Elden Ring, FromSoftware's latest "Soulsborne" game has been out for a few weeks. I've amassed over 100 hours in my first playthrough during that period. I've been reviewing games for what now seems to be a long time. During this, I've played many forgettable titles and some very exceptional ones that always come to mind when I consider masterpieces of my career. During these first 100 hours, I've seen the worst that Elden Ring has to offer and the best. With all of that considered, Elden Ring is a game that now should be considered up there with most modern video game masterpieces.
If you are unfamiliar with what a "Souls" game is, it is an adventure game with an incredibly high difficulty level. Most progress in these types of games is built upon gathering leveling resources, dying, collecting them from where you died, and eventually growing stronger. "Souls" games also have a very bad habit of making you learn mechanics the most challenging way possible. Because of this, these types of games generally aren't considered what we would consider inclusive. Elden Ring does it differently though.
In Elden Ring, you are given an open world to explore. This massive world is filled with interesting NPCs, deadly enemies, and surprisingly easy to access lore. Upon the commencement of the game, it is quick to teach you some things to immediately do and don't. Don't fight massive knights, clad in gold, riding giant warhorses. Do look for graces on the ground and touch them. Visit church ruins, almost every visit is worth it. Don't jump before looking. "Try finger, but whole". These lessons in traditional "Souls" games are usually capped with an incredibly difficult boss fight. Elden Ring just simply gives you carte blanche.
Rise, Tarnished! Then rise again.
My journey started with using the character creation tools to make Hange Zoe from Attack on Titan. It was sort of an accident, but I thought it would be cool after messing with some character settings. My character ended up starting with the samurai class. That meant my journey started with a bow and a katana. The katana inflicts bleed, which gives me a massive damage bonus on things that well, bleed. The bow gave me a fantastic ranged advantage out of the gate. I learned that all katana are bleed weapons, I enjoy their range and attacks.
The initial Elden Ring playthrough was an odd one. I collected some neat tools called "ashes" that allowed me to summon help in certain areas. For some reason, I could never find these areas in my first 30 hours of play. I also collected a lot of cookbooks throughout the world, which apparently would give me the ability to craft items and tools. The option remained grayed out through this first playthrough.
I met a handful of NPCs, got some neat items, and then visited a large castle. I met the first difficult boss in the game at the castle, Margit the Fell. I could not beat him for a while until I eeked out a simultaneous death with him in a victorious moment. I ventured a little further into the castle, took a walk to soothe my nerves, and came back to a crashed PlayStation 5. Unfortunately, a glitch at launch caused Elden Ring to save files to delete if the console went into standby. As I Googled the whereabouts of my progress, I could hear the review score drop.
After taking a day to decompress, I essentially restarted my playthrough but went straight ahead. This time, I found a man who sold a crafting kit and a woman who gave me a bell to use summon ashes. Before, I tried to take a calculated path, but I took a more casual path this time. I got teleported to some crazy high-level areas, found some unique gear. I went to the castle with a much more powerful character and immediately defeated Margit. Shortly after, I collected my first Great Rune and made major advancements to the story. This is the playthrough that I took for another additional 60 hours.
Elden Ring is the best-combined part of every FromSoftware game.
Elden Ring has a lot of things in common with all of its predecessors. It has a lot of the mobility of former The Game Awards GOTY Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It boasts the much more aggressive combat of Bloodborne. Weapon skills from Dark Souls 3 return as Arts of War. Dark Souls 2's storytelling is one-upped by the open-world narrative offered by Elden Ring. As a longtime fan of "Souls" games, Elden Ring truly is a mishmash of FromSoftware's greatest accomplishments.
"Souls" games like Elden Ring have a reputation for having some interesting lore hidden behind shallow characters and seemingly one-off dialogue. Elden Ring still has a lot of extra reading and research if you want all of the story, but there is a lot more at the forefront. There are super amazing NPCs like Blaidd and Alexander the pot-man that will assist you on your journey. Ranni the Witch will request your servitude and Melina the maiden will serve as your guide. Unlike other games, Elden Ring takes some exceptional care in introducing these characters and motivations to you. I don't want to spoil anything but your role in this grand story is very clear if you are paying attention. It certainly beats watching hours of YouTube lore explanations.
Those that have already completed any "Souls" game already know that liking NPC characters can be a painful thing to do. Elden Ring makes it very easy to do though. I coaxed a young lady out of a suicidal depression. Motivated a former warrior to pick her blade up again. I was betrayed time and again by the lowest scum that you can't help but forgive. I even helped a brother overcome the grief of his brother's murder. The world feels alive partly because, in Elden Ring, the characters do too. The most amazing moment I had in the game was during an earlier boss fight where I summoned quite a few of these characters to assist in the battle. We rushed up a hill together and eventually took the threat down. I was playing by myself but it didn't feel like it.
Sometimes there's more than just hitting things hard.
Combat in Elden Ring is what you make of it. I started with an absolute focus on melee and mainly using katana. Eventually, I co-opted dragon magic into my arsenal and then started using axes and other weapons with unique arts of war. Early on, it becomes apparent that standing around waiting for openings is the easiest way to get sent back to your last visited grace. Instead, exploring an enemy opening and hitting them hard and fast is usually the best way to go. Learning enemy behavior and exploring it in combat is the primary way I got most things done. Don't sleep on it at all.
