‘Elden Ring’ preview: this could be FromSoftware’s best game yet

'Elden Ring' takes an open-world gamble that pays off massively

Hidetaka Miyazaki has been chatting a whole lot about accessibility in the run-up to Elden Ring. Recently, the legendary creator of the Souls genre touched on wanting to welcome new players to Elden Ring without sacrificing any of the classic FromSoftware difficulty that it’s notorious for.

Before my own hands-on with Elden Ring, I’d been musing on Miyazaki’s comments. Is it possible to make a game easier, without really making it easier? For a pleb like me, probably not. For Miyazaki? That’s another matter entirely.

Within the first few minutes of Elden Ring – which included an introductory cutscene that ranks right up there with the first Dark Souls‘ intro – my question was answered and yes, Miyazaki is probably a better designer than me. Go figure.

Elden Ring
Elden Ring. Credit: FromSoftware.

Elden Ring‘s tutorial offers one of the best teaching systems in a FromSoftware game to date. All you’ve got to do is listen to a ghost who tells you to jump into a pit, and voila: you’re taking your first baby steps into the world of Souls, learning to backstab, dodge and fight with the best of ’em. It feels like a lot of thought has been put into making sure players understand the mechanics of a Souls game before they’re set loose in the new big, scary world. Later on, I noticed that lots of new features in Elden Ring get tidy explanations whenever they’re introduced, and things like crafting and summoning slot nicely in without causing any extra confusion.

With my tutorial accomplished, it was time to experience some real magic. The shock of stepping out from that opening cavern felt like it hit me physically: without mincing words, Elden Ring‘s open-world is gorgeous. The environment spans much further than the ones that fans might be used to, but Elden Ring hasn’t lost any of the Souls magic that makes every location feels tangibly, physically connected, no matter how far apart they lie.

Speaking of that open-world, FromSoftware has done a fantastic job of transitioning the fairly linear Dark Souls experience into a huge, explorable setting. Resting at Sites of Grace, Elden Ring’s answer to bonfires,  gives you a small pointer in which direction you should go next, and although you’re under no obligation to do that, it’s nice that there’s a path in place to keep you moving in the right direction.

Elden Ring. Credit: FromSoftware
Elden Ring. Credit: FromSoftware

For me, that path took me through a camp of well-armoured soldiers. It’s here that I noticed a bit more of George R.R. Martin’s influence – faded family crests adorn the tents and banners, and the camp’s medieval atmosphere feels like it would’ve been right at home as a set in Game Of Thrones. As I stalked through the camp, sticking to overgrown grass and only springing out to backstab unsuspecting troops, I was quite surprised by how much Elden Ring has taken from Sekiro. Stealth feels completely at home here, and there’s a grim satisfaction in knowing that every clean takedown saves me a fight that could very easily risk my progress. Elden Ring pushes a lot of fresh ideas, but it’s comforting to know that elements from each of FromSoftware’s soulslikes are exerting their influence here. Whether you’ve been eagerly devouring them since Demon Souls or only got hooked with Sekiro or Bloodborne, there will be something familiar for you to latch onto here.

As I worked my way through occupied lands, I started drawing closer to a stone fortress that dominated the scenery. As much as FromSoftware knows how to pull off a good boss fight, it also knows how to build a badass gothic castle – quite the CV, to be honest.

If you’ve ever glanced over that CV, you’ll know exactly what was in that castle: a big bastard of a boss. I called him many names during our numerous meetings, but his actual name is Margit. Miyazaki recently said that FromSoftware basically just fucked up George R.R. Martin’s creations to turn them into boss fights, and Margit’s living proof of that. Adorned in an equal amount of tentacles, armour, and magical weapons, Margit looks like Tolkein and Lovecraft took turns kicking the shit out of a Game Of Thrones book until something crawled out.

Elden Ring environments
Elden Ring. Credit: FromSoftware

Violence begets violence, and soon it was this hulking monstrosity’s turn to kick the shit out of me. The usual Dark Souls tricks – quietly weathering a boss fight to learn its moves and slowly chipping away at its health – wasn’t working as well as I’d have expected to, and Margit was far and away tougher than any of the other introductory Souls bosses to date. That being said, I’ve got to admit that beneath my layers of masochistic joy and adrenaline, I was developing some affection. Margit looked fantastic, but even more importantly, he was testing me as if I was already 20 hours into the game. I loved it. Several times in the fight, I was caught off guard by the fluidity of Margit’s animations: when I tried to fight him with help he would seamlessly weave his attacks between both of us, including an impressive moment where, whilst preparing to swing his sword at my ally, Margit – in the same movement – drew a magical dagger and threw it straight into my chest.

In regards to summoning help, it’s definitely noticeable that Elden Ring is much more accommodating to co-op play. You don’t need to use up humanity or anything to summon in help, and NPC summons are always available outside of instanced bosses. Whenever I’ve gone through Dark Souls with pals it’s always been weirdly convoluted, so I’m glad that this has been done away with. Even making full use of an NPC summon, I found Margit to be immensely challenging.

In other FromSoftware games I would have kept throwing myself at Margit until one of us cracked. In Elden Ring, I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Unlike other games, Margit wasn’t the sole opponent between myself and progress: there was a whole other world behind me, and one that I couldn’t quite get out of my mind. Recently, NME columnist Vikki Blake wrote a fantastic column about defining progress as whatever we enjoyed doing, and for me, that involved wandering the world of Elden Ring to soak up as much as I could. Every so often I swung back to have another few goes at the boss fights, but I’d never last long before vanishing into the open-world once again.

Elden Ring
Elden Ring. Credit: FromSoftware

From craggy cliffs to those god-damned poison swamps, there was just so much to take in. There was one unremarkable bridge that I passed several times without drama, until I happened to travel over it at night. At that moment in time, I found my way barred by a boss that looked every inch of a Ringwraith atop his black steed, and spent the next few minutes trying to cut him to pieces from atop my own horse. Details like that – as well as shifting weather – did lots to bring the world of Elden Ring to life, even if it did ironically bring me countless deaths.

My biggest takeaway from Elden Ring is that FromSoftware has done an amazing job at giving players more ways to approach its difficulty without making any compromises: it felt like there were far more ways to tackle its challenges, and it was freeing to be able to leave a boss until I could come back stronger and better prepared. The resulting game is the “usual” FromSoftware title gone wild, amped up on player freedom and teeming with possibility – and I can’t wait to go back.

Elden Ring launches on February 25 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. We previewed the game on PC. 

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