I have an important confession to make. I’m not actually very good at Souls games. I love them deeply and I have immense fun playing them and exploring their intricate, lovingly rendered and almost comically inhospitable worlds, but my playthroughs of games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne have more been the products of attrition than any significant amount of skill gained over time.
I’m also not actually a very “good” FromSoftware fan, in that I pick and choose which releases to play while admiring the others from a very comfortable distance at which I can’t get jumped by some asshole gargoyle insect monstrosity come to life that was lurking just out of view around the corner and halfway up a wall, because of course that’s where he was. But for as bad as I am at these games and even though I only have the fortitude to take on every other release or so, I adore From’s work, and when I sat down to review Elden Ring it felt like I was finally ready to get my ass handed to me again.
What I was not prepared for, however, was how good it would feel to dive back into From’s uniquely brutal but fair brand of adventure. Elden Ring feels like a homecoming of sorts, a refuge for veterans of From’s catalog and newcomers alike. It is a world made from components and ideas you’ve seen many times before, one which feels structurally very familiar, but the trappings atop that structure are uniquely bizarre and wondrous. The “Dark Souls meets Breath of the Wild” comparison may seem reductive but it feels incredibly accurate, primarily in that Elden Ring‘s open world is truly massive in scope, and secondarily in that you are able to explore it in any direction you wish from the outset, free from map markers or quest objectives to explicitly point out all of the things there are to see and do.
Ironically, this unfettered presentation of sheer possibility may overwhelm some players, but as somebody who is chronically fatigued by checklists and collectibles and games generally presenting everything available to you way too fast, I find this an incredibly welcome approach, and it feels perfectly in sync with From’s typical design ethos. If exploration and discovery were some of your favorite parts of the various Souls-like games, then Elden Ring is the ultimate realization of the potential of those concepts applied with total freedom.
From’s games have always been rife with visual spectacle, and Elden Ring is no exception, setting you up with breathtaking vistas from the outset and continuing to revel in showing you impossibly imaginative places you could never have conceived on your own. It’s easy for this to sound hyperbolic, but Elden Ring is truly a breathtaking game to behold, and upon setting forth it is abundantly clear that the past five years have been spent crafting From’s greatest work yet.
Mechanically speaking, if you’ve played any of the Souls games in the past, you already have 90% of the gameplay down. Weapon slots, regenerative flasks, ethereal energy that doubles as currency and experience points, high consequences for death, light and strong attacks, dodges, blocks, parries, etc, all of your favorites are still here. New to Elden Ring, courtesy of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, are the ability to jump and to crouch, actions which drastically increase your character mobility and have an impact on your move set, like being able to perform a guard break by jumping at an opponent and smashing that strong attack button in midair.
There are some other additions to the game’s bag of tricks, most notably a spectral horse you can use to travel the land and terrorize trash mobs with, the ability to use summon spells which can be a total game changer during boss fights, and the ashes of war system that allows you to infuse weapons with special unique abilities that can give you advantages for your preferred combat style or totally change the way you use the weapon in combat. There’s also a map screen. A Souls-like, made by From, with an actual map you can open, leave markers on, and use for fast travel at your leisure. It’s an absolutely bizarre thing to see in a FromSoftware title, but a necessary and welcome addition that adds invaluable way-finding utility and an excellent perspective to understand the sheer scope of Elden Ring’s massive world.
The greatest trick Elden Ring plays is in the way it toys with your expectations of both Souls games and open world games to constantly keep you guessing and surprising you in ways you least expect. The sheer audacity of taking what has traditionally been such a linear experience and translating it to an open world format is commendable, and it’s a largely successful endeavor that I find leaves the player feeling more empowered to explore and to progress than in any of From’s previous works. The entire formula has been tweaked to keep players on the hook and feeling like growth is not just possible but attainable, with a generous distribution of Sites of Grace to rest at, encampments and enemy encounters scattered throughout the map to give you fights to poke at (or avoid), miniature dungeons sprinkled across the landscape, and an unprecedented openness all to give you the knowledge that if you’re stuck on a tough boss or dungeon, you can just go do something else for a while.
