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FromSoftware, the team behind Dark Souls and Bloodborne, has released another grim fantasy epic RPG. The titular Elden Ring has been shattered, leaving The Lands Between in shambles and factions vying for advantage. Prepare to face a slew of beasts and bosses.
To say this is more of the same would be too simplistic; not only is each FromSoftware game creative and exceptionally well crafted, but they've never been this big before. Elden Ring goes all-in on open-world ambition, and the results are dazzling and dizzying.
A nice ring to it
Elden Ring may become the most talked about game of the year, which will be infuriating for those who don't understand why we're all obsessed with being mowed down in boss fights against lads like Lord Massive, Master of the Biggest Swords. The allure of these games is such that you're either in or out of its punishing combat. Even though FromSoftware has added regular tutorial pop-ups, what the game tells you is only the tip of the iceberg; everything it doesn't tell you is a vast body hidden beneath the surface.
Elden Ring is enormous. There is far too much to cover in a single review. The methodical pacing and intricate battles of a Souls game expanded to a continent are a feast, but the sheer magnitude of it can be overwhelming. Even after dozens of hours, the map continues to expand, doubling and tripling in size. There are numerous NPC questlines (including some of the best FromSoftware has created), and you'll almost certainly miss several on your first playthrough. The open world and mounted combat, two significant additions to the formula, may appear uninteresting on paper, but they're cleverly woven into the fabric in execution.
FromSoftware's games are known for their difficulty, which is an exaggerated but not untrue quality. You know, the boss you can't seem to beat, the ambush you can't seem to avoid, or the puzzle that seems insurmountable. The open-world simply provides a means of disengaging from struggles. When dealing with a difficult boss appears to be impossible, you can make progress elsewhere. Return with vigour. Find a way to get around the problem. You could argue that this was true in previous FromSoftware games, but only with one or two alternate paths. This is a whole new world to discover.
A hopeful world
What a world it is. While fans of messed-up fantasy lands will be satisfied, Elden Ring is a noticeably colourful and slightly friendlier place to visit. The main menu music sets the tone, beginning with foreboding notes and progressing to loud brass that conjures up the grander adventure that awaits.
Dark Souls and Bloodborne both have you wading through decaying streets and sewers. Elden Ring sees you charging over hills strewn with giants, illuminated by a skyscraping, glowing tree. You are a Tarnished, a forgotten warrior tasked with ascending to the position of Elden Lord, repairing the Elden Ring, and possibly restoring order to the world. Of course, that's what you're told to do - the real treat of this game is figuring out what's going on and what other paths exist.
The fact that answering the simple question "what is an Elden Ring?" at the start of the game is nearly impossible speaks volumes about its intentions. Exploration leads to genuine discovery, revealing the world's mysteries and machinations. However, don't expect simple answers. After 70 hours with the game, the majority of its story remains a hazy collection of themes. It's a meditation on how the powerful suffocate the world in order to keep their reigns.
Unlike FromSoftware's other games, which are set in dying worlds, Elden Ring gives you the impression that you might, just might, be able to save this one. Perhaps a foolish hope, but the desire to find out for certain drove us to explore its outskirts.
Elden Ring has its share of hilarity, despite its foreboding tone. The tone shifts from Lord of the Rings epic fantasy to 80s popcorn adventure films like Excalibur and The Neverending Story. The skeletons looked like they came straight out of Jason and the Argonauts. Every grandiose landscape of sombre, mournful contemplation or a giant tortoise handing out history lessons has a heavy metal album cover.
While we encountered a few performance issues, they were not game-breaking - occasional stuttering and frame drops. It's also frozen several times, but that hasn't stopped us from playing. Still, these are an annoyance in a game where you don't want any distractions during the game's brutal boss battles. Bandai Namco and FromSoftware, the game's publishers, have released performance patches to address these issues.
Dungeons & Dragons and everything else
Veterans of FromSoftware will quickly feel at home in Elden Ring. The fundamentals of combat remain as strong as ever. You must manage your stamina by deciding when to strike or dodge. Attacking furiously will leave you exhausted and vulnerable in the path of enemies who hit hard, slicing your health bar to nothing in just a few strikes. You want to make sure you're ready to block their attack or that you're not in the way of their weapon at all.
