Elden Ring Review (Spoiler Free)
Let’s not bury the lead here: Elden Ring is a certifiable masterpiece. It’s both an elegant refinement of FromSoftware’s design philosophies, and an audacious step forward. Filled with drama, humor, melancholy, wonder and awe-inspiring moments, it also has, hands down, the best and most refined combat of any action RPG. By far the developer’s most assured game, is Elden Ring the gateway drug to the Dark Souls franchise that it’s intended it to be?
For anyone who is a fan of FromSoft’s games, Elden Ring will feel both familiar but almost shockingly fresh. It makes early games like the original Dark Souls seem unrefined and claustrophobic. Elden Ring pulls together all the best ideas from the prior games and brings them entirely to fruition, and then places them in the context of a spectacular open world.
The Best Open World Ever?
Some open worlds, like in the recent Horizon Forbidden West, exist as elaborate set dressing for a relatively linear story. In contrast, Elden Ring’s open world invites the player to be a genuine explorer, and discover – or not – the narrative along the way. There are clues everywhere. In fact, every NPC, enemy, structure and object contain some of the story’s DNA. It is impossible to waste time, as every moment yields something useful. While it might be possible to temporarily lose the narrative thread, getting lost is just a happy excuse for more exploration. Getting stuck in too challenging combat is a chance to poke the map in a different place.
In terms of size, The Lands Between might not be the largest of any open world game, but it is certainly the most dense with objects, enemies and incidents. There is a map, slowly pieced together region by region, but this isn’t a Ubisoft map cluttered with make-work tasks. Nearly every one of the dozens of NPCs has a quest but you won’t find the objective on the map. The destination isn’t the point, after all.
There is an immense variety in the biomes in the major regions, each with specific enemy types, architecture and lore. The starting area of Limgrave is bucolic and impressive, filled with caves, dungeons, mines, and secret areas. It sets the template for what’s to come. In a sense, Limgrave is an extended tutorial area that’s bigger than most other games. It teaches the player what to expect from the rest of the map. In addition to having a Legacy Dungeon and un-skippable, demigod boss, each area of the map fills in a new part of the narrative. While some of the map is locked behind these requisite boss fights, a great deal of it is open from the start. You can spend many hours exploring and leveling your character before facing your first requisite boss.
Movement Through the World is Easy
Elden Ring solves the problem of moving painlessly around the world by giving the players many options. Checkpoints, called Sites of Lost Grace – the Elden Ring version of Dark Souls’ bonfires – are ridiculously plentiful. Players can freely teleport between them. Sites of Grace also have a subtle, glowing trail pointing the player to the next important location. There are also hidden portals that transport the player to distant and unexpected locations. Sometimes, these are immense hidden areas that exist out of time and outside the map entirely. They can even be deadly traps from which it is difficult to escape.
Unlike past Dark Souls games, verticality is hardwired into the world, and Elden Ring gives players several tools here as well. First, players have a horse called Torrent, allowing them the ability to cover large distances and even fight effectively on horseback. Torrent can use swirling pools of wind to leap impressively up the sides of cliffs. In a first for Dark Souls (though not for Sekiro), players can jump. It seems like a small thing, but it feels great to explore in a new way.
Some open world games feature “emergent gameplay,” where a game’s systems interact in unexpected ways. Not Elden Ring. Everything in this game is intentional and precisely placed. Every sightline, enemy placement and environmental clue has been considered. What’s different in each playthrough is the player and their specific build, abilities and choices along the way. Based what you find and the path you take, much of your specific journey will be unique.
The Best RPG Combat, Period.
If there’s one thing that Soulsborne games are known for, it’s their combat. Of course, each game in the franchise has changed things up. Some of the games emphasized parries and defensive play, others pushed players to be more aggressive. In Elden Ring, FromSoft has taken the best mechanics of all the games and added a few new ideas that players will love. There are new jumping forms of light and heavy attacks, and horse mounted versions of them. There is a new guard counter that rewards simply blocking with the shield or weapon. Power-stancing with two of the same weapon type returns from Dark Souls 2.
Combine over a dozen possible offensive or defensive moves with the ten character classes and hundreds of weapons, sorceries and incantations and the result is combat that rewards every play style and level of experience. In Elden Ring, players can also add Ashes of War (basically, weapon arts) and call on spirit summons to aid them in combat. Calling on human players is easy, too, and Elden Ring makes cooperative exploration painless.
As in many of FromSoft’s games, human and boss enemies have access to the same moves and powers that the player has, making boss and mini boss fights as challenging as always. Elden Ring has some of the best and most memorable boss fights in the series, and there are very few, if any, gimmick bosses with an obvious weak spot. What’s different is that, except for the main story bosses, many of the boss encounters out in the world can be skipped or run away from, to be attempted later. Elden Ring borrows Sekiro’s stealth mechanic, making it possible to sneak past many enemies or to approach them unseen for a backstab.
