To say that the upcoming release of FromSoftware’s Elden Ring is highly anticipated sounds like a severe understatement.
From the first Souls games up to 2019’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the famed Japanese studio has cultivated a hardcore fanbase that embraces the tough challenges of its titles and with Elden Ring, the studio has found a way to redefine difficulty in an action role-playing game yet made it more accessible in this modern game masterpiece.
Before we start, we have to preface this review by stating that even after spending over 60 hours in The Lands Between, we do not believe that we are even anywhere close to the end of Elden Ring.
This game was designed to be savoured and not rushed, and from what we’ve played so far, there is little reason to believe that the rest of the game will disappoint in any way. The journey of a Tarnished will be completed in due time, but the experience has been immensely satisfying.
Speaking of, the setup of Elden Ring commits to the intrigue and mystery common to the FromSoftware games. As a descendant of the Tarnished, those who have lost the grace of the Erdtree and cursed with unending life, it is now up to the player to gather the shattered pieces of the titular Elden Ring and become the Elden Lord, ushering a new age of order and peace.
It is a simple enough objective, if not for a colossal world filled with adversaries small and big, and some truly intimidating and daunting demigods standing in your way.
Having worked with George RRMartin to lay the foundations of the mythos and backstory, describing Elden Ring as grand fantasy is definitely apt. The lore and story are interweaving and interconnected, teasing players with a nugget of information here and there, helping to construct a living, breathing world that has seen better days.
The backstory is extremely rich, but it does require a significant amount of investment to truly grasp it all, but even if you choose not to, the general storytelling in the game does its best to drive a narrative that still makes sense. Such a method to this madness might not work for any other games, but for FromSoftware, it has become an art form with the studio at the pinnacle of its powers.
That adherence to something familiar but with added innovation applies to the gameplay systems at work in Elden Ring in almost every imaginable way.
Characters who rely heavily on magic will do well against most of the threats found in The Lands Between, until you are required to go toe to toe with magic-resistant enemies. The same can be said for ranged combat, and a good balance will provide you with the solutions to most combat scenarios.
Needless to say, combat in Elden Ring is brutal, frenetic, and requires strategic thinking and timing on an elevated level. Enemies can come at you from all directions, in large numbers, and even the lowliest of beings can spell trouble if you are unprepared. Add in a collection of various minibosses and demigods that populate the world, and prepare to die over and over again. Rinse, and repeat.
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It is not exactly surprising for frustrations to set in even early in the game, but FromSoftware has done its part in ensuring that players have the right tools to give themselves a fighting chance.
The levelling up and weapon upgrading persist, but like the many different equipment options, combat approaches, and differing environments in which to do battle, the team has added two significant additions that are meant to keep you going even in the toughest of times.
The first is the counterattack mechanic, which transforms a simple shield or weapon block into an opportunity to do some hurting of your own. Of course, knowing when to execute this is key, as is the amount of stamina you have left, otherwise, the enemy is going to have a free pass to send you to the grave.
The second is that upon clearing groups of enemies, your healing and mana refilling flasks’ uses are restored to a certain degree. By staying in the fight and being the last man standing, you do not have to rely on going back to a nearby Site of Grace to rest up and have all the enemies resurrected once more.
Elden Ring also features an interchangeable skills system tied to weapons and the Ashes of War, which is yet another way for players to fashion their hero or heroine in the best way possible.
Different weapons and shields can utilise different skills, and by using the Ashes of War, skills can be switched along with the Affinities of the equipment, which determine elemental damage or even the scaling of particular attributes.
All of these work perfectly in funnelling players into combat against the horrors of Elden Ring, and what a magnificent menagerie it is. Lumbering skeletons, gigantic trolls, grotesque beings of flesh and blood, the sheer variety of enemies in the game are mindboggling and impressive, and FromSoftware has certainly upped their game when it comes to designing these beings.
The first encounter with something new is always going to be a measured affair, setting the stage for a game of cat and mouse, trying to figure out what your foe is going to do. Analysis is vital, as breaking the patterns of the enemies will provide the most success. This is the same for any of the boss enemies you meet as well, albeit with less room for error.
