Review: ‘Elden Ring’ shatters expectations
Let’s do a thought experiment together before this review begins. When was the last time a videogame made you feel awe? The last time you stepped out over a virtual world and saw a new location or enemy and felt childlike bewilderment? Maybe it was looking out over the Great Plateau in Breath of the Wild. Or maybe it was as far back as some of the first proper 3D games, like Super Mario 64. Elden Ring is this feeling, distilled and crystallized into an impossibly massive, infinitely surprising adventure of scope that has to be seen to be believed.
One media property rings to mind most when I think of the feeling playing Elden Ring gives me: The Lord of the Rings. The intricate and mysterious world of the films and books feels real — not like a set or gussied-up terrarium. Elden Ring’s world, similarly, feels real. It’s vast; vaster than your wildest imagination has no doubt envisioned prior to release. When it feels the game must be reaching its conclusion it blows open to reveal even grander areas with new secrets to discover and bosses to face. There isn’t a Bloodborne–esque heel turn halfway through because the game begins with such fanciful insanity. From the moment I stepped foot onto the lush forest floor of Limgrave, the game’s opening area, I was reeling again and again with each new revelation.
If you’ve played Dark Souls, you’re probably familiar with the graveyard at the very beginning of the game. When beginning your trek into parts unknown you’re confronted with two paths: one leads up to the Undead Burg, and the other leads through a graveyard of skeletons. These skeletons, at this point in the game, will ruin you. They’re vicious, powerful, and overwhelming in number. You can face them, you can wander down into the catacombs and battle powerful opponents and gain crazy amounts of souls to level up with. It’s hard, but nothing is stopping you. Elden Ring is an entire game of Dark Souls graveyards.
Unlike FromSoftware’s previous titles, Elden Ring is a fully open world. There was exactly one point where I noticed I had to overcome a specific boss to progress, otherwise, I was free to bypass the “Legacy Dungeons” and bespoke bosses entirely to explore new regions. Early on, a trapped chest whisked me away to a far-flung edge of the world. I found myself in a crystalline cave with enemies much too difficult for me, only to wander outside to be greeted with a vast swamp of blood and pustules. It was at this moment I knew: Elden Ring was going to live up to its grand expectations.
If you want things to be a bit more easily digestible there are myriad caves, catacombs, and mines that populate the landscape containing invaluable items for powering up. There are dozens of these smaller dungeons, all with their own unique flavor and personality. One might be based around traps and how to use them against groups of foes, another focusing on vertical movement and puzzling exploration. They get a little samey aesthetically, but by the end, I always feel they were hand-crafted and worth doing. Unfortunately, some boss repeats plague these in the same way Bloodborne’s Chalice Dungeons suffered, but this is a drop in the bucket when contrasted with how many unique encounters there still are.
Once I heard someone remark that Dark Souls isn’t really “hard,” it’s just “obtuse.” To an extent, this is true. The first time through a FromSoftware game is a gauntlet of bad decisions and under-preparedness. Elden Ring may be the most obtuse of all, but it also gives you the most tools to overcome challenges with. Spirit Summons — the ‘beckonable’ allied NPCs you unlock from Catacombs, can be utilized to distract bosses. Magic and incantations are as strong as ever, without feeling overpowered. Craftable items like special arrows can be used to attack at range. And of course, your trusty steed Torrent can be used in some fights for hit-and-run tactics.
My point is this: if you’re feeling stuck, let go of your misplaced sense of honor and use the tools the game gives you. Stop trying to be cool and use a sword and dodge roll and you’re going to have a way better time. And yes, I am projecting right now.
I wouldn’t be surprised if director Hidetaka Miyazaki himself felt more players would complete Elden Ring than his other games. Every time I felt up against it, I turned around and explored somewhere else. Inevitably, there would be upgrade materials or spells to find that would help me next time. The path of least resistance can be hard to find due to the size of the world, but the sense of reward from doing my due diligence and combing the landscape before challenging a boss was infinitely gratifying.
If Dark Souls 2 contained forking paths of progression, Elden Ring is a bowl of spaghetti.
My only complaints with Elden Ring are that the bosses are sometimes a bit rote (named enemies that you’ve fought before in the overworld) and that PC performance is… worrying. I’ve been reading that DirectX 12 shader caching leads to stutters, and I would constantly run into these distracting freezes and slowdowns when entering new areas. I’m pretty sensitive to this sort of thing, but after dozens of hours it just started to roll off me, a testament to how much I was willing to look past to simply keep existing in this world. Still, it isn’t something I want to leave unmentioned, and fingers crossed these issues will be promptly resolved.
There’s a sense of wonder on display in Elden Ring that’s hard to put into words. Sure, its combat is spectacular, and the variety of gear and enemies staggering. But the spectacle that washed over me the first time I saw the Great Plateau in Breath of the Wild was captured by this world again and again. I exclaimed, nearly rising from my seat, countless times during my playthrough.
Of course, I also cursed; the lows of defeat stinging me as I ground myself against a difficult enemy only to emerge elated and rewarded with even grander designs. I revisited old areas to experience a sense of calm as I prepared for what lay ahead. I found myself simply… existing, in this place, doing what felt natural and not rushing to the next challenge like I so often do in these games. Taking in the details has never felt so rewarding or so wonderful.
I want to share one more anecdote before I conclude. I had just explored the Legacy Dungeon of Liurna of the Lakes — a grand academy perched atop a spire of stone. There were gloomy, moist walkways of natural rock and lifts that connected them to the bottom of the academy proper. Cages hung and enemies ambushed. I explored countless rooms and buildings, fighting my way up an enchanted staircase before challenging the boss. A while later, somewhere far away, I looked at the academy in the distance and realized: everything I had done, every adventure and experience I had earlier, was right there. There were no loading screens or tricks. That entire, grueling place was incidentally sitting in front of me, looming large over the landscape. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so small while playing a game.
I think, honestly, Elden Ring is the best game I have ever played. Bloodborne, my favorite game of all time, might have just been dethroned. I immediately want to jump back in, and I will be playing on the PlayStation 5 at launch, with a new build. I want to slow down even more, helping others and trying PvP. I want to read theories, watch videos, and browse forums. I want to immerse myself in this fantastic world even further, and find out what secrets it hides, even now. I’m almost as excited, dear reader, for you yourself to experience this work as I myself was just a week ago. Good luck.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A code was provided for review by Bandai Namco.
Elden Ring is a marvel with scope and diversity of mind-boggling proportions. At the risk of hyperbole, it has dethroned Bloodborne as my favorite game of all time. It's all I've been able to think about since I got my hands on it, and the only thing I want to do now is play it with the rest of you.