Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Review [Video Game]: Elden Ring by From Software

Come now, ye tarnished, to the Lands Between and earn your place as Elden Lord.

Elden Ring is a vast, seemingly endless experience, that delivers wonders and death at every turn. A hit in all spheres of the industry, loved by fans and journalists both, not just for its generous amount of content but for its ability to transport the player firmly into the Lands Between without loosening its grip for hours on end. From Software has delivered a game that lets the player go on the adventure that they wish without holding their hand, a rarity in video games nowadays; a risk that paid off.

From the moment I exited the catacombs at the start of the game and stepped out into Limgrave, I got the sense that I was in for quite the escapade. The vastness of the world didn't quite hit until about twenty hours into the game when I realized that the world kept expanding and that there were massive levels hidden underneath the standard map. Sometimes I took a random teleportation device and ended up clear on the other side of the game world. In any other game, I would have marked down the location of the teleporter and come back at a later time after I was done with whatever I was doing before, but in Elden Ring, there isn’t much of a forced incentive to keep you doing what you’re doing. You create your incentive and carve your experience in whichever way you choose.

The idea is to explore and keep going. I may have had it in my mind to fight a certain boss, but along the way, I’d find a catacomb or legendary tomb to explore that brought me to another area of the map. Elden Ring’s sense of discovery and ability to allow the player to lose themselves in its vast world is nearly unparalleled. They do this by severing the importance of a central narrative and instead ensuring that your choices, through the gameplay, are the primary story. Your discoveries and deeds are the impetus of Elden Ring, and any in-depth story would take away from that focus.

Though Elden Ring lets the player go on an adventure in any way they please, and though they give the player many tools to pave the way for an easier experience (compared to other games in the genre), this is still a From Software game through and through, and each enemy can still kill you with a few hits—even late in the game with a highly leveled character. This is not a game for everyone and should be researched before purchasing.

The primary difficulty differentiator between Elden Ring and every other From Software are the options given to the player at any given time, ensuring they get stuck less frequently. Instead of being beaten by the same few bosses over and over and unsure of what to do, Elden Ring allows the player to move on to something else until they are ready for that encounter. Pair that with spirit ashes and the game becomes manageable. If you are stuck on a boss and don’t necessarily care about beating them by yourself, you can always summon a friend to help, making the game far less challenging.

The sheer amount of content is staggering. From the vast open plains of Limgrave, to the mystical Liurnia of the Lakes, each area in Elden Ring is well fleshed out and holds many secrets. It is rare to be unrewarded when dropping into a secret hole or tip-toeing around a thin ledge. From Software knows its audience and appropriately ensures a payoff for them when taking an explorative risk, no matter how large or how small. The reward, however, is not simply the item or weapon that you discover, but the sensation of the discovery itself. Elden Ring consistently delivers this feeling through its entire runtime, an impressive feat by the development team. If Breath of the Wild was the king of this before, it is no longer.

The combat feels a bit dated, but it works well enough to feel satisfying when you stun and land a critical blow. Considering Sekiro had pushed the combat mechanics of From Software’s games forward, it was interesting to see them revert to the old Dark Souls formula. Though not the same, the game has the DNA of the slower moving From Software games (as opposed to Bloodborne and Sekiro). Some nice additions are the Ashes of War, which let you attach certain abilities to different weapons, as well the jump attack, which does heavy stagger damage to an opponent. These come in helpful for melee builds, so as a magic user, I didn't have a ton of use for them for most of the game.

Though the movement feels a bit slow at times, having your faithful steed-thing Torrent to bring you around the open world is a blessing. Combat on the horse doesn't feel fantastic when using melee, so I always resorted to switching to my staff. Unfortunately, I would always have to position my horse so it was facing forward or sideways (no backward spell casting for you!) while I cast, so it frequently felt uncomfortable, though not quite as bad as melee. Some of the fights on horseback were exhilarating though. Seeing a sword swipe miss me by inches would have my heart pounding as I pressed the sprint button to get to safety and reassess.

In addition to some mixed feelings about the combat, I felt similarly about the visuals. At some points, I came across sweeping vistas that looked like expressionist landscapes. Not quite clearly defined, but beautiful and eerie, as intended, and the developer had purposefully created a world that was meant to reflect its uncertainty in its messy, yet clearly defined art style. But then I would get closer to objects and NPCs and realize that some of them looked awful. It was like seeing a stunning painting, and then getting closer and realizing it only looked good from afar. Patches, our favorite trickster, looks like his character model could easily have been found in an early PS3/360 game. That’s not to say the whole game looks awful, but the juxtaposition between beauty and hideousness was quite jarring. Considering the Demon’s Souls remake was a stunning achievement, I had hoped that Elden Ring would follow suit in some aspect, but unfortunately, it doesn't measure up.

And all this would be fine and well if the game ran as well or better than Demon’s Souls on PS5, but it doesn’t. I ran the native PS5 version of Elden Ring which frequently stuttered and dropped frame rates. A big no-no for a game that requires split-second input. I am aware that Demon’s Souls is a PS5 exclusive remake and a smaller game than Elden Ring’s cross-generation/multiplatform vast open world. But considering I just played the visually stunning Horizon Forbidden West, which is also open world and cross-gen, I don't consider that an excuse. A game should run well on each platform that it’s released on.

