I already knew Elden Ring wasn’t going to hold my hand, but I didn’t expect that it’d hide in the bushes, snickering while I willingly walked my character into hell. And I absolutely didn’t anticipate it’d use Elden Ring’s prettiest level to send me there.
It’s my own fault, really. I’d been coddled by Skyrim, but I’d thought I had Elden Ring figured out. Being annihilated by the Tree Knight quickly taught me that developer FromSoftware wasn’t a fan of player scaling. And the fact that said knight was galloping around less than 20 meters from the tutorial area taught me that they weren’t pulling any punches.
Ten hours into the game, I thought I’d at least wrapped my head around the vast starting area of Limgrave. I’d murdered – and been murdered by – skeletons, I’d run away from giant rats, and I’d been into a lot of grimy castles and gloomy caves. I was having a whale of a time. But I was utterly unprepared for what happened when I wandered into an unassuming ruin and stepped onto a lift, weapons at the ready.
What I’d pegged as another unremarkable Limgrave location turned out to be something very different indeed. I first twigged that something was wrong when, after 30 seconds or so, the lift was still going, descending past pillars and rock walls. Another 30 seconds later, I was so utterly gobsmacked I had to set my controller down.
For a moment, I wondered if I’d somehow glitched through the map and, in a feat worthy of a speedrunner, been transported to another realm. The region that Elden Ring dubs Siofra River is reminiscent of some otherworldly landscape; gaze up and you’re greeted by a vast swath of purple stars.
Except those aren’t stars – they’re crystals. Siofra River is a colossal region situated beneath Limgrave, populated by beings who’ve likely never seen natural light. It’s not just the crystalline ceiling either; there are vast ruins reminiscent of Ancient Greece and meadows where sheep are guarded by spectral Vikings.
Fortunately, the first few foes I encountered were so slow that I was able to breathe in Siofa River’s beauty. Yet one nagging question remained: What happened to the people who constructed the now ruined city? Flashing back to Fallen London, I had a vision of some vast Lovecraftian deity dragging it underground, the few survivors who weren’t crushed by falling rock watching helplessly as the earth closed above them.
But for the most part I was absolutely taken by Siofa River, which is why I was utterly unprepared for its cruelest trick, the one that saw me wandering into the Elden Ring equivalent of Doom Eternal.
You see, above ground you can travel between Sites of Grace at will. In Siofra River, you can only travel between the Sites of Grace that are underground. [Editor’s Note: As a commenter nicely pointed out, it turns out you actually can travel back to those other Sites of Grace by pressing the proper button.] While there may be some other exits I’ve missed, at the time I knew of only one way of returning to the surface – taking the original lift.
So I was absolutely overjoyed when I stumbled across a second lift. Finally, a way back to the surface! Siofa River was beautiful, but I decided to return when Elden Ring had better equipped me to deal with ghostly Norsemen. I didn’t feel like traipsing or Gracing back to the main entrance, so this second elevator was just the job.
However, upon reflection, I should have known better. I knew that Elden Ring wouldn’t coddle me, but I still had the notion that I’d be back in familiar territory. Unlike other players, I hadn’t fallen foul of the game’s nightmare chests, but my luck was about to run out. One lift ride later, ooh-ing and aah-ing at Siofa River’s crystal sky, I was back on the surface. The surface of hell.
Elden Ring actually calls it Caelid, but it has hell written all over it. Half a minute after stepping off the lift, I was facing a giant. Not a regular flesh-and-blood giant, mind you, but a giant golem, glowing with some unholy blue light and wielding a massive bow. So I ran, or rode, as fast as I could.
By some small mercy I managed not to be annihilated by the exploding rocks and ultimately escaped what turned out to be a narrow canyon into hell’s plateau, guarded by a second giant golem. I dashed frantically out of range, just far enough for the golem to lose interest.
That’s when I noticed the giant demonic skull embedded in the red cliffs, as well as the massive sentient pot sitting in front of a giant coliseum. If I’d been able to pummel either golem and then boot their mechanical hearts into orbit, Doom Eternal-style, I’d have felt better. But I’d frankly barely taken out Limgrave’s dragon.
Eventually I stopped panicking enough to check my map, and I discovered that, now that I was above ground, I could Grace back to Limgrave. But my experience had left me wary. However, it wasn’t so much that I’d underestimated just how vast Siofra River was in Elden Ring, vast enough that I could walk under the map to Caelid.
Rather, my foray into the hell of Caelid taught me that you can never, ever take Elden Ring for granted. Has that put me off? Absolutely not – I’m dying to see just how else it exploits my expectations. But I’ll be steering clear of New Age shops and other crystal-hawking emporiums for a while.