I have largely found Elden Ring to be one of the more approachable games From has made… possibly ever. For as much conversation as there has been about Elden Ring being their most difficult game, I’d argue that in many ways it’s actually the easiest one yet. Perhaps that is my foreknowledge of the inner workings and inscrutableness that come with From titles, and my ability to exploit that knowledge. Compared to Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, and Bloodborne in which I spent way more time than I care to admit getting killed repeatedly just trying to make it through the first part of the first area (I told you I was bad at these games), with Elden Ring I have felt atypically empowered to slash, backstab, and otherwise humiliate my way through the legions of early game foes lying in wait.
On the flip side, bosses in Elden Ring are some of the hardest I’ve ever fought, which I think is where the sharper difficulty curve people have experienced seems to come from. Boss design is as excellent as ever in Elden Ring, both visually and mechanically, serving up incredibly steep challenges that invoke equal amounts of awe, frustration, and sheer antagonistic rage that will keep you bashing your head against them until you break through their defenses, or your controller.
It’s also worth making note of the accessibility and difficulty discussion that has once again risen, as it always does with the release of a new FromSoftware game or anything comparably difficult. While I would argue that Elden Ring has some exciting new gameplay features that help to tip the difficulty balance in the player’s favor, the fact remains that controlling your character and executing in combat requires sufficient mobility and dexterity, such that anybody with a disability or other limiting factor that inhibits their ability to use a controller in ways that an abled person can will have a poor experience with Elden Ring, to the extent that it may be unplayable.
This is a shame because I feel strongly that games should be playable by anybody who wants to play them, and given the way Elden Ring is centered in the zeitgeist at the moment it feels unfair that differently abled gamers may be left out due to the game’s high threshold for requirements of dexterity and reflex which can punish even highly skilled players. I don’t think it’s asking a lot for FromSoftware to consider adding difficulty or accessibility settings to its games to make them more available to a wider audience. Yes, Elden Ring is meant to be hard, but that challenge is relative to a player’s own ability, and the experience can and should still be tailored to be appropriately difficult to a player’s physical capabilities. I’m disappointed that Elden Ring doesn’t include features like this, but hopeful that FromSoftware will listen and add them in the future.
There are a couple of tough things I’ve been wrestling with during my time with Elden Ring. It’s true that it is a gigantic leap forward in game design and in execution for FromSoftware’s titles. This is unquestionably the best Souls-like game they have ever made, particularly in terms of how it uses the framework of From’s ultra-challenging combat applied to a version of open world gameplay that creates a possibility space that stretches well beyond the borders of the Lands Between themselves. It’s an incredibly impressive feat. I have been wracking my brain trying to decide if the game is in fact served well by the open world format. In many ways, the answer is yes, especially in that it helps to provide a breadth and depth to the world that previously was indicated but not fully rendered via lore, level design, and very impressive skyboxes.
There is a part of me though that misses the intricate overlapping nature of Dark Souls‘ Lordran, and the joy of seeing how each of the game’s varied environments interconnect with one another to create the feeling of a cohesive location. Elden Ring certainly isn’t scant on detail in its world, but it exchanges the intimacy and foreboding of its smaller “open” environments for a beautifully crafted gigantic map that fills the player with a gargantuan sense of menace and oppression at the thought of a sprawling kingdom in which you are most unwelcome, and are always a moment’s notice from being flayed alive.
It’s not necessarily a bad trade, but it lends the game a different feel, and the net result is that the challenge of Elden Ring comes in familiar but different forms. It’s also so large in scope that it will take me months to complete, which is definitely a “me” problem but it does make the game significantly less approachable for me unless I want to find a way to stick to the critical path, which is significantly harder to do in Elden Ring given its refreshing lack of a quest log or notes system.
