There’s a lot of debate over whether Elden Ring is FromSoftware’s best soulsborne, but what’s certainly true is that it is by far the studio’s most flexible RPG. Its systems are broader than a sailor’s chest, bringing together concepts from all previous From games and adding a heap of new ideas on top. Strength builds, dex builds, magic builds, faith builds, spirit summons, ashes of war, and enough weapons to equip an entire army of Tarnished. It allows players to create whatever character they want (and inevitably suffer the consequences of those decisions down the line.)
But my favourite new mechanic in Elden Ring is Guard Counters. These are weapon-specific ripostes designed to be used when equipping a shield. Press the attack button immediately after an enemy strikes your shield, and your character will unleash a powerful counterattack that has a high stun chance, letting you close in for a devastating critical strike.
I like Guard Counters for several reasons. To start with, they make using a shield much more fun and reactive than in any of the Dark Souls games. They’re also useful for dealing with annoying enemies that like to windmill you with quick attacks, such as the puppets that prowl areas like Caelid and Liurnia, and the imps that harass you throughout the game’s many subterranean tombs. But my favourite thing about Guard Counters is how they prep you for mastering the trickiest mechanic in any FromSoft game – parrying.
For those who don’t know – parrying unlocks the easiest route through any FromSoft RPG – if you can master it. Like Guard Counters, parrying involves tapping a button at a specific moment during an enemy’s attack. Only this time, you’re tapping the block button as the enemy attack is about to hit you. Get it right, and you’ll instantly open your foe up for a critical strike. Get it wrong, and you’ll have a nice big chunk shaved off your health bar.
My relationship with parrying in FromSoft games is turbulent to say the least. I got a good enough handle on it in the original Dark Souls, but muddled through Bloodborne with a highly intermittent parry. Sekiro saw the height of my parrying prowess, though only because I had no choice but to learn it. Elden Ring is by far the most I’ve struggled with parrying, to the point where I all but gave up on using it.
Then I started experimenting with Guard Counters, and realised how they are essentially designed to prime you for learning to parry. Like parrying, Guard Counters are timing based, but they remove the threat of losing big chunks of health if you get your timing wrong, instead shifting that burden onto your stamina bar, which is much easier to replenish. In this way, they help you build the confidence needed to enact timing-based abilities in a From Game, much like training wheels on a bike.
Once you feel confident enough to start experimenting with parrying, Guard Counters are always there as a fallback, particularly if you’re using your shield to parry as well. Muck up your parry a couple of times while fighting a boss or a tough enemy, and you can revert back to blocking and countering until you feel comfortable lowering your guard again.
It’s worth noting at this point that Guard Counters are not simply parrying on easy mode. Everything comes with a price in Elden Ring, and the price for using Guard Counters is that they are slightly slower than parries, with a brief window of vulnerability between the block and the counter. This means it’s still possible to take damage if your opponent recovers from the block quick enough (or if you’re fighting multiple foes at once). Also, unlike parries, Guard Counters are not guaranteed to stun your opponent. It may take several attempts to trigger a stun depending on their posture stat.
Nonetheless, Guard Counters do help to make Elden Ring more accessible, which is indicative of the game’s broader design thrust. Elden Ring is all about giving players as many tools as possible to help them defeat the game’s legion of tough and tricky opponents, but without artificially turning down the game’s difficulty. FromSoft’s design ethos has always been about meeting its challenges head-on. But over the years the studio has become better at ensuring that the toolset is broad enough to accommodate as many people as possible with viable routes through the game. Guard Counters are ultimately just a small part of this, but they are also, arguably, the most interesting.
If you enjoyed this column, check out last week’s System Shack – where Rick explores the joy of Halo Infinite’s grappling hook.