Like the Elden Ring itself, the soulslike genre has been shattered – by the very studio that created it. Yet, in taking those shards – pieces of Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro – and forging Elden Ring, FromSoftware has managed to create something that feels entirely new yet familiar.
This isn't 'Dark Souls but open world'. Wide-open spaces are used in a way that changes how you undertake your journey, and a wealth of combat, gear, and customisation options makes experimenting with the way you play just as freeing as the ability to choose which physical direction you take.
Going hands-on with the game ourselves, we easily spend upwards of ten hours in the opening area alone, constantly enticed by new things to find. We've got approximately half of the first area to play around with, and six regions are promised in the full game; the idea of effectively 12 times the number of things to see, do, and find is almost overwhelming.
But what's here is not just the sort of fluff you find in some open worlds (for example, as beautiful as some of the expansive English countryside is in Assassin's Creed Valhalla, there are only so many actual points of discovery within it). In Elden Ring, there's a teasing secret over the crest of every hill.
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Crucible Axe Helm: Originally belonged to Ordovis, one of 16 knights who served Godfrey, the First Elden Lord. "Life's crucible" powers the armour, just as it does the Erdtree's "primordial form." We can see the tree from all over, but what’s going on with it?
Some of these secrets are obvious at a glance, like a huge dragon that flies down to begin rampaging around a swamp (you should kill it), and others are much more mysterious, such as twinkling tracks left by an invisible creature, a dark rider on a steed itself cloaked in black cloth who appears only at night, and a hole too deep to jump into that emits eerie wails and screams only after dark.
And those are just the things we encountered. After our first hours-long session with the game, we thought we'd gone through everything with a fine-toothed comb. Only after swapping stories with others who'd also been playing did we realise we'd missed an entire boss, a mini-dungeon area, and a weird tree man, and had to jot down where to find them in our second go-around. Elden Ring might be geared around combat, but there are plenty of surprises to come across. Even how you tackle enemies is up to you; the ability to take a stealthy approach means you can pick off the toughest ones in a bunch (or ones with little horns that will alert others) in order to get the drop on larger encounters.
Each region in the Lands Between is distinct, with a sort of hub area of its own, its own visual style, and presided over by a Lord, each of whom has a shard of the titular ring. The path to the Legacies (the more traditional dungeon-like areas like you'd find in Dark Souls) is usually clear. Sites Of Grace, bonfire-like checkpoints where you can change your equipment and level up, are easy to spot. To compensate for the broader landscape, little tendrils of golden energy weave their way through the air to settle at each Grace, making them simple to find.
By following the Graces, you can easily find your way to the next destination in your main quest, such as the Stormveil Castle Legacy. Everything Is designed to keep you on the move. Between the Graces you also encounter Stakes Of Marika, temporary checkpoints around certain areas that basically mean you can retry a zone straightaway without having to trudge all the way back – a great accommodation for the larger space FromSoftware is playing with.
Winning the Ashes
Greyoll's Roar: This incantation literally manifests the power of the Great Ancient Dragon Grayoll. You'll receive it if you carry out a strange heart-eating ritual that allows you to commune with the dragons near a petrified corpse. But... to what end?
Side-activities in the Lands Between are more than tasks to stumble upon. You choose to take them on in pursuit of growing stronger. And strength doesn't just come from the Runes you collect from fallen enemies to spend on stat boosts, but from new equipment, spirit summons, and Ashes Of War, which you are able to track down. All of those things are easy to play around with, and have a huge impact on the build of your character. It's easy to change things up and come up with a fresh angle of approach if you feel like your current setup isn't working, something which hasn't necessarily been the case in FromSoftware's past titles.
The gear you can find and the Ashes Of War are two sides of the same coin. While things like weapons can be upgraded by themselves, Ashes Of War enable you to alter their effects. In previous games you'd have to commit to an upgrade path for a weapon, so, for instance, it would cause lightning damage when you struck with it, while its unique weapon skill would simply be whatever it came with. In Elden Ring you're free to mix and match those alterations as you like. Attaching Ashes Of War has no cost, and they can be freely removed to use on another weapon. While at a Site Of Grace, all you have to do is hop into a menu to play around with them. Use Ash Of War: Thunderbolt, and you'll get that lightning damage, plus the ability to call down lightning bolts from the sky by spending modest focus points (shown on the blue bar underneath health; all abilities and spells share it as a resource).
Thunderbolt can be attached to any weapon that can accept Ashes. Some unique weapons have fixed abilities, such as Ordovis' Greatsword. (Ordovis was a key member of the mysterious Knights Of The Crucible.) Wield that, and you're locked into using Ordovis' Vortex, an incredibly powerful spinning strike that takes some time to ready for action.
