Review in Progress
By Gene Park
The Dark Souls series by From Software — and the slew of successors it spawned — is famous for its uniquely challenging, unforgiving gameplay. Sometimes that manifests in the form of enigmatic puzzles or unexplained gameplay mechanics. Most of the time, major boss encounters serve as insurmountable barriers, checking a player’s skill level and gating off access to the rest of the game.
But while the genre generally referred to as Souls-like games (meaning they play like “Dark Souls” even if the game doesn’t carry the word “Souls” in the title) has millions of fans around the world, millions more have found themselves too intimidated or simply unable to engage with the notoriously grueling games. In that light, “Elden Ring,” the latest title by From Software, may be the easiest entry point for beginners looking to try a Souls game. It probably has the most on-ramps to continuous, rewarding play of any From Software game since 2009′s “Demon’s Souls.”
'Elden Ring' review in progress: This game is massive
This is welcome and surprising, considering From Software’s 2019 release, “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice,” famously leaned into its difficulty, centering its core gameplay around a player’s ability to react with split-second precision to parry sword strikes. “Elden Ring,” by contrast, continues the progression of the Dark Souls series, in which director Hidetaka Miyazaki has tweaked the gameplay of each successive game to make it more attractive to a broader range of players, while retaining the fundamental moment-to-moment challenge.
Having explored approximately half of “Elden Ring’s” map in 40 hours of play, here are five reasons I believe “Elden Ring” is the game to try if you’ve been curious about the critically-acclaimed, hyped-to-hell-and-back Souls game genre and series.
It’s hard to get stuckIn most Souls or Souls-like games, players are often funneled into linear paths. In “Dark Souls 3” and “Sekiro,” for example, players had to overcome a curated sequence of challenging enemies and areas to advance.
The structure of “Elden Ring,” by contrast, is almost as liberating as the famous opening hours of “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” There, the objective was simply to defeat the evil; the game left the question of how to accomplish that goal up to the player. It’s just as simple here: Find and discover what happened to the Elden Ring.
If you run into a challenge that’s giving you an especially hard time, you can simply disengage from that activity, be it dungeon or enemy, and move in another direction. This game’s world is large and every direction presents new challenges — some of which may be easier.
You could play this game for tens of hours before ever deciding to take on a big challenge. And if you’re bored of the starting area, you could simply strike out in search of bordering nations and regions. Within the first five minutes of the game, it’s really up to you which direction you want to explore.
Exploration (and cowardice) is rewarding
The second reason is in keeping with the theme of exploration: “Elden Ring” makes it very easy for players to explore large swaths of the map without interruption. More than just sightseeing through a dark fantasy realm imagined by writers Hidetaka Miyzaki and George R.R. Martin, it’s an excellent way to gather powerful resources, including the crucial Golden Seeds, which increase the amount of times a player can heal.
At the start of the game, players are given Torrent, a ghostly steed that can be summoned at any point on the overworld map. Torrent, running at top speed, is faster than many of the enemies in the world, and the game allows players to pick up items while mounted. This means if you spot an interesting item on the horizon, there’s nothing stopping you from going and picking it up. Sure, a fearsome dragon or a Death Bird could pop out of nowhere to attack you, but you could also easily outrun them, their treasure now forever yours.
The world is littered with save sites, called Sites of Grace, which provide a safe haven to level up, switch skills and access your storage. By pushing through the overworld map and avoiding fights, there’s a good chance you’ll ride past many of these Sites. Discovering them unlocks a fast travel point, making navigation even easier. The Sites also provide quick checkpoints for nearby experience and resource farming spots you may discover.
In my playthrough, I traveled far east to the blood-red skies of Caelid, where I found many Golden Seeds, earlier than I might have if I had gone through the suggested path of the game’s story line. By increasing my chances to heal, I widened my safety net and increased my survivability. After several hours of looting Caelid while barely engaging with its dangerous enemies, I returned to Limgrave, stocked with potions, a powerful greatsword and new powers.
The ‘boss rush’ is mostly goneDying in a Souls game to a difficult boss usually meant players had to travel back to the boss arena before starting a rematch. Pathways to bosses were usually packed with more resource-sucking, exhausting enemies to fight, so by the time you reached your objective, you might be tired mentally or just lacking in health potions. This nasty combination of stacked challenges discouraged even the most tenacious players.
