Review: Elden Ring (PS5)
While FromSoftware have been developing games for over 35 years, its present reputation as one of the greatest developers in the industry, began with the release of the seminal classic 'Demon Souls' in 2008. 4 years later a spiritual successor in the form of Dark Souls - which was recently voted the greatest game of all time - was unleashed to critical acclaim and the developer’s legacy had seemingly already been forged. Over the next decade FromSoftware (FromSoft) released two sequels to Dark Souls, gothic action RPG Bloodborne and Japanese set epic Sekiro - all excellently received and recipients of various awards. For the frenzied fanbase of these games they are the pinnacle of video game design from both an artistic and gameplay perspective.
Story & Narrative Approach
Elden Ring is an action RPG that is presented through a third person perspective. The game “takes place in the Lands Between, sometime after the destruction of the titular Elden Ring and the scattering of its shards, the Great Runes. Once graced by the Ring and the Erdtree which symbolizes its presence, the realm is now ruled over by the demigod offspring of Queen Marika the Eternal, each possessing a shard of the Ring that corrupts and taints them with power”. The player assumes the role of a Tarnished — former inhabitants who were banished from the Lands Between but have been summoned back by the divine light of the Erdtree following ‘the Shattering’ — who must traverse the realm to ultimately find all the Great Runes, restore the Elden Ring, and become the Elden Lord.
It has been much publicized that George R R Martin (of ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’ fame) collaborated with Hidetaka Miyazaki on the world creation and character back stories and the writer’s fantasy chops seems to complement the studio’s style of game world building wonderfully.
For those that have played Dark Souls, they will already know that the developer has a a very particular approach when it comes to storytelling. Their use of cutscenes and exposition is minimal and buck the modern trend of traditional story telling in large budget games. The narrative is drip fed via item descriptions, sparse interactions with NPCs and a heavy focus on individual player interpretation.
That said, while the game isn't necessarily narrative driven it is very lore rich and a player’s love for the world and its exploration is what propels one forward - not necessarily the player’s desire for narrative satisfaction/resolution.
The game’s unconventional approach to its quests compared to other open world games, may result in many finding themselves creating their own 'missions' - whether it be attempting to scale a cliffside or castle wall, exploring a cave network, or searching for specific weapons/items. However, the lack of quest markers/or an abundance of NPCs does not mean players will feel the game is without meaning or purpose, and the lack of a traditional story structure and large areas locked behind progression walls creates an incredible feeling of freedom that many games are unable to replicate straight out of the gate.
Furthermore, NPC/side quests feel way more substantial and effecting in Elden Ring (arguably the most memorable since the original Dark Souls) compared to some previous entries. In addition to being filled with emotive characters – similar to previous entries - the quest lines seem to be responsible for unlocking substantive areas or explaining/introducing substantive gameplay mechanics (e.g. White Mask Varre questline explains invasions and the multiplayer element), as well as delivering lore and adding texture and context to the world and their events.
The game is an action RPG that builds on the foundations laid by Dark Souls, Bloodborne and even Sekiro. The player begins their quest by choosing one of several starting classes – which the player can then tweak and mold to the desire by allocating XP to one of 8 attributes as they progress through the game. This element of the game is a cornerstone of the ‘Dark Souls experience’ and the different approaches to character builds results in enormous replay value.
Elden Ring differs slightly in comparison to previous games when it comes to weapon wielding requirements. Historically there are two main favoured approaches to character building - a melee weapon specialist that relies on high ‘strength’ and ‘dexterity’ stats or a magic user that primarily relies on ‘Intelligence’ and ‘Faith’ stats. However, there are numerous desirable, high-level weapons in Elden Ring that require the player to be levelled up in 3 or more stats (i.e. strength, dexterity and either Arcane or Faith). Therefore, some players may need to be a little more considerate when allocating their XP if they wish to wield certain weapons as the traditional ‘two stat’ strategy may not be sufficient for certain swords, spear or shields.
