Having finally finished Elden Ring, playing probably more than I should have, I felt compelled to write a review of it, not of the “you should or should not buy this game” variety, but of the “this is what this game made me feel and what I felt was worth talking about” variety. Full spoilers follow.
The Wonder of the Unknown
Open worlds can be a mixed bag, but this has to have been one of my favorites, and a lot of that is down to how it’s structured.
It’s the little things, really. The map in this game is amazing. It’s covered in a fog of war until you travel farther, then major roads, coastlines, and landmarks fill in as you stumble across them, and the map expands as you go, only showing you the parts that you’ve explored. You pick up map fragments that fill things in with a hand-painted abstraction of the land that can lead you to points of interest. At a certain point you gain access to the Roundtable Hold, which sits in the corner of the map, disconnected from everything else, like its own place outside of conventional geography. Later, or possibly earlier depending on where you go and when, you descend down into the game’s version of the Underdark, and the map gets a second layer to it. Toward the end of the game, you teleport to Crumbling Farum Azula, far to the east, cleverly hidden so that it doesn’t appear on your map until you’ve been there, expanding the world once more. The feeling of exploration in this game is so visceral, so piquant, and it’s largely by virtue of how it feels like it might always be holding back another trick from you.
The whole game is like this. I’ve heard some people say that it doesn’t hold your hand, but I think that’s underselling it. The game does not reveal itself to you. It leaves things like the Flask of Wonderous Physick in an out of the way place for you to either discover or not. You are left wondering how much of the game is left, and without spoilers or a guide, you really don’t have a way of knowing. I’ve seen plenty of games that are constructed such that the map has a bunch of question marks on it, but Elden Ring is made so much better by not even letting you know that those question marks are there. Sometimes games have inventory screens where there are ghost versions of every weapon and tool you’ll ever acquire in the game, and when you have everything, the empty slots are all filled in. There’s a specific feeling that comes with that, one of having completed a collection that someone has made for you, and I think it’s not always a good feeling, because it takes away some of the sense of discovery.
I have no idea how many dungeons Elden Ring has. I don’t know how many weapons are in the game. There are a lot of neat things I probably missed, but there was never any checklist aside from the one that I made myself.
This is not to say that the game is apathetic about your experience exploring. There are probably a dozen different tricks they used to help you find your way, and I noticed quite a few of them. Statues will point the way to secret dungeons. The painted-in map will show the shape of ruins or a burnt-out mark where a mine is. The landscape is shaped so that you can see things off in the distance quite often, especially with all the things that are put up on cliffs or across gorges. It’s built so that you can see things, but it’s coy about it in a way that I adore, and often you’ll see something noteworthy, mark it down in your notes or on the map, and then forget about it until a dozen hours later when you have the tools and knowledge to travel to that place. I think if all those places had been easy to get to, the feeling of exploration would have been a lot less powerful, mostly because there would be no puzzle or challenge to it.
One of the things that I think this game does well, and which I think is generally a high point of FromSoft’s approach to games, is the way it works to create “moments” that have some clarity or purpose to them. This is mostly done without the use of cutscenes. Instead, the game will set things up for you, scenes or vignettes that you come across in ways that feel (but clearly aren’t) like you’ve just happened into a story by happenstance.
The cheapest of these are probably the jump scares, but I’ll admit that they’re pretty effective and they’re used sparingly enough that I didn’t get annoyed. You venture into a swamp because there’s an item there and a giant hand closes on you as soon as you get to it. You run down a hallway to open a shortcut and a giant knight comes around a corner to your mutual surprise. You stalk after a monster hoping to get a backstab and his friends jump out from around the corner to attack you. There are tons of these, big moments and small ones, that to me seem motivated entirely by telling a small story.
It’s wonderful. It’s a level of storytelling that you don’t really see in open world games, and I’m not really sure why. It’s probably expensive to do, and probably requires your narrative/content/design levels to be pretty tightly integrated, but that doesn’t seem like it’s enough reason. Another part of it is that much of Elden Ring isn’t open world, and instead is just linear or semi-linear dungeons or “dungeons” where you go from point A to point B, and these dungeons lend themselves much better to this kind of minor scripted storytelling event. But I don’t think that’s entirely it, because there’s a lot of it out in the open world as well.
