some flasks after the fight. When you vanquish a group of enemies – or, if you're a stubborn idiot, one big enemy that you probably shouldn't be fighting yet – you get a few flasks back based on the difficulty of whatever you killed. This keeps you from constantly running on empty as you explore, effectively extending how far you can reasonably travel without needing to rest at another Site of Grace. You can also divide your flasks (you start with four) between crimson flasks for HP and cerulean ones for FP, patching up your wounds or fueling your spells as needed. That's right, folks: we're back to the Dark Souls 3 magic system, and it still rips.
Emboldened by the giant's death, and intrigued by the smithing stone shard it dropped – I can't imagine what that's for – I head down a cliffside path to a beach populated by what can only be described as the world's least appetizing octopus balls. Fortunately, two hits from my beginner spell stuns these things and opens them up to a devastating finisher denoted by an orange marker, which will feel familiar to Sekiro fans. You can nail basically any enemy with a critical hit of some kind if you hit them hard enough or parry well enough, making these finishers an important part of many fights.
At one end of the beach, I find a mercenary guarding a Faith-type incantation that cures poison, while the other stretch of coastline is peppered with goblin-like demihumans, plus some reanimated skeletons that have to be double-tapped before they stay dead. The demihumans are stationed around a dark cave that catches my eye, but with no torch to light the way forward, I reluctantly return to the starting area, noting the location of the cave. I should probably unlock that mount from the trailer, not to mention a way to spend my Runes (not Souls) to level up, before pushing too deep into the margins of the world. Having learned my lesson from the giant, I begin the next arm of my adventure by laying low and hiding in bushes to sneak past the armored horseman blocking my path. I'll come back for you later buddy, I think to myself. First, I need to see a woman about a horse.
Don't get too comfortable
I start Elden Ring as I mean to go on: impulsively pursuing whatever I see first. So far, it's even less guided than the likes of Dark Souls – but again I've only explored, by my estimation, none percent of the world. Elden Ring encourages you to strike out on your own, and some of my biggest breakthroughs and most memorable encounters were found off the beaten path. Like the talking tree that turned into a demihuman after I hit it with a sword (it did not ask to be hit with a sword but I understood what it meant), the massive black horseman that only appears at night, and the ancient golem that could pass for a miniboss. There's a field of those giants doing their most hideous Attack on Titan impressions, a forest filled with floating jellyfish that turn red when you piss them off (ask me how I know), a mine that may as well be world 2-1 from Demon's Souls, and an invading NPC that jump-scared me with blasts of blood magic.
With all of this, Elden Ring has some of the most "fuck you" enemy and encounter design I've ever seen. I applaud its absurdity. FromSoftware is fully off its rocker, chucking whatever evil bullshit it can think of into its dark fantasy soup – and, somehow, pulling it off. Wolves literally fall out of the sky, giant crabs pop out of the ground and pummel you into mush, eagles with fucking knives for legs dive-bomb you out of nowhere. Not knives on their legs; knives for legs. Somewhere at FromSoftware is a designer with little devils on each shoulder competing to come up with the most deranged shit, and all three of them deserve a raise. The headache is worth it for the over-the-top hostility and silliness this brings to the game, though. Just look at the boss with a pumpkin for a head. His name is Pumpkin Head. I deeply regret killing him.
Build a better Tarnished
As sadistic as it is, Elden Ring is already the most empowering game FromSoftware's made in the past 10 years, and it's not even close. I cleared the network test with three different characters, in order to test other weapons, stat builds and schools of magic, and I felt incredibly strong on all of them. Magic is irresponsibly good, to the point that not dabbling in at least a few sorceries or incantations feels like a handicap. Shields are back in rare form, and even have a guard counter for people who can't be arsed parrying - and that’s every bit as satisfying as the rest of combat. I tried the sleep kills, stealth kills, and jump attacks shown off in the trailers, and they're as effective as you'd hope. The collectible spirits which you can call to your side are also total game-changers. I found a mercenary apparition who could solo an entire camp of basic enemies with minimal help from me, and while handy, this didn't do much for my Tarnished's self-esteem, which still hasn't recovered from the whole dying in a ditch thing.
