Now Playing: Elden Ring

What’s up, everyone? It’s been a few weeks, but I’ve been working on a big blog post that’ll go live in the next few days I hope. Still aiming for 52 pieces of original content by the end of 2022 – I’ve just got away from that weekly cadence because I’ve been so busy with work and freelance projects (which I’m eternally grateful for).

Anyway, today’s something a little different: A deep dive into a game that’s captivated me over the last month like no other: Elden Ring.

I wrote the other week about coming to the realisation that after thousands of hours of open-world games, I’d started to prefer playing things in bite-size chunks. Elden Ring has made me look very silly indeed.

It’s an Elden thing

Godrick the Grafted from Elden Ring
I hate this guy.

Some background – Elden Ring is a Souls-like title, so it’s part of the extended Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls franchise. That means it can be not only difficult, but obtuse, too; certain systems aren’t explained well, while others seem to be ignored entirely. There’s a brief tutorial, sure, but it’s slim, and can be surprisingly easily missed.

There’s a story, sure, but much of the game’s juicier lore is told through environmental cues, while there’s a huge degree of customisation that can dictate how players take on the game’s encounters. Magic wielders can bombard from afar, for example, or it can be played more traditionally – my character uses a sword and shield, for example.

All of this isn’t news to me. I previewed the game before launch and came away impressed, but was 90% certain Elden Ring wouldn’t be for me. I appreciate the artistry in tough games, but with a kid and two jobs, I usually turn my console on to play something that doesn’t make me feel like, well, an idiot.

I jumped into Elden Ring (on PS5) and played through the initial tutorial dungeon before heading out into the starting area, Limgrave.

Almost 25 hours later, I’m still in that same area.

I got Souls but I’m not a soldier

Dragon swamp from Elden Ring
Fighting this dragon was fun, tense, and totally optional.

That’s testament to a few things about Elden Ring, but mainly in its power to surprise. Just in Limgrave there are so many things to see, even if, at least on a mechanical level, it still boils down to blocking, dodging, and swinging a sword around.

Here’s an example: one optional dungeon area led me to a boss fight that gave me a helmet that’s helped me massively so far. Another seemingly simple encounter with a group of enemies became a dance of death with a huge dragon after it swooped in and made a swamp its home.

I really don’t know what’s coming next, and it’s been a while since anything has had that effect on me when video games are my job. After clearing the first story boss, I’ve been spending hours combing Stormveil Castle for every possible secret, coming up against horrific monsters like the Grafted Scion.

Stormveil Castle from Elden Ring
Stormveil Castle is classic “Souls”

 

While Elden Ring’s world is really pretty, sure, it’s in these kinda f**ked up encounters I’ve had the most fun. Monsters shamble into view and I have to spend a few seconds working out just what it is. As a fan of horror movies, even just standard enemies being ghoulish figures with their proportions all wrong makes everything feel a bit uneasy, and then there are things like the aforementioned Scion that just make your skin crawl.

Many will bounce off of Elden Ring’s difficulty, or even just the Souls franchise’s reputation, but things have started to click. I’m still fighting against the second boss, but at no point has any defeat felt cheap or unearned. If I die it’s almost always because I was too cavalier, overreaching with my sword or not making enough of an effort to conserve stamina to be able to block.

One of the best things about Elden Ring is that it gives you a sizeable toolbox with which to conquer anything thrown at your way, even if it doesn’t give you the instruction manual. For example, while I used a “spirit summon” to get a trio of ghostly wolves to help me chip away at a boss’ health, another player may have just invested their stat points in being able to swing a two-handed axe instead, or used a consumable item to lock them in place.

The open-world nature also means that some particularly tricky bosses can sometimes be circumnavigated, or attempted again after you’ve levelled up. RPG elements have existed since Demon’s Souls in 2009, but Elden Ring arguably brings it all together in a way where choices matter – even if experimentation can often feel a little discouraged by the amount of runes it takes to level up after a certain level.

What’s changed?

Elden Ring has drawn a million comparisons with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game so highly-regarded it almost feels blasphemous to say it just didn’t click for me. Luckily, I think Elden Ring is my Breath of the Wild.

I’m having the same realisation about open-world games that so many did after playing that game, just five years late. I’m not interested in checking side quests off a list now, and I think I’m finally ready to turn a lot of quest markers off in big AAA games.

Elden Ring has forever changed the way I look at not only Souls games, but open-world games and maybe all games. And I’m thankful for it, even as Godrick the Grafted keeps pummelling me into submission attempt after attempt.

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