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Elden Ring has nearly everything I ever wanted from a Souls game. It’s chock full of additions, improvements, and inclusions from other FromSoftware titles that are likely to please most players. In particular, both your character being able to jump vertically and having access to a mount that can run fast and perform a double-jump truly let you experience the three-dimensional level design FromSoftware is known for in ways that weren’t previously possible.
Elden Ring also has some things I could do without. At times I think it tries a little too hard to include new features. Over the course of your playthrough, you’ll find so many different and often disconnected systems at play, it’ll make you wonder if they actually left any features out or just included every idea the designers had.
Personal quibbles aside, Elden Ring is still the best game I’ve played in a long time, and I already know I’m going to sink hundreds of hours into it well after I see the credits.
Combat has always been central to FromSoftware games, and Elden Ring builds upon and improves the core experience previously found in Demon’s Souls and the Dark Souls trilogy. I’m sorry, Sekiro and Bloodborne fans; this is very much a Souls game, with the slower-paced, more deliberate, and defensive combat style that typically brings.
One new feature that I love is the inclusion of guard counters. You no longer have to time a button press to parry with your shield. Now, an enemy attack bouncing off of your shield or a two-handed weapon in the guard position gives you a window to launch a heavy counterattack by pressing R2 immediately after. If this attack lands, it does high damage and often leaves normal, non-boss enemies in a kneeling position, ready for a critical strike R1 follow-up. This gives you a reliable way to dispatch enemies and makes it a little easier on players who prefer a more defensive style, like one of my favorites: the sword and spear combo. And before you assault me with cries of “easy mode,” these guard counters are not foolproof or without risk. Nimble enemies are capable of dodging these, since they are usually slower, heavy attacks, and if you miss, your enemy is likely to take a swing at you in return. As is often the case in Souls games, it’s still about learning which strategies work with which enemies.
Jumping, aside from adding greatly to exploration, also gives you more options in combat as well. First, and most importantly, jumping does give your character iframes (also known as invincibility frames) — a small time during the animation when you can’t be hit by enemy attacks. In my experience, the time you are invincible while jumping is shorter than the time you are invincible during rolling, but I encourage everyone to perform their own experiments. Second, jumping attacks do more damage to your enemy’s poise (their resistance to being stun-locked by repeated attacks) and their Super Armor, a hidden stat carried over from the Dark Souls games that represents their resistance to getting knocked into a staggered state which leaves them vulnerable to critical hits. Jumping attacks also frequently have their own animations and attack patterns as well. For example, a jumping spear attack may allow you to stab downward at your target.
The third important addition is mounted combat. Once you progress the story to the point that you unlock your trusty steed, you can run though groups of soldiers like a madman, swinging your weapon in sort of a medieval drive-by attack. Weapons have unique attacks in this mode too; spears can be held forward for a time like you’re jousting, while you may drag that big sword of yours on the ground for a bit, doing damage to anything it contacts. While you can only use your mount in the overworld areas, you still have plenty of opportunities to play out all of your knight fantasies. In fact, the developers intentionally designed a few of the boss fights around your character being in the saddle.
To reappropriate a quote from sci-fi humorist Douglas Adams, “Elden Ring is big. Really big.” It dwarfs all of the previous FromSoftware games. It takes the core design principle from Dark Souls of being able to see something in the distance and eventually visit it and turns it up to eleven. You can rejoice at the fact that knee-high walls will no longer impede your movement or desire for exploration. Jump over that wall. Climb that mountain. Pick some flowers. Stare way too long at that entrancingly beautiful glowing tree in the distance. Elden Ring empowers you to explore every nook and cranny of its world — and explore you should.
I’m also happy to report that this big, open world is full of interesting things to see and do. Even big, flat areas often have groups of patrolling enemies or even more intriguing set encounters like giant creatures pulling an oversized cart. The top of a certain hill may constantly get struck with lightning bolts that present both a danger and an opportunity to gather specific materials. Numerous enemy encampments force you to stop and plan your attack. Hidden caves and mines abound, most with their own unique mini-boss at the end. And nearly every single one of these things are worth exploring and completing, as they frequently reward items needed for upgrades to weapons and other items in your repertoire.
