In my first hour as a Tarnished, I walked to the beach. From the cliff where I originally emerged I spied an island not far from shore, snuggled into what appeared to be sandbar through crisp blue water, some of the loveliest and most inviting I’ve seen in a videogame. And on the island was a cave, and a ruin on a hill. It was small, close, and I wanted to go there. I know how these games work. I’ve played decades of tabletop fantasy RPGs. That ruin held something of interest—lore or a plot hook. Those caves were full of danger (and treasure). I jumbled my way to the ground, clambering over rock and ruin, passing a nomadic merchant and his strange pack beast (its face too human, i??ts body somewhere between a donkey and a sick dog) resting at a bonfire. His wares cost more runes (née souls) than I had. I ran to the shoreline, expecting to swim. That’s what happens when you run into the water in open world games—you swim.
I plunged off the edge. Swallowed by abyss. The infamous ‘You Died’ faded in as the world turned greyscale and then black.
I sprung back to life on the hill where I began my journey through The Lands Between, near a strange man who offered some small guidance, the warm glimmering gold of pooled grace (née bonfire) radiant at my feet.
I returned to the shore after resurrecting. Gathered my lost runes from an ethereal and transient golden sapling that sprung up near where I died. I chose to walk up the coastline. Surely there must be a boat or a path somewhere. In the mist and distance I saw giant beasts. Round, many tentacled. Big. Placid and titanic in the coastal mist with their young. Armed with only a club, and wearing only a loincloth, I kept my distance. I’m a Souls veteran. I know when I’m outclassed. Further on, past ruins and glimmering footfalls on the sand, I saw a man at a campfire. I killed that man and I took his sword. It was too heavy to use. Too complicated. It required 6 more strength and dexterity each than I had. “That’s 12 levels more than me,” I thought. I murdered you on the beach with a backstab from a club, at level 1. “Welcome to Dark Souls, motherfucker,” I said, feeling a surge of power and mastery. “Someone should have told you,” I added.
The shore ended in the rock wall of a mountain, so I did what any seasoned open world adventure would—I went back the other direction. To turn left where I had originally turned right, to explore the other half of the beach I had initially passed up. Past the tentacle beach crawlers and their young, I went back up the original cliff I’d come down from. I ran face first into the feet of a giant—a sword-wielding, rope-muscled, furious giant. He roared enough to knock me back off the cliff. Somehow I survived. I continued exploring for a way back up, away from his stomping grounds. I didn’t see them as I ran into two low-tide skeletons, fetid in the seaside sun with rotting kelp and baked-on time. Except I didn’t realize that’s what I was looking at, not at first.
The Lands Between is actually a beautiful world. Mythically beautiful. Where ‘grossly incandescent’ trees burst from impossible angular rock formations. Sheep flock in the relative safety of aegean grass fields that give way to the kinds of dense and misty forests that England really only knows in storybooks now. Every turn is a vista. Even the ruins are pulled right from a fairy tale illustration. In the first hours of freedom in the game, almost nothing seems treacherous or threatening (except for the luminous and titanic mounted knight who guards a hillside). Which is how you know that everything is sinister and dangerous.
But I ignored that impulse. I thought, with their sun hats and long poles, they were fishermen, under the ruins of an archway, surf-casting. Perhaps they would offer conversation.
They did not. They were not. Those poles weren’t fishing rods, they were spears. Those hats? The short, wide-brimmed chapel-de-fer of long-dead militiamen. They made quick work of me, as I stood in the middle of them, which in Souls parlance is an open invitation to greet my body with their spears. “Welcome to Elden Ring, motherfucker,” they seemed to whisper despite lacking tongues and lips. This wouldn’t be the last time a skeleton so thoroughly chided me for my hubris, not on this beach, or in the darkness that makes up so much of this game’s dungeons.
But, you’ve heard this story, or at least ones like it. Everyone who’s played an open world game has a dozen stories like this. I burned through nearly 1,300 words trying to not write a review using the format of Austin Walker’s Breath of the Wild review, but I’m convinced now this is just the way you start these things. And after all, that’s kind of what this game is. Elden Ring isn’t Breath of the Wild. It’s not Dragon’s Dogma. It’s not even any one of The Elder Scrolls games. But it’s not exactly not Breath of the Wild or any of those either.
Elden Ring is how From Software makes an open world high fantasy RPG under the direction of King Soulsman, Hidetaki Miyazaki. It brings to bear over two decades of institutional understanding that started with King’s Field in 1994 and borrowed ideas from even earlier. It’s not an apotheosis of form, it is a comprehensive grafting.
