Transcendent Moments and Open-World Malaise Define 'Elden Ring'

The open world may occasionally be disappointing and repetitive, but it also creates a gallery for some of FromSoft's greatest achievements.

In my twenty-five hours with the game, that basic conception of what Elden Ring is has already shifted at least three times. Twice by the game’s hand, and once by a series of brain-melting conversations with a fellow journalist who described a totally different video game to me than the one I was playing. If you told me right now “Ren, if you play one more hour of Elden Ring the game will present you with something that totally reshapes your idea of what its basic structure actually is,” I would believe you in a heartbeat. 

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So this is not an Elden Ring review. The game is very long and deliberately hard to navigate, a checklist game that conceals its checklist. And maybe that's what you would have expected from Elden Ring, an open world third-person action game produced by FromSoftware. It is also the developer's first real foray into modern open-world design, though it turns out that space in no way redefines the Soulsborne subgenre. All the basic rules still apply.  It has considered, animation-driven combat—which asks players to correctly time their swings in accordance with short openings in an enemy’s attack patterns—and it also has the series' signature cryptic NPCs, and secret-laden level design. The game is, by an average person’s standards, pretty difficult. There are a bunch of grimy guys to fight. NPCs are still extremely hard to find, invisible walls litter the game’s more structured levels. Most of its narrative will be revealed to you in item descriptions and four sentence conversations with weirdos. And relying only on what you can see will result in you missing out on a lot of the game’s content.  

Elden Ring’s open world feels fragmented, to say the least. Some areas are defined by strong sightlines, distant structures guiding the player from one point of interest to the next. This is the style of design which defines games like Dragon’s Dogma and Breath of the Wild and has, for some (including myself), become the hallmark of great open-worlds. The southern isle of Morne, for example, is totally navigable without a map—and has a well paced, self-contained quest chain—beginning with a blinded noble sitting at the side of the road. 

Sightline design encourages a particular style of exploration, one that revolves around finding strong landmarks and using them to navigate a particular region. Morne Castle, once you escape or defeat the sword wielding “menials” that its nobles formerly enslaved, gives you a perfect view of the entire island. From there, you can see a walking mausoleum, two distant watch-towers, and the ruins of a church hidden in a small part of the forest. You then set out for one of these locations, allowing yourself to be drawn away by smaller points of interest as you go.

Limgrave, the game’s starting region defined by high cliffs, open plains, and shattered architecture, is significantly more difficult to navigate in this way. The amount of rubble littering the region means that, even with the high vantage point of the storm scarred cliff-, its hard to rely on sightlines alone. Instead, you’re asked to rely on your map.

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Elden Ring’s map is a pictographic representation of the game’s world, and not a perfect topography. Instead of showing you every broken archway and crumbling bridge, the map only shows you relevant locations—occasionally populating itself with icons after finding one of a few distinct location types like towns, telescopes, caves, and ruins. Elden Ring wants you to use this map to plan your explorations by setting waypoints on interesting marks and structures. 

However, this style of play isn’t really encouraged by the game—at least not in its early hours. Your journey to Stormveil Castle is defined by sightlines. Each bonfire you come across has a golden trail of light leading away from it, to the nearest point of interest. By following it with your eyes to a distant landmark, you are asked to chart a basic course without the aid of a map.

It wasn’t until a fellow journalist told me they’d encountered a dozen more NPCs than I had by following marks on the map that I actually started using it for exploration. The game’s early tutorial severely undersells its importance.  Sightline design is useful, sure, but the map is all but essential to distinguishing what is, and isn’t, likely going to pay off if you take the time to visit. 

This pushes Elden Ring dangerously close to the checklist open-world design popularized by studios like Ubisoft. Once you have the map, you look at the various icons and settlements contained therein and go do whatever activity you may find. The main difference being that Far Cry actually shows you what you’re missing, and Elden Ring is happy to leave you clueless as to how many dungeons (and NPCs) you’ve missed along the way.

The FromSoftware formula is not redefined by space, as part of me hoped it would be, but it is recontextualized. Settlements are made more material by the trade routes which run between them, but those routes are only traveled by you and the occasional caravan—which the game all but begs you to plunder.

Like most of the games before it, Elden Ring’s world is already fallen when you arrive. There are no standing cities or lit windows—only broken stone and sagging wood. There is nothing particularly redeemable about its world. Caelid in particular is rotten to its core.

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There is an oft repeated Miyazaki quote about the dignity of his dying worlds. The Undead Dragon cannot simply be gross, but must embody the beauty and horror of a “once noble beast doomed to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin.” There are times where Elden Ring pushes at the limits of this philosophy. There are gross, terrible things in this world. Zombies which tear open their ribs to unleash a bout of poisoned viscera, thick and heavy headed dogs which drag their mouths across the ground as they gnash towards you, and of course the living pots which are—much to my great dismay—filled with meat. Many things in the Lands Between are not dignified, they are just terrible.

Worse than terrible though, Elden Ring is occasionally affectless. The disappointing hub area of the Roundtable Hold being the most obvious example.