Perhaps the biggest departure in this latest title is that an open world awaits eager adventurers, full of stunning vistas, surprises, and plenty of rewards for those who dare. Elden Ring throws players into the unknown and lets them run wild, providing nothing but the general lay of the land, putting the onus on players to discover points of interest and pursue them.
You may discover an important landmark that gets noted on the map, more Sites of Grace to aid with fast travel, a hidden cave in the side of the mountains, or one of the Legacy Dungeons that are optional to traverse.
The latter is expertly integrated into the world, creating areas of spectacular visuals that are not just thematic, but also filled with twists and turns at every turn. You never truly know where you might end up, or even who you might meet, and the verticality present in the game truly changes how one would approach exploration.
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As players travel across the world on their trusty Spectral Steed Torrent, the urge to explore never truly disappears and the sense of discovery is one of the best aspects of combining an open world with the concentrated gameplay goodness of Elden Ring.
On the other hand, if you are the kind of player that requires a more directed approach, you might find yourself at a loss. Then again, when you find yourself at this juncture, just picking a direction could yield some surprising discoveries that can aid your progression.
Obviously, this can all be overwhelming at first, but like the other games before it, Elden Ring is a fine wine that becomes more familiar and more appealing as time goes by. You may have to spend a little more time to get comfortable, but when it all works in perfect tandem, the game offers an experience quite unlike anything else out there.
While catering to its fanbase is important, the studio had previously maintained that welcoming new players need not come at a cost to the challenge of its games. This is demonstrated throughout Elden Ring with some interesting additions as well.
The aforementioned mount, Torrent, helps cut down travelling time, especially if you are hoping to grab the precious Runes that are stripped off you with every death. Mounted combat is a blast as well, and is actually the recommended way to take on some of the dangerous optional bosses you find out in the open world.
To even the odds somewhat, FromSoftware has also introduced Spirit Ashes, which can be used to call in aid from otherworldly allies. This is particularly useful for players not willing to take the chance on the multiplayer side of things in Elden Ring, providing some great help in taking on some of the tougher fights in the game.
Nothing is mandatory, but at least the choices are there to help new players ease into things more easily, and everything works to make the game much more forgiving without lowering the difficulty.
From a visual standpoint, this is definitely the best looking FromSoftware game ever made, with The Lands Between a kaleidoscope of colours, environments, and world design.
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Collapsed castles give way to rolling plains, caves lead into underground caverns that could be home to an abandoned city, and every time you face a major boss, that soundtrack escalates to fit the occasion, delivering a sense of majesty and grandeur to the proceedings.
Yet, not all is perfect about Elden Ring, even with the capabilities of the PlayStation 5. Whether it is in performance or fidelity mode, textures can take a while to load, with framerates randomly dropping during parts of the game.
Your character and enemies can sometimes attack through the environment, which is probably both a good cheesing method as well as a scary proposition and seeing a hulking dragon suspended in the air by standing on a small pillar is always going to be hilarious. None of the issues makes the game unplayable, but it can be noticeable annoyances.
If you are trying to enjoy the game on the last-generation consoles, just be prepared to wait much longer than on current-gen hardware, with fast travel taking but a few seconds on the PS5.
Even with the high bar set by its efforts on its previous games, FromSoftware has truly outdone itself with Elden Ring. The gameplay mechanics are finely tuned, the world is interesting and ripe for exploration, and the narrative keeps things fresh, intriguing, and full of discoveries that will be a delight for a hardcore fanbase.
For those that were never fans of the Souls games, Elden Ring will certainly not change your mind, even with the strides taken in lowering the barriers of entry. However, if you have always enjoyed yourself with FromSoftware titles, this is a game that has benefited from the studio’s legacy, and is well placed to be one of the greatest games of all time.
Elden Ring is launchingFeb 25, and is available on the PSN Store for $79.90.
Geek review score
An almost neverending treasure trove of amazing combat experiences interspersed with an inviting world full of surprises, Elden Ring is FromSoftware’s best game ever for its fans, and that is no mean feat.
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This article was first published in Geek Culture.