Elden Ring Review: Dark Souls 4, but Open World

Elden Ring is probably the one game in recent history that has come close to matching Cyberpunk 2077 in hype pre-release. From the moment the teaser trailer was shown several years ago, this game’s release was something a ton of people were looking forward to. The main difference between Elden Ring and Cyberpunk 2077? FromSoftware kept their lips shut about the most of the development process, preventing the gaming community from developing false expectations (outside of hyping themselves up irrationally), and delivered an actual, finished product. The end result? Elden Ring not only met my expectations; it crushed them. It is easily the best game I have played this year, and might be one of the best games I have played since FromSoftware’s last release of Sekiro pre-pandemic.

Before I jump into review the actual game itself, I need to point out Elden Ring’s performance issues on PC, which is probably the biggest flaw about the game currently. Its performance leaves a lot to be desired, and I don’t know if them including EASY anti-cheat for whatever reason has a part to play in it, but FromSoftware have definitely regressed as far as PC ports are concerned (Sekiro gave me absolutely no issues after a driver update). Even with the latest drivers, I sometimes get stutters both in-game and in cutscenes depending on the area, and particle effects can sometimes drop my FPS to below 60. The fact Elden Ring doesn’t support 144 FPS without a mod is already questionable (but I can ignore it), but I should not be having performance problems with a 3080TI and Ryzen 7 5800x, which are basically top-of-the-line specs. Actual in-game performance aside, Elden Ring’s netcode is also terrible, and in my opinion even worse than the netcode in Dark Souls 3. Online multiplayer with other players often feels pretty laggy, and random disconnects from sessions happen way too frequently, and I don’t even have cross-region matchmaking enabled. Sometimes, my game even freezes when trying to load into someone else’s world, and I am forced to kill the game via Task Manager. These issues, while likely fixable with updates, are still detrimental to the user experience and put a blemish on what would otherwise be a phenomenal experience.

Elden Ring is so mainstream I see it on buildings in New York City

The premise of the game is basically Dark Souls but in a different universe. The world, known as the Lands Between, has gone to shit for various reasons, and it’s up to the player character, known as a Tarnished, to gather the pieces of the Elden Ring from various demigods and restore order to the decaying world.

Gameplay:

Elden Ring is basically Dark Souls 3 but with jumping and set in an open world environment. A lot of the combat animations for the player character are very similar, if not already identical to what’s in Dark Souls 3, so veterans of the franchise will feel right at home as far as combat is concerned, and the combat has always been my favorite part about FromSoftware games. Compared to most other mainstream action games, Elden Ring’s combat is a lot slower and more deliberate, with attacking, blocking, dodging, jumping, and running all sharing the same resource pool that is stamina. You can’t spam attacks endlessly, because you’ll run out of stamina to avoid an enemy’s counterattack, so on and so forth. The fact there are also few “animation cancels” (cancelling an animation by using another input) also means that most actions are commitments, so deciding when to attack actually requires some thought.

The two biggest changes between Elden Ring and Dark Souls 3 are jumping (as a dedicated input and not just off of a sprint) and Torrent the steed, and I think both additions are fantastic additions to the Souls combat system. Jumping enables more options in fights as jump attacks are viable, and even jumping to dodge certain attacks work too. The player character being able to jump also enables the developers to add verticality to the level design, and there are definitely a few platforming challenges found in the game (though fortunately they’re usually very simple). With Torrent the horse (with horns), horse combat is now a thing, and provides another option of fighting enemies while roaming the Lands Between. It did take some time to get used to, but overall I enjoyed the horse combat, as it helped make certain fights a lot easier, but at the same time carries enough risks to prevent it from being the default go-to strategy. You can’t dodge through attacks with invulnerability frames on Torrent, which means good positioning is key, and the punishment for getting knocked off is extremely high and usually leads to death. Mounted combat is a great way to run circles around enemies with hit-and-run strategies, but is punishing in case you mess up.

