Elden Ring Review – The Elden Lord of Souls Games (PS5)

Elden Ring Update 1.004

FromSoftware’s Elden Ring has a lot to live up to. The studio’s Soulsborne games have a rabid and growing fanbase, and after two years of silence since the reveal, attention, hype and expectations have never been so high. While I admittedly came to FromSoftware’s “Soulsborne” games late – my first being Bloodborne – I have since become a massive fan. Having played them all many times over, including getting the platinum in Bloodborne, Sekiro and the Demon’s Souls remake (yes, Bluepoint did the glow up, but the bones are From through and through and remain largely unchanged). My anticipation, like many long-time fans and newcomers, for Elden Ring was at a fever pitch. And while From breathes rarified air in being a developer many people completely trust, there was still a lingering unknown; could From’s blending of their tried and true formula for action RPGs – challenging combat, opaque storytelling, labyrinthian level design – with an open world design work as well as their previous games? After 45 hours (and counting), I can not only say that it works extremely well, but will most likely go down as Hidetaka Miyazaki and From’s best work to date.

Praise the Elden Ring

Much has been made of the involvement of George R. R. Martin’s involvement with the story of Elden Ring but as it turns out, Martin offered the backstory of Elden Ring upon which Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team built out the narrative. While the story is relatively vague like From’s previous games since Miyazaki started leading the teams, it still feels more robust and fleshed out. For the uninitiated, Elden Ring takes place in the Lands Between, the source of the life-giving Erdtree, the Elden Ring, has been shattered.  Once ruled by Queen Marika, now the Lands Between are ruled by her offspring — Demigods, who each possess the Elden Ring’s shards called Great Runes. These Runes have corrupted Marika’s offspring.  The player is a “Tarnished” — people banished from the Lands Between who lost the Ring’s Grace — and is summoned back to become the Elden Lord by gathering the Great Runes and restoring the Elden Ring.

As far as fantasy backstories go, it’s pretty compelling, if not entirely dissimilar from Lord of the Rings. But those similarities really are superficial. In my 45 hours or so of playing as of this writing, finding out what has happened here to cause all of this has been extremely interesting, and each mystery that’s answered opens even more questions. It’s the kind of storytelling that From has excelled in but never as straightforward. That’s not to say I have been watching a lot of cutscenes, I haven’t…at all. But when we do get information either through conversations, item descriptions or environmental storytelling, it feels much less opaque and elusive as From’s previous RPGs.

Throughout the adventure so far, I’ve encountered many NPCs who will either tie into the larger narrative, or will simply have little side quests I’ll go on, which will help flesh out the world of Elden Ring even more. Being this is a From game, I was never  concerned the side-quests are busy work, and they’re not. There has always been a worthwhile reward for completing them, be it as simple as a dark turn for that NPCs story, or in one case, a clutch defensive buff in the midst of an optional boss battle. Bear in mind, there’s no log, no journal, no checklist. A side quest can be triggered at any time, by simply speaking with someone, accepting their request. A few times I even forgot about a conversation I had only to have it come back in a surprising way (like the aforementioned defense buff). And it should be clear, since this is an open world, it’s entirely possible I could have and probably did miss a side quest or two simply because I have been exploring as much as possible.

It’s a Massive, Massive, Massive, Massive World

To that end, full disclosure; even after 45 hours I haven’t completed the main story. Not even close. And that’s because the scale and scope of the world of Elden Ring is truly massive. Quite possibly one of the largest open world maps I’ve ever seen, and seldom is my exploration of every nook, cranny, alcove, crevice and all in between feels like it’s never too long before I stumbled upon something new, interesting, intriguing, wonderful  or flat out dangerous. One of the last things I did before ending my last session was exploring a northern region of the map and I stumbled upon some ruins. Across from them was a familiar statue that when examined will cast a faint light in the direction of a catacomb, or dungeon or even just an underground secret that always leads to treasure. Except this time, before I could venture into the ruins I found myself in the midst of a Field Boss fight. I wouldn’t dare spoil what that boss fight entailed but I barely made it out alive. Once victorious, I cleared out the ruins, made my way down some steps that lead under the ruins and found a treasure chest.

