FromSoftware released Demon’s Souls in 2009, which soon became a critical and commercial success outside of Japan, followed by Dark Souls two years later. A new genre was born, studios were inspired to develop their own winning Souls formula, and gamers have since enjoyed an influx of games like Salt and Sanctuary, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and Nioh. But few games have generated as much anticipation as FromSoftware’s latest, Elden Ring, with worldbuilding overseen by A Song of Ice and Fire author George R. R. Martin. As the game’s 2022 release date looms, eager fans jokingly fear they might die before Elden Ring’s release.
The game takes place in a realm called the Lands Between, after the titular Elden Ring is destroyed and its fragments scattered. When the Ring was broken, the world was broken with it. Although many have tried, none have proven strong enough to rebuild the land, so there is a stalemate between the warring inhabitants. The player is Tarnished, a man who has lost the grace of Erdtree and been banished from the Lands Between. However, after the shattering, the Defiler was called back and sought out the fragments of Elden’s Ring. One of them will be the champion to reunite the world and become Lord Elden.
As expected from a game with stories written by George R. R. Martin, the lore of Elden Ring is deep and compelling, delivered to players through cryptic item descriptions and tantalizing hints found in dialogue. Like previous Souls games, the often tragic story builds a multi-layered world whose mystery will drive many to keep playing, even when heartbreaking difficulties make them want to quit. Yes, Elden Ring’s combat is almost as relentless as FromSoftware’s previous games, and will satisfy fans of the genre who enjoy a relentless challenge. However, the game is also more accessible to casual players — unintentionally, according to game director Hidetaka Miyazaki — which has been a sore spot for Souls fans. Minor gameplay tweaks make Elden Ring easier, reducing the constant feeling of restlessness that many players love.
One of these changes is simply : defeating enemy groups to replenish the flask. This eliminates how often players need to rest to replenish health or magic items, thus reducing the need to fight the same enemies over and over again. The change is understandable given Elden Ring’s open world, as fighting multiple times in the same expansive area can get tedious. However, the threat of having to repeat the fight is the gameplay element that makes the Souls games unique. Weighing the needs of the flask against moving forward despite poor health adds a sense of danger, and reaching the next area in the gamble adds a sense of accomplishment.
Elden Ring brings another major change to the character class or archetype. In previous Souls games, players chose a specialization at the beginning of the game and were then constrained by stats and abilities, leaving little room for experimentation. Elden Ring allows players to change the effects of weapons with Ashes of War, which gives players the opportunity to tweak their playstyle if they don’t like their current setup. Ashes can be freely swapped between weapons, allowing for easy tuning for specific fights and adding a level of flexibility not found in previous games.
Players can also summon spirits, ghost forms of enemies, to aid them in battle. This can turn a seemingly impossible battle into a mere speed bump, especially useful for solo players who can’t always be on their own. For example, while magic users are incredibly powerful, they’re also incredibly vulnerable in a world that favors melee combat, solid armor, and oversized health bars. Summon the mercenary spirit of the north to tank and hold the aggro, allowing the caster to step back and deal damage non-stop.
While passive NPCs will be encountered in Elden Ring, it’s safer to assume everyone and everything is hostile and approach with shields raised. What looks like a nice guy relaxing around a campfire could very well turn out to be a heart-pounding enemy encounter. Fortunately, other players have scattered helpful hints around Elden Ring’s Lands Between, pointing out potential dangers or benefits that may have been overlooked. However, this brings another change that Souls fans may take issue with : hacking the system. In previous FromSoftware games, playing online was risky, as other players could invade at inopportune times, resulting in death, frustration, and long journeys to recover dropped souls.
Again, this is part of what makes the game so special. While unwelcome to some, the threat of invasion is a welcome irritant to others. Similar to Bloodborne, the Invasion of the Elden Ring is only possible if players choose to use the Taunter’s Tongue or team up in co-op mode. While many expressed outrage over this change to the hacking system in Dark Souls, it should be remembered that hacking can be avoided by simply playing these games offline. Elden Ring lets people avoid being attacked by unwanted visitors without losing the satisfying online interaction of musical notes, bloodstains, and phantoms of players.
Elden Ring may not dazzle everyone with the incredible graphical detail that other contemporary games have, but the world FromSoftware has created is beautiful nonetheless. The Lands Between has a brighter color palette than previous Souls titles, so it won’t be as suffocating or ominous as Bloodborne. But the game is characterized by the variety of environments, with stunning vistas stretching to the horizon and begging to be explored, the way fans have come to expect from developers. Windswept fields, occasional downpours and lightning strikes combine with day and night to bring Lands Between to life.
The soundtrack is one area of the game that seems to receive the least amount of attention, with players spending most of their time listening to negligible ambient noise and semi-silence. Still, some of the sounds in Elden Ring are quite effective. While standing on a cliff near the starting area, the player will hear eerie howls and groans in the distance. The source is in the land below, and the sound adds to the sense of apprehension when it comes time to explore the area. Eventually, the player discovers a darkening pit and realizes an eerie wail emanating from the depths. The blood around the pit suggests that the howling wasn’t enough to deter some players from jumping in for answers, or maybe that’s what drew them.
People will inevitably draw comparisons between Elden Ring and other Souls games, and on the surface, FromSoftware’s latest entry appears to be an open-world, less shadowy version of Dark Souls. Despite the subtle gameplay tweaks, it feels like a continuation of what came before, even direct callbacks to characters and items from other games. While this will please most fans, for some players Elden Ring may not be able to replace previous titles, as it lacks some of the intensity and gothic mood that made those games so memorable.
However, if judged on its own merits, Elden Ring is a phenomenal game that doesn’t disappoint. It has most of the components that fans of the genre look for in : Fantastic aesthetics, a sense of mystery that invites exploration, clever design and intimidating opponents, and rich gameplay that is highly rated thanks to a variety of classes and builds. Replayability. In the end, Elden Ring isn’t just an open-world Dark Souls. It’s powerful in its own right, with tweaks to the classic soul blueprint that create a refreshingly new experience that still feels familiar.
Elden Ring will release on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S on February 25, 2022. Game Rant obtained the PS5 code for this review.