Games

Elden Ring is a breath of fresh air in an open world genre that’s gotten a bit stale

I’ve played all of the Dark Souls games, and I’m not ashamed to say that the first one was the only one that I ever finished. While I enjoy the gameplay loop, and there is something satisfying about eventually defeating a boss, I eventually ran into a brick wall in the second and third games that I simply couldn’t find the energy to force myself through. Those painful memories stopped me from even trying Sekiro or Bloodborne.

That’s why I had a ton of trepidation with Elden Ring when it launched a few weeks ago, because my initial impression was it would just be the same gameplay loop where I’d eventually get stuck and give up. That didn’t justify the cost to me, especially since PS5 games aren’t exactly cheap.

But then the reviews started coming in, and they definitely piqued my interest. Eurogamer, which is the publication I trust most when it comes to game reviews, gave it a glowing verdict. Then, other people started talking about how it was more accessible to gamers who may have a lower skill ceiling, like me, and I started to really think about it.

I still haven’t played Horizon: Forbidden West, which came out just before Elden Ring, and while it’s still on my list of games to play in 2022, a strange feeling pulled me to FromSoftware’s latest release. I’m not entirely sure what it was, considering that I truly enjoyed Horizon: Zero Dawn, but it felt like it was time to take a gamble and try a different kind of open world RPG.

For additional context, I had just finished Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, and by the end of it had gotten extremely tired of the endless icons to visit on the world map, the stress and FOMO I felt from not completing all of the side quests, and wanted something that moved away from that concept. I’m a big fan of open world games in general, and the last one I played where I felt that I enjoyed scouring the entire map was Ghost of Tsushima. Something about that game’s design made it fun to simply explore the map and look at the side activities while soaking in an incredibly crafted world.

With all of the glowing praise that Elden Ring received, it just seemed like a good idea to give it a go. So, I eventually pressed that purchase button on my PS5, and loaded up the game. I normally do a lot of research on in-game systems and the like before playing something, but other than reading a couple of reviews, I basically went into the game blind so I could experience it with no prejudices.

Well, I’m not even hesitant to say that buying Elden Ring was one of the very best decisions I’ve ever made in over three decades of gaming. In my opinion, Elden Ring is one of the best video games that has ever been released. I’m going to break down the key reasons why it won me over, and why I feel it’s a must-buy title, even if you’re afraid of the difficulty. I’m not going to talk much about the story, because it’s one of those things that you should discover on your own, but instead will focus on all of the other things that made the game great.

An endless sense of wonder

As I mentioned before, I’d gotten tired of the open world formula that franchises like Assassin’s Creed had built their reputations on. Yes, you get huge maps with the games, but I found little reason to explore every nook and cranny in the game, especially because of the whole idea of having to find a vantage point that reveals the map, which then reveals a bunch of icons that you inevitably find yourself setting a waypoints for and then exploring just got boring.

Elden Ring broke that flow by going back to what made games like Morrowind memorable. Every zone in the game has the same formula from start to finish. When you first enter, nothing is revealed, and all you can see are little roads that eventually lead to a small icon on the world map that denotes where you can find the obelisk that contains the regional map. You visit that, and the whole region’s map opens up, but that’s about it. You get a map with no icons to hover over that tell you what’s there.

To actually unlock map icons, you’ve got to bring your ass to anything that looks interesting on the hand-drawn regional map. You have no idea what the hell is going to be there, what’s going to try to kill you, or what reward you’re going to get for exploring a specific area. You could find yourself exploring some sort of catacombs, walking into a fort, trying to figure out a puzzle, or simply running into a giant boss that exists to smash you to pieces.

With a bit of play time, you start to figure out what the drawings on the map could potentially be, but you still have no clue what you’re going to run into until you’re there. That’s the magic of it. The whole idea of “you’ve got to go there to find out” actually re-awakened my inner explorer, because I always knew that my efforts would be rewarded.

You are always rewarded for checking out whatever you see on the horizon.

There is a charm to that type of experience because it helps you live your own story, one that almost always branches off from the main quest. The Lands Between are yours to discover, and there is no handholding about where to go next. You’ll quickly figure out if you’re still too weak to explore an area, but then you can just come back later when you feel that you’re ready. You have complete ownership of how much of the game you see, and the developers really don’t care if you miss an obscure NPC or quest in your first run-through. This was already prevalent in FromSoftware’s previous games, but the open world nature of Elden Ring really gave them the opportunity to have fun with it.

My commitment to exploration lasted far beyond completing the main storyline, and even now, after spending over 140 hours in the game, I’m still finding new stuff. It’s very hard to say that about an open world game these days.

The sense of wonder doesn’t end with exploration. There are also so many different ways to build powerful characters that an entire subculture has developed around making either wacky or overpowered builds. There was definitely build variety in their previous titles, but Elden Ring has really stepped it up a notch. You do have the opportunity to respec your characters, using an unfortunately limited resource, but there are enough of them on every playthrough to at least mess around with 10 or so builds. So many of them are viable in different ways, from noob-friendly mage builds that can fight from far away, to strength-based ones that have you carrying giant weapons that look like Guts’ sword from Berserk, fast dexterity-based builds, or some strange mix of them that works specifically for your personal style. 