Other Ashes Of War have more particular requirements, such as Piercing Fang, an unblockable thrust attack that can only be attached to a long thrusting weapon (ooer). It's a technique used by the Bloody Finger Hunter Yura, an NPC who helps you out when you get attacked by a Bloody Finger – Elden Ring's equivalent of red phantom invaders – and reflects his own affinity for katana blades.
All the Ashes Of War offer powerful effects that can change the pace of fights. Being able to juggle them easily between weapons is an important factor in the game; it feels like you can come up against anything in the Lands Between, and the flexibility you're given allows you to match up to whatever comes your way. Ashes are hidden all over the place, on everything from scarabs that scuttle away so you have to chase them down to optional bosses.
Detouring away from a boss you're stuck on and instead striking down the Graveyard Warden in an optional mini-dungeon will gain you Ash Of War: Storm Blade, which could give you the edge in that boss fight – it allows you to blast out cutting bursts of wind. Alternatively, take out the powerful Tree Sentinel, who patrols the open world on a large horse, and you can use Ash Of War: Holy Ground on a shield, replacing the ability to parry with the power to lay down an area-of-effect heal on the ground for a few seconds.
Arsenal Charm: This talisman, found on a corpse in Stormveil Castle, was forged from a strange greatsword, which was used by a king "hungry for vengeance." Could this aggressive king be the many-armed Godrick who seems to be holed up inside?
Cutting your way through the dangers of Elden Ring's world requires more than mere skill with a blade. Just as you always have the option to explore and to power up with runes and Ashes Of War, other skills like spirit summons and spells are constantly available. The former allows you to summon in a way we haven't seen before. Ring a bell, and you call in a spectral form of an enemy (somewhat similar in appearance to your steed, Torrent) to stand by you in battle as long as you're close enough to a Rebirth Monument, which is indicated on the HUD.
Having trouble with a looming boss? Call in a Northern Mercenary, and the big lad will be able to soak up a bunch of damage from a strong enemy and dish some out in return. Overwhelmed by a crowd of enemies? The Wandering Noble Ashes calls in five weak zombie-like humans around you, distracting foes long enough for you to cull their numbers.
There are a lot of options, and FromSoftware has hinted you might be able to power them up over the course of your journey. That said, you won't be able to use them when summoning real human players, something which has also received an overhaul. To account for the bigger space there are Summoning Pools, areas where summon signs collect (so you'll know exactly where to go for help, though you can still use them wherever you want if you desire).
That's the spirit
Reduvia: This serrated dagger is sharp despite the blood that remains coated on it. Found in a place razed to the ground by a dragon, it belonged to "noble servants of the Lord Of Blood." If we know George RR Martin, blood magic is sure to feature.
Spirit Ashes are used to power your friendly former enemies, and only require FP to actually call into battle. Just like Ashes Of War, these are also hidden all over the place, including on dead bodies. Leave no stone, or rather corpse, unturned in your quest to find them all as you never know who could help you out in a jam. The same goes for spells, here split into sorceries and incantations. They're intelligence- and faith-based respectively, though the latter incorporates more bestial powers than you might expect. Best the Limgrave's swamp-loving dragon Agheel and you can obtain Greyoll's Roar by consuming its heart at the mysterious Church Of Dragon Communion. Let out the mighty screech, and enemies around you will have their attacks slashed.
Either way, you'll be the one doing most of the slashing, with your arsenal of sharp weapons. While it's easy to fall into a Dark Souls mentality during play, even while on the back of Torrent, the harder boss fights will put you through your paces until you fully begin to utilise the gift of variety FromSoftware has put into your hands. It plays into the new stance system, which functions like a combination of Dark Souls' hard-to-understand poise system and Sekiro's posture mechanic. Like in the latter game, enemies can be staggered once you deal enough stance damage, leaving them open to a powerful blow. Unlike in Sekiro, though, it's invisible.
To make mincemeat of enemies, you need to keep attacking in a way that knocks their stance in addition to shaving away at their health bar like an armoured delicatessen assistant. To help you turn the tide you can perform a guard counter, a strong attack you can initiate with i in response to blocking a strike, though without any invincibility on the move it's up to you to choose the right time to try to interrupt. Charge attacks also chip away at stance, as do jumping strong attacks and simply two-handing your weapon (which is also how you activate a skill, so get used to swapping from one- to two-handed wielding on the fly). Weaving together stance-breaking attacks with quicker normal ones is how to do it, and you want to be using the full force of those extra skills too, be they Ashes Of War, spirits, or spells.
It's the most variety we've seen in FromSoftware's combat to date, and the tools the studio's placed on the table to help us choose how to approach the game, both in terms of exploration and evisceration, has us hungry to dig in come 25 February.
We are counting down the final weeks to the release of Elden Ring. Expect interviews, features, essays, and more to be reflected in this coverage hub as we Countdown to Elden Ring throughout February.