After what feels like an eternity of waiting, Elden Ring is here. The next epic from FromSoftware and the mind of Hidetaka Miyazaki, who is now joined by George R. R. Martin for even more madness, has been hyped beyond measure in recent years. The enthusiasm makes sense. FromSoftware has been hitting the mark without fail with its games, and this is supposed to be its most ambitious project ever. Adding to that, even counting Souls-likes from other studios, it's not a genre that gets many first-class entries each year either.
For being a game that once again presents unforgiving circumstances and uses death as a teaching mechanic, Elden Ring may be the most forgiving one yet from FromSoftware, and that's not from it being any easier, just more accessible. In my eyes, Elden Ring absolutely delivers on what it has been promising, an experience that deftly marries a grand open world and the sprawling dungeons reminiscent of Dark Souls. Don't forget about the new jump too. Read on to find out what I thought of this long-awaited adventure.
Knowing how important going fresh into Elden Ring can be, I have kept all mentions of bosses and the overarching storyline vague in the review you will read below. The accompanying images are mostly of environmental shots wearing basic armor, and the few enemies in them are generic overworld dwellers.
The Lands Between
This new tale of epic proportions is set in The Lands Between. It is a fantastical landmass with rolling hills filled with wildlife and ruins, roads reaching the ends of the world, once-great castles carved out of the earth, dungeons filled with treasure, and ocean-like marshes. It is populated by magic wielders, mighty warriors, monstrosities, and many combinations of the trio. You take the role of the Tarnished, a descendant from a forsaken line of individuals, who has been given back their connection to this world's deities. If Dark Souls was a dead universe desperately clinging to its old life, Elden Ring's The Lands Between is not quite at death's door but heading in that direction. Moving away from the starting region, you start to see the rot that has set in, the undead rising from most graves, mutated animals of distant swamps — of there are many, rejoice —, and gods that have gone truly mad.
Going open world has always felt like the next 'big' thing developers try and go for using their past successes as a base. FromSoftware is not a stranger to offering massive play spaces, but this is a proper open world game. It would have been easy to mess up the balance between the freedom that comes with an open world and the genre's fascination with tightly packed levels touting interconnected paths. FromSoftware has nailed it.
Freedom is turned up to 11 from the get-go in the overworld. A few lines from a curious NPC and wispy lights emanating from a checkpoint being the only suggestions at what direction to follow. Every massive landmark seen far away in the distance from this point on will be in your travels if you stick with the game, and everything looks so inviting.
After meeting a friendly merchant, my first executive decision was to ignore the suggested path and take a round trip of my own making, which ended up being a three hour journey that ultimately did land me where I was supposed to go in the first place as a new player, but not before I had snuck past a resting army camp to steal their treasure, witnessed giant carriages being pulled by literal giants, and come across a bridge with a heavy weapons emplacement that looked too scary to tackle. It certainly felt like it was possible to go and beat a final boss before you even get your horse companion, though obviously not with my meager skills.
Navigating this massive space would have been bordering on impossible without a map, and FromSoftware has delivered on that as well. Once a map piece is added to the collection from journeying to a marked area in a region, the hidden section covered by fog of war is revealed with beautifully drawn paths and landmarks. These 'blind' travelling sessions are the most uneasy I've felt in the overworld, not knowing what is around the corner. There is even a beacon feature to highlight a location on the map and see it in the overworld for better orientation.
The studio hasn't made it too easy though. The world is so dense that I'm frequently pulling out the map and marking important locations, just to keep up with the information available. Find a merchant resting with his donkey in the middle of nowhere? Into the map as a pin you go. Found dungeons requiring special keys to open? Put a pin on them for later. Ran into an enemy that looks like it could kill you with its pinkie toe? See you later alligator, pinned.
Sights of Grace are the new Bonfires of this world, checkpoints where you can rest, level up using the Runes you get from defeating foes and customize your abilities in safety. Being a Souls game, these are also the places where you show back up if you happen to perish, which will happen a lot, with the Tarnished being revived at the most recently used Sight of Grace. In the open world at least, these points are frequent, and since fast traveling is enabled from the get-go to any discovered Sight of Grace, FromSoftware has ensured short travel times to almost any location. Simply warp to the nearest Sight and jump on your trusty steed to carry you the rest of the way. More on the ever-reliable horse 'Torrent' later.
Every shack, ruin, cliff, corner of a beach, or even the most barren looking wasteland have hidden items waiting for a master, from upgrade materials and new sorceries to NPCs needing help, but one of the best rewards for exploration is a dungeon. These are relatively small underground escapades filled with traps and clusters of enemies waiting to ambush you, bookended by an end boss. Beating side trials offers a handy item as a reward and a teleport to get out at once instead of backtracking, a key point.