I think one of my favorite moments in the game was following a back path in Limgrave pointed out by an old crone, a claustrophobic path with lots of overhangs and too many angry wolves with a steep dropoff to the left. But when I came out of the path, there were no enemies around, just calm and flowers, with a gorgeous vista displaying Liurnia of the Lakes, the next zone. Much later, I headed up to castle north of Liurnia across wide open fields, only to have starfire rain down on me from above. Some of these are “cheats” in the open world, places where a chokepoint can ensure that the player will enter an area traveling a specific direction, which allows the staging of some scene. Even if they’re cheats, they’re cheats that work, and as you’re playing, the manipulation is invisible. Some of it is accomplished through the sheer verticality of the setting, which allows more in the way of sectioning things off without seeming too much like that’s what’s going on, but I’m not sure that’s the major part of it.
There are some things in the game that you come across more than once, and the game does enough to make these clones feel like they’re not just reused assets. Some of it is just variation: you fight the same minor boss a few times, but there are wrinkles each time, a difference in the moves, an additional enemy, or a unique terrain. Other times the repetition is used to set up a pattern that the game is going to break: you go to the minor Erdtrees a few times and get used to the idea that there’s going to be an Erdtree avatar to fight there. Then, after enough times that you know and understand the pattern, you go to the minor Erdtree and find something completely different, a corrupted avatar that looks, moves, etc. in a completely different way. It’s relatively easy, low-level storytelling, repeating something twice so the third time can subvert the expectation you’ve set, but it’s done so, so well, and in a genre (open world games) where you rarely see it.
Something I’ve noticed when playing open world games, and to a lesser extent, games in general, is that they often want to provide you with a lot of rewards, but have trouble actually making that happen.
Reward structures in games are hard, and they’re harder in an open world game where you typically want to allow the player to progress through the game without having to do all the side stuff. I think from a psychological perspective, a constant steady drip is what most players want, which means that it’s what most designers want, but the rewards need to be of a certain size in order to actually be impactful.
Elden Ring has lots and lots of stuff. Lots of stuff. Off the top of my head, there are two upgrade tracks/currencies for the flasks, loads of weapons, an upgrade currency for weapons, a separate upgrade currency for legendary weapons, four types of armor, talismans, summon ashes, upgrade currencies for ashes, weapon arts, spells, … probably a bunch of other less significant stuff as well. I didn’t use much in the way of consumables, and consequently didn’t use all that much in the way of crafting, but it was there.
This bevy of variety was mostly good, and meant that there were lots of rewards to hand out so that the rewards are both significant enough and common enough. There are also a lot of side-grades, things that made my build different without necessarily being strictly better, and with lots of temptations to try either new builds or new strategies.
There were also, I have to admit, a lot of bummers. I didn’t really touch the casting aspects of the game, so sometimes I would complete some minor bit of content and get a new spell, or a memory stone, or something of that nature, and it would be completely useless to me, making the puzzle or battles or whatnot feel pointless. It didn’t happen too often, but it happened often enough to leave an impression.
One of the things I hope more games take from Elden Ring is that variety really helps with rewards schemes, and also that people can parse an inventory that’s divided into a lot of different pieces. Upgrades can come in all kinds of forms, and mild incremental improvements do work.
Apparently Unsolved Problems in Open Worlds
Elden Ring is composed of different regions, each with their own intended level, though skill will also play a part in how easy or hard each of these is, and gear also matters. Sometimes you’ll roll into an area and it will be clear you badly need to level unless you want every fight to consist of chipping away at an enemy while doing perfect dodges. Other times you’ll go to a place and the whole thing will be trivial because the enemies plink off your armor and die in one hit.
This kind of sucks, to be honest.
I think going into an area too weak is mostly fine, though there is some sense of “this is an open world, but you’re not supposed to be here yet”. Going into an early level area that you’d missed and not being able to “do” the content because you’re overleveled, having everything trivialized, that’s the kind of thing that I really wish didn’t happen.
Some games deal with this by having the enemies level with you, which has the trade off of making it feel like you’re on a treadmill. Other games have a treadmill, but put different levers and caps on it in order to disguise that it’s there. Elden Ring basically just doesn’t do anything but have a straight-forward level on creatures so they’re ‘tuned’ to a specific expectation of where a player will be out.
I don’t know exactly what to do about this, because it’s a matter of trade-offs. Going back to stomp something that was super hard is wonderful, and you don’t get that if thing that was tough just shifts to be more difficult when you get stronger. With that said, I think that this is one of the few areas where Elden Ring just really doesn’t know what to do about this problem, and so essentially ends up doing nothing. I noticed being overleveled a lot toward the end, probably because I did almost all of the major optional stuff (never grinding levels though). I noticed being underleveled a few times, and it stuck out for some of them, especially when I went after an enemy I had faced a hundred times before only to find that they suddenly had higher health and better damage. Do they just make rats stronger in the sewers? Plausibly. But it feels weird to have two visually identical enemies with the exact same attacks have such different numbers attached to them.
