Elden Ring is huge, the kind of huge requiring dozens of hours of play before you start sniffing its end, and the kind of huge that would be a lot of fun to run around with your friends. Elden Ring, like the Souls games before it, supports multiplayer in both co-operative and antagonistic forms, but for all the progress developer FromSoftware has made in balancing the ever-increasing popularity with its formerly niche design philosophy, it hasn’t spent enough time rethinking how and why it wants players to interact with one another.
What I’m asking for is pretty simple: let me play with my friends all the time, whenever I want. Elden Ring already bends so far in the direction of letting players dictate their own experience that it’s almost surprising the multiplayer component remains so archaic.
Here’s how it works, for the unfamiliar. You start off Elden Ring seemingly on your own. But moments into the game, it’s clear other players are part of the experience, both passively and actively. While wandering the world, you’ll find clever (and trickster) notes from other players emblazoned on the ground, interactive blood spots that recreate how another player died, and transparent silhouettes showing other players exploring the same space as you.
This is the game communicating that Elden Ring is a dangerous place…but you’re not alone.
I’d say it’s easy enough to bring other players into your world, but I’d only say that because I’ve spent more than a decade being gaslit by FromSoftware’s approach to this part of its games, and it’s no less convoluted here. Rather than anything as simple as a friends list that allows players to join up with one another with a click of a button, Elden Ring requires players to drop a summon sign in their world that’s interacted with by the player who will act as the “host” world, and you set a password to ensure the game is able to link those summons up with one another. Sometimes the signs show up, and sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes you need to walk away and hope the game refreshes the signs on the floor!
This part isn’t a snap of your fingers, but it’s also not the most annoying obstacle. What’s more irritating is how the game gates what players can and cannot do with one another in increasingly arbitrary and frustrating ways. The three of you can’t summon a trio of ghost horses—fine, I guess, despite how cool that would be. Same goes for the altering of health and magic items when entering bosses—again, fine! Makes sense to adjust the difficulty.
But when a player inevitably dies, if they’re not the host, they disappear back to their own game. If you defeat a named boss, all players are sent back to their own game, without the option of staying. There’s no way to keep playing with the same group, as if you were a true party. Summons also cannot sit at a bonfire and modify their character or replenish their flasks. (It is possible to replenish by defeating groups of enemies, however, which is nice.)
Elden Ring already goes far enough to include a shortcut to its boss doors, a concession after years of forcing the rest of us to sprint towards foggy death. But you cannot have your friends regroup in front of that door, ready to take on the boss again. Nah, you have to go through the entire summoning process, loading screens and all, for every single player.
You can, effectively, play the entire game with friends. It’s just a huge pain in the ass.
For as much as Elden Ring feels like the equivalent of Dark Souls 4, anyone who’s played these games for a long time can recognize how much FromSoftware has changed along the way. It’s a game that has moved alongside its audience—well, except for this part.
Changing this would not make Elden Ring a walk in the park. The game already grants that it would be cool to have three players running around simultaneously. It’s a feature. What’d make the experience even better, though, is getting to play with friends wasn’t as arduous a task as taking on the many tough fights that are littered throughout The Lands Between.