In “Elden Ring,” most of the save sites and checkpoints are right before a boss encounter. Die to a challenging, insurmountable enemy? You’re welcome to try again almost immediately. If you find that the enemy is too tough, or you’re just not in the right frame of mind to challenge them, there’s always the option to follow the above advice and simply move in another direction. If you want to revisit the boss, you can easily fast travel back to the spot and try again in less than a minute. Like any Souls game, players still “lose” their experience points and have to return to the spot of their demise to regain them. But in this Souls game, the punishment of failure is trivialized by making it easy to return to that spot.
Build variety makes it fun immediately“Sekiro” and “Bloodborne,” the PlayStation 4 exclusive by From Software, are considered the two most difficult games from the studio, in large part because of how inflexible they are in player build variety. In “Dark Souls,” you could choose to be a sorcerer, an archer, a tank-like knight or anything in between. However, “Bloodborne” forced players into an offensive style, rewarding players who would attack even when they were hurt, as long as they nailed the split-second timing of a dodge. In “Sekiro,” you were a ninja and nothing else. If you couldn’t react to an enemy’s sword strikes immediately, most of the game would remain largely unplayable and inaccessible to you.
“Elden Ring” makes a return to the “Dark Souls” approach, allowing players to be any kind of warrior they might imagine. Sorcery has always been a sort of easy mode for “Souls” players thanks to their long distance attacks, and magic spells have never been more powerful or more far reaching as in “Elden Ring.” The aforementioned spectral horse makes it possible to play large chunks of the game as armored cavalry, dive bombing hordes of enemies with swords attacks and magic spells.
And while “Sekiro” certainly had its combat challenges, its stealth mechanic provided an alternative to charging headlong into battle. That mechanic returns in “Elden Ring,” giving more timid players a solid plan of attack. Putting enemies to sleep is far less stressful than attacking them head on, and this game allows for that kind of experimentation and freedom. Toying with these mechanics alone and finding the right “build” for you could take up hours of playtime.
Spirit summons are a huge helpIn the Souls games and Bloodborne, you were always given the option to “summon” a human player to assist you with a level or a boss. This hasn’t always been a consistent solution; unless you have a friend, it’s never guaranteed anyone is available to help in your specific trouble spot.
Spirit summons now offer players AI-controlled warriors and creatures to assist. The danger of a Souls genre boss is greatly minimized by one simple trick: They end up paying attention to anything else but you. I’ve been able to topple two of the large demigod bosses in “Elden Ring” by using spirit wolves I received early in the game. There are other spirits far more powerful and effective than these wolves, yet I managed just fine with having three wolves distract my enemies. These spirits can also be leveled up.
If you summon human help, Souls bosses are always adjusted to be a bit more difficult to balance things out. Not so if you summon AI-controlled spirits. You get all the benefits of a friend without relying on a stranger to help you.
There are a number of small tweaks to the gameplay mechanics to make the game easier to play. For example, parrying in video game combat has always been tricky for many players because it usually requires split-second reactions, something that’s not always possible for every player. But the “guard counters” of “Elden Ring” allow you to defend and return powerful attacks after they’re doled out, not before, as parries usually demand. This gives you a large window of time to react, and makes the combat system far more approachable, and easy to master.
To be sure, I believe “Elden Ring” is easier than any “Souls” game to get into, but I can’t say whether it’s the easiest to beat. Today, Feb. 23, is when the review embargo lifts for the game; however, journalists and other creators did not get access to the game until the evening of Feb. 14. While I’ve played approximately 40 hours and have seen much of the game, “Elden Ring” has also signaled that I have not completed a majority of its adventures, and there’s no telling how difficult the game could get later.
Still, I’ve played those 40 hours at a leisurely pace, far different from the harrowing, pressurized experiences of past “Souls” games. There have been bosses I defeated in a single try, and others that live up to the series’ history of daunting enemies with multistage fights. But even when the game is thrashing me, there is a far wider gap of time in between thrashings. Much of my experience with “Elden Ring” has felt relaxed, a journey marked not by stress or fear, but by quiet calculation and consideration of my time, ability and resources.
While From Software continues to stubbornly offer little in the way of real accessibility options to further widen the game’s appeal, “Elden Ring” makes several large and small adjustments to its core gameplay loop to make it far more welcoming to play.
Review in Progress