Elden Ring Brings Soulsborne Into the Open World
A true testament to innovation with the near-flawless introduction of an open world
“Magnum opus” is a limiting phrase. Defining something as your magnum opus is like causing a chain reaction of damnation; anything that precedes it is nothing more than a build-up to the magnum opus and, oftentimes, anything that comes after will never be as good. I don’t like using this word for that reason — I believe there’s ALWAYS room for improvement, somewhere. With that being said, Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creator of the Soulsborne genre, makes it extremely difficult for me to stick to this ideology with Elden Ring. The newest creation of FromSoftware is the natural evolution of Soulsborne, deconstructing everything that works from the genre and putting it back together atop a foundation of an open world.
This game was reviewed with a free code provided by publisher Bandai Namco.
The gaming sphere’s eyes have been on this game for years now, and as we inched closer to release, the excitement was astounding to see. Fortunately for fans both new and old, Elden Ring does indeed live up to the hype that has garnered over the years. I’ve logged roughly 45 hours, and while I’m not fully complete with the game at the point of this review-in-progress, I’ve walked the lands of Elden Ring enough to deliver my thoughts on the overall experience.
Elden Ring is vast in both scope and scale. For someone reviewing the game, like myself, it’s a lot easier to justify logging 10+ hours a day in this game, but the average person will take weeks, possibly months, to cross the finish line. I’ve done my diligence to stick my head in every nook-and-cranny I could find, and I still feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s available to explore in Elden Ring.
It is a truly open world that is both beautiful and bountiful, offering countless things to collect and locations to explore. I played Elden Ring on my PlayStation 5 in performance mode and I had almost no issues with performance. Aside from a crash or two, Elden Ring has run flawlessly on this platform. In the department of looks, it’s a gorgeous game. Stunning vistas are supplemented by beautiful environments that vary in biome, detail, and scale. While it doesn’t look as flawless as Demon’s Souls does, Elden Ring is a looker and I’d be surprised if anyone had qualms with the world’s beauty.
“The Lands Between” Linearity and Openness
The Lands Between, Elden Ring’s world, trades the drab and gothic Kingdom of Lothric from Dark Souls 3 for a colorful and capricious look. It works, too — for comparison’s sake, Elden Ring’s world is most like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s clearly inspired by nordic mythology, but more importantly, there are locations, secrets, and characters for the player to discover around every corner. Locations, secrets, and characters are not new to the Soulsborne genre; we’ve seen those in play since we stepped off the Firelink Shrine in the original Dark Souls. The difference here, which is what makes Elden Ring such a joy, is the juxtaposition of those aspects onto an open world.
You don’t get a true sense of scale for Elden Ring until you slay the boss waiting for you in Stormveil Castle. After stepping out of what I consider to be Elden Ring’s version of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild’s Great Plateau, you’re greeted with the Lakes of Liurnia. This stretch of land is sprawling and dotted with points of interest to explore, all hosting secrets of their own. The hand-craftedness of Elden Ring synthesizes an active open world.
Say goodbye to the emptiness of your typical Ubisoft open-world game; every inch of The Lands Between is alive with thought, detail, and execution. Elden Ring is the most expansive and most open world I’ve played that also manages to be exceptionally dense with content. That’s the most important thing Elden Ring manages to accomplish, as a vast and dense experience is the pedigree of a truly open world.
Even for its size, at no point does Elden Ring suffer from a lack of environmental variety. I’m not allowed to nor do I want to go into heavy detail about some of the breathtaking regions players are bound to come across in The Lands Between, but I can speak on how it made me feel: dwarfed.
Much of Elden Ring’s world is hulking and has the ability to urge wanderlust out of anyone, even those deadset on honing in on the main story. This is only supported by the gorgeous structures dotting the horizon, all of which can be explored and are stunning to walk through. Lonely libraries and calamitous castles make up the bulk of what players will come across in their first 20 hours or so, but more locales can be found later on. My favorite? Jarbug, where the adorable jar-people-things live. They must be protected.
Much of Elden Ring’s world is hulking and has the ability to urge wanderlust out of anyone, even those deadset on honing in on the main story.
Distractions from the main points of interest that dot the horizon of Elden Ring are incredibly common, pulling the player away from the trails of Grace that guide them to their next destination. These moments are my favorite — they’re when I can happen across a cavalry knight that only appears during the evening, or when I can find a talking jug stuck in the ground (smacking him in the rear with a club to help him out of the hole was as fun as it sounds.) Exploration is rewarded, too. That cavalry knight I found dropped a rare weapon and that talking jug encounter was humorous.
More importantly, though, the jug appeared, later on, to help me as a summon in one of the greatest bosses in Soulsborne. It was wicked. Moments like these aren’t rare in The Lands Between. In fact, they’re fairly common and are begging to be discovered. They’re also only toppings to the real meat of Elden Ring: the locations.
