“Elden Ring” is the latest entry from developers FromSoftware that has taken the gaming industry by storm, and rightly so. Like its predecessors (referred to by fans as the “SoulsBorne” series, despite not being officially singular series or continuity) Elden Ring empowers its players by ironically refusing to hold their hands and pitting them against authentic difficulty, something that was long thought to make this genre of game a niche in the community. Elden Ring’s success not only has disproven this but reinforces why its core design philosophy has allowed it to crank out a masterpiece not just within its own genre, but within the medium. I have played close to a hundred hours at the time of writing, having completed my first playthrough and started tearing through my second, and while I have yet to experience all there is (a herculean task I doubt will be reached by anyone for years to come) in Elden Ring I am more than qualified now to explain why you should make this purchase for yourselves.
The most important thing is strangely enough telling you everything this game is not. The minority of poor reviews for Elden Ring stem from people buying it expecting it to be something it simply is not. The community can also be a great hinderance here, as the way fans have talked about it over the years is the reason previous entries remained niche titles. First and foremost is that this game believes in giving the player a broad level of agency and next to no outside guidance by the developers. The game’s story is purposefully meant to be vague and with large gaps in your understanding of it. The game never telling you where to go beyond the occasional suggestion by an NPC (non-player character) that is usually bare bones is intentional. The game’s difficulty not being adjustable and unapologetic at points is by design. All of this encompasses the high level of agency and minimal level of guidance mentioned earlier.
If you are expecting a game like “Skyrim” where, while an open world game, narrative is made obvious and at times unavoidably given to you, NPCs are fountains of exposition and difficulty is not only adjustable at any point but inherently artificial: do not buy this game. Conversely, do not stop yourself from buying this game because a member of its community refuses to shut up about how “the game is brutally hard” or “not for casuals”. Not only are they obnoxious, but they’re also sorely mistaken. Yes, the game is difficult. But the game’s difficulty is never meant to be insurmountable, but instead is the mechanism to deliver an authentic sense of achievement to its players.
With the design philosophy explained, here’s why it works in practice. When you exit the game’s introductory segment, you are immediately hit with the vastness of the world before you. Exploration only feeds the scale of the world further, with more exploration revealing more areas of the world map left unexplored for now. Discovering the world is organic and authentic, making you feel like a wandering adventurer in a forgotten world of fantasy. Your agency is exemplified by the fact that if you can see it, no matter far off on the horizon it is, you can go there. This is before even mentioning the fact that the game, both graphically and aesthetically, is gorgeous. When you discover an element of the game’s narrative, after finding key items and examining the visual storytelling woven into the world, you feel like a scholar making a grand revelation of ages past. All because you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you alone did this, not the developers leading you towards it.
When you get inevitably beaten down by enemies in this game, particularly the myriad of bosses, the kneejerk feeling of frustration rarely surpasses the sense of determination to keep going until you show that enemy what you’re made of. Because you have so much agency you know that while losing to a hard boss is largely by personal fault, that intrinsically means your success is equally determined on your merits and skills as well. You learned the bosses move set down to muscle memory. You realized their weakness. You pulled out the moves required to lay titans low. The game being open world now allows you to leave a boss you currently can’t beat, get stronger, then return to absolutely humiliate a boss that previously one shot you. Even the game’s cooperative feature creates a healthy feedback game loop, whereby the aid of another player granting you victory, many often then resolve themselves to help the next line of players struggling with that boss themselves by engaging in co-op. Simply put, real challenge grants real achievement.
Elden Ring also offers a plethora of ways to play the game, from stats to gear. New features like Ashes of War give even more unique ways to build a character. Without spoilers, there is even a way to respec your character midgame. You can play several different builds all in one playthrough if you wish. Whether that’s to exploit a particular boss’s weaknesses, fix an error you made with stats before you understood more of the game’s mechanics, or even just to experiment for its own sake. Beating bosses can also reward you with the opportunity to wield the weapons and/or spells they used against you.
Elden Ring is the most accessible entry of its kind, without sacrificing why it became so beloved in the first place. With a world so expansive its community will be active for many years to come, allowing new players to get the true Elden Ring experience even if they don’t purchase the game in its opening release window. Few games can be as addictive and satisfying where I pour the hours I did into the game, and I urge anyone who is interested in what it offers to pick this game up.
Photo Credit: FromSoftware