This game is massive. When you think ‘big open worlds’, your gaming catalogue may offer up Red Dead Redemption 2, The Witcher 3, AC Odyssey…
And you’d be right, and perhaps some of those games are actually larger than Elden Ring. But there’s a difference between how large a map is, and how large it feels. And Elden Ring feels absurdly large, to an extent I’ve never felt before — and I say this as someone who plays most popular open world titles.
(This review is spoiler free)
FromSoft maps have always had a certain intricacy to them; paths interweave and fold back into early areas. They function in all three dimensions — you might reach a boss fight area to find an elevator which you can ride back to an earlier save point, making it easier to do boss runs. As you move through the map, your sense of space deepens. This is a satisfying and rewarding experience which encourages exploration — that dark corridor or ledge drop could help you find a precious item or a convenient path to an important location, so you’re going to try it out.
But no one’s thought of applying that philosophy to a full open world game… until now. In Elden Ring, the map is interconnected in a Souls like way but on a scale that’s never been seen before. There are portals or ‘transporting treasure chests’ at unsuspecting places in the map which might catapult you into a Divine Tower where you can harness an ancient power, or to an underground location, or just across a broken bridge. You might come across an elevator while wandering an early game area which takes you to a beautiful underground city. You never know what you’re going to get.
And yes, there’s a complete underground map to explore, and there’s even substantial things above you to explore, though I’ll say no more so you can discover these for yourself. As you play, it’s never clear how much of the map there’s left to explore. 80 hours into the game, I opened up a complete new area with tough enemies and one of the hardest bosses in the game.
And these locations are diverse. You have Caelid, a rotting land that reeks of decay and death with dragons abound, Liurnia, a beautiful lake with secrets abound and an ancient school in the middle of it, Leyndell, a once-glorious capital city… there’s a lake of rot, rivers of blood, and so much more. It boggles the mind.
The locations are often rich in the history of the Elden world. You might find a giant malformed face in the depths of a castle, or a statue with subtle details, or a church in ruins with a striking name. The environmental storytelling combined with FromSoft’s minimalism stimulate your curiosity and wonder. The closest analogue I can think of is Shadow of the Colossus.
Elden Ring’s design philosophy is freedom. You’re given a quick horse to cut across the landscape and run past as many enemies as you’d like. You can unlock endgame areas before defeating the first boss. In fact, a variety of builds are very feasible, with mage oriented builds being somewhat overpowered early on. You can apply special powers to your weapons which can be very useful, often flashy, and sometimes even comedic. You can summon AI companions to help you with tough battles. Respec is possible a fair number of times, meaning you can switch up your build if you get bored with it. I started with a sword and shield, strength oriented vagabond, and ended with blood damage based dual wielder invested into dexterity and arcane.
This freedom also means that players have ways to make the game easier for themselves. You can find late game areas early on where it’s easy to farm and level up quickly, . You can use summons and mage builds to cut through a number of early bosses by just staying away and doing a lot of damage. You can run past most enemies to get to the boss. My advice — make the game as easy as you need to, without getting carried away. You don’t want to play through the game in god mode, because that isn’t fun. But tilting the scales in your favor a bit… is not necessarily a bad idea.
Make no mistake - some of the endgame and optional bosses will prove a daunting challenge regardless of your build and level (unless you’re leveled absurdly high). I found some bosses to be unfairly hard and turned to strong AI summons to make the fight easier, but others may feel differently.
The boss designs are some of the best I’ve seen in video games in a long while. There are several challenging and iconic fights. FromSoft gets it all right for the best fights; setting, move sets, character design…
That said, with a game of this size there’s a lot of reuse going on. It gets a little tiresome to fight ‘old bosses with a twist’; where you fight two of them, or same one but with a slightly different move set… not to mention the sheer number of dragon bosses which are usually not that fun to fight, with some notable exceptions.
The quest design of this game is a fascinating subject in of itself. It is incredibly satisfying when it works, and frustrating when it doesn’t. The first thing to know is that there are no quest markers, no clear directions, and no logs of what’s been said. This is taken too far, in that NPCs often say something useful once, but if you talk to them again they’ve moved on to their next line. So you’d better pay attention, and take notes as they speak.
This is the first game in years where I’ve had to take several notes just to keep track of what was going on. While I often cursed FromSoft when I missed an important dialogue, I absolutely loved the immersion of having to treasure every morsel of information that was given out to me.
(Pictured above, my hastily scribbled note of some cryptic ‘advice’)
The fundamental issue with some of these side quests (which can actually affect what endings you can get) is that sometimes you do a thing for an NPC, and they move on to another place… and you have no idea where. If you’ve playing in the ‘intended’ order and you finish every side quest in an area before going to the ‘next’ area, you’ll likely run into the NPC again. But the freedom of the game backfires here, and you might end up doing a quest for an NPC only for them to move on to an area you’re done with… after offering no clue whatsoever that that’s where they were going.
You can locked out of endings or important items just because you didn’t think to do obscure thing X in location Y after doing obscure thing Z in location W.
So the minimalistic quest design is double edged. My advice — find a balance between figuring things out for yourself and referencing online guides. If you think you’ve done your homework and are still stumped, chances are that it’s not your fault.
One peeve I feel compelled to share is the use of poorly designed platforming segments in some areas of the game. These are often painful to navigate, especially given how clunky the jump feels outside of combat. I’m probably not exaggerating when I say I died as often to fall damage as I did to enemies.
I’ll close with some reflections on the main story, which is where GRRM’s influence is felt most. The backdrop has much to do with a conflict within an ancient family of demigods. But as you encounter some of these demigods, their personality, flaws and conflicts get colored in. It’s a rich cast of characters, and I’m eager to learn more about them by playing again and following lore theories others post online. While I thought the backdrop and story were interesting, the events that happen during the game felt somewhat… underwhelming at times. You would defeat a boss of great significance to a certain area, and see no change outside the boss chamber itself. While this is typical for FromSoft games, it still makes the game feel less alive.
In closing, I feel like Elden Ring is one of the most significant open world games ever made. It moves the genre forward just as The Witcher 3 or Breath of the Wild once did. I’m not confident that the innovations of this game will proliferate that quickly, since FromSoft games are considered niche. But the runaway success of the game is encouraging.
Elden Ring is far more accessible than previous FromSoft titles. If you’re on the fence because of the perceived difficulty, I’d suggest trying the game — perhaps with the aid of some guides to beef your character up early on and learn key mechanics — especially if you love open world titles. There’s things here you’ve never experienced before in a video game.
I was a couple of hours into the new Horizon before I got swept up in the Elden Ring hype and reluctantly switched over. I’m ready to switch back, but I fear Horizon will feel deadly dull and predictable. That’s how good this game was.