Another time I was riding around on my “spectral steed,” Torrent and came across a woman sitting on a rock. I spoke with her and she asked me if I was going to visit a nearby castle and if I would deliver a message for her. I said yes, and went to that castle. On my travels I came across something that looked like a tombstone with a swirling blue and white, erm, thing in the center. I approached it and was asked if I wanted to transport to another place. Naturally I said, “Yes.” and I was whisked away to another part of the map. Now, again, I won’t dare spoil what was in that chest, what happened to that woman or where I was transported to, but all of this is to say Elden Ring is full of these moments. There are so many things to see, interact with, check out, fight, explore that it’s next to impossible for me to stay on the narrative path for any extended period of time. Even in my extended playtime there were incredible amounts of things I’ve encountered that I have no idea what to do or how to interact with them, such as the wandering towers on legs. There is so much here that I imagine players will be digging into it for years to uncover and unravel.

If I wanted to, however, stick to the critical paths, Elden Ring has something called “Grace ” which manifests in a particle trail of lights that lead away from Elden Ring’s version of bonfires and lanterns, Sites of Grace. Resting at these allows me to level up, beef up my flasks which Erd Seeds found at glowing baby Erdtrees throughout the land, assign Ashes of War (more on that in a bit), pass time from night to morning to midday, and many other things. It also resets the enemies in the area similar to other From games. The light trails of Grace don’t lead me by the hand. They simply trail off in the general direction I should head off to next which leads me to get into the kinds of troubles I outlined above. And the best part is that there are no question marks on the map to seek out. I see something on the horizon and I can go to it and check it out.

Of course, in between all of these landmarks, story beats, NPCs etc, is a world where nearly everything wants me dead and depending on where I would end up, could be incredibly successful in doing so. As mentioned before, there are things called “Field Bosses” which are full-on boss fights I would find myself in by simply exploring the world. Some only occur at night [I’m not sure if any only occur during the day but I would assume so], many only in one specific location. And if it’s not a boss, it is the smaller beasts and soldiers and denizens of the world. They really hate the Tarnished and since I am one, they really hate me and will try really hard to kill me. But such is life in a FromSoftware game, right?

Elden Ring being an RPG, there are, of course, stats and experience points to put into those stats. Whereas XP in previous From games have either been souls in Demon’s/Dark Souls or “blood echoes” in Bloodborne, in Elden Ring they’re called “Runes” and they absorb into you when an enemy is killed (it doesn’t have to be you that does the killing). Dying will leave my accumulated Runes at the place of my unfortunate death and being that this is an open world, there is a compass at the top of the HUD that shows the direction of where my Runes are waiting for me to return and pick up. Sometimes I didn’t want to fight what killed me again so instead I would summon Torrent by using the spirit whistle and Torrent just appears almost underneath me and we ride towards the runes, pick them up and ride away.

One Mount to Rule Them All

It should be noted that Torrent is the best mount I’ve ever used in a video game. Extremely easy to control, navigate, turn. In most open world games I rarely ride mounts because they’re unwieldy at times. Even the act of getting on them can be a pain if I’m not in the exact right spot. I can’t even begin to count how many times in other games I’ve accidentally hit my mount causing it to run away and me having to chase it. By simply having Torrent appear and mounting her (him?) in one motion and disappearing when I dismount is easily one of the most elegant and intuitive solutions I’ve ever experienced.

Torrent can take me literally anywhere in the open world except dungeons, mid-dungeons, and Legacy Dungeons. Smaller dungeons exist as either catacombs or mines, and are usually shorter affairs that either require me to find a mechanism to unlock the boss door or mines that require finding my way down to the boss door. Once I kill the mini-boss, I’m rewarded, sometimes handsomely, for my efforts. Conveniently, in the boss room, a little light appears from the ground that will transport you back to the entrance. It’s design choices like this where it’s clear FromSoftware wanted me to keep playing the game, and only if I choose to go out the long way would I.

