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Elden Ring Is More Than Just 'Open World Dark Souls'

This could be something special

Poorna Shankar Updated: Posted:
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This weekend, I had the chance to check out FromSoftware’s latest opus, the upcoming Elden Ring. Developed in collaboration with George RR Martin, Elden Ring is a first of sorts for the veteran developers who effectively defined this subgenre. Can they do it again?

You’ve no doubt heard the term “Souls-like” or “Souls-Borne” to describe this subgenre of games. You know the type. Challenging but precise combat. Labyrinthian level design. Achingly gorgeous art direction. Massive environments. Epic boss encounters. And truly incredible enemy design pushing the limits of imagination.

If you’ve played any of FromSoft’s previous titles, Elden Ring should be very familiar to you in many respects. Enemies, apart from bosses, reset when you die. You have health, mana (called Faith here), and stamina bars. Killing enemies drops a resource, called Runes in Elden Ring, required to level up and purchase items at vendors. Site of Grace (this game’s version of bonfires) allow you to rest, level up, and act as fast travel points. And oh yeah, there are tons of bosses.

But calling Elden Ring, “open world Dark Souls,” would be a tragically narrow distillation of what FromSoft are trying to do with Elden Ring. In many ways, I believe Elden Ring to be the next logical evolution of FromSoft’s brilliant formula.

Let’s start with the mundane and work our way up to heart of it all. When I first booted up Elden Ring on PS5, I was immediately struck by its gorgeous art direction. It’s far closer to Dark Souls 2 and 3 than it is to FromSoft’s previous outing, Sekiro.

I played in framerate mode which targets performance up to 60fps with cuts no doubt to resolution and some graphical flourishes. There is also a quality mode which looks to push resolution up to 4K at more console-standard 30fps.

Unfortunately, I could immediately make out frametime inconsistencies which resulted in stutter. This meant even though the game might be pumping out 60 frames in one second, the delivery of those frames were uneven. And it is this unevenness which manifests as stutter and just feels bad.

Pop-in was very noticeable specifically on grass. This wasn’t a simple fade either, rather, a full-on appearance of vast chunks of grass where there previously was none. I’m curious to see how the visuals scale out on PC since I plan on playing on that platform. Given that this whole build is indeed a test and nowhere near the finished game (which releases February 22), there is still time for FromSoft to optimize here.

Elden Ring also includes dynamic weather and time of day. This is more just a cosmetic inclusion. From my experience, I encountered enemies (and roaming bosses) at night which I honestly don’t think were present during the day. For min/maxers, or simply those who love exploration, this adds an entirely new layer into the mix. I love this as it gives you yet another reason to be diligent in your travels.

I couldn’t create a custom character as part of this test. I suspect a more robust character creator will manifest in the final game. Instead, I was presented with several classes ranging from more melee-focused to more pure magic.

I ended up selecting the Enchanted Knight which has high Intelligence and Strength, allowing you to play as mage or melee. I had a staff in left hand and a spear in right. This allowed for dealing magic damage at range, but also allowed for great reach with the spear if enemies closed the distance on me.

To my delight, magic is super powerful in Elden Ring. It honestly reminds me of magic’s potency in Demon’s Souls. Magic attacks in Elden Ring can stagger some enemies, and you can seemingly cast them quite quickly. I love magic in fantasy, and always hate it when developers pull back from the potency of magic. In my view, magic is this ancient power and therefore should be super powerful. I’m so happy magic appears powerful in Elden Ring.

Overall, combat feels great. From Software are masters of this type of RPG, arguably pioneering it. When you kill things, you collect Runes (this game’s version of Souls). You’ll also find various Rune fragments. Consuming them gives you Runes. But I highly advise you only consume these fragments at a Site of Grace when you level up and not out in the world. This is because you drop your Runes upon death, but you can go recover them. Your death location is marked on your map and compass to help you navigate. Therefore, if you consumed several of these fragments, die, and are unable to recover them, they are lost to you.

Additionally, you have a Flask of Crimson Tears to refill health, and Flask of Cerulean Tears to fill up magic. When you kill a group of enemies, your flasks are refilled. This, I suspect, is a concession to the open world design. Instead of forcing you travel to Sites of Grace to rest and heal, allowing the refill of these flasks through combat keeps you in the world without halting your momentum. This is simply good game design. It maintains the risk/reward gameplay of From Software titles, while simultaneously encouraging and enabling the open world exploration.

And we’ve arrived at last. The world. What a world. Called The Lands Between, this world really wants you to explore. This is a game for explorers in that you’re given almost no direction. The map itself is completely blank, devoid of the usual glut of icons we’ve been inundated with from other open world games.

However, FromSoft gives you tools to help you structure your experience. For one, Sites of Grace emanate a subtle golden streak in the direction of your objective. You can, of course, ignore it as I did. But it’s there if you want it.

Additionally, you can create beacons on your map to guide you. These show up as literal beams of light shooting skyward making it quite easy to get your bearings in the world. You can also place markers on the map to notate things like danger, animals, herbs, treasure, and more.

You can navigate the world using the compass at the top of the screen as well. The compass also includes icons of various points of interest, but don’t expect it to get cluttered. Those icons are more of a, “hey there’s a thing over here you can check out if interested,” instead of, “here’s another activity you must cross off your checklist.”

These points of interest carry with them the great level design and mystery for which FromSoft is known. That sense of detail hasn’t been diluted by the addition of an open world. I always felt compelled to check the next ridge and peek around the next corner. And more often than not, something would be there.

For instance, I found a cave carved out of a cliffside. Inside, I found some wolves and ultimately, a world boss. FromSoft’s brilliant enemy design and combat were on fully display. But that wasn’t the point.

The point is this: If you didn’t go exploring, you would never have known that cave existed. There isn’t some giant CAVE ICON on your compass desperately pointing you towards it. The Lands Between were here long before you. The world owes you nothing. It’s on you to go discover it. There’s a real sense of nervous excitement because you’re truly exploring the unknown.

Unlike other open world games which are so worried about you losing interest that they constantly barrage you with things to do, FromSoft completely pull back from that. Instead, they let your curiosity guide you. They fundamentally understand curiosity is far more powerful than a checklist of activities will ever be, and my experience was enhanced for it.

All of this is to say if you’re the type of player who needs structured direction, I daresay you won’t like Elden Ring. For others who, like me, are natural-born explorers and prefer to make our own way with little handholding, I really believe you’ll enjoy and appreciate what FromSoft have created.

Even though I’ve only played a contained, limited-time slice of Elden Ring, it feels like the next logical evolution of From Software’s Souls-Borne formula. It’s so much more than just “open world Dark Souls” for all the reasons I laid out above. The incredible combat is there, yes. But there are now roaming bosses, actual dungeons, and the very real sense of exploring the unknown.

That last one is so crucial to selling Elden Ring that I spent nearly half this article describing it. I truly believe the world will end up being the most important character in Elden Ring. It’s not simply a treadmill funneling you from one mundane activity to the next just to give you “things to do.” It’s a place containing real secrets, one which actively rewards your curiosity. The folks who will get the most out of Elden Ring will the those who brave the depths and search every inch of the Lands Between.

Bring on February.


Poorna Shankar