The term “open world” has such grand implications. In the past, most video games were level-based, guiding players from one carefully constructed section to another. A combination of limited imagination and limited technology. Games like Metroid or Ultima were early flirtations with what we’d later dub open world. The technology part changed, and our game maps became big—laughably big—to the point that companies openly bragged about digital mileage. But rarely did imagination follow, to the point that “open world” now frequently channels blurry visions of repetitive and mindless objectives copied and pasted across a vast, same-y landscape. We’ve swapped digital mileage for endless hour counts.
Breath of the Wild is full of memorable moments, but the one that never leaves my dreams comes in the opening, as players leave the dark of their slumbering cave, and step into the light. As the blinding sun dissipates, the player is left with a stunning, impossibly vast view of Hyrule, and it dawns upon you that, my god, the possibilities here are endless. This is a Zelda game, but unlike any Zelda game I’ve played before. Who knows what happens next?
It still gives me chills, years later. It’s a grand declaration, announcing this game is different. You don’t know specifically how yet, but the view ignites the synapses about how this massive space could provide a new context for your actions. I’m reminded of the brilliant Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which felt like designer Hideo Kojima wondering how this space could change the act of play, not just making players run long distances.
Which brings me to Elden Ring, a new—and very big—action game from the developers of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and others, in which the general pitch has been “what if Dark Souls but in an open world?” Elden Ring is not done yet, and was recently and briefly delayed from January to February, but I spent the weekend playing a handful of hours with what FromSoftware is calling a “network test,” a demo that features a sizable chunk from the opening area that’s our clearest picture yet of what “open world” means to FromSoftware.
Those same chills I felt while playing Breath of the Wild for the first time are present here, too, right down to an opening sequence in which players leave the dark and enter the light.
Who knows what happens next?
The towering castle in the distance, the sprawling field splintering every which way, an enormous something (friend? foe?) casually pacing on a horse down the hill. And, uh, are those goats milling about around the corner? Wait, are those penguins? There have been large spaces in Souls games before, but Elden Ring is immediately declaring a shift. Moments after this clip, the player is quickly given an obvious suggestion on where to head next, but it’s not a requirement. You’re immediately allowed to start wandering, whether it be towards the beach full of sea monstrosities to the left, after the lake where people are worshiping a—well, you’ll see—and whatever else you might stumble into.
Or maybe you won’t, because what I learned in the six or so hours spent poking and prodding at this tiny sandbox, even with the fog walls that prevented me from fully exploring, was that Elden Ring is draped with mysteries that will prove entirely missable. There are no guiding arrows. The game will helpfully note important landmarks on your map, and there’s an abundance of easily accessible fast travel points, but it’s surprisingly easy to miss side areas filled with unique enemies, encounters, and upgrades. Elden Ring may echo a game like Breath of the Wild in many ways, but its Soul-yness, like the lack of a quest log to provide direction, is given more weight in a game where deciding where to head next is itself a daunting task.
That last point is how the mere presence of a larger map can meaningfully impact play.
I am, however, a tiny bit—maybe a 3/10, not exactly sure yet—worried about the “unique” part. Yes, it’s a delight to be rewarded for carefully exploring an otherwise innocuous area and finding an unexpected cave that leads to a little set of fights and, likely, a new weapon or attack. A few times, though—again, 3/10 on the scale—those caves were too similar. And boring. And there wasn’t much “unique” about them at all. One, set in a mine, was exceptionally cool and had an equally neat boss fight at the end. The others were...less so!
The game also makes the perhaps curious decision to automatically mark locations on your map as you discover them, because one time, I “discovered” a cave that I hadn’t actually seen with my own two eyes. The game figured I was close enough and gave me credit, but the actual discovery didn’t happen until I glanced at the map and went “er, what’s that place?”
If you’re asking “okay, but how does it play?” I have to confess combat was the least of my curiosity. I was too taken by unpacking the world itself.
And yet! There’s so much else to pick apart about Elden Ring, like how the game’s summons do (mini-bosses, in their current state, are pushovers) and don’t (“actual” bosses remain hard as hell) impact balance; the ability for players to control the game’s tension, thanks to quick access to a ghost horse named Torrent that can immediately help you escape most fights; the emphasis on stealth and Bloodborne-esque staggering that alter encounters, big and small. I could keep going, but there will be time for that later. February isn’t very far away, and it’s hard to know how much the developers will tweak between now and then. (Please make the mini-bosses harder.)
Of course it feels good to play. It’s a FromSoftware action game. That wasn’t in doubt, and was never the question I was hoping to have answered by finally playing Elden Ring. What I wanted to know was why, after all this time, the studio wanted to play in an “open world,” because it wasn’t immediately clear their established formula would necessarily benefit.
My time spent with Elden Ring proves it’s a big swing, and reason to suspect that here, a big map is not just a big map. Instead, it’s an invitation to something different. Eventually, we’ll learn just how different.