This exploration is supplemented by additional traveling mechanics, like Torrent, the ridable steed that can double jump and traverse the sprawling landmasses with ease. While the ability to jump finally made its way to Soulsborne games in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, it once again returns in Elden Ring. Jumping has a purpose in both battle and exploration. With extremely light platforming and jumping acting as a dodge mechanic, this addition is a natural and welcome evolution to Soulsborne.
Acting as anchor points for The Lands Between and the encounters that come with it are Legacy Dungeons. The best of these dungeons are main story points where the player will find the Lords, but many Legacy Dungeons are completely optional. These areas boast extra challenges and bosses that tend to be much more difficult than overworld bosses. More importantly, though, the Legacy Dungeons prove that Elden Ring is still capable of the more linear, directed maps of prior Soulsborne games. Stormveil Castle is the best example of this, as it essentially offers one main point of entry. Grace points, Elden Ring’s bonfires, act as checkpoints between the hallways of these dangerous Legacy Dungeons.
Some of the Legacy Dungeons, like in other Soulsborne games, blend a linear environment with multiple choices of routes, offering a semi-open dungeon that can be explored to one’s will. Not all do, though, as some are simpler in nature, offering a room-to-room dungeon that typically concluded with a boss fight. Perhaps the most humorous moments of exploration were when I would be haphazardly teleported across the map to another location just for opening a chest. This happens more often than you’d expect in Elden Ring, but I didn’t mind it, as it was clearly intentional and allowed me to get a glimpse of areas I was soon to explore.
As with any jump in scope comes growing pains, and Elden Ring shows a few of them. I didn’t have any game-breaking bugs within The Lands Between, but some enemies (looking at you, dragons) would disappear completely and reappear back where they spawn at. Presumably, this was to keep them within the set “arena” where players are supposed to fight them, but I found this rather limiting in an open world. Since dragons are very mobile with their ability to fly, it seemed they reached their bounds more often than other bosses. Beyond this, though, I didn’t have any issues with the open-world besides what I found with the bosses.
Elden Ring’s ability to blend the open world with the Legacy Dungeons satisfies both those eager to step into an open environment and those who prefer the closed world design of Soulsborne’s past. In between, the points of interest that can always be caught on the horizon are smaller, more active encounters, ones that bring life into the world. Whether it’s a convoy of enemies, a pack of wolves, or a slumbering dragon, the environments of The Lands Between are inhabited by dangerous foes out to sully your adventure. Fortunately, unlike its counterparts, Elden Ring isn’t going to completely steal away your sanity.
Difficult, but not Harrowing
As Elden Ring trades Dark Souls’ darkness for vibrancy, it also trades unfairness for facilitation. Though not easy, Elden Ring provides a much more forgiving experience. This comes in the form of additions like Stakes of Marika, which are spawn points often found before dangerous encounters. Eliminating the dreaded “run back” that comes after being defeated is the main purpose of these Stakes, ultimately aiding in success. Funnily enough, the Legacy Dungeons, which are more similar to prior Soulsborne games, utilize the Stakes less, making them even more of a callback. Other smaller additions that make the game easier include things like Golden Seeds being found at glowing branch locations, which makes them easy to spot in the open world. Golden Seeds upgrade the number of Flask of Tears one has, which can be used to either gain HP or FP back.
These changes come at the cost of the game being a little easier than what I’ve previously played in the Soulsborne genre (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 3, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice), but that’s not to say Elden Ring is simple. The combat is just as complex if not more so than previous games in Soulsborne, and Elden Ring is still more difficult than most games I’ve played. Furthermore, the bosses in Elden Ring are still anxiety-inducing. With my build, (Dexterity, Intelligence, and Strength) most of them were taking out more than half of my health in one hit, making dodge rolling something I had to perfect.
Elden Ring openly encourages you to walk away from, or simply run past, enemies that are too tough. From the moment you leave the first spawn, you come across a boss known as the Tree Sentinel, which is definitely not supposed to be fought this early on. After being one-shotted more than a few times, it was evident that Elden Ring was demonstrating a lesson early on that it’s okay to push forward to the church up ahead, where I was met with a Grace point and a merchant.
This kind of “you’re not supposed to be doing this yet” happens often throughout the game, but fortunately, nothing is physically stopping you from heeding these warnings. A few bosses, like a dragon I found brooding on a bridge, continually walloped me until I finally overcame him. The choice to subject myself to the pain was something I appreciated Elden Ring giving me. For those of you who enjoy being walled off by bosses: that exists as well, most notably in Legacy Dungeons, where progression is blocked by the next nasty you come across.