In fact, I’d recommend exploring as much as you can. The upgrades you find will make your life a lot easier in the long run. Since the game doesn’t physically block your progression into later zones most of the time, enterprising and brave players should seriously consider venturing into those more difficult areas earlier than the game leads you there. A quick dash in and out on your mount can let you snag some very useful items that will help keep you ahead of the difficulty curve a bit. Being able to loot items while both in the saddle and running is incredibly useful, and most ground loot is easy to see by the glowing light emanating from it.
The addition of a sneak mechanic also assists with getting in and out of tight places. Simply clicking the left analog stick causes your character to crouch and walk slowly, similar to Sekiro. Unlike in Sekiro, though, you have no idea or indication that the enemy has seen you until they actually react and move towards you.
You can indeed let sleeping giants (or bears) lie on several occasions by sneaking in quietly to grab the loot right next to them. Sneaking is also helpful when attacking enemy outposts. If you sneak up behind an enemy undetected, you can backstab them for a critical strike, which is often a one-hit kill. The game even gives you the opportunity to sneak by large enemies in enclosed dungeon scenarios, which I tried whenever possible. In Elden Ring, you don’t always have to kill everything or sprint through the level with a train of 20 enemies chasing you. In my opinion, the enemies are a little too blind, and their detection radius is a little too small, but since that’s the way they made the game, I’m sure going to take advantage of it.
Questing and NPC interactions
Dark Souls fans are used to the games not really explaining anything or giving explicit objectives. While Elden Ring does start with more exposition and story than most of the previous games, it’s also still obtuse at times — almost painfully so. More so than the previous titles, Elden Ring frequently locks story progression and crucial systems and upgrades behind conversations with NPCs who inhabit the game. So, please take this as friendly advice: If you’re ever not sure what to do or where to go, visit all of the NPCs you’ve met thus far, and see if they have any additional conversation options. At one point, I even visited the very first NPC I met, way back outside the starting area, and he had some helpful information for me. Most of the time, though, the game doesn’t do a good job of leading you to these conversations naturally — you just sort of have to keep checking from time to time.
With that caveat in mind, Elden Ring does give you a fair amount of things to do and explore. Somewhat surprisingly, it even sometimes marks specific destinations on your map for you. More frequently, though, you’ll just have a conversation with an NPC, and they’ll ask you to find a specific person or venture to a specific place. Once you get there, you tend to either pick up an item or just trigger a part of the story that unlocks new conversations. Because I’m terrible at remembering the details of conversations, I found myself unlocking things without knowing I unlocked them until I spoke to the right person. So again, keep talking to people if you want to progress.
In terms of the main questline, Elden Ring keeps you moving in the correct general direction by way of glowing lines that emanate from the Sites of Grace (this game’s version of Dark Souls’ bonfires). These point you to the next closest Site of Grace. If you progress through these in order, they’ll keep you moving toward the primary story goals.
Other additions and improvements
Weapons now come in two basic types: normal and special. Upgrading a normal weapon requires one type of smithing stone to upgrade, and special weapons (these are the unique weapons with built-in special effects) require a different type. Good riddance to needing different materials for different damage or scaling affinities (fire, sacred, heavy, keen, etc.). Once you level up a weapon, it stays at that level.
In place of leveling each weapon down a particular set path like in previous games, you now have Ashes of War. These allow you to accomplish two things: First, they let you change a weapon’s special attack (usually performed by holding L2 while two-handing the weapon) to any special attack you have both found the Ashes of War for and that fits the weapon type. The second thing you can do is change the affinity of a weapon based on the Ashes you assign to it.
For example, I found a Sacred Blade Ashes of War which not only allowed me to change the special attack to casting a spell that imbued my weapon with Holy Energy for a short period of time, but it also allowed me to switch the permanent affinity of the weapon to Sacred. This made it do extra Holy damage that scaled with my Faith stat. And perhaps the best part about this: You can swap out Ashes of War and change affinities any time you visit the blacksmith. No more wasted upgrade materials for trying out different weapons with different affinities.