As mentioned above, the gameplay borrows heavily from the Dark Souls games and builds on what has gone before. However, FromSoft have made some welcome gameplay additions in Elden Ring that include a dedicated jump button (which also comes with the ability to perform a jumping strike), a block counter (a strong attack that immediately follows a shield block) and a third refillable flask type – called the Flask of Wondrous Physick - the contents of which can be tailored to your specific requirements and consumable item crafting.
However, the new biggest additions to the gameplay are Torrent and Spirit Summons.
Torrent – your spectral steed – is a mount that the player can use to traverse the game world as well as access areas that are beyond the reach of the player from simply jumping. Furthermore, the player is able to attack while on horseback as well as collect and interact with items. This is a brilliant addition and and he/she can take their place next to Epona and Agro in the pantheon of legendary gaming horses.
Spirit Summons has been one of the most discussed additions amongst the game’s community. This new gameplay mechanic allows the player to summon a spirit that can assist at certain times in the game – either during a boss fight or challenging open world areas. The spirits available vary from a pack of undead dogs to giant bow wielding knights and from blood spewing jellyfishes to the ‘mimic tear’ - that duplicates the player’s build, attributes, and armaments. While such a mechanic is commonplace in many RPGs, some feel that specific summons can trivialize certain encounters in a game that is synonymous for its challenge. However, many have benefited from this useful addition, which can be the difference between success and endless failure in some of the more taxing boss fights - and that surely is a good thing.
In addition to the above, the developers have also brought back some mechanics from previous entries albeit in a slightly different guise.
First introduced in Sekiro, stealth makes a return and adds an additional element/option to the traditional Dark Souls gameplay. While not as sophisticated as stealth in Sekiro – it doesn’t have the visual prompt for the stealth take downs or the ability to apply multiple stealth-based buffs – it is a welcome addition that allows you to clear enemy rich areas easier with a little forward planning.
Secondly are weapons skills or ‘Ashes of War’. While originally making their debut in Dark Souls 3, weapon skills make a reappearance here in a substantially bigger role. Now called Ashes of War, a special secondary weapon skill can be applied to your armament of choice and with a press of ‘L2’ the player can unleash an exciting attack, spell or evasive defensive move. These moves do cost the player FP (akin to a magic meter) to use, but the results can be utterly devastating and invaluable.
Finally, the game’s series of introductory notes and hints are a welcome addition. Perhaps the developers are finally realising that you can create a sublime and challenging game world without being excessively obtuse or cryptic when it comes to explaining the mechanics and gameplay. While the tutorial is implemented in a rather clever way, it can actually be bypassed if you so desire – or maybe unintentionally.
The multiplayer component – like many first-person shooters – is a huge part of FromSoft's games and is the reason many keep playing years after they have finished with the single player element.
There are various facets to the (much beloved) multiplayer element: co-op, invasions and duels. A ‘duel’ is a simple one player versus another scenario, whereas invasions are where a player is allowed to invade another player’s game with the goal to hunt down and kill the host player. However, in invasions anything goes, and the invading players can encounter gangs/mobs of players as the host could be playing co-op (with multiple players) or use the ‘white cipher ring’ – which requests the help from fellow players to help fight invaders. Secondly, it’s worth noting that playing co-op automatically opens you to invaders….
However, unlike previous entries there are no longer random invasions as the player has to allow invaders into their world (by actively placing summons signs). This will be welcomed by the players that like to benefit from community messages but infuriated by aggressive invaders that seemingly appear at the most inconvenient time.
The singular biggest change to the established formula in Elden Ring is the game’s open world.
While the game world/map is huge it never feels truly overwhelming - just dense, rich and ripe for exploring. There is always something new to discover round every corner and a fresh encounter or item is never far away. Furthermore (similar to Dark Souls), as the game doesn't put all its high-level items and weapons behind a mandatory boss fight - it definitely pays to explore all the games nooks and crannies. In fact, many powerful weapons and items are simply in a chest or corpse waiting to be discovered.