Taking a page from Sekiro is the ability to use stealth. Crouching in tall grass keeps you hidden, and movement while crouched is silenced. Making it easy to sneak up on an unsuspecting enemy for a glorious backstab. The enemies’ field of view is also lessened at night making it that much hard for you to be spotted. You can avoid combat altogether by sneaking in and out, grabbing the treasure and getting out.

Impending Legacy

Legacy Dungeons are a different beast altogether. These are the more traditional locations I had explored in previous games. If you’ve played Demon’s Souls, think Boletaria Palace — a large, sprawling location with interconnected paths, Sites of Grace to rest up, and sometimes several bosses. They’re actually quite huge and I found myself slightly confused as to which way to go with all of the options available. Adding in the ability to jump gives the Legacy Dungeons a verticality that never existed previously.

Once the main boss of the Legacy Dungeon is felled (killed), I received their Great Rune which I needed to activate in their respective tower and then free to equip them. I haven’t found them all but to get the advantages of the Great Rune I have to use a Rune Arc. These are limited consumables that lasts as long as you’re alive. The one I was using gave me +5 to every stat, essentially giving me 40 levels worth of stats until I die. I was alive for quite some time having only used one. I also received a “Remembrance” which acts as Elden Ring’s “boss soul” which can be traded in for one of two items. With the two that I’ve beaten so far, one offered me two weapons, the other a weapon and a spell (with an insane Intelligence requirement).

Accessible Souls

I’ve made it this far into this and haven’t once mentioned difficulty. Other than wanting to avoid that discourse landmine, the reason is: difficulty is subjective. Bosses that gave me a hard time, our own Senior Editor James Lara, found to be a breeze, and vice-versa in other cases. I’m playing a caster (having chosen Astrologer as my starting class) and he’s playing as a Samurai. Different playstyles are going to get different results, as well as how the classes are specced so the challenge is going to vary.

However, that’s not to say that From hasn’t upped their offerings to help players get through the game. They’re still going to have to fight and beat some tough bosses, but the tools to make this “easier” are plentiful. For example, Spirit Ashes, which are a type of summon. I’ve found these in the world and by beating certain bosses and I am able to use these in certain locations, including most boss fights, where they have sometimes proven to be invaluable. My favorite so far is the Skeleton Bandit. It can take some decent damage and agro bosses, but his best trick is that, like the skeleton enemies I fought many times in the game, they come back to life if their bones aren’t smashed while on the ground. This means after a moment they get back up and continue to distract the boss while I wail away with either a melee weapon or a sorcery. Sometimes the bones do get smashed and I’m on my own but the help it offered prior can’t be undersold. And a certain NPC can upgrade Spirit Summons even more, provided you have the correct materials.

I’ll be frank here. I am absolutely a mess at parrying in Demon’s/Dark Souls, and it should come as no surprise that I’m equally terrible at it in Elden Ring. However, I don’t always need to be good thanks to the Guard Counter mechanic. This mechanic might actually be the MVP of new mechanics in Elden Ring. To perform it, simply have the shield up, take a hit to the shield, and immediately follow it up with a strong attack. For most enemies this will break their hidden posture bar, opening them up for a critical attack which takes away massive amounts of hit points. Coupled with the Talisman I have that restores eight hit points for critical attacks, and I can replenish my health quickly without having to waste precious flasks. This won’t work on every enemy, some do more posture damage than I can withstand with a block, and some can take way more posture damage that a Guard Counter can deplete. But still, it makes survivability in such a vicious world exponentially higher.

Speaking of flasks and survivability, taking out a large enemy or group of enemies will often replenish flasks. It makes for a great risk/reward system that keeps you out in the world exploring and fighting as opposed to revisiting Sites of Grace for heals. Should I want to revisit a Site of Grace I’ve previously visited I can simply bring up the map from anywhere in the world and in most circumstances I can fast travel there almost instantly (thanks to the power of consoles’ SSDs).

