This article originally appeared on VICE France.
For the past few days, I’ve been rampaging across the dark and mysterious Lands Between, the long-lost kingdom in the background of the much-anticipated action role-play video game Elden Ring.
Produced by FromSoftware, a Japanese game development company best-known for the Dark Souls series, the game has been highly anticipated by fans for five long years. Back in 2017, FromSoftware also announced it would consult with George R. R. Martin, the author of novels that became HBO’s hit show Game of Thrones, for the game’s worldbuilding, a collaboration which contributed immensely to the hype around the release.
The story begins in the middle, after the Lands Between, a world once blessed by the powers of the magic Elden Ring and the spectral Erdtree, was torn apart by a bloody war waged between the demigods who rule it. The Elden Ring – likely more of a magical object than an actual piece of jewellery – was destroyed and scattered among these demigods.
In Elden Ring, I am the Tarnished, one of the many exiles called to try to repair the ring. If I succeed, I’ll become the new Elden Lord and restore these desolate mystical lands to their original glory. At least that’s what I’ve gathered about the plot from a very generic bit of scene-setting delivered by a rotting corpse I met at the beginning of my adventure. “Take the Elden Ring,” he said. OK.
I have to preface what follows by saying Elden Ring is incredibly beautiful. From its ghostly and angular castles to its unsettling, foggy marshlands, the game is very successful in creating an open world where pain and solitude seem to reign supreme.
I appreciated the developer’s choice to build a vast and intricate expanse, in contrast to the Dark Souls series, where most of the gameplay takes place in tight, anguish-inducing corridors. I couldn’t wait to explore all the nooks and crannies of this immense map, to talk to the inhabitants of this cursed world and visit all its 145 (!) caves.
Unfortunately, my visceral excitement evaporated as quickly as it had risen, once I realised that Elden Ring has one crucial thing in common with Dark Souls – the gameplay that feels unoriginal and pretty damn boring (to me, at least). All you do is take part in really hard fights, loot enemies for XP, and hope to level-up enough to make the next encounter less difficult.
As a result, my daily explorations of the Lands Between settled into a pretty regular (and under stimulating) pattern – dodge, attack, dodge, attack, dodge, attack. All this while dying 40 times a day because of random attacks, like a 12-metre remote-controlled spear coming out of nowhere. I’d discover an area, kill some monsters, die, then try to defeat them once again, inevitably die a few more times and repeat the process until I’d eventually make it through. The gameplay ended up being so repetitive it instilled a sense of feverish fatigue in me, so much so that I almost gave up and bought a different game before coming back to my senses.
Despite it all, I continued my journey across Elden Ring’s beautiful, empty terrain, populated by monsters and soldiers who all - luckily - seem to have the field of vision of a very old Labrador. In the midst of this journey, I encountered the game’s bosses. These bosses are the cornerstones of the gameplay and demand disproportionate efforts to defeat. It’s almost impossible to beat them the first time around, in fact the only way to defeat them is often seemingly by learning their attack scheme by heart and responding with a beautifully choreographed dodge, attack, dodge, attack, dodge, attack like a modern-day RPG version of a Paula Abdul routine. And then repeating that a million times before finally pulling it off.
Yes, some might say it’s precisely this difficulty and this repetition that make the game satisfying. But Elden Ring doesn’t really introduce anything else besides that. After ten or so hours, I’d forgotten why exactly I was playing. I had internalised the idea that my only goal in the game was raking up XPs. Of course, I was also exploring the kingdom, whose artistic direction would shame any Halo Infinite fan, but to what end? It all seemed meaningless to me.
Online fans and journalists alike have focused on the free exploration of the Elden Ring world, appreciating the fact that players are basically on their own and aren’t given a huge amount of direction. Some used it as a chance to diss Ubisoft’s games, which are renowned for explicitly telling players where to go and who to speak with. Defending Ubisoft is not the hill I want to die on, but I think Elden Ring leaves you alone mostly because it has nothing to tell you. There are no interactions, no scenarios, no goals – aside from, “Go to the marshlands and kill everybody”.
The ambience might immersive and the landscapes stunning, but these are simply a veneer that repackages the most basic and tired of missions: travel to a new area, kill the enemies, then kill the boss. It’s all a challenge against yourself, fun only for those who are into frenzied XP marathons. There’s no narration, the whole plot could be summed up in very brief iPhone note and the world remains terribly hollow. Many have compared the game to Zelda: Breath of the Wild because of its free exploration aspect. But while the two are similar in their minimalist approach to giving the players direction, the Nintendo game offered different scenarios, interactions with non-player characters and a variety of missions.
In short, Elden Ring’s amazing artistic direction doesn’t save it from being a game solely based on a virtually empty world – without a story, without life, without a soul. In hindsight, I like to imagine the cadaver I met at the top of the game to be George R. R. Martin’s dead body. Needless to say, he was probably equally disappointed by what this studio did with his unparalleled vision.