Emerging from a dark, dingy cave to an immense world of sprawling vistas and verdant pastures, before speaking with a wizened crone and embarking immediately towards a dilapidated church, you could easily be mistaken in thinking Nintendo had released the sequel to Breath of the Wild years in advance. It is only when you approach the first visible enemy, a gold-gilded knight dubbed the Tree Sentinel, who dispatches you with disheartening ease, that the mystique and ambition generated by this world is brought to a grounding halt, and the harsh reality kicks in. This is FromSoftware and this is Elden Ring, what on Earth did you expect?
Hidetaka Miyazaki, the revered and directive genius behind FromSoft classics Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Sekiro, returns with his most enterprising project to date. Acclaimed author George. R. R. Martin also joins the ranks of creators involved in Elden Ring’s development, but recent reports suggest in the grand scheme of things, he may have played more of an underhanded marketing role. What is clear however, is that Elden Ring is ground-breaking in scope and spectacle; a high-fantasy epic in every discernible detail and a marvel of modern pulp culture. It takes inspiration from Miura’s Berserk, Lovecraft and overt religious symbolism to form a (more) dark and (more) twisted representation of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. It takes Dark Souls’ framework and builds it into a boundary-defying RPG, complete with a myriad of secret caves, crevices and dungeons that oscillate between the beautiful and the obscene. For every celestial cavern there is a rotting lake, for every seraphic city there is a forsaken sewer; the divine mirrors the pestilence and vice versa, so that both are potentiated.
Like all FromSoft projects, Elden Ring is as much a war of attrition than anything else, rewarding stubbornness and/or patience. Utilising the tried-and-tested third-person hack-and-dodge mechanic, players must roam across the Lands Between, a fragmented domain consisting of six vastly different areas, each one ruled by a Demigod wishing to inflict various degrees of harm upon our protagonist. Said hero, one of the Tarnished, has been banished from the Lands Between and lost the grace of the ethereal Erdtree; a golden, luminous trunk with immortalising capability, that is visible from every corner of the continent. Players are tasked with finding the Demigods, vanquishing them and obtaining their pieces of the Elden Ring, so that life and (dis)order can be restored.
Unlike Bloodborne, which gives players subtle vignettes on the lore and history of Yharnam and its inhabitants, Elden Ring provides a fairly forthcoming opening cinematic which gives you adequate background knowledge before you even start exploring. This is part and parcel of the new FromSoft experience, one which has evolved with the greater financial and dimensional aspects of the game, to bring one key new feature: accessibility. Everything about Elden Ring is tailored towards a more fluid, more convenient run-through. Bosses, of which there are an astonishing amount (over 150!), are still the focal point and arguably the most enjoyable piece of the puzzle, but beating them has become attainable for even the most casual gamer.
Summoning online players is still a difficulty-modifying feature, but now players can utilise ashes of war in battle, spawning a pack of wolves, jellyfish or even a ditto-inspired doppelganger to aid in the conquest of difficult foes. Reaching them is also far more realistic, with regular spawn points and Stakes of Marika, statues which allow players to respawn immediately outside boss battles to repeatedly and consistently die/learn. This is a wonderful and relieving far-cry from the likes of Demon’s Souls and its levels (the Depraved Chasm is still shudder-inducing), where you often have to replay the entire dungeon with every boss death. Lastly, with the open world aspect there are multiple avenues to victory, typified by the staggeringly colossal Stormveil Castle. Walk through the front gate and battle a small army or scale the exterior in a more covert approach, the choice is yours; and with the newly summonable horse Torrent, you can often just ride straight through dangerous areas. No more are the limitations and frustrations of labyrinthine, but ultimately linear, FromSoft levels which require early and demoralising encounters.
From Stormveil Castle, the ‘legacy dungeon’ which the majority of players will tackle first, you can head in any direction you please. Head north to the breath-taking Liurnia of the Lakes, which emulates the famous piece Wanderer above the Sea of Fog; head south to the more manageable and sensible Weeping Peninsula, a miniature model of Australia; or you could do what I did, which is not advisable, and head East to the now meme-famous Caelid. This is a crucible of misshapen horrors, copper-tinged swamps and blood-red skies where the wildlife is as corrupted as the flesh of the never-ending enemies. Exploring it is as masochistic as it is enjoyable, where you’re just as likely to happen across a castle-sized dragon as you are a guillotine-swinging sentient Iron Maiden. But this is why we are here. Everyone remembers their first encounter with a Deathclaw in Fallout, an Archgriffin in Witcher 3 or a Lynel in Breath of the Wild; Elden Ring just takes these encounters and amplifies, confounds and frequents them, to the point where we aren’t sure which way is up.
The expansive surroundings, subterranean crystalline marshes and cities etched into the side of tree trunks are all a wonder to gaze at, but without the combat to back it up, would completely undercut aesthetic. To that effect, the customisation is dialled up to eleven. There are more designable physical features, custom classes, attainable builds, weapon choices and attack styles at the player’s disposal. You can cast cosmic sorcery as an astrologer, bleed enemies dry as a samurai or wield two-handed log-sized weapons as a warrior. You can balance stats or fully commit, all while identifying your preferred playstyle with increasingly arduous enemies and dungeons, including and especially within the secret areas which FromSoft loyalists revel in. Exploration is rewarded with some of the hardest Souls’ bosses in the series and arguably one of the most satisfying and high-yield questlines in gaming history.
Of course, there are issues with any game, and as with all FromSoft ventures, the hardest boss is often the camera, which jumps and jolts to a dodgy auto-lock feature, primarily in close-quarters. Add to that some clunky horse-based combat, frustrating hitboxes, seemingly random fall damage quantification and at least a few nebulous side quests, and the end result is still the best game released in recent years. Miyazaki’s esoteric predecessors are pushed into the light and honoured with several familiar faces and enemies, but with enough deft touches and marketing value that FromSoft is lifted into the upper echelons of the gaming stratosphere. It has an understandable lore, accessible gameplay and the gift of free movement the likes of which would give Priti Patel nightmares. Elden Ring is a Guillermo del Toro nightmarish vision on acid; a grotesque paradise which is as purely addictive as it is ruthlessly difficult.
Elden Ring is out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5 and PC