Roleplaying, better than ever
Your ability to progress in the game is closely tied to your build, which can make the game noticeably easier or annoyingly harder. I chose to go for my usual build in this game: Dexterity, Strength, and Intelligence. These stats made my character a hard-hitting battlemage that prioritized enchanted weaponry over spells. The result? Lots of damage, at the cost of being squishier than most. This is just one of the many kinds of builds players can subject themselves to: whether you’re a mage, tank, or soldier, Elden Ring has enough weaponry and armor to support your playthrough.
Ashes of War are a prevalent mechanic in Elden Ring, allowing users to shape their arsenal with unique skills. In previous games, skills were tied to weapons, meaning if a skill you liked wasn’t on your weapon of choice, that was it. Here, there are still weapons that have skills applied, but a mass majority of armaments can be enhanced with whatever Ash of War one sees fit.
Ashes of War also grant various affinities and skills to an armament. For example, I ran an Uchigatana for most of my playthrough, enhancing it with an Ash of War called Sword Dance. This turned my character into an Elden-Beyblade, spinning and slashing any foe in the way. With this Ash of War, I also managed to apply a Cold effect, which scaled with all three of my main attributes. Other effects like Quality, Keen, Magic, and Heavy all can be applied to weapons to make them scale with whatever build you’re running.
This level of customization is beneficial to any roleplaying game and Elden Ring made sure to hit that note on the head. In most circumstances, you can use any one weapon you want as long as you tailor it to your build, offering a wide range of options for play. Ashes also have a purpose in companionship as some allow you to utilize summons. For a cost of FP, these summonses will aid you in battle.
My personal favorite was the Lone Wolf Ashes, which summons three ethereal wolves. These Ashes also contributed to difficulty because, aside from doing damage, they serve the great purpose of distracting bosses. The choice of using additional summons outside of Ashes was also given during various bosses in the story, offering an “easy mode” of sorts that makes tackling bosses much more surmountable than before.
FP is also spent on casting spells and incantations, which make a return from previous games. Spells are varying in visual and applicable effect. One spell I found summons a sizable comet that pierces enemies, while another provides a defensive line of cerulean swords across your character. These spells can be found in the overworld or taught by various tutors scattered throughout The Lands Between. Spellcasting is powerful and comes at the cost of FP, which as previously stated, can be regenerated through Flasks of Cerulean Tears.
With the choice of weaponry, skillset, and spells, Elden Ring succeeds in further innovating on the Dark Souls formula by adding options for players’ builds.
Colorful characters, active worldbuilding, and storytelling
Elden Ring’s method of storytelling, while still somewhat passive, takes a more active role than most Soulsborne games. The method of storytelling is much more akin to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice than it is Dark Souls 3, meaning characters have much more of a voice and are more involved in the story than normal. Dark Souls felt lonely and empty beyond the guys that try to kill you, but Elden Ring is full of friends and foes, like the aforementioned talking jug.
Much of the storytelling occurs within the Table of Lost Grace, which is the token hub area for Elden Ring. Contrary to popular belief, George R.R. Martin, the writer of the Game of Thrones novels, did not write the story for this game. He did create the foundations of the world, though, which is fairly intriguing in of itself. In Elden Ring, characters actually take ample time to explain the plot to you.
As with any Soulsborne game, a true understanding of the plot requires a deep dive into the lore of the armor, items, and weapons one comes across in the world. This is probably Elden Ring’s, or rather, Soulsborne’s biggest secret: the inventory is actually an encyclopedia. What Istory I managed to finish before this review was due piqued my interest enough to warrant it getting a pass, but if completion is to be taken into account, I have yet to fully complete the story. I am what is 4/5ths of the way through the story, so it’s entirely possible that the world grows more or less intriguing towards the end game.
It was entirely possible to rush throughout the game to finish the story and only the story in time for the review. But if I’m being honest, I find that to be almost disingenuous to the experience FromSoftware is attempting to deliver. It’s clear based on the various anti-spoiler messages put on on social media and the general vibe of the game that Elden Ring is supposed to be explored at one’s own leisurely pace, however, they choose, making each person’s experience their own. In order to best express my thoughts on the expansive world of The Lands Between, I had to play the game at a normal pace. Let’s hope that this makes my audience’s expectations of the product truer to what they’ll experience.
Elden Ring is a game that takes everything the previous titles offer to expand further and, ultimately, create a legacy of its own. It pulls inspirations from every world FromSoftware has crafted while pushing bounds further with new features, mechanics, and risks. The shift to an open world arrived with few problems, which is admirable considering everything beforehand has been semi-open and makes for a frustration-free experience.
The Lands Between’s Nordic-inspired open world is blended with Legacy Dungeons that hearken back to what FromSoftware has done in the past while leaving ample room for the “new.” With a slew of vicious enemies, powerful bosses, unique weapons, customizable skills, and inspiring locations to adventure through, Elden Ring is an extraordinary game that will be looked at as a point of comparison for whether or not an open world accomplishes what it sets out to do.