Director Hidetaka Miyazaki wasn't kidding, the depth of buildcrafting in Elden Ring is staggering. Its many challenges are as daunting as ever in a vacuum, but you have so many tools at your disposal that overcoming them is more of a creative process than a pure skill check. When I got curb-stomped by a boss in Sekiro, FromSoftware's previous game, I basically just had to get better. Study the blade, if you will. But if a boss in Elden Ring papers the walls with what used to be my body, I can try new spells, reallocate my flasks for a ranged play style, summon a different spirit, change my weapon skills and damage types, or craft some actually useful consumables from all the crap I got from bushes, bugs, and animals out in the world. Obviously, I still need to learn attack patterns and so on, but there's loads of room to experiment in Elden Ring, which is hugely engrossing.
If all else fails, you can always call in a buddy or two, the ultimate cheat code for all FromSoftware games. After clearing the network test twice solo, I tested co-op with a friend from our sister site PC Gamer, and we made short work of nearly every boss. Grouping up was a breeze, too. We just set the same multiplayer password, plopped down a summon sign using the game's disconcerting finger-themed multiplayer items, and were off to the races. Summoning failed a few times, but we never crashed or disconnected once we got through, which is encouraging. The game didn’t crash at all, for that matter.
You can't summon your horse or teleport in multiplayer, but you and your friends are free to explore different parts of the world as you please. A true co-op playthrough of Elden Ring would still be awkward, though. Killing a boss in your friend's world won't defeat it in your world, obviously, so you'd basically have to do everything twice. And while multiplayer works well in the open world, you and a friend can't enter a dungeon together, meaning one of you will have to split off and backtrack to that dungeon to be resummoned. That said, grouping up and playing with friends is overall easier than ever, and I do appreciate that environmental loot is instanced in multiplayer.
Big Dark Souls was a good idea
Elden Ring has smoothed over a lot of FromSoftware's off-putting or clunky mechanics, often in service of its grander open-world structure, if not thanks to it. So far, my weapon upgrades have all used the same type of stone, and instead of a bunch of embers and Titanite, you change weapon properties and skills by freely swapping ‘Ashes of War’ found out in the world. At one point, I had two Ashes that I could use to make a magic longsword, and they each had their own active skill - one of which was busted as a can of biscuits. I got it from a dungeon boss that had such bizarre animations that I'm not convinced it wasn't bugged.
Then there's the ‘Stakes of Marika’ which serve as mini-checkpoints between Sites of Grace, letting you respawn closer to bosses and other key areas with the caveat that you can't actually rest at Stakes. These things drastically cut down on the dreaded pre-boss corpse running, which is a godsend. Oh, and you have unlimited stamina when you aren't in combat, though you'll hardly run anywhere once you get the awesome spirit steed, Torrent.
You can call on your magic deer-horse-thing anywhere outside of dungeons, and on top of double-jumping and using special wellsprings that launch you skyward, Torrent also lets you mow down enemies from the safety of your saddle. Mounted combat is a bit flaily, which is probably pretty faithful to how cavalry fights actually went back in the day, but it's undeniably fun to lean into the stirrups, drag your sword in the dirt, and sweep it at the last second to cut down horseless dregs – or to hit a dragon's neck, as I did about a thousand times because, I tell ya, that dragon's got health like a G-Rank Silver Rathalos. Pro-tip: approach mounted combat like jousting and you'll have much more fun.
The best thing I can say about Elden Ring is that my heart sank every time I ran into one of the fog walls that corral you into the limited network test area. I am truly dying to see more of The Lands Between. Hell, all I want to do now is play Elden Ring. I want to find better weapons, fight tougher bosses, discover more dungeons (preferably bigger and more involved ones, as I'm already getting tired of simple caves), and meet more quirky characters who hopefully won't tell me to die in a ditch in our first conversation. I haven't even seen a single Pot Boy, for god's sake.
If you're already picking up what FromSoftware's putting down, you'll feel right at home in Elden Ring and find countless hooks pulling you in a zillion directions. Just as importantly, I reckon this game will draw in plenty of people who missed or actively avoided the Souls-borne-kiro hype train. Elden Ring's message is less "get good" and more "get out there", and I'll happily oblige come February 25.