I’ve learned two things playing Elden Ring. Firstly, it’s absolutely fantastic, easily FromSoftware’s finest. And secondly, it’ll absolutely troll the hell out of you, even without players doling out bad advice. Chests that throw you halfway across the world? Check. An amorphous blob that morphs into a colossal giant? Bring it on. But Dragonbarrow? I’ve never felt so cheated as when I set foot in that cursed land.
It felt like a lifetime since I’d stumbled into Caelid, and I’d leveled up enough that I could punch the Tree Knight into orbit. Elden Ring’s giant bears still proved formidable, but Limgrave’s other foes had good reason to fear me. Fortune was, I felt, smiling on me.
I’d made my first trip to the Bestial Sanctum and watched uncomfortably as the Beast Clergyman shoved an undead turnip into his face and walked away with strange new powers. I did a double take at the giant winged horror standing outside the doors, but thanks to what was almost certainly a bug, I waltzed right past and it didn’t give me a second glance.
And then I ran into the dragons.
At first, I thought I’d hit another glitch, that every normal enemy had been swapped out for a razor-toothed draconic nightmare. I galloped past the first one, resolving to come back and slaughter it later, but then I hit another. And another. And then a pair.
I was getting flashbacks to the time I installed that Resident Evil 2 X-Treme Nightmare mod, the one that replaced every single zombie with Mr X. Though I had fractionally more breathing room this time, the situation had the same horrifying energy as when those gray-skinned menaces descended upon my hapless, floppy-haired cop.
If you’re wondering why the name of the area, Greyoll’s Dragonbarrow, didn’t clue me in to the horrors that awaited me, the answer is simple. By arriving via teleport, I’d skipped the normal region-transition announcement, and as far as I could tell by the scenery, I was wandering around a slightly less distressing district of Caelid.
The reality was more severe, and I quickly discovered Elden Ring shows scant regard for the unwritten rules of video game dragons. What rules? Firstly, it’s generally acknowledged that dragons should be bosses or at least mid-level guardians. Secondly, if you’re going to throw more than one dragon at a player, you sure as hell make sure they’ve got one too.
However, I reasoned that, with so many dragons in the area, these had to be much weaker than the boss-level beast I fought at Agheel Lake. Several deaths later, I’d confirmed this wasn’t the case and headed for the hills. And by “hills” I mean “cliff,” and by “for” I mean “over.”
Respawning once again at the cathedral, I headed out whereupon, despite having exited unhindered several times, the colossal gargoyle decided this was the time it was going to murder me with its laser beams.
But even as I materialized in a less dragon-infested area, I had the feeling that Greyoll’s Dragonbarrow wasn’t done with me yet. As it turns out, I was wrong. It was the opposite – I wasn’t done with Dragonbarrow, and it was avarice that drew me back. Having cheated me of several lives and an awful lot of runes already, Elden Ring was going to cheat me a second time.
After a number of horrifying horse-drownings, I would eventually figure out how to get to Limgrave’s isolated dragon temple, which allowed me to trade dragon hearts in for even more power. So with this knowledge in mind, and several levels and two power-bolstering talismans later, I was back in Dragonbarrow.
In Elden Ring, death might rob you of your runes, but your inventory remains untouched. So even though I was going to die horribly, I figured I’d eventually walk away with pockets full of dragon hearts. At least that was the plan, until I uncovered Elden Ring’s grandest act of dragon deception: Dragonbarrow’s dragons don’t have hearts.
I slaughtered a couple more just to be sure – and died more than once – but, no, not a heart in sight. You’ll get a dragon heart if you murder a Magma Wyrm, which resembles the lovechild of a regular dragon and a platypus, but not from a regular, literal, dragon. FromSoftware had gotten me good with its magic moon logic. It’s a testament to Elden Ring’s quality that I persisted with the game, but Elden Ring continues to be FromSoftware’s best (and I’m counting every Armored Core game).
I do wonder if all the trolling was, secretly, George R.R. Martin’s contribution. Why wouldn’t a man who takes joy in killing your favorite characters get a kick out of confounding your in-game expectations? Who knows? Maybe The Winds of Winter will turn out to be a list of Elden Ring cheat codes.