There’s a horse (Torrent, spectral and caprine as much as equine) and a map to fill in with points of interest. And yes, there is crafting. These are things I find the least compelling about Elden Ring. None of them is a dealbreaker. They are extremely competent implementations at their worst. And I think I actually enjoyed puzzling over the map to find secret locations to explore in depth. As locations are discovered, the map annotates itself, establishing the player’s relationship to a previously unadorned cartographic illustration. It’s only new “for a Souls game.” The horse is blazingly fast, and can jump much higher than the Tarnished—Elden Ring’s equivalent of Slayer of Demons, Chosen Undead, Bearer of the Curse, Hunter, or Ashen One (it’s not the best, but it could be worse), but that’s about all the ghost goat-horse does or needs to do. Crafting means not having to stop in the middle of a dungeon to find the guy who sells arrows. Crafting, Torrent, the map—all solutions to the colossal problem introduced by the voluminous world of The Lands Between—a needlessly huge world.
There was, once upon a time, an elegant solution to this problem, going all the way back to Mega Man: The Stage Select menu. Over the years games have evolved it to be more and more diegetic. The Nexus in Demon’s Souls gave us the archstone gateways—stage selects cleverly hidden as magic portals to discrete zones, boss fights, set piece encounters, Gygaxian Mining Tunnels to Grind for Materials. Behind each slab of enchanted stone was dungeons and dragons (and sometimes poison swamp). Hub and spoke, in so blatantly forward a manner as to feel quaint now. Dark Souls would depart from this radically, only to slowly reintroduce aspects of it in the sequel, and much more openly in the garden tombstones of the Hunter’s Dream for Bloodborne.
Elden Ring borrows—grafts, really—elements from all of these games together. But it’s Bloodborne that’s really the reason for this game being the open world that it is. In Chalice Dungeons we saw a purity of form that the Soulsborne micro genre was poised to capitalize on, but couldn’t quite deliver. Procedural dungeons accessed from a menu. A place where minibosses and remixes of bosses would flourish, where the skill of dungeon-delving players could be tested and rewarded repeatedly. Not necessarily a haven for more lore, but for the most stalwart of players there would be deep thematic resonance at the end. But really, sick dungeons for the sake of sick dungeons.
Elden Ring says “what if we took the lessons we learned from Chalice Dungeons…and that was the game.” An open world, after all, is only as good as the dark holes that perforate its beautiful surface, the land is only as interesting as its scars.
And these dungeons, especially the big ones, are compelling like no other.
The first step was to throw out the procedural dungeons. They were fine, perfectly serviceable in Bloodborne. And no doubt developing that system and studying the output only deepened their understanding and resolve. But this is the moment where Brick Road becomes Dungeon Man. This is the apotheosis in this work—the exaltation of the dungeon designer.
Switchbacks that lead to dead ends that beget traps that culminate in pitfalls back to the beginning (or your doom, who can say?). Impossible ambushes that even on the 9th death still steal your breath. Forcing the player to choose between a shield, a second weapon, and the absolutely crucial torch—except, what if the torch gives you away? Can you navigate a maze in the dark? And verticality, oh, the verticality!
For as much as I can take or leave the open world of Elden Ring, the dungeons, dear reader, have given me more life than a million Dark Souls. These are spaces that even when I thoroughly mapped my progress, I still felt like I missed something. Each one culminating with a boss that echoes the lessons learned from Bloodborne. Bigger badder enemies make for perfectly satisfying encounters. I’ll fight a colossal troll with a pickaxe and a fondness for combustibles at the bottom of a mineshaft after fighting a hundred smaller hims any day. A grand mimicry of the Grim Reaper in a rotting mausoleum filled with skeletons? Cyclopean and ruinous automatons? Let’s fucking go.
This isn’t Dragon’s Dogma 2, but Hidetaka Miyazaki’s subterrane sure feels as good as Hideaki Itsuno’s nightmare island—and that’s more than enough for me.
I’m sure I’ll come around on the dead cities and toxic forests and plaguelands, or their pastoral counterparts. They’re fine, they are breathtaking at times and hide even more secrets for me to find from a well-placed, thoughtful message. This is a massive game that’s meant to be played as a community. Something that’s truly impossible to review properly in the handful of days we’ve had and the limited playerbase. Reviewing Elden Ring is a lonely, isolating experience, one that perhaps does match with the dungeons that blossom like crypt moss over the world co-created with George R.R. Martin (though you’d be hard-pressed to find where his ideas end and Miyazaki’s begin, that is the nature of their shared bullshit). But that’s not even close to how this, or any true Souls-like, is truly intended to be played. At 58 hours and some change, there are still gaps on my map. Places I missed out of necessity, while dashing headlong down the critical path(s). It’s rare that I cram so huge a game into so small a place and end up wanting to return. But I want to know what Elden Ring feels like when the world is as full of vibrant, shimmering ghosts (both co-operators and invaders) as possible. I want to bring a new unknown friend along when I decide to plunge headlong into a new crypt with an unproven character build. I want to get wrecked by a phantom known simply as “Ass” and see them make the symbol of The Ring while my body falls into the chasm they kicked me into. I want to take my time with this game. But more than anything, I want to hear the stories that friends tell me of the first time they got wrecked. Not so that I can tell them “Welcome to Elden Ring, motherfucker.” But so that I can remind them, “Don’t give up, skeleton.”
Elden Ring was developed by From Software and published by Bandai Namco. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for PC, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4..
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.