You’d be hard-pressed to find a game as unanimously anticipated as Elden Ring. FromSoftware’s first foray into a true open world tantalized with its teaser a few years back, grew in mystique after years of radio silence, and has now utterly enraptured pretty much everybody who had a chance to dabble in its recent limited network test, myself included.
And in my mind, the reason for that is pretty simple — Elden Ring feels like a Greatest Hits collection of everything that FromSoftware was done over the past decade, set in a dangerous and alluring open-world, and all while somehow avoiding any of the frustrations that sometimes come with…well…all of those things.
When I say Greatest Hits, I don’t mean that in a pejorative way whatsoever. This isn’t a rehash, or a treading of old ground. Instead, Elden Ring’s DNA feels like a culmination of so many aspects we loved about the Souls games, Bloodborne, and Sekiro. As one of the defining developers of the past three generations, it’s a monument to their success.
Just take a look at your character animations, and you’ll spot shades of Dark Souls 3. Magic is the strongest it’s been in any From game since Demon’s Souls. Power-stancing, the wildly-entertaining act of dual-wielding different weapons from Dark Souls 2, is back in full form. Refilling your health and mana flasks by taking out roaming mobs of enemies in their entirety encourages aggressive play in the same risk/reward manner as Bloodborne’s Rallying. And sneaking through tall grass to quietly take out an enemy, or leaping all about the various structures made me feel like Sekiro himself.
There’s a mechanical familiarity to Elden Ring that echoes what came before it. It’s not as direct a callback as stumbling upon the remains of Lon Lon Ranch in Breath of the Wild, or going back to Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. But rather, it’s a vibe that resonates at the same frequency that FromSoftware has been dialing into over the past decade.
Sometimes, games that draw in so many styles end up being shallow across the board. Take a look at Cyberpunk 2077 — its promise that you could do anything and everything you wanted meant that none of it felt particularly good. But Elden Ring avoids the trappings of becoming a “jack of all trades, master of none” because From has already proven that it could deliver those aforementioned combat styles and mechanics in their previous games. Why reinvent the wheel when you’ve got a decade’s worth of perfectly-good tires in the garage?
But if I’m being honest, the thing that stuck out to me most after 10+ hours in Elden Ring was how it expertly managed to be a big, beautiful, and brutal interpretation of the soulslike formula inside a stunning open world without ever feeling even the slightest bit frustrating. And that’s thanks to a series of small design choices that all feed into encouraging you as the player, even when you meet your demise many, many times at the hand of a particularly nasty baddie.
Apart from the wonderfully-fast loading times on the new consoles, there’s the game’s Fast Travel, which is as easy as opening up your map and clicking on any of the Sites of Grace (this game’s bonfires) you’ve already visited. Not only did it feel like these were more plentiful than the respites in previous games, but the ability to level up at any of them strips away the time wasted to go back to a place like The Hunter’s Dream in Bloodborne. There are also these statues scattered around the world, many of which are close to enemy encampments and tough bosses out in the wild. If you die close enough to one of them, you have the option of respawning at your last Grace, or at the nearest statue. Simply put, it’s just user-friendly, which isn’t something we often associate with FromSoftware, but man is it appreciated.
Apart from all of this, the design of the open world itself feels more encouraging than daunting. If I found myself dying too often at a given encounter, there were always a half-dozen other places I could go explore and take a breather. And in the early areas that we’ve had access to, the distance between points of interest aren’t really all that vast either. I didn’t find the stretches of lonely nothingness that exemplified the rides between bosses in Shadow of the Colossus. Instead, every bend of the path, grove of trees, or cobbling of ruins held something of interest that made me want to poke around and see what I could discover.
With all of that said, this feeds into the one major aspect of Elden Ring that I’m not entirely sold on — your horse pal. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot I immediately loved about the lil’ guy, starting with his excellent name, Torrent. I dug how easy it was to summon him from the ether and send him right back, like Death’s horse in Darksiders 2. Moving around the world on his back felt great as well, with a double jump that lets you scamper up hillsides and structures with the awkward grace of a fearless mountain goat.
But it’s the combat I’m still not entirely sure of yet. There’s an inelegance to the awkward dance of trying to fight on the back of Torrent that feels less like the cinematic ground duels, and more like a pair of drunken amateurs at Medieval Times stumbling through the jousting segment of the evening. This is something that could easily be tweaked before launch, and seeing as how this is one of the major new elements of the game, perhaps it’ll just take some getting used to on my part.
Regardless, if that’s the only negative sticking point for me, then it’s clear that the game is something special. Through a combination of warm, mechanical familiarity, an open world packed with intrigue, and accessibility features that respect your time, Elden Ring is looking like another massive win for FromSoftware. And given the discography that they’ve built over the past three generations, a Greatest Hits album is sounding pretty damn great right about now.