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Video Game Review: “Elden Ring”

Although I was no doubt looking forward to Elden Ring, I have to admit my excitement wasn’t at the level it might’ve been years prior. This, I believe, can be attributed to the curse of the standard, as well as the law of diminishing returns.

Anyone who has ever read anything I’ve written can attest how much I love FromSoftware and the ‘Souls-like’ subgenre that they pioneered. I’ve been there for it – whether it was the lackluster Lords of the Fallen, the shooter Remnant: From the Ashes, the anime-infused Code Vein, or whatever else third-party developers came up with, wearing their influences on their sleeves. However, it was always FromSoftware that did it best. The worst FromSoftware Soulsbourne videogame is still better than the best Souls-like videogame.

Regardless, I couldn’t help but feel like I’ve always been left wanting more from them. Demon’s Souls was amazing, and Dark Souls improved on that, making one of the greatest videogame experiences I’ve ever had. Thereafter though, I haven’t been able to capture that same feeling from them. Dark Souls 2 was a considerable decline from the original, and, whereas Dark Souls 3 closed the series out on a high note, it simply didn’t make me feel the same way as the original.

Thereafter, Bloodborne followed, offering a fun, worthwhile videogame altogether, something really good, but I wasn’t satiated.

It wasn’t that any of them were bad. Quite the contrary, all of them were good! As a matter of fact, had I played it out-of-order, I may’ve ended up liking some of them more than others and vice versa. However, none of them really captured that lightning in the bottle feeling I had.

Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls were so special because they surprised me when I played them. That was prior to Hellpoint and Mortal Shell, or Ashen and Nioh, and now, that feeling can’t be captured again merely by modest improvements to the formula.

After playing Elden Ring in excess of sixty hours, I can now confidently say it does make a lot of important steps in evolving the formula and creating something that feels both unique and like it captures what made its predecessors so special.

Marketed as an open-world videogame with the involvement of George R.R. Martin (creator of the Game of Thrones series), Elden Ring may as well have been billed as the biggest, most ambitious FromSoftware videogame yet.

It is, and yet, it does feel like certain aspects are worth talking about. As curious as I was of Martin’s involvement, I was more than a little apprehensive about billing it as FromSoftware’s first “open-world,” and what exactly that would entail. In truth, all the Souls videogames are, at least, kind of already open-world videogames, in-general. There’re optional bosses and activities, as well as secret locations sprinkled throughout all of them.

The bigger, the scarier, however. I have never been the biggest fan of open-world videogames, in spite loving the concept of them. This is because I feel a lot of open-world videogames tend to pepper in unnecessary side-quests and uninspired fetch-it missions in-order to fill out their world.

Likewise, I feel that, as the Dark Souls series became larger, the lay of the land started to feel less cohesive and more stretched out. For example, in Dark Souls 1, until much later on, players have no fast-travel, and, to compensate, the locations all seem to loop around and have little ways to navigate around. I like that, and I feel like it was never captured the same way as it was with the original game.

Although Elden Ring does have a handful of dungeons I feel didn’t enhance the experience very much, after awhile, the gameplay itself begins to feel like business as usual for the Souls genre. I like that fact a lot, really. Like I said, I love the Souls genre, and although I want them to evolve it in some places, I’m always receptive to when they double-down on what they do best.

Early on, I will admit, I wasn’t as into Elden Ring as I’d hoped. From Software is always cryptic in its intent, and it can take awhile to fully grasp what you’re meant to do and how you are meant to progress. For instance, I spent awhile unable to beat Margit, The Fell Omen, thinking I needed to at least do that to progress, only to realize I could go around the whole castle and find new locations to explore. Then, I found more locations, and more after that.

It becomes clear that Elden Ring offers a lot of flexibility in how you approach it. Things I didn’t find until much, much later on, my friends discovered far earlier. When I discovered Margit after a few hours, I found out they didn’t even find him til they were in the double-digits. Bosses they struggled with, I overpowered because I discovered them so much later on.

Elden Ring rather seamlessly blends the Souls formula into an open-world environment, making it feel effortless. The way it manages to feel the same, yet so different is actually remarkable and could be a gamechanger for the subgenre hereafter.

As for George R. R. Martin’s involvement, I feel as though it could’ve been taken or left. As much as I like Game of Thrones, and as much as I am certain Martin likely contributed, Elden Ring could’ve easily have been called Elden Souls, and been perceived a spiritual successor in the same way Dark Souls was to Demon’s Souls. The character lore and plot developments are mostly spoon fed and sprinkled in, and while it might have more direct, conventional exposition than earlier entries, I have no more grasp of what’s going on than I did with any of the Dark Souls games. I don’t mind that at all. I like that, and I like allowing the sheer immersion of gameplay create its own unique experience, but I understand it might deter other players.

