Elden Ring review: "Difficult but rewarding, exhilarating and giant"
When stumbling across the first optional boss, the Tree Sentinel, within the first 10 minutes of starting Elden Ring, I knew I was in for a wild ride. I died during my first encounter, but I managed to sneak past the boss and continue my journey, hoping to return when I got stronger. Elden Ring is everything players would expect from a FromSoftware game: difficult but rewarding. It’s an exhilarating and giant game where players can craft their own adventure at their own pace.
The playgrounds between
Elden Ring takes place in the Lands Between, where the eponymous Elden Ring has been destroyed and its shards scattered throughout the mystical realm. These are known as the Great Runes, which are held by the various demigod bosses in the game. The player assumes the role of a Tarnished, someone who once was graced by the Elden Ring but lost it. By collecting all of the Great Runes, the player will be able to restore the Elden Ring and become the Elden Lord.
Any player familiar with FromSoftware’s previous titles including Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will sense a feeling of deja vu. There are many aspects of those games that are present in Elden Ring, such as balancing your equipment weight so you don’t slow yourself down and resting at campfires (known as Sites of Grace this time) to heal and respawn enemies.
Players can choose a starting class such as the Sorcerer and Samurai that determines their initial stats and play style, although as time passes by, stat points earned by leveling up can be allocated however they wish to build out their character. In typical Dark Souls fashion, players will also lose all of their Runes if they die, providing an extra incentive to fight strategically against enemies and retreat when necessary. It’s actually much easier to do the latter now because of the game’s open-world structure.
It’s by far the aspect that separates Elden Ring from its cousins and follows a very recent trend we've seen with other previously-linear games like Halo Infinite and Pokemon Legends: Arceus. While exploring the Lands Between, secrets are hidden around almost every corner.
Towers, castles, and settlements are scattered everywhere and always have useful items within, so clearing out the enemies within each one feels rewarding. Whether the reward comes in the form of Smithing Stones to upgrade weapons, unique equipment, or simply materials like flowers and twigs that can be used for crafting items, everything is a welcome addition to the player's inventory.
As challenging as ever
In addition to the main bosses, there are also plenty of side bosses to find out in the world that players will simply stumble upon. Torrent is the name of a fancy horse that can be summoned at almost any time to traverse long distances, while also serving as a nimble combat addition for those hit and run tactics.
Elden Ring also has more linear sections that house the game’s story bosses, and reflect the structure of traditional Dark Souls dungeons, which many veterans of the series will appreciate. Within these, players will explore and defeat enemies, as well as unlock shortcuts that will eventually lead to the boss.
The story bosses are substantially more difficult than most of the bosses that are encountered in the open world because there’s less room to move around and they simply have stronger and faster attacks. Even the first one can be quite the wake-up call. However, this incentivizes the player to go back and explore more of the Lands Between to discover new areas, optional bosses, and weapons, because this, in turn, comes with more Runes to level up before attempting the challenge of a story boss again.
Not only does taking down bosses in the open world feel satisfying, but beating a story boss feels even better. It’s the exact same thrill players get when spending upwards of an hour dying over and over until you get into a rhythm, learning the boss’s movements, and finally conquering it.
It’s incredibly easy to lose track of time trying to uncover every nook and cranny, making Elden Ring FromSoftware’s most time-consuming and satisfying titles to date. Everything from the skybox to the ginormous trees out in the distance and the particle effects filling the screen with a mystical flair is downright gorgeous. Even all the abominable, amalgamated enemies look impressive, and there's plenty of variety to the foes you'll face too. From humanoid-like creatures to birds with blade talons, they all have unique looks and behaviours that keep players on their toes. It's a crying shame there's no photo mode because it would undoubtedly add hours onto any playthrough.
Life is hard for a tarnished
Because the world of Elden Ring is a big one, it can be very easy to miss items that are almost essential on your journey. For example, I acquired some Ashes of a certain enemy, which are used to summon ghostly companions to help you during battle. However, for some reason, I wasn’t able to summon them at all even though I had enough Focus Points.
It turns out that at the beginning of the game, there was an item that I needed to get by talking to a ghost girl and that would allow me to summon my Ashes. I had already just reached the game’s first major story boss at that point. In another instance, it wasn’t until I was almost 25 hours in that I figured out why I wasn’t able to craft items. The icon on my main menu was completely grayed out. The reasoning was that I forgot to buy a crafting kit from a vendor near the beginning of the game.
These sorts of items should have been explicitly given to you as it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by how many mechanics there are in Elden Ring and how expansive the game is. Additionally, the game is quite obscure that sometimes you’re unsure what to do with a key item you just found in a random area. At certain points, it’s difficult to figure out where to go story progression-wise.
Accessibility-wise, there's room for improvement too, notably when it comes to the subtitle font and size. FromSoftware games are notoriously hard in terms of gameplay difficulty, and while that's fine for those that like a challenge, making the text too small and hard to read is an added frustration that simply isn't needed on top of the natural difficulty while playing.
The triumphs of an Elden Lord
It may sound reductive, but Elden Ring is a fourth mainline Dark Souls title in all but name. The game’s open-world structure feels very organic - there aren’t lists of activities with checkboxes that players need to cross off. The Lands Between is filled with visually stunning locations and deadly enemies to ensure that the perilous journey to become the Elden Lord is at least pretty to look at. While Elden Ring stumbles a bit in some areas, it still has all the hallmarks of what makes FromSoftware’s games so enticing: it’s fun, challenging, and rewarding.
Reviewed on Xbox Series X. Code provided by the publisher.