Elden Ring, like Demon's Souls, the Dark Souls series, and Bloodborne before it, has a small hub area where most of your NPCs will wait while you go off killing demi-gods. However, unlike every previous hub in the spiritual series, the Roundtable Hold is utterly hollow. Gone is the haunting beauty of Firelink, and the sense of solace and hope which defines Majula. The Roundtable Hold is, unlike the Hunter’s Dream, mundane and material to a borderline frustrating degree. The wonder, scale, and majesty of the Nexus is gone, too. All you have left is a handful of connected rooms with yellow stone walls, and low torchlight. If you showed me Roundtable Hold, and told me it was from The Witcher III or Dragon Age Inquisition, I would believe you. I could not hum a bar of its music if you paid me.

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The NPCs are readily accessible within the Hold. They will give you their cryptic quests, and sometimes they will disappear after a major boss battle because you pulled some invisible trigger several hours previously. This highlights one of the key problems with Elden Ring. Outside of combat, and the usual FromSoftware dream logic that people have come to expect, Elden Ring is disappointingly frictionless. 

Your horse Torrent, for example, does not move like an animal or a spirit creature—he moves like you, but faster and with a slightly wider turning radius. He can quickly race you between the various marks on your map, while easily evading enemy encampments. The game’s crafting is, similarly, extremely simple. You find recipes and make items from those recipes by selecting the item in a menu. There is no real experimentation, just click the thing you want and you’ll get it.

Occasionally, Elden Ring does manage to feel real and material. Fletching arrows before a major boss battle has become a favorite ritual of mine. You hunt birds for their feathers, minor beasts for their thin and pretty bones, and you travel, by horse, to Liurnia where you search its forests for magic stones you shape into arrowheads. The process feels intimate and personal in a way that Elden Ring rarely does.

Above all else though, I wish the nights were darker and louder. Elden Ring’s night sky is not particularly dark. It is moonlit and starless, something I noticed almost immediately. There is a lore reason, explained to me by a fellow journalist. But I don’t really care about any of that. The night sky above the Lands Between is flat and affectless—and for a long time I considered that to be a failure on the game’s part. This is compounded by the ease with which you can travel through that flat dark. You don’t need a torch to light your way, there aren’t more enemies crawling around, and nothing feels particularly dangerous. I don’t feel anything when the sun goes down.

But in places, Elden Ring does more than just translate the familiar pleasures and triumphs of a FromSoft game into an awkwardly paced open-world meander and at those times I am almost ready to discard every criticism I've leveled against the game. On my third day playing the game I was walking through the eastern woods of Limgrave—the trees were too dense for Torrent—and I saw a building peaking above the branches. There, I found an elevator. I went down, below the Lands Between. 

I pushed through the ruins, and the small group of enemies that patrolled the area. And then I stepped out into a forest, beneath the earth. Then, I took my first step onto the Siofra Riverbed, and I looked up. For the first time in fifteen hours, I saw the stars. And they brought me low. 

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Every ounce of majesty missing from the preceding fifteen hours was there, in that one night sky. Everything the Roundtable Hold was not, was there. All the quiet, solace, and grace.

FromSoftware is no stranger to impossible geography, some would call it one of their trademark design elements, but their broken, incomprehensible worlds have never been as beautiful as the Siofra River. Nor have their levels felt so specifically designed to test you. 

The Siofra River is filled with spirit hunters, who tend to its forests. They bend their knees to pet small animals, and lead small groups of livestock down various paths. They worship, stomping in rhythm—facing an unknown presence. The area’s objective is to light eight braziers, each of which is tied to an obelisk. The obelisks are guarded by the hunters, their animal companions, and floating balls of electricity. 

The hunters’ arrows will kill you in one, maybe two hits depending on your build and level. There are over a dozen spread throughout Siofra. And so, you stalk your way through the forests, avoiding sightlines, and pick them off one by one. You prove that, like them, you know how to hunt. The shattered stars above watch, approvingly.

Eventually, you will be ready to approach the obelisks, and you’ll fight a handful of enemies before lighting the fires. There are eight variants on this basic structure spread throughout Siofra, I remember all of them. 

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And then you return to the beginning of the area, where a large structure stands, lit by eight fires. You walk between the columns and up the stairs to find the corpse of a massive elk, its bones almost clean and incredibly beautiful. You place your hand on its forehead and you are taken to a different place. A cave where the Ancestral Spirit, still full of grace, bounds. The fight is gentle, almost loving. 

Yes, fur hangs ragged from its bones. But this decay, unlike the scarlet rot and heavy-headed dogs of Caelid, is used for anything but horror. Instead, I found myself awed by the beauty and grace of the tired god’s marrow. The way its ribs sway into place as the muscles in its legs tense, before swinging its body forward, is as gorgeous as it is powerful.

The fight is not difficult, at least not by the series standards, but it is uniquely affecting. 

Moments like this are not fleeting, or even particularly uncommon in Elden Ring. For every affectless sky, irritating imp, and bland room in the Roundtable Hold—there is a contrasting moment of overwhelming wonder. A small stone archway, hidden in a bush, which carries you to a lonely, bloody church in the North-East. The Siofra River Well, tucked away in a quiet forest. The Isle of Morne, rightfully fallen for its sins, which sits as close to, and far from, the gilded capital as possible. But also, undeniably, you pay for these moments with long, uneventful transits punctuated by rote encounters. 

Twenty-five hours in, I still have no idea what I’ll see next. It's a testament to Elden Ring that I'm so excited at the possibilities that remain, but it's also a problem that after all this time, I feel like it needs to show me more than it has so far.

Tagged:

FromSoftware, Elden Ring

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