While the world is huge, FromSoft have finally decided to add a world map. The addition of this ubiquitous game feature – in other franchises at least – is essential for players wishing to explore ‘The Lands Between’. Furthermore, the topography and detail contained on the map allows the player to determine how (or even if) they can access certain areas. Secondly, the player can add numerous different markers to indicate areas or persons of interest. There are several different counters, which can be used to signify different things i.e. bosses, merchants, farming areas etc. The volume of markers and waypoints on the map are completely dictated by the player and therefore they can avoid the distracting, over busy look that some world maps can suffer from. While the map is a much-loved addition, it is frustrating that you are unable to access the map while in combat or in the vicinity of enemies. While it is understandable that the developers do not want you simply teleporting out of combat they could deactivate the fast travel function during encounters, while still allowing you to view the map.
The game implements a check point system that sees players discovering and unlocking ‘Sites of Grace’. Similar to the bonfires in Dark Souls, the player can fast travel to these sites as well allowing the player to level up their character, amend contents of flasks etc.
Unlike most modern games, this game doesn’t hold your hand when it comes to exploration. In almost all modern AAA games, relevant areas/ledges have a visual clue to signify they can be explored (obvious footholds, illuminated edges etc). However, FromSoft are not so obvious (or kind) and initially it seems many locations in the ‘Lands Between’ are inaccessible. However, with some imagination when it comes to jumping, use of your horse and leaps of faith, the player is able to access areas that in other developers' hands would not be possible.
Soon, you quickly feel that if an area or location is visible, one can likely visit it which in turn creates a feeling of adventure, discovery and exploration that hitherto many gamers would not have experienced.
The open wilderness areas really do shine and with the addition of Torrent and fast travel it makes it a joy to explore - from the 'Breath of the Wild’ inspired ruins of Limgrave to the Nordic influenced plains of the Atlus Plateau - not only does it make a change from the usual gothic confines of many previous Soulsborne game areas, but it also looks stunning.
In summary, Elden Ring contains one of the densest and most intriguing game worlds every created. From quadrupedal walking mausoleums and haunting singing harpies, to burning castles and dank, treacherous caverns - this game has every possible geographical and fantastical base covered. This level of imagination combined with world class art and character design makes this the new gold standard by which all open world settings will be judged.
As is commonplace with many ninth generation games, Elden Ring offers players the ability to choose between a ‘quality’ or ‘performance’ mode. Many have stated the performance option to be their preferred choice. While this prioritises a higher frame rate over resolution, the frame rate does vary and can be unstable. That said, on the whole the experience is generally very smooth, even if at launch it doesn't hit the modern desired sweet spot of a constant 60 fps.
The games makes the most of the onboard SSD in the PS5 and save file loading and fast travel is concluded in as little as 5 seconds – this is a revolutionary jump compared to previous entries on older tech/consoles.
Art & Sound Design/Music
Similar to all the previous ‘SoulsBourne’ games, the art and character design is top drawer and FromSoft are almost in a league of their own at this point in time in this regard. Pre-launch, many commentators stated that they felt the graphics weren't on a par with other games of this generation. However, the pre-release videos did not do the game justice as it is genuinely stunning.
Like the developer’s previous output, the music and sound design is excellent. The games sound effects, ambient world noises and voice acting all add to the games already incredible level of immersion. The soundscapes FromSoft create aren't praised enough (as unfortunately much discussion surrounding the games are usually dominated by their difficulty) as their use of and breadth of sound and ambient noises is incredible.
Videos of players beating bosses blindfolded have already appeared online. Not only does this highlight the dedication and ability of some players but also the brilliance of the games sound design that allows these types of feat to be possible.
Similar to the sound design, the score is also noteworthy. The music in Elden Ring contains more ambient rich or quieter pieces than previous games - akin to Jeremy Soules work in Skyrim. These particular pieces are less dramatic and more haunting and primarily accompany you while you explore the game world - something new for a Soulsborne game (excluding previous ‘hub’ areas such as Firelink Shrine or Majula) as previously music would generally only play during boss fights. That said fans of the work of Motoi Sakuraba and Yuta Kitamura (who actually writes a lot of the score for Elden Ring) will not be disappointed as the score still retains a lot of the rousing, bombastic vocal rich tracks that fans have come to expect from the series.