Accessibility

Though they’ve stayed to their roots, Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team have also made concessions and added some quality of life elements that are synonymous with open world games. Chiefly among these is the fast travel system, which allows you to get back to places you’ve explored before quickly. That’s important in a game like this because of how many secrets are hidden within every corner of the map. It was extremely frustrating in the Dark Souls games to have to backtrack if you missed something, but this time, it only takes a few seconds. 

The addition of a mount was also a good idea, especially since it has a double jump that is required to solve some environmental puzzles. The simple addition of a jump button both on foot and while mounted added so much more depth to the game. There’s also a light stealth mechanic that does just enough to get you out of trouble in some fights, and helps you sneak into others.

Miyazaki and his team have a well-deserved reputation for making difficult games, and Elden Ring is no exception. There are still classic bullshit areas that have unskippable poison and other environmental effects, but fast travel makes them easier to digest. Plus, with fast travel, and a system that places additional respawn points near most bosses, you spend a lot less time doing painful gauntlets to return to encounters after losing them the first or the twentieth time. I can only remember one specific boss that had an annoying path to run back to after losing the fight, but even that was much shorter than some of the bosses from the older games.

The best addition is their ash summoning system. The premise is simple, when you’re in a notoriously difficult area that has either elite enemies or a tough boss, you’ll usually have the option of summoning upgradable NPCs that help by doing a little bit of damage while also taking aggro off you. It’s a system that has received some negative feedback from souls veterans, but it’s completely optional. Those sadists can still play the fights solo, but the ashes allow noobs like me to actually finish the content.

As much as some Souls veterans may hate it, there’s a reason that Elden Ring sold 12 million copies in around three weeks. People getting to finish the game, even with limited skills, allows them to enjoy the experience. To be fair, while there are pockets of the fandom that seem hell-bent on wanting to keep the hardcore difficult of FromSoftware games, they’re a minority. Sometimes it now also feels like there are more people on communities like Reddit talking about people gatekeeping than actual gatekeepers.

I’m not ashamed to say I abused the hell out of that system, and it still took me ages to beat some of the bosses. In fact, even with the summons and all, the three hardest bosses in the game still took me over 10 hours to complete. It was one hell of a dopamine rush when I finally beat them, though, so I’m not complaining. The option to invite friends or strangers to fight bosses is also still there, but there are plenty of people who play offline or just don’t want to deal with other players, so the summons are an excellent crutch.

Speaking of accessibility, the open world nature of the game also helps prevent some of the brick wall moments that I described earlier. One of the great things about the game is that if you’re too weak for an encounter, you can go back to other areas and grind your levels and come back. For me, that usually meant over levelling, but I took some satisfaction in coming back and smashing a boss that had reminded me that I sucked a few hours ago. It’s akin to running into a childhood bully and coming back bigger, stronger, and better than them.

Elden Ring gives you the tools to play however you want, and that’s a wonderful thing. You can still find videos of the best players beating bosses with level 1 characters without taking hits, but at least people like me can now also find other avenues to achieve that elusive victory. If these systems didn’t exist, I never would have finished the game, and that would have been a damn shame.

You will still die, a lot, but it finally feels like nothing is impossible. That’s where Elden Ring really succeeds.

Everything wants to kill you, but you will eventually figure out ways to beat them.

What microtransactions?

I absolutely hate microtransactions. I think they’re a pox on gaming, and I especially dislike how so many big studios have subscribed to the culture of gouging their customers for more money even after they’ve already spent $60-90 on premium titles. 

I was extremely shocked to discover that Elden Ring didn’t have any of those. I spent $79.90 on the game and still feel that I’m the one who got the better end of that deal. There’s just so much content to unpack in the game, and a ton of replayability (especially because of the new game plus system), that I have no doubt that I will find myself coming back to the Lands Between, especially when there’s a lull in game releases. With some other titles coming out in the coming weeks, I’m probably not going to get far into my new game plus run, but I’ll still be loading up every week or so to play around with new builds and do some more exploration.

Because I got so much bang for my buck, I’m already committed to spending money on any DLC that Miyazaki and gang release. They could charge $40 or $50 for a piece of DLC and I wouldn’t bat an eye. In a world that’s become accustomed to price gouging and other stupid practices from the world’s biggest game publishers and developers, FromSoftware succeeds while avoiding so many of those predatory tactics. Hell, if they released a $5 horse armor package I’d probably buy that too.

At it’s core, Elden Ring is an excellent video game. It’s a painstakingly crafted work of art that clearly involved a lot of love and care. When you make good products, people speak with their wallets. Considering that they initially predicted sales of around four million copies, which has already been tripled, gamers around the world are showing that you don’t need to do anything crazy to succeed. You just need to create something that people will remember for a long, long time.

There’s so much content in Elden Ring that it makes you wonder why so many studios insist on purposely cutting stuff to sell as DLC.

Like I said earlier, Ghost of Tsushima was the last open world game that really hooked me from start to finish. Elden Ring has managed to exceed even that game, which was no easy feat. It gives me hope that we can still get complete, fully-fleshed out games for base price, instead of having to deal with all of the day 1 DLC bullshit that’s become so prevalent over the last few years.

Honestly, if you’re on the fence, I implore you to take the leap like me. It’s worth it. This damn game, when I wasn’t playing it, had me watching videos on YouTube about the lore, and potential builds. Even now, after finishing it, I’m still tinkering with what new playstyles I want to try.

Elden Ring is a triumph for many of us gamers, and will hopefully be a lesson to other developers. I’m not optimistic, but at least there is an additional example of how a modern game can succeed without treating its players like idiots.

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