My bigger complaints about the game stem from its technical issues, many of which it still has well after launch. It’s somewhat understandable why such an ambitious game would have some problems on consoles, but given what we’ve seen from other large scale titles on PlayStation 5 in the past year (or even the past month), I was really hoping for a more consistent 60 FPS experience on PS5. Elden Ring gives you options to prioritize resolution or frame rate on consoles, and the results are about what you would expect, but this is one of the only instances I can think of in recent memory where a prioritize frame rate mode still spends a lot of time in the mid-40s.
More problematic has been the game’s performance on PC, which is still sitting at a “mixed” rating on Steam as a result of the raft of technical issues that are still present as of this writing. Prior to release I was unable to get the game to even launch on my PC after many attempts of staring at a black screen with the game totally unresponsive for over ten minutes. The day one patch improved things moderately for me; Elden Ring would finally boot to the menu, but only after a great deal of waiting at the same black screen as before. I timed the wait at 4 minutes and 32 seconds, and it’s still consistently within 20 seconds of that marker every time I run it. However, once the game gets going, it does run beautifully on my hardware, and demonstrates just how great of a visual showpiece it is.
My PC Specs:
– Microsoft Windows 10 Pro
– Intel Core i9 9700K @ 4.6Ghz (Turbo)
– Corsair H100i RGB PLATINUM 97 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler
– Corsair Vengeance RGB Pro 32 GB (2 x 16 GB) DDR4-3200 Memory
– MSI Gaming Trio X RTX 3080 Ti 12GB GDDR6X
– WD Black SN850 NVMe SSD (1TB)
While in-game, things run at a fairly consistent 60 FPS at 1440p and with all of the settings maxed, with some exceptions. I haven’t seen some of the stuttering or crashing to desktop that others have reported, but I did hop on Torrent’s back and took a grand tour of Limgrave and some neighboring zones, during which I noticed multiple instances of the frame rate dropping into the 50s or even 40s when rounding a corner to a new area or when a larger vista with a longer draw distance came into view. Presumably this is related to asset streaming or loading rather than the GPU getting bogged down, as the frame rate would always return to 59/60 after a few seconds. It is a little surprising that this is the case considering I have the game installed on my fastest NVMe SSD, so either the sheer number of things being accessed and streamed in at once is gigantic, or there are some optimizations to the engine that need to be made (I would expect its likely the latter, but I’m not an engineer at a game studio so this is purely speculative).
So, there are some minor technical hiccups, but overall the game does run pretty well for me, probably thanks in no small part to the beefy hardware I have available to throw at it. I’m hopeful to see FromSoftware release additional improvements to Elden Ring on PCs and Consoles alike over the next few weeks, as I expect to be spending months with Elden Ring and would like that experience to become smoother.
I’ll admit that I came into reviewing this game with my skeptic hat on. The hype train was moving way too fast, anticipation was higher than for almost any game I’ve seen, and the promises being made were incredibly lofty. I wanted to avoid setting myself up for disappointment, and I fully expected to conclude that Elden Ring is a successful fusion of Souls and open world a la Breath of the Wild, but that it fell short in some key ways; I am very surprised to say that it is a complete and utter success. The sense of wonder and amazement that takes you every time you find something new, the amazing feeling of freedom that drives your every step, the nigh unprecedented attention to detail in the world design, and the masterful adaptation of the Souls formula into a totally different kind of world design is just impossible not to love.
Elden Ring is an incredible game full of moments that rival some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in over 30 years of video games. It is that rare precious thing that shows you something new and rekindles the bonfire of excitement within you that made you fall in love with the medium in the first place. Moreover, it is a game that overwhelms you with joy and excitement constantly, even as it’s kicking you in the gut and throwing sand in your face. Technical issues are a real concern, but those are things that can be fixed; the core design of Elden Ring, something you can’t just fix with a series of updates, is nothing short of a masterpiece. Elden Ring has absolutely blown me away, and while the game’s brutal difficulty and penchant for inscrutability aren’t for everyone, I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
A Steam and PlayStation 5 code was provided in advance by the publisher for review purposes