‘Elden Ring’ hides From Software’s best lore behind its most formulaic set up

The loathsome opinion haver

Every death in a Soulsborne game is canon, and as a canon event, action adventure hack ‘em up Demon’s Souls‘ first death is a darkly comedic jolt, a fat sharpie rudely scribbling out the opening page of a hero’s journey. That first scripted splattering at the meaty fists of the Vanguard, and the subsequent soul-binding ritual at the Nexus, introduced what would become one of Soulsborne’s most enduring themes: Servitude dressed up as destiny and sold to a protagonist suckered into a temp role as a godslaying contract killer, eager to play along under vague promises of fated heroism.

A cynical twist, delivered with a grin, on both fantasy tropes and videogame agency that the series would riff on time and again, and one approached with a realist lens that would harmonise nicely with the studio’s future George RR Martin collaboration – who famously said that Lord of The Rings left him asking what Aragorn’s tax policy was. Stroll into a cursed land full of self-serving schemers with full plate armour and a martyr complex, and it scans that someone is going to notice the Quixotic naivete behind your Sisyphean determination, and send you out to do their dirty work. I cannot express how much I love that some of the most absorbing fantasy worlds in the last ten years of gaming repeatedly cast you as a useful idiot

Dark Souls’ first death hits offscreen, somewhere between finalising character creation and the first frames of our well-chewed chosen undead slumped in a cell. The undead asylum drips with purgatorial foreboding, a creation myth that begins at the end of the world. Bloodborne’s first death pulled us into a dream that felt more stable than the waking world, and Sekiro’s first death instilled the inklings of unshakeable guilt as we spread suffering with every resurrection.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Credit: Activision

Elden Ring’s first death is a fine mechanical teacher, but it feels like going through the motions, as if Soulsborne is a waiter exhausted from reading off the same set menu. After four settings that weave their rules of play into their mythologies, blood and souls and bonfires, Elden Ring is clearly in a hurry to switch out some proper nouns and get you out in the open as soon as possible.

It’s an understandable direction. This is, after all, FromSoftware’s first crack at the vaunted open world reveal, their Oblivion or BOTW moment. And, as far as “See that mountain? You can piss on it” moments go, opening that first door to Limgrave is a beauty. I can’t blame the game for getting overexcited, but in sacrificing its opening moments, it cheapens the reveal. Elden Ring rushes through a shallow riff on the Undead Asylum, then a noticeably gamified tutorial in the ‘Cave of Knowledge’ (from the Kingdom of Brightness sliders, right next to the Castle of Analogue Stick Calibration), and boots you out into the open. A new painted world, introduced in the broadest strokes.

The broad stroke, in this case, being “find ring, sit on chair”, as if the game took the meme about Soulsborne giving you a stick and telling you to go kill god seriously. I like that meme, but it overlooks why I’ll sometimes boot up Dark Souls just to walk through the Undead Asylum again, just to tumble down to Firelink on fated talons. Or Bloodborne, just to step out into Yharnam’s streets for the first time. I’m going to stop getting angry at a meme for not accurately capturing my deeply personal experience with a complicated game now, but the point is this: Way before Dark Souls told you to kill four gods, it asked you to ring two bells: “Ring them both, and something happens… Brilliant, right?”

Elden Ring Godrick
Elden Ring. Credit: FromSoftware.

But it was brilliant. A concrete direction wrapped in foreboding vagaries. A helping hand disguised as an insulting dismissal. Pass me the aux cord at the party, and I will play Elden Ring’s intro cinematic on repeat, and I will accidentally fist pump at least two people in the skull. But Soulsborne never needed fanfare or grand portents. Those bells were a non-quest laid out by a sardonic, defeated warrior, exhausted from giving the same spiel to the ill-fated hollows who came before us. Tracking them down was a chance to explore and progress without performing mythical heroism on a grand scale, and because of it, Lordran crackled with electric intangibility.

Limgrave is, at least until you explore the rest of Elden Ring’s stunning world, FromSoft’s most impressively vertical topography to date. But for all its verticality, its coastlines and catacombs, cliff faces that feel weathered rather than sculpted, Limgrave feels spirituality flattened by its perfunctory introduction as an explicit playspace. A nearby merchant laments a land tainted by madness, but Limgrave, to me, felt more like a Soulsborne theme park, a stunningly intricate panorama on a laminated postcard. Follow the signs to the first demi-god.

No matter what type of character you choose, you are going to spend most of your time as a slightly classier variant of the beloved murderhobo: the patented Soulsborne murder archaeologist. You kill and loot, loot and kill, but you also occasionally stop to study the history of a talisman you found dropped in a urinal behind an illusory wall. It’s traditional that the most interesting stuff in Soulsborne happens decades before you turn up to murder every old man with a tragic backstory. But I feel Elden Ring loses something precious by forgoing plot for pure mythology and lore.

Elden Ring
Elden Ring. Credit: FromSoftware

Still, this worldbuilding is the most fascinating it’s ever been. If Souls and Bloodborne were fables, Elden Ring is a dogeared fantasy novel, thick enough to murder a turtle with. I’ve heard the idea floated around that George RR Martin was a name to stick on the box, rather than a major contributor. This is a bizarre take to me, as it should be to anyone familiar with both parties. Martin’s fingerprints are evident in the deeply complex interpersonal relationships between demigods, just as FromSoft’s are in the dozens of tragic and charming character vignettes.

That classic Soulsborne rug pull I mentioned up top? It happens in Elden Ring, it just takes a lot of piecing disparate snatches of lore together, and a few end-game dialogues. It’s a doozy, too; one that allows you to spend hours mentally forging your own significance in the phrase ‘Elden Lord’, before revealing it to be a position of vassalage to the same interests that doomed the world in the first place. It might, on reflection, be the meanest and smartest iteration of this idea so far. ‘On reflection’ is key though. I had to learn to love Elden Ring through a gradual process, to appreciate its ideas, where Bloodborne and Sekiro and Souls intoxicated from the off with their openings. Having a sunset described to you isn’t the same thing as seeing one, after all.

Honestly, we don’t deserve Elden Ring. It’s so good and huge that despite paying full price on release day, I still feel like I owe FromSoft money. It’s packed with the best mythology the studio has ever created, and some of the most heartbreaking stories it’s ever penned. It’s got jars for days. But when the most enduring thing about the introduction to such a remarkably realised world is a meme about maidens, I can’t help but feel Soulsborne has taken a noticeable step backwards in something it’s absolutely nailed in the past. And if Elden Ring is, as many critics were quick to label it, the culmination of everything FromSoft have learned, then I can only conclude that something I personally cherish about their older titles – those wonderfully curated, foreboding introductions – were an easily discarded afterthought. Finger, but hole? Fine. Cool. Just buy me dinner first, yeah?

Elden Ring is available on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S.

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