Another thing I really had fun with were the Spirit Summons. These are items you can obtain that summon spectral friends to help you in difficult fights. They’re sort of an on-demand NPC summons with the restriction that you can only use them in certain places. If you ever see an icon that looks like a tombstone appear on the center-left side of your screen, that’s the game telling you Spirit Summons are available. Some of these summons are more useful than others. My favorites were the Fanged Imps, which had both ranged attacks and vicious melee weapons that made enemies bleed, and the Lone Wolves, which summons a trio of agile beasts that jump and run all over the place while furiously biting enemies.
The last thing I’d like to mention is that, in addition to all weapons having a special attack now, all of the various spells (sorceries and incantations) in the game now have a special “charge” ability. This makes it more powerful in a way unique to that spell. If you hold down the button you use to cast the spell, it makes do more damage or add additional effects. For example, the Rejection incantation (which normally just produces a small knockback effect) can throw an enemy combatant off of their mount when fully charged. The really great thing about charging a spell is that it doesn’t cost any more FP to use. The tradeoff, of course, is it takes longer to cast, which can sometimes be to your detriment when you’re in a close combat situation.
What I didn’t like
On a personal note, I really wish the in-game help included a list of the various status icons that appear under your health, stamina, and FP bars. I played for over 50 hours on one character that had a completely unexplained red box with a down arrow that I only found out was some sort of persistent HP debuff after I unequipped everything and started comparing my current stats to the base stats shown on the level up screen. I still have zero idea where I got this from or why it stayed with me the entire game.
Elden Ring also has a crafting system. While this is usually an expected staple for modern RPGs, I don’t feel like it added much other than providing a cheap and easy way to obtain the item needed for co-op multiplayer. Yes, you can make things like arrows and poison cures, but more often than not, I found myself just buying these. Arrows, in particular, require animal bones and feathers (if you want to actually fletch the arrows), and I just didn’t have the patience to amass these. It was much faster for me to just kill some things that gave me more runes (Elden Ring’s version of souls from Dark Souls — the currency you gain and lose frequently by dying) and buy a pile of arrows from a vendor. Aside from the various animal parts, though, the various plants and herbs are plentiful and easy to gather, and they respawn whenever you fast travel or rest at a Site of Grace. I’m sure some people will appreciate this system, but I didn’t.
Another thing that fell flat for me was the Flask of Wondrous Physick. This is a single-use potion you can customize with various effects which include restoring health and FP, temporary stat increases, and even creating explosions. To me, this seemed more gimmicky than anything else, and I only used it once during my time with the game. The rest of the time, I usually just didn’t bother with it.
Finally, the Great Runes, although important to the story, seemed like they could’ve used some more thought. Not only do you have to defeat major bosses to obtain these, but you also have to complete quests to unlock them before you can equip them. And even when you equip them, you can’t actually use them without expending a rare and expensive consumable item. And once you use them, you lose the effects if you die. While I do see the value in the powerful boosts these give you, the game almost made me afraid to use them, especially right after I got the first one, for fear of making a dumb yet costly mistake.
My nitpicking aside, Elden Ring has absolutely given me more enjoyment than I’ve had with a game in a long while, and it has edged out the Demon’s Souls remake for my favorite game on the PlayStation 5. It even looks almost as good as Demon’s Souls, though I do understand why the developer had to reign in the level of detail just a bit because Elden Ring is many times larger and has much more visible on the screen at any given time.
Maybe I’m just becoming jaded by all the games lately that I think were overhyped and then underdelivered, but Elden Ring is a rare example of a game that grabbed ahold me and won’t let go. I’m joyfully exploring every inch of the land and delighting in my discoveries, and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.
Elden Ring will be available globally Friday, February 25 on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. The publisher provided a PlayStation 5 code for the purpose of this review.