In recent years, many open-world games have gone for quantity over quality — big open worlds that are of course beautiful, but not really central to the gameplay itself. You run around, see pretty landmarks, fight some bad guys, collect some items, and then eventually get back to the main story path. A lot of open-world games use all that space primarily for set dressing, and while there’s no inherent issue with that, it does make them feel hollow to me. I’m rarely spending any time genuinely studying or exploring the landscape in games like Dying Light 2, Pokémon Legends: Arceus, and even Horizon Forbidden West.
Meanwhile, when it comes to FromSoftware’s games, a huge part of the appeal is the mere act of exploring their worlds. It’s a part of the primary gameplay loop that both rewards and challenges the player. Whether you’re finding extra Souls, a new piece of equipment, secret bosses, or important items like Estus Shards to improve the amount of life returned to you upon using the Estus Flask, there’s always something worth finding that’s tangible and not just numbers on screen.
Elden Ring takes what FromSoftware has learned over the years and runs with it in The Lands Between. No space is unused in this world. If you see a point of interest, whether it’s ruins, a giant glowing tree, a cave, a castle, or even just a graveyard, it’s worth visiting — because literally everything ties back to the primary loop of becoming more powerful to take on the game’s hardest bosses and legacy dungeons.
It makes the act of exploring both fun and worth the player’s time, and it genuinely feels like I’m exploring. It never feels like a collectathon, and it also retains the constant tension and challenge that Souls games are so good at providing due to having to protect the runes (Elden Ring’s version of Souls) you acquire while out in the world to level up your stats and buy new gear. I’m always searching every nook and cranny trying to find valuable items to aid me on an adventure.
The Lands Between of Elden Ring make for a gorgeous world too, with vistas that really just make the jaw drop at the scale on display. I didn’t know if in going open-world that Elden Ring would still be able to maintain the oppressive feeling that so many of FromSoftware’s games exude so well, but it absolutely does. Moving through the world towards its massive castles feels foreboding in itself, a feeling I don’t recall ever getting from an open-world game. It’s impressive how simply existing in that world triggers emotions.
Thankfully, there’s a much more forgiving checkpoint system in Elden Ring that also helps to keep exploring The Lands Between from becoming tedious. It avoids the frustration of having to explore the same areas over and over again, which is one of the key complaints from people trying to break into the Souls series for the first time. The game’s fast travel system is equally refreshing and available right from the start of the game, allowing you to quickly backtrack to areas you’ve visited and weren’t prepared for without making annoyingly long treks back and forth.
Elden Ring is a masterclass of design for an open world. It’s not full of icons or waypoint markers telling you where to go next, but it still fills the world to the brim with things to do, rather than just making it a set dressing to look at pretty vistas. It invokes that same feeling of free-form adventure that players got from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, while also improving on it and making sure all that extra space is truly utilized.
It’s the first open world that pushed me to explore literally every inch of the map (and I’m not done yet) to find its secrets, all to prepare me for the big challenges ahead. It’s a testament to the game’s design that I spent 10 hours just exploring before even taking on the first major legacy dungeon and boss in the game’s world, and even then I don’t feel like I’m done exploring the game’s opening regions just yet.
Elden Ring is Breath of the Wild’s sense of adventure fully realized — and the best open-world game I’ve ever experienced.