In addition to the many frame rate dips, I ran into many bugs. Sometimes the game would ignore my input to heal, causing my death. Other times the game would glitch even after I had escaped a pit of scarlet rot, and instead of removing the rot, it would only increase the counter. I would become inflicted with a poison-like effect and die. This was earlier in the game when I was just trying to have fun exploring and didn't have the means to rid myself of the ailment. This rot (and also poison) buildup glitch happened many times throughout the game, including against bosses. In most games with simple checkpoint systems and no chance of currency loss, this would barely be a problem. This, however, is a From Software game where all the enemies respawn with every death and you have to make it back to where you last died to get your runes (currency) before you die again and lose them all.

And oh god, the platforming—Elden Ring has some of the worst platforming I've ever encountered. I can't count the number of times I became anxious when realizing I had to do a platforming segment. Not because I was nervous that I wasn't skilled enough, but because I didn't trust the game’s mechanics. After a while, when I found a dungeon that required platforming, I would leave without even attempting it.

One of the things Elden Ring’s best traits is its enemy variety. This includes not only the many smaller mobs you face but also the ridiculous amount of big baddies that you encounter throughout the massive adventure. From Software littered the map with bosses to the point where you’ll find one almost everywhere you go. Again, impressive. Some of them are reused at different points in the game, but for the most part, their reuse is spread out and isn't a cause for stagnation. There’s enough content here to feed lovers of boss battles from the first moment to the very last. Figuring out how to best the bosses in Elden Ring is one of the game’s highlights and something that it exceeds in, and the variety allows the player a fresh combat puzzle on each new encounter. Most of these bosses are challenging and unique, but not impossible. Most.

Toward the end of the game, I ran into a bit of a hurdle when I faced off against the boss Malenia. As I watched Melania, Blade of Miquella path around my character’s dead body chanting “I am Melenia, Blade of Miquella” for the fortieth time, I began to question my life choices, or at the least, my Elden Ring character build. As soon as I changed my character build, I was able to beat her within a few tries. The boss was poorly balanced for some builds and it was disappointing that I felt the need to change my entire character around to feel like I had a chance. In addition to Malenia, some of the enemies—both bosses and standard—attack as if you have more movement speed than you’re allowed.

Nothing in the game caused me as much trouble as Malenia, that is, besides the game’s camera. Some of the larger enemies make the camera go a bit wonky, never mind larger enemies in smaller rooms. Some of the quick-moving enemies would jerk the locked-on camera around, disorienting me. The camera led to much frustration and many unfair deaths. An issue I’ve had with every From Software game I’ve played. Unfortunately, it has yet to be addressed.

Elden Ring makes the final two areas separate from the open-world which makes for a very high difficulty spike. In the open-world segments, you regain some healing items for every group of enemies you kill and you’re also able to access your steed, Torrent. But in these last two areas, you find yourself with neither of these boons and find that the enemies are quite vicious and quick. In these last two areas, it sometimes felt as if all my progress had gone out the window.

That’s not to say most of the game is like that, just the end. Most of Elden Ring feels good when it comes to balancing (with a few outliers). Finding and upgrading a weapon or spirit ash you like has its intended effect of making you feel stronger, and finding a new, legendary spell makes you feel like a powerful sorcerer. There are so many weapons, ashes of war, sorceries, and sets of armor to try out that it’s worth checking every nook and cranny for whatever may be hidden there.

I mentioned earlier that to offer the player freedom, the central narrative takes a backseat. If you want the narrative, you have to search for it, take down notes, and pay very close attention. Unfortunately, the game is so massive and the hints so subtle at times, that I failed to make connections between characters and significant events. That’s not to say the lore isn't well fleshed out, it certainly is. I enjoyed my time reading the history of Elden Ring’s world on the wiki, but when it came to delivering an engrossing and entrancing storyline within the game, Elden Ring failed miserably for me. I watched three of the game’s multiple endings, and yet had barely any idea of what was happening in two of them. There's not much emphasis on what information is important and what isn't regarding the story, and most of the NPC characters felt flat and uninspired, so I found it difficult to invest emotionally. It didn’t help that many of the characters' names started with a G, R, or M (thanks to George R.R. Martin being cheeky). A character or item description may passively mention a character of relevance twenty hours of gameplay prior—which could equate to a few weeks in real-time for me—to my encounter with them, and I was expected to retain that information and piece it all together. I expected this, however, as this is how From Software games work, but I didn’t enjoy it. The storytelling is not for everyone, but there is a story there if you’re willing to do a bit of digging both in the game and on the Internet.

If Demon’s Souls remake has the best visuals of a From Software game, Sekiro the most fine-tuned combat, Bloodborne the best atmosphere, and if Dark Souls is the game that put the genre on the map, where does that leave Elden Ring? Well, it’s the game with the greatest volume of content, the grandest sense of freedom, the most massive scale, the best feeling of discovery, and the most immersive of them all, and it is quite possibly the best game from the studio.

Elden Ring is a great game. I will admit I was finished once I watched the credits roll—despite its incredible replay value—but my time with the game was worthwhile. I’d gladly recommend it to someone looking for a challenge, a sense of adventure without the need for a strong central narrative, and a yearning to feel like you’re uncovering something new wherever you go. Elden Ring lands many of the things that From Software intended it to do and the things that it doesn't don't ruin the overall experience, even if they do tarnish them a bit. The game’s flaws seem to melt away when you burrow into its depths. It’s easy to get lost in this game for over a hundred hours, so make sure you have some snacks and a notebook handy. You may have a lot of late nights with this one.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 9/10

Bonus: +1 for its best-in-class sense of discovery and adventure. +1 for massive scale. +1 for endless options and character builds.

Penalties: -1 for not connecting with the story. -1 for end-game balancing. -1 for poor optimization. -1 for the camera/some mechanics.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.