This reduction or outright removal of menial tasks is a primary pillar of FromSoftware's Elden Ring design improvements, and it's most prominent in the open world. Another example of this is the Stake of Marika, an alternative respawn point exclusive to the open world found near locations with tough bosses or enemy groups. Die near one? Simply respawn at the Marika statue and get back within 10 seconds for round 2 (or 20) instead of doing a 2-minute run from the nearest checkpoint.
Surprisingly, even death is very forgiving in Elden Ring, a weird thing to say but hear me out. Unlike many of FromSoftware's earlier games, there are no Humanity or Ember to lose, or death counters for making NPCs sick. The only downside (perhaps in addition to losing your time) is the loss of all carried Runes, the 'currency' that powers levelling up and item purchases. As usual for the genre, a death only drops any carried Runes at that location, inviting you to try and reclaim it, but perish again during the returning run (as all non-boss enemies respawn) and they are lost forever.
The developer really, really wants you to explore the world they created, going so far as to refill your precious pool of health and mana regeneration flasks for every group of foes that is defeated, essentially a quick pitstop. Sometimes brawls happen between factions in the overworld, making this task even easier. The enemies can still wreck you with their eyes closed but this is not the brutal open world I was dreading exploring at all, rather a place that wants to show its secrets.
Navigating this great landmass and its unique biomes solely on foot is possible, but it would be a tiring endeavor, that's where Torrent comes in. This supernatural horse I've previously mentioned can be called upon at almost any point in the open world, offering a much classier traveling arrangement featuring a double jump as well as mounted combat for battles needing that extra spurt of speed and maneuverability. Unfortunately, Torrent disappears anytime you jump off his back, and I wish there were more interactions with the charming and dependable mare.
As the tarnished, you also have access to Roundtable Hold, a secret hideout area with warm fires and almost royal ornaments where a fellowship has gathered. Hints about what paths to take next and progression requirements, merchants, lost souls, and saved souls from your travels, all gather here. Only a few faces in Elden Ring try not to rip your throat out all the time, so this merry group of weirdos are quite easy to be fond of.
Of course, there is an underlying conspiracy and parties with their own seemingly nefarious (or virtuous) plans that can be followed to see where the story goes. Many have their own unmarked side missions they mention in passing, and a merchant may loosen their lips about their past or the lore of the world if you buy a trinket or two.
It's through these short interactions and the miles of lore written on item descriptions that Elden Ring does its world building, each time spelling out a tiny portion of the grand fantasy world Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R. R. Martin have dreamt up. There are no journals keeping track of conversations or markers to follow. It’s up to the player (or the global community) to bring everything together and make sense of it all, and it's a deeply satisfying endeavor if you immerse yourself.
At the other end of the spectrum from the open world are the Legacy Dungeons, intricately designed interior areas that are scattered across the map. The primary boss battles needed to complete the game, smattering of side-bosses, and the hardest hitting foes can be found in their innards. The vibe of these dungeons is completely different from what's in the open world, delivering the familiar and addicting sense of pressure and unease from previous games of the studio, knowing that a wrong move means everything you've done up to that point may be in vain.
Looking at the figure on the map and seeing it in the distance hides the titanic proportions and maze-like interiors these heavily guarded relics hide. Every room tells a tale, from an entire side of a castle having massive holes as if gigantic cannons were fired at it from the heavens, to a gorge with numerous discarded statues, as if someone tried to hide the history behind the castle or the identity of its earlier holders.
Sights of Grace are also a little better hidden or feel really far apart until the discovery of a shortcut that makes you go "oh", clicking the mental map into place. Glimpsing a Sight always give a feeling of immense relief, especially since you get the chance to spend your hard-earned Runes and take a short breath. Not every Legacy Dungeon is a scrambled Rubik's Cube in disguise. A few are a little more straightforward in directing you to its big battle, but unless you're using stealth to slip past them, the enemies patrolling between you and the goal will make short work of your well-made plans.
Jumping. I'm not talking about the awkward forward stumble you call a jump in Dark Souls. What we have here is a dedicated button that does what you expect in a game, jump vertically, and I love it so much. Aside from using it for crushing jump attacks, the studio has gone all out in using this newfound capability everywhere, from tiny ledges you can shimmy along to hundreds or perhaps thousands of hidden sections across the open world and in dungeons. Almost every rooftop and alley can be accessed by jumping off somewhere, enabling genius alternate routes that can circumvent even the toughest foes, or open pathways to them without wasting time with fodder. FromSoftware is an expert at secrets, and the jump has only elevated what it can do.
