FromSoftware Elden Ring open world gameplay design philosophy Zelda Breath of the Wild Shadow of the Colossus

It may have taken 732 days, but we finally got an update on Elden Ring. FromSoftware’s next brutal adventure was originally revealed at Xbox’s E3 2019 showcase, and for the two years that followed, it went MIA. But the 2021 Summer Game Fest Kickoff! ended on a high note with a new look at Elden Ring, this time delivering a three-minute gameplay trailer and a January 2022 release date alongside even more details from publisher Bandai Namco Entertainment.

While there’s almost enough to dissect in the trailer to make up for the two-year wait, my biggest takeaway is that Elden Ring marks the first time that FromSoftware’s “soulsborne” formula will exist in a true open-world game, a far departure from the intricate, interconnected mazes that make up most of the Dark Souls trilogy and Bloodborne. And while it might be hard to wrap your head around FromSoftware’s philosophy working in an open world, you need look no further than a pair of classics in Shadow of the Colossus and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to see how it could work wonderfully.

After a brief opening that sets the tone with some ethereal imagery and foreboding narration, the gameplay trailer showcases a series of wide, sweeping shots of environments far larger in scale than anything that’s existed as play spaces in FromSoftware games up until now. They seem to all center around a massive auburn tree (most likely the Erdtree), reminiscent of the Yggdrasil of Norse mythology.

Bandai Namco offers this elaboration:

Elden Ring features vast fantastical landscapes and shadowy, complex dungeons that are connected seamlessly. Traverse the breathtaking world on foot or on horseback, alone or online with other players, and fully immerse yourself in the grassy plains, suffocating swamps, spiraling mountains, foreboding castles and other sites of grandeur on a scale never seen before in a FromSoftware title.

FromSoftware Elden Ring open world gameplay design philosophy Zelda Breath of the Wild Shadow of the Colossus

Some shots in the trailer evoke moments from throughout FromSoftware’s history. There are cliff sides at dusk reminiscent of Dark Souls 2’s Majula, ruins that defy gravity and fold into themselves like Dark Souls 3’s Dreg Heap, and gothic architecture that bring to mind Bloodborne’s unforgettable Cainhurst Castle. The combat showcases moments of stealth akin to Sekiro, alongside spells conjured from a catalyst like in Dark Souls. But while the individual elements might feel familiar in a vacuum, the way they appear to be connected is what makes Elden Ring feel unique.

The shot that really puts Elden Ring’s scope into perspective is when the player character summons a neat horse/goat hybrid mount and rides off into the distance. A first for modern FromSoftware games, the mount is shown throughout the trailer, helping you cross expansive plains and bridges, scaling high cliffs, and even carrying you in combat against both standard enemy mobs and a massive dragon. It doesn’t feel like your steed is simply a quicker way to get from point A to point B, but rather an integral part of Elden Ring’s design.

Elden Ring’s horse pal definitely brings to mind Shadow of the Colossus. Team Ico’s masterpiece is set in a world that’s oppressively lonely. It feels like the only things left alive are you and the 16 massive beings that you’re forced to slay. When you’re not in complete awe over the size of the beasts, much of your time in the world is spent on long horseback rides where you’re forced to really dwell on your actions — and the kind of thing you might become if you slay the colossi.

That specific feeling of post-battle melancholy is FromSoftware’s bread and butter. Whether it’s slaying Sif at the grave of Artorias or the tragic arc of Emma, the Gentle Blade, the thrill of victory in these games often comes at a terrible price. Elden Ring will likely be no different.

Likewise, the scope of some of the beasts, particularly the giant stone tortoise with a bell hanging beneath it, feels akin to Shadow of the Colossus as well. Although, in this case it doesn’t seem like the turtle is a boss, but rather a massive, roaming NPC who might even contain explorable ruins atop its back.

On the whole though, FromSoftware stands to benefit the most from marrying Breath of the Wild open-world principles with its unique design philosophy. Breath of the Wild’s depiction of Hyrule is vast without feeling overwhelming. It lacks clutter yet is filled with tiny sights, sounds, and encounters that all feel important. It presents a world with simple and recognizable shapes, prominent horizons, and a smart use of elevation. Sightlines convey so much information, all anchored at the center by Hyrule Castle, dripping with Calamity Ganon’s Malice, and the castle acts as your North Star in the same way that the aforementioned Erdtree seems to do.

Breath of the Wild encourages you to climb up to a high point and survey your surroundings, which is so much more rewarding than just opening up your map and placing a marker on some pre-designated point of interest. The sensation of discovering something based on your observation and natural curiosity, as opposed to simply following a marker on a map, is genuinely powerful and satisfying. It’s a similar feeling to what I had the first time I played Dark Souls, cleared out the Undead Parish, cautiously hopped aboard an elevator, and suddenly found myself back in the warm and familiar safety of Firelink Shrine. Imagining that sensation amplified throughout an open world is exciting, to say the least.

FromSoftware Elden Ring open world gameplay design philosophy Zelda Breath of the Wild Shadow of the Colossus

FromSoftware’s games post-Demon’s Souls do an excellent job of visually foreshadowing areas you’ll discover in the future, while giving you moments to look back and reflect on how far you’ve come. And while I certainly hope and expect Elden Ring’s open world to be more than just a vast space connecting various points of interest, there’s no doubt the game will contain the kinds of unforgettable locations FromSoftware excels at delivering, like the Tower of Latria, the Painted World(s), and Hirata Estate.

There’s so much more to unpack from the Elden Ring gameplay trailer and smattering of details we got from Bandai Namco and FromSoftware. Its unique combat quirks, specific multiplayer functionality, and lore by A Song of Ice and Fire creator George R.R. Martin are still rife for speculation leading up to the game’s Jan. 21, 2022 release date (delays notwithstanding). But after two long years, our first real look at Elden Ring proved to be everything fans hoped for from a game that took the incredible FromSoftware formula and evolved it in an open world.

Marty Sliva
Marty Sliva has been writing about video games, popular culture, and the 1995 film Babe professionally for the past decade. You can follow him on Twitter @McBiggitty.

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