It's worth noting that defense is still just as important as offense in Elden Ring. Knowing when to block or dodge is the difference between life and death. The rule of thumb is understanding that rolling, mounting, or dismounting your horse will cause moments or brief invincibility. The best players learn to use this to their advantage over and over. I, admittedly, am not one of the best players and spend a lot of time spamming my roll button to try to get myself out of danger. Usually, panic attempts lead into corners, or off cliffs. Halfway through the game, I developed a cooler head and became more aware of what called for a dodge and what didn't.
Bosses in Elden Ring are the largest hurdles I encountered. While there are over 100 bosses in the game, the major ones do their best to stand out. Every major boss requires increasing higher mastery of the game's basic skills.
These bombastic fights first start with you facing off against a foe that slowly advances on you. From that point forward, you need to get used to being ready to dodge devasting ranged attacks or even bosses taking a cheap shot at you as soon as a cutscene ends.
I don't think I've ever been powerbombed to death by a guy I thought I had beat, but I bet it'll happen to you as well. Fortunately, beating nearly any boss rewards you with enough cool gear, weapons and skill to keep the serotonin running. Some of the later bosses get incredibly frustrating and larger and much more intimidating.
Don't ever let anyone make you feel bad for getting help if needed.
Looking for help, or trouble, online.
Co-op in Elden Ring worked better than I expected, most of the time. It was an utter treat to summon a few people to help me take down a difficult dungeon, or overcome a boss. The world scales a little more difficult to compensate as well, so it makes things a little less cheesy. I did find that occasionally on the more difficult bosses, it seemed it was harder to use the summoning system successfully. This was most likely because the signs on the ground were being activated by other players faster than I was seeing them on my end. I eventually found a few other friends that had the game on the same platform I did and we summoned each other for more difficult content. Generally speaking, doing this requires the use of an easily crafted item but also rewards you with a valuable item that helps you strengthen your character temporarily.
Conversely, PVP in Elden Ring is also an interesting affair. While I'm not the most avid PVP player, I did try my hand at invading other players' games. While I initially did this out of necessity to complete a questline, I did just in a few more times once I earned a reusable item that allowed me to do this whenever I wanted. The concept of PVP in the game is interesting. The player that wishes to be the hunted player can be invaded by players. The hunted player can also call for help from others. This led to a few times where I would be hunting someone in the underground, only to come face to face with a group. Usually, I wasn't the only invader though, so it was the hottest of messes in the best way possible.
"Elden Bling" is a thing. Look it up!
The biggest thing I initially took issue with was just how long my starting equipment stayed with me. Unlike a lot of games where you constantly are throwing on the newest weapons and gear you come across, Elden Ring will almost always start you with decent gear. One of the biggest lessons to learn is that armor is almost exclusive to aesthetics. It can help at a percentage level, but stats grow as you level and most of your durability comes from that. I instead did what made me happy and wore whatever gear I deemed cool enough to run around with. That started with my basic samurai gear, moved over to some knight armor with long hair, and then finally to armor very similarly to a late-game boss. I did tweak this a little bit for playing online, because who doesn't want to play PVP as a naked person with a bulbous frog head?
Weapons in Elden Ring are a completely different beast. Special weapons usually contain unique Arts of War, which are special weapon skills that use FP. These skills can be things like blinking around the battlefield, creating a devastating wave of ice, or crazy anime-like blade slashes that destroy everything around you. Also, when it comes to weapons, you can power stance them. This allows you to use two of the same type of weapon and attack with both instead of having access to blocking. This was an all-in strategy that I honestly never found a need for. It looks cool though. The only drawback to weapons is that you find a lot. Some of these look incredibly awesome but require you to manage your stats, which can sometimes be supplemented with the talismans you can find.
Elden Ring is a game that will redefine a genre.
Overall, Elden Ring is a game with the possibility of having a punishing difficulty. However, the most unique aspect of the game is that without pathways and corridors limiting most of the world to you, the player controls a lot of how difficult the game is. As a veteran of FromSoftware's work and those inspired by it, I found that sometimes leaving a pain point and traveling across the world was the best option for me. Sure, it made my first playthrough so much longer, but I also enjoyed every minute of my adventure. I'm already starting my next playthrough on new game plus. Yes, just because you finish your journey doesn't mean you are done with the game.
At the start of this review, I brought up how Elden Ring should be considered a modern masterpiece. In the nearly 15 years that I've been writing about video games, only a few have consumed my life as Elden Ring has. I was playing it off the clock. I was playing it with my sons. I played it later than I should and before everyone got up in the morning. I lost nearly all my progress once, after playing for nearly 3 days straight, and still happily picked back up from 30 minutes into the game. Elden Ring was a reminder to me that video games can be fun and include things like challenge and adventure. The thrill of finding a new weapon or triumphing over a difficult boss has been my lifeblood for the last 3 weeks.
You will enjoy this game if you can stomach the abuse that Elden Ring dishes out. Even if you cannot, there is so much out there that you can do if you aren't afraid of running from scary fights. Some locations can be less fun than others, and some bosses create skill-based stopgaps. Elden Ring is all about picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and sometimes finding something more enjoyable to do. It's worth the investment.