I didn’t enjoy the story of Elden Ring, mostly because much of the time, I had no idea what was going on. I talked to every NPC I could find, talked to them again after every major event, and read most of the supplemental stuff, which comes in the form of item descriptions. I could probably give a pretty good sketch of a general plot, but only that.
Sometimes the world would tell a story, so my lack of context wouldn’t matter, and sometimes the story told through that worldbuilding, though vague, would be compelling all on its own. The dancing plague by the windmills would be one major example of this working right, where it was all atmosphere and creepy people, unsettling sights and a narrative that I was constructing with my own brain. At the top of the area with the windmills there was a Godskin Apostle, and I assume he had something to do with the dancing plague. Or something. I moved on to the next thing, it wasn’t a huge deal.
Where this fails, for me, is when every NPC talks like the Riddler and there are cutscenes that feel like they would have a lot of impact if I had any sense of what was going on. The last several boss battles were notable for this, because I had no idea who I was fighting or, really, why. This was in contrast to something like Sekiro, where I at least understood the basics of the conflict and who was on what side.
I think what FromSoft is doing here is the mystery box thing, only it works marginally better because they do have answers to what’s in the box, at least most of the time. There are clues and hints that help to bring context to what your character is doing, and careful examination will be rewarded. Still, I think the opacity is a detriment to my enjoyment of the story, and I think there are things which are very straightforward that the game nevertheless cloaks in metaphor and riddle. I like busting out the charts and maps and things, but it creates such a disconnect between me and the character I’m playing that it hurts how the various moments land.
Margit, the Fell Omen is the secret name of Morgott, the Omen King. You first meet Margit on the path to Stormveil Castle, where his brother, Godrick the Grafted, resides. The second time you meet Morgott, he’s dropped the act and reveals himself as being of royal lineage … kind of. Most of this is pieced together long after the fact, and in all the talking to people about this game and watching people play it, I haven’t met or heard of anyone who understood this while they were playing.
Wouldn’t it be cooler to have some understanding of who Margit was before you fought him? Or after the fact? Some context for what his fake relationship with Godrick was, and what his real relationship was? Wouldn’t it be neat to not have to watch a video by Vaati to make sense of this? Morgott was an omen baby. An omen is a child born with horns. For commoners, they cut off the horns, which usually kills the child, but for nobility the horns are kept, and the child is put down in a dungeon, shunned and exiled. This is cool stuff! But the game doesn’t communicate it to the player, instead hiding it away and leaving it to be pieced together. In some cases, there are open questions, true mystery boxes, but in others, you’re presented the tip of an iceberg and not allowed to see the rest unless you dive deep. I maintain that this doesn’t work very well in the medium of a videogame, nor in the context of this specific story.
There was a point in the game where I had a prompt of “press triangle to enter coffin”. I pressed it, because I was at the end of the area, but I had no idea what it would do, or why my character would think it was a good idea. It was a good weird moment, but I had completely lost the plot.
Sometimes I would figure things out after the fact, and there would be some context for things that happened. Sometimes this would even be interesting or rewarding. I would find an item that gave someone’s name, and later find that person, or a different thing that gave some context to a bit of text.
Look, I know that this is just how Dark Souls games do things. For some people, the novelty of this approach and the weirdness of not knowing what’s going on justifies it. Elden Ring made me more convinced that this approach is not one that I personally enjoy. I like piecing things together: I don’t like it when I’m left out of the loop that all the characters are in and when the actual process of piecing things together is so hostile, the picture is incomplete even with work, and the narrative beats of the story don’t connect.
All the Other Stuff
There’s a good chance that Elden Ring will be my game of the year this year, and there are loads of things that I haven’t touched on, mostly because they’re not personal to me or because I don’t find them all that interesting. There’s some conversation to be had about how the game handles difficulty, and the ways in which is sometimes fails to live up to the ideal of “it’s totally fair, if you die, it’s your fault”. There are bits and pieces that we could talk about, the places where the reuse of assets grated or made the game worse, the tilesets for dungeons that made them difficult to navigate in a way I found uninteresting, all kinds of things. I didn’t talk about performance or UI basically at all.
I loved it for the experience, but there are elements I think don’t sit right, mostly in how some things still feel like an unintelligible fever dream, or like mysteries that have no good solution.
I heartily recommend it, if you like games, and especially if you like this sort of game.