While the difficulty can ramp up quite fast in Legacy Dungeons, changes aimed at accommodating newer players are also visible here, just in a roundabout way. When the going gets tough, it's an option to warp away and travel in a new direction until more levels and better weapons are accumulated, maybe by clearing up some side content. No 'overpowered' foe is unbeatable even at level one, it will simply take a lot of skill and patience to weather the situation.
Swinging weapons, blocking hits, dodging at just the right time, parrying, blasting spells, and any other scenario you can think of all have just the right amount of weight under them, as expected from FromSoftware. These are pretty much the same combat styles and relevant attributes present in Dark Souls 3, just with even more variety and new features to plump up the choice aspects.
Enemies will punish you without mercy for overzealous aggression or not enough aggression. Actually, they will punish you regardless of what you do, so it's better to take each encounter as a learning experience. Rarely do different enemies fall for the same tricks, and during some high-stakes duels, the AI can fake out attacks or break their patterns right when you think you have them. Even the most random encounters can be exhilarating and fun to overcome thanks to this, but the primary boss fights in Legacy Dungeons are each unique feasts for the eyes compared to anything else in Elden Ring.
Using distinctive styles of combat for short- and long-range bouts, combining or cutting short combos to throw your memorizations, revealing new phases depending on health levels, paired with beautiful animations, arenas, and orchestral soundtracks make these the perfect climaxes for Legacy Dungeons. Bosses have pulled off moves so flashy I have forgotten to dodge while gazing at the spectacle.
Fights are further enhanced by the insanely accurate hitboxes. Utilizing the split second of invincibility you get while rolling is still the optimal way to avoid strikes, but flashy moves with jumps, dives, and twirls can save your skin too if a swing of an enemy or a spell reaches just when your Tarnished performs their swerves. Jumping over a low sweep and landing a strike can make you feel like the king of the world just in that moment.
I went for a purely close-range melee fighter build, meaning managing my stamina as it drains from attacks, blocks, and dodges becomes the focus behind staying alive. In the early hours of the game, my strategy was mostly inching forward through corridors holding the shield high, hoping nothing swallows me whole. With time and levels under my belt, now I have much more confidence in my dodging abilities and the weapons I have slowly built up to be formidable. Things still swallow me whole quite often, but at least I can swing my park bench of a Great Sword at them a few times beforehand. My ultimate goal is to build a tank specialized in hammers, though being a dual wielding sword combatant does not sound too bad either.
If a magic build is more your style, you'll be conjuring meteorites, slashing with giant blades made of light, transforming your arm into a dragon head and breathing fire, healing yourself and allies, transforming your blood into weapons, firing off barrages of bubbles, and performing numerous other miracles. There is a limit to your prowess, as the Focus Points bar (mana) can only sustain so many spells before running out. The number of health and mana replenishments flasks is shared between the two options, meaning you're sacrificing your ability to heal further to gain more power, or vice versa.
Crafting, Summons, and Weapon Arts are the most major new components being inserted into the already almost perfect combat formula. Crafting is what it sounds like, you can use materials found in the world to quickly produce items like a throwable dagger, bomb, or antidote without having to backtrack towards merchants all the time. The latter two are more impactful.
Found throughout the world by exploring, Summons let you call upon spirits that will fight alongside you in demanding situations. These can range from groups of wolves (my favorite) and floating jellyfish to knights in shining armor. Their usefulness does not come from the damage they can do, but from being distractions. In boss battles, they do a fairly average job at distracting for at least a short time before getting wiped out by specially crafted large-scale attacks meant for groups. Summons can help tip the scales in fights, especially in the early game, but you're always the main damage dealer.
On the other hand, Ashes of War are all about enhancing your current arsenal. Once again found across the world, these items can be slotted into almost any weapon available in Elden Ring, enabling a brand-new skill with its own custom animations and powerful effects. It could be a silent blessing that enhances the next strike, a barrage of swipes while pirouetting, or a fire ball that blinds enemies which is followed up by a devastating swing through the red-hot cloud. The animations are extremely satisfying to look at, and best of all, it costs nothing to swap in and out new Ashes of War from weaponry. Experimentation is highly encouraged with this system, and new styles are handed out constantly. It’s not always FromSoftware hands out upgrades for free, but when it does, it’s worth it.
The nameless ghosts of other players in their own Elden Ring universes peak through for brief moments in most places, one of my favorite features in Souls games. Seeing the silhouette of someone charging towards a boss arena wearing nothing but a rag and holding a giant club certainly inspires confidence in your own abilities. Of course, reaching a seemingly simple foe surrounded by dozens of blood puddles, each signifying the death of another player, can evoke a different kind of emotion.
Now we come to the multiplayer. While apparitions and messages ("Shortcut ahead therefore try jumping") from other players were numerous, coop and PVP were unfortunately out of reach during the review period for myself — outside of scripted invasions and summons. This was possibly due to the low player numbers in the preview period paired with my matchmaking location in Asia.