Given the size of the world, the catalogue of human, animal, magical, and monster-type enemies is immense. As always with Souls, even the weakest foe is capable of killing you, should you not play skillfully. At the same time, every enemy encounter is satisfying and rewarding.
Quality of Life and User Friendliness
While Elden Ring still has an enormous number of opaque systems to understand, moment to moment, it’s the easiest and most immediately accessible game FromSoftware has made. We’ve talked about the ease of movement. Elden Ring adds crafting in a smart way, allowing players to make basic consumables out in the field. Every Dark Souls game has had a hub area. Elden Ring has the Roundtable Hold, which is outside the map proper. It’s home to a number of important class trainers and NPCs and holds keys to the game’s story. In Elden Ring, players no longer need to return to the hub to level their characters. They can do so at any Site of Grace.
The Souls games have a reputation for being punishing, especially for new players. Elden Ring is still a very challenging game, but the difference is players can often bypass difficult enemies until they are ready, and there are plenty of worthwhile things to do as they prepare. Although the immense and labyrinthine Legacy Dungeons provide the classic Dark Souls experience, small things like Sites of Grace adjacent to boss arenas take some of the sting out of repeated attempts. As with all FromSoft games, players will still need to keep an eye on stamina and health during combat. But out in the field, just exploring, stamina is of no concern.
Rich Story, Music and Art Direction
Elden Ring’s world-building and story design are at least in part the work of novelist George R.R. Martin. It’s characters and lore are firmly in the tradition of other Souls games. The narrative — and your role in it — is told indirectly and it is gratifying to piece the puzzle together as you go. In your quest to defeat the demigods, you will meet a wide range of NPCs. Some are weird, some are dishonest, some are noble and almost all of them share the melancholic feeling that pervades the world. Without giving anything away, there are more than a few moments of real emotional richness and depth.
Compared to some recent games, Elden Ring is not a bleeding-edge showcase for the latest graphical effects. Nevertheless, its art direction is immaculate and spectacular. Every area is haunted by relics of a long-past age. It is always interesting to look at and often beautiful and awe-inspiring. New to the series is a day and night cycle that changes the monster population, lovely weather effects, and a head-spinning variety of architectural styles. Elden Ring has the most extensive character creation tools in the Souls series. It’s a large leap forward and a lot of fun to tinker with.
Elden Ring’s music sets a new high mark for the franchise. Composed by Yuka Kitamura, it ranges from powerful action cues in the boss fights to genuinely unnerving, tension-filled orchestra textures in the dungeon areas. The music in the open world appropriately reflects the tone of the landscape. It’s also a cue to impending combat. Environmental audio and voice acting are equally effective.
The game’s minimalist UI is intuitive and especially unobtrusive. Veteran Souls players will need to add some new controller assignments to their muscle memory.
On PS5, graphics options are relatively limited. There is a choice of performance or graphics modes and a few HDR settings. There were a few minor issues with scenery pop in and lighting out in the world, but nothing that seriously degraded the experience.
Is Elden Ring the Souls Game for New Players?
Developer Hidetaka Miyazaki stated that Elden Ring is the most accessible game in the Dark Souls franchise. It’s unassailably true. Elden Ring has more quality of life improvements and features than any game in the series. It offers the widest range of approaches to combat and exploration. At the same time, the combat can still be extremely challenging. Elden Ring has a lot of gameplay mechanics that aren’t always explained. The narrative is non-linear. Souls veterans get this storytelling style but brand new players might not. For fans of the series, Elden Ring is like several years’ worth of Christmas and birthday presents rolled into one. As approachable as Elden Ring is, new or impatient players might be overwhelmed.
Elden Ring is not a literal follow up to the Dark Souls series. But players of Darks Souls, Bloodborne and Sekiro will feel some comforting deja vu. We won’t call it recycling, but some of Elden Ring’s boss designs, move sets and environments have been seen in some form before. All the favorite Dark Souls tropes are here, too: healing flasks, ambushes, secret areas, shortcuts and more. It’s still ridiculously addictive, and the open world just makes it more so.
Elden Ring is an awe-inspiring achievement. Both a summary and bold step forward, it fuses FromSoftware’s best and most effective ideas with an endlessly engaging open world. Its combat is the most refined of the series, challenging yet accessible to new players. Elden Ring includes an incredible amount of quality content. More importantly, it offers a captivating, polished experience fraught with danger and filled with beauty.
***PS5 code provided by the publisher for review***
- Incredibly satisfying combat
- Immense, beautiful world
- Refined mechanics
- Fluid control and movement
- More user friendly than past Souls games
- Some critical path mechanics unclear
- A few uninspired enemies and areas
- Minor visual glitches
- Story might be too opaque for some