Upgrading weapons is as streamlined as ever. Instead of various types of shards, chunks, slabs and so on, which often don’t make much sense or are too many to really keep track of, upgrade materials are either regular Smithing Stones or Somber Smithing Stones. The only difference is they each have “levels” 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on — which makes the whole upgrade process much easier to understand.

Additionally, in the open world there are Stakes of Marika which serve as a checkout near potentially dangerous encounters. If I happen to die I’m asked if I want to respawn at the Stake of Marika or at the last Site of Grace I’ve visited. This gets me back into the fight much quicker if I want to. It’s smart, streamlined systems like this that again keep me playing and engaging with the game.

Regarding co-op, admittedly I only used it in one area, Stormveil Castle (with MP1st Senior Editor James Lara), but it was impressively fast. We set a matching password, he laid down his sign, I used the item called a “Furlong Finger Remedy” to view summon signs, “touched” it and he was in my game within seconds. We went through most of the Legacy Dungeon together and I sent him back to his world when we arrived at the Site of Grace closest to the boss door. I wanted to take on the first Legacy boss solo since playing co-op doubles a boss’ healthbar. Plus, I wanted to use a different Spirit Summon to test out its effectiveness. How speedy it is to get another player in your world could change once the game is live with millions of people on the server, in fact, I expect it to. But my limited experience with it was quick and easy.

One Man’s Treasure

Visually the game is quite striking thanks to FromSoftware’s second to none art design. If anyone is looking for Elden Ring to stand toe to toe, graphically with something like Bluepoint’s Demon’s Souls remake they’re going to not find it here. Instead there are beautifully designed vistas, enemy designs, NPC designs, armor, weapons, structures. All created with the level of care that is distinctly FromSoftware’s.

The sound design is fantastic. Playing with headphones I could hear the wilderness off in the distance, the flapping of banners in the breeze, the every single time satisfaction of staggering an enemy and landing a hit. The voice acting is the best it’s ever been. And the score? Rousing, imposing, chilling and all around spectacular.

I’m gushing on sure, but surely the game has some issues, right? Eh, kind of. which is really going to depend on the individual how much it bothers them. Some things I can see being sticking points are some of the optional bosses are repeated at least once as either regular enemies, mini-bosses or field bosses. The feeling of “I’ve seen this before” also extends to the catacombs and mines. I won’t mince words, they all look pretty similar whereas only really the layout is changed. Thankfully I was in them for such a short amount of time that this literally never bothered me. Still, I feel like I should mention it in case that is something that will bother someone else.

And this isn’t so much an issue as it is a concern or possibly even an existential crisis, but I have had copious amounts of fun with From’s previous games via replaying through those games in the new game plus cycles. With Elden Ring being as massive as it is, it’s not as easy to memorize as even larger maps like Yahrnam or Lordran in Dark Souls. I’m eager to find out for certain.

Verdict

It’s remarkable how well From has managed to expand to a truly open world while keeping their core gameplay intact as well as building on top of it in one massive and impressively polished package. Elden Ring is clearly the culmination of FromSoftware’s past 13 years of experience and development philosophy of the souls franchise. Miyazaki and FromSoftware have crafted something so massive, special, wondrous and triumphant that it’s unfathomable how they can top it. Easily FromSoftware’s best game to date and a genuine masterpiece.

Final Score: 10/10

Pros:

  • The world is massive and full of interesting things to see, do, and kill
  • Possibly From’s least opaque story while still maintaining their trademark mystery
  • Combat is satisfying as ever with more tools at your disposal
  • The boss designs
  • Incredibly polished, not only as a From game but as an open world game
  • Performance is rock solid. Game tested mainly on PS5, but we have tested the PS4 base and Pro, as well as PC. PC gamers running below specs, however, should expect dips.
  • Co-op is seamless, and available right from the get-go.

Cons:

  • Some repeated optional bosses
  • Catacombs and mines can feel similar to each other

Elden Ring review code was provided by the publisher. Played on PS5. You can read SP1st and MP1st’s review and scoring policy right here.

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