Considering how much I have enjoyed playing solo, I can't imagine the height of enjoyment I can get in multiplayer. Nevertheless, the broader multiplayer systems in place seem to be similar to Dark Souls 3, with both invites and invasions triggering via items found in the world, and specialized systems in place like taking the appearance of an ally while being an invader adding further chaos into the mix.
Visuals, audio, and performance
Elden Ring ships with a 60 frames per second lock on the PC version just like on consoles, so don't expect a high refresh rate experience even if you have a rig and a display capable of it. While I am expecting modders to tweak the cap following the launch, doing so may cause engine abnormalities like in previous FromSoftware titles, so we may be stuck on 60FPS if a stable experience is what is important.
The system I reviewed Elden Ring on has a Radeon RX 580 8GB graphics card, a Ryzen 3700X 8 core, 16 thread CPU, and 16GB of RAM. The game is installed on an SSD. For my aging GPU the game recommended the High preset while playing at 1080p, and it has been quite a pleasant experience. There is a sizable number of graphics options available for tweaking as well (turn motion blur off, for instance), for anyone looking for minute adjustments. Also, while ray tracing is a feature FromSoftware is developing for Elden Ring, it is not a part of the launch product.
The frame rates have not wavered from 60 in Legacy Dungeons or more enclosed areas during my play sessions. On the same High preset in the open world, however, looking towards directions that show vast distances or heavy lighting effects drop the frames to the 45-50 range. This is not a problem during most battles as the camera is pointed towards more of a downward angle, ensuring more FPS, but it can be a problem when the foe is a creature of a giant variety. Lowering some of the settings to medium may be the route to take if you're on a lower end graphics card.
If you're going by polygon counts or visible individual hairs, Elden Ring is definitely behind a generation. Despite that, this game is beyond beautiful. The vistas FromSoftware has crafted look like they are jumping straight out of concept art. The lighting, shadow, and particle effects are what is pulling most of the weight. Every time I enter a new area there is a new breathtaking panorama firing a salvo of brilliance into my eyes, may it be a fog-covered swamp with misty cliffs overhead or an ancient castle held up by what looks like space magic, all the while the ever-present Erdtree looms in the background casting its golden glow.
Loading screens are absent from the game unless you're warping or triggering a boss cutscene, so a tiny amount of slowdown/rubber banding can be felt sometimes when heading into a new area as the engine loads a new environment. This was a minor effect, however, that I had to pay close attention to even notice.
Like every other FromSoftware game, the top-notch voice acting gives life and personality to NPCs and bosses. The overall sound design has been a joy to experience as well. Going past a giant hole in a castle as you hear the breeze, the warning sounds of an incoming magical attack, or taking an elevator and hearing the overworld adventurous music slowly turn into the ominous tones you dread are always spectacular. In fact, there are so many variations of ominous music that we might get a separate soundtrack release just labeled 'Stress'. Boss battles are of course paired with grand orchestral tracks making you feel either tiny or gigantic, depending on how the fight is going.
Opening a chest might rock your world, an ordinary-looking elevator can have much more to reveal than you think, an oddly shaped cluster of rocks could be a slumbering dragon, random paintings found in the world may be hinting at places you want to revisit, and an innocent looking side path might lead to a whole region of its own. The twists and turns of Elden Ring do not come from narrative revelations, but from the world itself.
Death is frequent, but I have yet to feel one was the fault of the game instead of it being a mistake of my own. I have rolled off sides of cliffs, jumped headlong into the paths of incoming attacks, take the fight to much more confined places with no escapes, and take unnecessarily greedy swings at bosses when they have just a sliver of health to only get countered and die needlessly. All this is worth every minute wasted when the foe that felt unbeatable is finally vanquished and the Tarnished stands victorious.
Surrounding the immensely satisfying gameplay core that is punishing and difficult to master lays await a world you get lost in for many hours at a time, only to then realize that's only a tiny fraction of what is to come. This is the most ambitious and fun FromSoftware game I have played, and let's not forget how entertaining jumping is. The open world, side dungeons, stress free exploration elements, lowered downtimes between retry attempts, encouraging combat experimentation, and more systems all work together to make the customarily steep learning curve of Souls-likes at least have some solid footholds this time.
Considering the secrets FromSoftware has hidden in earlier games, I am expecting entire dungeons and hidden lands to be discovered by the fanatical community in the months to come, keeping me attached to this masterpiece for even longer. I can't remember the last time a game reached the absolute peak of hype levels seen for Elden Ring, and somehow FromSoftware has delivered on it.
Elden Ring launches on February 25 across PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5 for $59.99.
This review was conducted on PC using pre-release code provided by Bandai Namco Entertainment.
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