While there may be many people that have never played a 'Soulsbourne' game, it's a safe bet that they will be aware of the games due to one particular element that dominates almost every conversation about the studio's output - difficulty.
While the games have seemingly become a gaming by-word for challenging gameplay (the term 'it’s the Dark Souls of <insert any game genre>' has entered the video game lexicon) - and for good reason - it does do the games on the whole a huge disservice. As while certain sections/bosses do take serious dedication and skill to overcome, the games level design, deep RPG and customization options, sublime art direction, stunning enemy design and unique approach to lore and storytelling moves the games onto a level most developers might never achieve.
With this said, Elden Ring wouldn't be the same if it wasn't a challenge. However, unlike their previous output, as the game has a level of freedom hitherto unseen in a 'Soulsborne' game, the difficulty curve is somewhat different. In said previous games, their more linear path (for want of a better phrase) meant that the developers could more easily dictate the order in which most people would encounter certain bosses. However, in Elden Ring, many players will more often find themselves in encounters that are simply above their skillset and/or abilities. However, the flipside of this is that veterans of the developer's output do have the opportunity to challenge themselves even more when up against extremely hard early game enemies such as the Tree Sentinel. While some players may feel the pacing and difficulty curve is 'off' compared to previous Souls games, it is an almost unavoidable problem for a game that chooses to be so open as it inevitably sacrifices that satisfying (dictated) difficulty curve.
FromSoft’s approach to the gameplay and its ‘challenge/reward’ ideology are a wonderful throwback to the arcade games of yesteryear and a stark contrast to most modern, mainstream games.
Furthermore, the progression 'wall' that the player may have experienced in previous games is not so prominent or frustrating here as there is always numerous pathways to keep you entertained or opportunities to level up, gain experience or find new weapons etc. Therefore, while the enemies still retain the classic FromSoftware challenge, a player's chance to mitigate this is more abundant in this title and new players may find it slightly more accessible than the likes of Dark Souls 2 or Sekiro.
For many, the developers constant desire to seemingly ramp up the difficulty with each successive IP, went a step too far in Sekiro. For those players, they will be glad to hear that, like Dark/Demon Souls, the difficulty in Elden Ring can be 'offset' with the ability to level up, call in spirits or play co-op - all of which can be used to potentially ease a player's suffering.
Finally, while the game is a resounding success on many levels, there are a few ‘quirks’ that are present in Elden Ring (and previous entries), that would be remiss not to mention, that in other games would be discussed more...
Inconsistent frame rate performance, horrendous environmental clipping, enemies being able to hit you through fog gates/walls, mechanics not being explained - at all, lack of a traditional 'narrative', awkward/stiff platforming, 'familiar' enemy designs from previous games....
That all said, many of these ‘quirks’ are seemingly overlooked due to the brilliance of the rest of the experience and many players see these issues as part of the developer’s ‘charm’.
Over the years FromSoftware genuinely seemed to relish making the game as awkward and obtuse as possible. However, with the numerous new additions, they have enhanced the overall gaming experience without sacrificing what players love about their games.
With each successive game they refine their action RPG formula while drawing on every previous iteration. The result is an incredible gaming experience with some of the most varied and satisfying combat and exploration you can experience as a gamer.
Similar to Metal Gear Solid V (Kojima) and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Miyamoto/Aunoma), this feels like the culmination of years of work from a gameplay perspective - taking everything FromSoft have created in the ‘SoulsBorne’ series to date and pushing it to its ultimate, inevitable conclusion. While its feeling of familiarity (to anyone that has played Dark Souls before) and 'nostalgia' in certain aspects maybe a pro for some and possible con for others, its overall brilliance and sense of pure freedom is undeniable.
Where do FromSoftware go from here? A sci-fi/horror game with the vibe of H R Giger and a splash of Clive Barker?! Whatever this revered developer decides to do next it will have some very large shoes to fill....