There are numerous options for specialising your character, as well as numerous weapons and spells to support your play style. You can now summon summonable monsters into battle, a la Pokemon. Underneath all of Elden Ring's lore and world design is a simple joy to smashing enemies with a big sword.
While some of Elden Ring's optional dungeons are a little rote, you'll occasionally come across one with a wild boss fight or a series of joke design choices that lead to laugh-out-loud twists. There's little in its open-world that feels like a chore, which is something few open-world games can claim. Even if some parts are less thoughtful than others, it's all meaningful. Each new piece of the world in Dark Souls and Bloodborne slots together like clockwork, expanding your understanding of the story and reframing what came before. Elden Ring has equally intricate parts but does not form the same cohesive whole. You'll explore a vast castle on the outskirts of the world and have a great time doing it, but will it provide any insights into the game's larger story? No, not always.
Not everything has to be strictly useful to the plot. For decades, we've tolerated side-quests and the like. Bloodborne, too, had its Chalice Dungeons. But we can't help but wonder if more - even good stuff - is always better. The level of quality maintained over its many hours is almost unrivalled, but is it any less for it? Should the world's arcs and themes exist if they are obscured by the sheer volume of stuff? Time will tell. For the time being, we can't deny the allure of having a FromSoftware title this large. It's all we've been thinking about for weeks, and regardless of how it compares, it's a marvel in its own right.
Its novelty, however, is limited, and in the later areas of Elden Ring, you will encounter a handful of similar bosses populating the optional dungeons that fill out the world.
This repetition is only noticeable because the game is consistently inventive, always ready to surprise and delight. The fact that these minor setbacks stand out at all is a testament to the game's overall quality, given that we've simply grown accustomed to them in other games.
The massive scale of Elden Ring's world is almost justified by FromSoftware. We felt like three or four FromSoftware games were crammed into one game. There have been bigger games, but none with as many ideas. As long as you can click with FromSoftware's unique way of communicating with the player.
Elden Ring's multiplayer community both helps and hinders it. Because of its popularity, there are always people available to assist you with bosses. You can go online and request help from friends or strangers, summoning them into your world regardless of where they are in their journey.
The messages that players leave in the world, which are a staple of FromSoftware's games, are less useful. Previously, these mysterious notes would have said things like "Enemy ahead," "Raise your shield," or "Ambush." Instead of guidance, they are now riddled with memes and in-jokes.
The early days of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, when players shared in the experience of discovery, have given way to a space dominated by those who race ahead. As a veteran, it's rewarding to guide new players through the game, but it's difficult not to over-guide them, depriving them of their own memorable failures and triumphs.
Elden Ring is ridiculously good. For fans of masochistic fantasy RPGs, there's a new FromSoftware game to look forwards to this holiday season. It's a sprawling gallery of monsters, a massive arsenal of weapons to defeat them, and a massive arena that's both beautiful to look at and intriguing to explore. There's simply never been so much of it in one place, or in such neat packaging. It's, to put it mildly, obscene.
Still, I'm concerned about the collective fate of FromSoftware's games. The days of community and cooperation elevating FromSoftware's games may be coming to an end, as the player base is all too familiar with the studio's work.
It's nearly impossible for FromSoftware to turn back the clock, but it's a shame that its richest, most successful game is perhaps less notable for its pedigree. Elden Ring is not for everyone - it doesn't try to be - but those eager to learn may struggle due to how it is discussed, both within the game and outside of it. Maybe it's unfair to judge the game based on that, but it's difficult not to when FromSoftware invites the community to participate. Elden Ring, like The Lands Between, is a magnificent thing shattered by its vastness and its inhabitants.
Elden Ring is FromSoftware at its most carefree, gleefully tossing out every idea it can think of to entice players into The Lands Between. Its predecessors' tight framework is abandoned in favour of a more sprawling, overwhelming open world. Only time will tell if it has the same impact on players as the previous efforts, but it is an obscenely compelling adventure for those who enjoy a challenge.
XBox Game Box and Nintendo
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