Combat aside, Elden Ring returns to the tried and true Dark Souls formula of RPG character progression. The player character can level up by spending runes (the equivalent of souls in previous games), putting in points into various stats like health, endurance, strength/dexterity for more melee-oriented characters and intelligence/faith for more those who are more caster-focused. There are a lot of different weapons, spells and armor to be found in the game, and the sheer variety of cool things to use is definitely one of the best things about Elden Ring. The Ashes of War mechanic further spices things up, as being able to put different weapon skills on different weapons allows for some creative combos and very powerful weapons (putting a skill like Bloodhound’s Step on a colossal weapon is funny while also extremely strong). The customization and variety is what makes Souls games so replayable, and Elden Ring has that in spades.

The last significant part of the gameplay portion is in Elden Ring’s open world, and level/enemy design. Simply put, the Lands Between is massive, and the sheer amount of places to explore is incredible, and outside of a few places, the game does not place too many restrictions on where the player can and can’t go. This freedom is both a blessing and a curse; the freedom to explore wherever really allows the player to do whatever and progress the game in self-determined, unique experience, but can also result in stumbling upon areas earlier than normally recommended, which can be a painful and frustrating experience (the most notable example being the teleporting chest in Limgrave). The best part of exploration is that Elden Ring actually rewards the player for exploring as opposed to just marking things off a checklist; there is incentive to crawl through dungeons because at the end there is always a reward, whether it be a cool weapon or spell, or important upgrade materials. This focus on the open world also does not mean that the classic levels of the earlier Souls games have gone away, there are still plenty of big set pieces of intricately designed areas to fight through; there is just now an open world connecting those places, giving the player the freedom to run around and do other things instead of just constantly progressing through the levels. My biggest gripe with Elden Ring’s open world mainly lies in a lot of the regions outside the first few starting regions; after a while a lot of the catacombs/dungeons start feeling very same-y with a bunch of reused bosses and mini-bosses, to the point I would just look up what items I was interested in acquiring next and skipped any optional dungeon that didn’t have them.

This stupid tree spirit shows up way too many times in the game

Finally, Elden Ring returns to the online multiplayer system found in the Souls games that was not present in Sekiro, which is pretty nice as online multiplayer does an excellent job of extending the game’s lifespan, giving players a reason to play the game outside of beating it. Helping out other players clear difficult areas and bosses, whether it be close friends or randoms, or even participating in the more competitive side of duels and invasions, are all aspects I loved about the previous Souls games. The biggest change between Elden Ring and the previous Souls games is that the game is a lot friendlier to solo players, as the invasion system has been changed that solo players are no longer invaded by default (unless they specifically use an item that allows it), so invasions are only restricted to players participating in co-op. It certainly makes invasions a lot harder as now every encounter is a guaranteed 2+ vs. 1, but I guess that is the price to pay if one is intentionally going into someone else’s world to mess with them. The only major issues I have with the multiplayer right now are the technical issues with the netcode I pointed out earlier, and that player vs. player (PvP) balance is also extremely unbalanced, though that is not very surprising due to the sheer amount of different spells and weapons that are present in the game. I participated a ton in PvP back in Dark Souls 3, but I am having trouble finding the same enthusiasm for the PvP in Elden Ring because of how unbalanced and cheesy it is at higher levels, where players more or less get one-shot when using the more unbalanced set-ups (and almost everyone is using them).

Difficulty? Easy Mode?

As is tradition with every new FromSoftware title, the discussion of difficulty, accessibility, and the availability of easy modes always generates a lot of discussion and controversy, though with the huge mainstream success of Elden Ring that discussion is certainly louder this time around. As far as enemies and bosses are concerned, I personally think Elden Ring is certainly the most difficult Souls game. A lot of the major bosses are ruthless, with long attack combos that deal a ton of damage and require a lot of different patterns to learn and avoid. Some of the bosses are so fast they look straight out of Sekiro, and on top of that, a lot of the later-game bosses also deal borderline absurd amounts of damage, with most of them possessing at least one attack that will basically delete the player even with higher levels of health/vigor. After a certain point it just becomes tedious, and it definitely sapped some of the fun out of the late-game for me.

