When you take your first, nervous steps into Elden Ring and take stock of your surroundings, it’s hard not to imagine the last three years as an imagined fever dream. Far from the vast open-world environment that was promised, your journey begins in a cramped, subterranean cavern. There’s no horse, no breathtaking views – just you, your sword, and the gloom. As you approach the cave’s hefty stone door, you get the sense that something’s about to change, that something special is within touching distance. Stepping through that door, I felt all of this and more. My expectations were higher than ever, and I still had no idea that Elden Ring was about to shatter every single one.
What makes Elden Ring so special? The game’s open world, the Lands Between. This is without a doubt the biggest change to the Souls formula that FromSoftware has added to the mix: past titles have extended some leniency as to which areas you explored first, but it’s nothing in the face of Elden Ring‘s dizzying scale. In terms of progression, there’s no rigid order in how you can tackle the world’s main bosses, meaning you’re free to take in the world’s offerings at your own pace.
The most impressive part of the Lands Between is just how sharp and refined it feels. Far from the somewhat bloated state of many open-world games today – awash in endless collectables and sprawling, empty maps – Elden Ring‘s universe feels precise and surgical. For anyone willing to tread from the beaten path, there are plenty of dingy caves to spelunk and trap-riddled catacombs to dodge roll through, but what’s particularly impressive is that every one of these explorations gives you a reward. Every innocuous crevice can hide secret traders, spectacular boss fights, and powerful items – in short, something worth experiencing – which makes adventuring through Elden Ring‘s gorgeous world even more compelling.
That’s not to say that FromSoftware has forgotten its roots, which – of course – involve repeatedly beating you to death in more linear, finely-crafted levels. Across the world of Elden Ring, huge legacy dungeons dominate the scenery: self-contained areas that are so well-done they feel like standalone Dark Souls games in their own right. Most adventurers (myself included) will be led to the humungous Stormveil Castle as their first dungeon, a foreboding fortress that, on the gothic-o-meter, is up there with Robert Smith cracking open a can of Monster Energy with Edgar Allan Poe. It’s breathtaking to look upon, and thanks to its unfriendly occupants, it took me hours to cut my way through here.
The whole time, I was admiring how cerebral the dungeon felt. Claustrophic stone corridors weave seamlessly with panoramic battlements and wide courtyards, and there’s rarely such a thing as a dead end: by the time I stepped through the final fog gate to take on the castle’s final boss, I’d clocked several other branching pathways that could’ve delivered me here much faster (or safer) if I’d probed in other directions.
This held up in my second legacy dungeon, a beautiful magical academy where the game director and FromSoftware president Hidetaka Miyazaki asks one question: what if Hogwarts had a failing OFSTED grade? These legacy dungeons radiate the rhythm of a Souls game – try and try again, and eventually you’ll survive – and feel every bit as substantial and dense as entire areas of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, albeit webbed with even more verticality and room for exploration.
As you’d expect, these dungeons harbour some ruthless bosses. I’ve already discussed at length my experience of being battered and shamed by Margit, but since then I’ve done some Souls-searching and formed a new philosophy: the art of Fucking Things Up With The Uchigatana. The bleed-inducing katana has been my favourite weapon since the first Dark Souls, and luckily the Samurai class lets you wield it from the get-go. I’d like to say that this changed my luck with bosses dramatically – and it’s partly true, I made short work of Margit – but the statement would be a disservice to the other hours of blood, sweat and tears that were endured behind fog gates now seared into my retinas.
As a general rule, the bosses within those legacy dungeons were significantly more challenging than any of the optional bosses I found lurking elsewhere in the world. That’s no backhanded compliment – the surprisingly numerous open-world bosses were still incredibly creative and a masochistic pleasure to die to – but the sheer spectacle of these “main” bosses deserve heaps of praise. Each one I’ve fought had dramatic twists that bring to mind the first shocking (ha) time I saw Smough turning Ornstein’s body to mushy paste, and gorgeous cinematography – something FromSoftware perfected with Sekiro – make these moments hit with all the force of a strength-specced sledgehammer.
On the subject of these challenging boss fights, Miyazaki has talked at length about how FromSoftware has taken another look at its notorious penchant for difficulty. Have no fear – to cut to the chase, this hasn’t made the studio’s iconic bosses any easier. In fact, I’d go out on a limb to say that I found the typical legacy dungeon bosses, on average, to be more challenging than many Souls bosses. However, Miyazaki is a man of his word – though Elden Ring‘s boss fights and dungeons may not be outright easier, there are more ways for players to tackle their challenges.
Particularly difficult areas will let you dabble in necromancy to call for support, summoning the spirits of long-gone humans and creatures to fight for you. There’s less of FromSoftware’s strange restrictions for online play, and inviting other players to come and help you out no longer means staying topped up on humanity. Most areas – particularly in the open-world – are designed to support a stealthy approach, and there were a few tough spots where I opted to carefully sneak through rather than belligerently batter every living thing in sight. As a result, Elden Ring isn’t just more accessible – being able to take a flexible approach to so many situations makes it a better, more robust game.
Elden Ring‘s difficulty isn’t the only thing that’s been made more accessible – for a FromSoftware title, the plot is surprisingly coherent. George R.R. Martin‘s characters may have been warped beyond recognition for boss fights, but the world’s rich history – a tapestry of medieval warfare, dramatic marriages and bold power plays – still has the author’s bloody handprints all over it. I’m sure there are still stacks of lore for keener fans than me to pour over, but it’s refreshing to glean so much insight into the world from talking to the Lands Between’s friendlier citizens, rather than having to rely on a YouTuber spending an hour on the lore implications of a single item’s description.
Trying to summarise all of Elden Ring‘s successes, trying to pinpoint why it feels so special, is a gargantuan task. There’s a sublime open-world, and FromSoftware has made some incredibly innovative changes to its difficulty, but that’s not quite it. Yes, there’s now an accessible plot and yes, the boss fights could rank as some of FromSoftware’s best. But that’s still not it. Elden Ring is Miyazaki’s masterpiece not because of any one improvement, but because it’s a towering sum of its parts. It’s been tens of hours since I first stepped foot into the Lands Between, and I still can’t quite believe how monumentally it delivers.
FromSoftware’s most ambitious title yet, Elden Ring is a glowing spectacle of achievement. A refined open-world format adds unimagined wonder to the game, whilst legacy dungeons will likely go down as some of FromSoftware’s best level design. Beyond that, there are so many improvements to the Souls formula that make this an essential play for fans – this is a game that brings so much to the table, yet somehow leaves nothing out.
- Elden Ring‘s open-world looks gorgeous, and remains consistently rewarding to explore
- Legacy dungeons are a feat in level design, supremely challenging yet never unfair
- Boss fights are cinematic spectacles that push you to your absolute limit
- New ways to deal with tough situations brings a deeper layer of problem solving
- Horse combat can feel a little bit clunky