‘Elden Ring’ closed network test impressions: FromSoftware in fine form

Game of Souls

It’s bonkers to think that, from humble beginnings, we’re getting a FromSoftware game next year that has had mythological consultation from George “Game Of Thrones” R.R. Martin. From Dark Souls to Bloodborne, the worlds crafted by this illustrious studio are some of the hottest properties in modern fantasy, but you don’t have to settle for simply observing them. In a game like Elden Ring, you engage directly with every swing of your sword.

What really startles me about FromSoftware is how mechanically brave they are as a studio. If they were under the cosh of some money-grubbing publisher, I’m sure we’d be onto Dark Souls 8 right now, and they’d have squeezed every last drop out of Lordran. Instead, they just hone in on weaknesses in their own design school and take bold steps away from the source material.

Bloodborne said “fuck your shields”, and Sekiro said “fuck everything you know about Dark Souls” and they were both still utterly incredible games. I’m not yet convinced that Elden Ring is good enough to surpass the above, but it’s ambitious, challenging and weird in all of the ways that I wanted it to be.

If I wanted to really sell this to someone like I was working the front desk at GAME, I would say that Elden Ring plays like Dark Souls but feels more like Breath of the Wild. You ride around on horseback in a gigantic open world, which you can approach in any way you like. As a mysterious exile, you collect fruit from trees and bones from animals to craft items and upgrade your skills, working your way through the challenging environment and resting at spots of grace, which you can fast-travel between to get around.

My first worry about this shift in approach was that it would mean we’d say goodbye to the claustrophobic dungeons of yore, and interiors in general. I’m pleased to say that’s not the case – there are plenty of little caves and dilapidated buildings to explore where you’ll fight freaky, awkward beasts that came from a place between dreams and nightmares.

Elden Ring
Elden Ring. Credit: FromSoftware

Seriously, the monsters in this game are cooked. There’s one called the Burial Tree Watchdog, except it’s a big fire-breathing stone cat with a cape and collar that lives in a hall of bones. You might think it’s easy to beat because of its appropriately rigid animations, but the bed-wetting terror this thing instilled in me meant it took a while. And it’s not even the most unsettling fucker in the game – there’s this gurgling octopus monster with the beak of a bird that I’m probably going to talk to my therapist about.

On the other hand, you’ve got the more Soulsian Tree Sentinel with its fluid mounted attacks that slip so carefully in between your guard. It’s here where you can spot the small ways in which Elden Ring pulls away carefully from Dark Souls with its hybrid combat. Shields are back in a big way so there’s plenty of blocking and circling to score a critical (cheers, years of muscle memory) but you’ll also be expected to jump, dodge and counter with the pace of Sekiro.

The blend is mostly successful and propped up by some cheesy new additions like the weapon arts (swords that can lightning strike enemies from a distance? yes please!) and literal summoning. Yes, you can just yeet out some wolves to attack your enemies, if you please.

So far the mana pool has felt strangely forgiving, and you can replenish it by whacking dung beetles and clearing out nests of enemies in the open world, which is nice. There are also non-magical weapon arts that make your character take special stances, opening up unique attacks. This all suggests that PVP is going to be bonkers, and I can’t wait to see videos of players finessing enemies as they come to master the combat.

Elden Ring environments
Elden Ring. Credit: FromSoftware

The story is some intriguing finger maiden foolery, and the NPCs who deliver it are all dodgy gits who talk with all the clarity of a befuddled politician, so not much change there. The world is drop-dead gorgeous too, with a framerate that is mostly fluid with a few dips on PS5. Little animations and effects shine, like the sparks shooting out of your sword as you drag it along a stone bridge and swipe up to take down a mounted soldier.

As you might surmise, the big question here is balance. Previous Soulsborne games have been curated experiences with some illusion of player choice. There are hard walls, but you sometimes get the precious ability to pivot if you’re really stuck. In Elden Ring, the world seems to be fully open from the get-go, and even after exploring most of Limgrave, I’m not really sure how that’s going to shake out in the full game, which will be even bigger.

You can quite easily ride through some of Elden Ring’s major obstacles on your double-jumping horse and rush to a grace spot. This will give you a fast-travel point beyond a battle that you probably should have fought. It meant I was able to zip to the geographical end of the demo pretty quickly, even though there was no way I was beating the boss that sits there without some training first. The thing that concerns me about this is that I was compelled to do so in the first place, which suggests I was getting a bit bored with the dynamics of Elden Ring’s open world.

I’m going to put it down to the fact that I was only able to play Elden Ring in spats of hours at absurd times, so I just wanted to see as much as I can. Ultimately, the open-world approach has made the difficulty feel less flat, and I’m not sure how I feel about the resulting gameplay loop. Breath Of The Wild found this balance beautifully, but I have reservations about a Dark Souls game doing the same.

Whether Elden Ring manages this or not, I will be playing it. It’s a fascinating game, an atmospheric triumph with plenty of nooks and crannies that I’m compelled to go and die in. Will it maintain my interest long-term compared to the other games? That’s another story, but Elden Ring is mechanically sound and aesthetically striking, so if you’re a fan of the formula, I can say with confidence that it’s going to be worth playing regardless.

Elden Ring is set to launch on February 25, 2022 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and PC. These impressions are from playtime on the PS5. 

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