That being said, Elden Ring does contain an “easy mode,” and that is summoning. Summoning other players has always existed in the Souls games, but Elden Ring adds to that mechanic by introducing “Ash Summons,” which are different NPC’s that can be summoned to fight alongside the player, but are different from traditional summons in the sense that they cost FP/HP to use, and more importantly, don’t change the boss’s health scaling. Essentially, you can get the benefits of summoning other characters, but without the penalty of adding more to the boss’s health pool. These summons can also be upgraded just like weapons, and fully upgraded summons can be extremely powerful. After fully upgrading one of my more powerful Ash Summons, I easily beat even the most bullshit of bosses within 2–3 tries (most of the time I would just beat it first try). Meanwhile when I tried assisting my friends through traditional co-op it would take quite a few tries due to the increased health scaling and the fact end-game bosses can easily 1/2-shot even the tankiest of players. This is something I have mixed feelings about; on one hand a good amount of the end-game bosses feel very tedious to fight in the “traditional” style of solo against the boss as it seems like their difficulty is balanced around the Ash Summon mechanic (this is especially true of the “gank” fights where they just throw two bosses at you at once), but the balance is quite out of whack as using the more powerful summons can easily trivialize the encounter.

Elden Ring’s “easy mode”

Even with summoning aside, Elden Ring gives the player plenty of tools to become super powerful as well. Due to its open-world nature, if I run into a particularly tough obstacle, I always have the option of leaving the area to go and do something else, whether it be leveling up or acquiring a new weapon, and then come back to that area much stronger. There are also quite a few spells and Ashes of War that are almost obscene with how powerful they are, and can make a ton of fights significantly easier even without resorting to summoning.

Overall, Elden Ring is tough without a doubt, and probably has the most difficult enemy/boss line-up of any Souls game outside of maybe Sekiro. That being said, Elden Ring is also incredibly generous in the tools provided to the player, which means the difficulty of the game depends entirely on what the player is willing to use. With that in mind, the game certainly does not need a dedicated “easy mode,” and those who are complaining that it is too hard and inaccessible probably have not taken the time to actually explore what the game has to offer. That is not to say that I am perfectly fine with the game’s current balance though; I would not be opposed to seeing a re-balance of the Ash Summons so that they remain viable to use but do not completely trivialize the game, while also having some of the later-game bosses slightly toned down so I don’t get melted instantly even at 50 Vigor with decently heavy armor.

Writing:

After hearing that George R. R. Martin was a collaborator on the story for Elden Ring, I guess I was sort of expecting a more pronounced narrative that did not require reading a million different item descriptions just to have an inkling of what is going on, but Elden Ring more or less goes back to the standard Dark Souls storytelling of being super cryptic, hiding lore bits in the various items found in the world. To be fair to the writers, there is a ton of stuff going on, and the scope of the story and the worldbuilding is obviously far bigger than what happened in the previous games, but frankly I cannot be assed to read a million different item descriptions and try and put together the entire story outside of the very basic premise; I will leave that job up to the prominent content creators (shoutouts to VaatiVidya) as I am just here to kill stuff and try out cool weapons and spells. For the lorehounds who loved going through every detail to try and piece together the plot from previous games, there is a ton more to digest.

The biggest improvement in Elden Ring from the Souls games is definitely the NPC quests, though I still think there is room for improvement. For the most part, NPC’s are a lot more straightforward in their quest-lines, and will actually reveal what they will do or where they will go next. Some will even give map markers! That being said, due to the colossal scale of the game, and how many different NPC’s there are, I still think something as basic as a quest log would be very useful because I should not have to take notes outside of the game to remember which interactions I had. It does not even have to follow the mainstream open-world style of putting markers everywhere; just a log keeping track of what I did and what NPC’s said would easily suffice. After a point I stopped caring about spoilers and just looked up every character’s quest-line, because I would rather be spoiled than screw something up and potentially miss out on very cool upgrades because I did not remember one particular conversation I had with a random character hours ago.

Misc/Ending Thoughts:

Given how long this review has been so far, I do not have much else to say, outside of the fact that Elden Ring is a masterpiece of a game. The awful PC performance and netcode are certainly huge technical problems, and those problems cannot be overlooked when judging a game because they directly have an impact on the gaming experience. Fortunately, these issues are also addressable and fixable with updates, and as a core game Elden Ring delivers on almost every front (outside of a slightly excessive re-use of bosses). Now there is no better time to get into the unique experience of FromSoftware games, with Elden Ring being a perfect place to start. I also highly recommend checking out the original Dark Souls trilogy, and Bloodborne/Sekiro as well, because those games are also masterpieces.

Rating: One of the best games I have played in years. Absolutely worth retail value; hell I would say it’s worth even more than that.

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