You’re an unrenowned tarnished and are meant to travel The Lands Between in-order to become Elden Lord. The cutscenes and everything feel else mostly straight out of every other Souls videogame, which, again, isn’t a criticism, but a fact. A lot of the cutscenes are memorable and fantastic, and I wouldn’t change that. Although I’d love to see other Souls-like videogames experiment with how they develop storylines and characters, I don’t think Elden Ring (or any FromSoftware videogame) would draw any benefit from newly added exposition. It isn’t where their best strengths are.

The aesthetic is wonderful, robust, and noteworthy all around. Although Bloodborne’s Lovecraft infused setting helps it stand out, I believe Elden Ring is easily the most beautifully-crafted world FromSoftware has ever created. The map system, more expansive fast-travel (which includes a generous amount of checkpoints), and inclusion of our new trusty steed beckons for exploration and oftentimes rewards you for it. I can’t tell you the amount of times I was looking for something else, only to stumble across a boss-battle or small stretch of land I had overlooked.

Some of From Software’s worst impulses remain in Elden Ring, admittedly. I’ve always hated the refrain of “get good,” or trying to dispel criticism on the basis of a player’s lack of skill. As artists, From Software has every right to create the videogame they want to create. That means they can make it the hardest videogame imaginable and I wont try to crucify them for that.

I will, however, criticize them.

Unlike prior games, I didn’t encounter very many “walk of the shame” boss confrontations throughout my playthrough (you know the kind, you’re defeated by a boss, and then, for some reason, you have to walk a mile-and-a-half, sifting through a barrage of weaker enemies, to reach them again). Kudos to them for that.

In general, counting all the Souls games, in-terms of difficulty, I’d land Elden Ring someplace in the middle overall. It is more difficult than Bloodborne, Demon’s Souls, or Dark Souls II, but isn’t as hard as the original. I’d heard the director refer to it as “about on par with Dark Souls III,” and I think I’d echo that sentiment.

Still, it does repeat a lot of the more annoying things the series is known for. For example, larger boss battles remain difficult for them. Anyone who has kept up with other players’ experiences will know that The Fire Giant has been meme’d into oblivion. This is because, in typical Souls fashion, the camera-angle will spaz out and spin like a merry-go-round if you try to use the lock-on mechanic. Likewise, at any given moment, you might find yourself clipped into the Fire Giant, seeing his insides like some kind of accidental colonoscope.

Strategies are sometimes essential to Elden Ring, but sometimes certain strategies are outright unusable in certain encounters. For example, sometimes taking refuge behind a pillar can offer reprieve from an enemy’s onslaught. Other times, that enemy will simply swing their large spear, go through said pillar, and kill you.

It is all very basic criticisms, and things that apply to every Souls videogame, and yet, that only begs the question of why they haven’t been improved, or, at the very least, approached differently. For instance, if an enemy’s weapon can swing through a pillar, why is there a pillar at all? Or, if the camera-angle isn’t ideal for larger enemies, why do you put so many giants in your game?

Something new Elden Ring has added is the ability to Summon Spirits. Primarily, what this entails, for me, was the new ability to summon Phantoms that can assist you during major battles. I’ll be honest – I didn’t use it for the majority, and when I did, I wasn’t very impressed. Although it is likely because I waited until much later on (although I did upgrade to Spirits to bring them up to scale), I found that they were more often mowed down before they could offer a substantial assist. Maybe there is room for experimentation, but I didn’t find it to be very helpful.

That’s okay though, because, like many of you, I have a particular way I play these games. I don’t do ranged battles and I don’t do sorcery. Ever. Not once. Nor will I. It simply isn’t a way I enjoy to approach them.

By the end, Elden Ring was a pretty great game overall. An absolute first ballot for The Black Deck. I had a lot of fun exploring the robust, expansive world, and I found that it scratched the itch and then some of my desires for a new high-caliber Souls game. It is very robust, and although sometimes you might find yourself frustrated or not ‘in love’ with one thing in-particular, but, as a whole, when I stepped away and beheld everything I did and still had to do, I appreciated the sheer masterpiece that From Software had accomplished.

I’m on the fence about whether I’d call it downright my favorite Souls game (I have so much affection for the original Dark Souls – and I do feel like it offered a tauter, more no flack offering), but I definitely will remember it as one that took one of my favorite subgenres ever, one that has now endured decades, and evolved it, which is a feat that shouldn’t be underplayed.

Rating: – 4.5 out of 5.0

Written by Nicholas "Nick" McConnaughay

Nicholas McConnaughay is a writer of books and a connoisseur in the fine art of storytelling. He spent his formative years binging slasher films like Child's Play and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and blames that for some of his quirkier tendencies.

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