Elden Ring

There’s the moon, asking to stay…

Reviewed on the computer (and Steam Deck) via Steam.

A brief disclaimer: I haven’t completed Elden Ring, at least at time of writing. It’s possible that I won’t. The only non-Armored Core game by From Software that I’ve completed is Bloodborne, and honestly that was because I had a week to kill and was using it to stave off thoughts of misery and doom. I never got more than a few hours into any of the Souls games before binning them off in annoyance, and even Sekiro—which I adored—is sitting in my Pile of Failure. 

I’m a hundred hours in, mind. I’m not inexperienced, and I’m pretty sure I’m near the endgame (spoilers (of which this piece will contain many): I’ve beaten the Godskin Duo, and am bouncing HARD off Maliketh.)

So, take these words at whatever value you will. If you’re super-hardcore, can finish DSIII using a Donkey Kong bongo and are screaming BECOME ADEPT! or whatever at me right now, this probably isn’t for you. For the rest of us—I won’t say ‘normal people,’ but we all know that’s what I mean—I’d just like a bit of a chat about games, difficulty, From’s design principles, narrative obscurity and big fuckin’ swords. 

You know. The usual.

They’re an odd bunch aren’t they? The From games. You know the ones: they’re obnoxiously difficult and opaque, virtually impenetrable to newcomers, and gatekept by a mob of jealous internet commenters who are oddly convinced that making these games more accessible would somehow diminish them as People Who Are Good At Games. Even Armored Core suffers from this, if a little less than the Soulsborneses—ravenous, ‘hardcore’ fans will start shrieking if you dare to say ‘oh, like a Transformer?’ while they’re explaining their favourite big robot.

Still, they’re objectively great pieces of work. I don’t get on much with Dark Souls, admittedly—I suffered enough cumbersome one-hit kill combat with Bushido Blade as a kid, thanks—but have played enough and know enough to understand that they’re really very good. 

Bloodborne was a game I booted every couple of weeks, tried to get into and bounced off HARD for about three years, before it finally clicked, and then I rinsed it through to NG+++ in a week. Sekiro I loved immediately, but hit a wall and gave up.

The thing is, each of these games approaches a mechanic—careful, considered third-person combat—with a different hat on. These hats (or ‘design principles’, I guess) have different labels (or ‘keywords’) sewn into them (‘written on a big whiteboard at From Towers’)

Dark Souls’ hat


This is how DS feels to me. 

Every encounter can fuck you up. Every movement should be deliberate, and every path carefully thought out. Dark Souls punishes the player for rushing in, sometimes having enemies very clearly placed behind a door or around the corner specifically to jab a dagger into the kidneys of a player who thought, just this once, that running in blind would go well.

It never goes well. At least, until you’ve mastered the game, have memorised every jabber’s location, and have developed the muscle memory to precisely tap LB, LB, B, LT with the timings necessary to kill whichever big sod you’re after. 

Which is fine, but a bit strange and disjointed for its narrative. Watch a player dominate Dark Souls without bothering to upgrade or find big weapons and its sense of awe, that feeling of dread at every encounter, quickly disappears.

And that’s fine. Most of us will never git that gud. 

Bloodborne’s hat


This is how Bloodborne feels to me.

Every encounter can fuck you up. As I say, it took years for this game to click for me. And that’s because I was trying to play it like Dark Souls, which I hate anyway—and this game doesn’t want you to play like that. The mechanic that replenishes lost health by kicking fuck out of an enemy as soon as it scratches you is fantastic, and throws caution to the wind. Once I had figured out that taking damage wasn’t just ok, but actively encouraged, the game opened up to me, and quickly became a favourite. 

Sekiro’s hat


This is how Sekiro feels to me.

Every encounter can fuck you up. But this time, rather than imprinting your own play style onto a relatively blank character, Sekiro wants you to play in the way its protagonist is designed in narrative. And this means parrying, countering and dancing around with sharp focus and confidence.

More than the other games, Sekiro feels like a fight to me. A battle. Sometimes, you can tap the parry button five or six times in a few seconds, to stave off a rain of blows and follow up with your own attacks—and to me, this feels incredible. You’re not spending time cautiously worrying about whether a baddy is going to one-shot you with an attack you couldn’t have predicted, you’re not expected to blindly attack with a forward-pushing aggression. 

Ever seen Twilight Samurai? It’s a 2002 movie about the years just prior to the Meiji Restoration, when more and more warriors found themselves unable to keep up with the changing tides. It’s a samurai movie with some incredible, violent fight scenes in it, that don’t shy away from the physicality of sword combat. Sekiro has this nailed, that sense of melancholy underpinning every encounter. Every fight.

Elden Ring’s hat

‘All of the above.’

This is how Elden Ring feels to me.

Every encounter can fuck you up. But you’re given a toybox full of swords and daggers and spells and summons and a big horse and a jump button, and left alone to figure out how you are going to take this world on. So here, the hat thing dies, because Elden Ring is either not wearing a hat, or is wearing every single hat at the same time, or might even actually be the hat itself.

But the point is that here, in Elden Ring, you’ll find design cues from From’s other work. The lumbering caution of Dark Souls, the laser-focused aggression of Bloodborne and the sheer bloody joy of having a fight, like Sekiro, are all present here. It’s an aggregation of previous games—and I don’t think it quite worked. The guard counter mechanic doesn’t feel as good as Sekiro’s parries, you’re not rewarded with HP for aggression (at least without a special trinket) and the weaker enemies are just that—much, much weaker than any you’ll find trudging around Lordran. But anyway.

It is, as many people booted off about, open-world. Ish. You can go anywhere at any time, but in practice this means most players are going to wander off vaguely east, get fucking pasted by a big crow, and go ‘oh.’ It’s a game with an exploratory bent which punishes you for exploring. Now, I’m all right with this—plenty of open world games with a horse in have dangerous areas for newcomers. 

The issue I have with this is the almost total lack of signposting. I know, I know, From make complex, deep games full of beautiful, opaque incidental lore and environmental storytelling. But when that opacity begins to introduce confusion about exactly where you should be going next, that’s a problem. 

I’m a writer. I love complex lore. I love discovery, and I love stories. Elden Ring has all of those things, but they’re so buried under obscurity (and often possible to sequence break or miss entirely) that I feel like, even after a hundred hours, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. I’ve found important NPCs dead, and I don’t know why. I’ve completed quests before being given them, which has locked me out of progressing (I only know this due to checking a wiki…) 

I’m not saying the game should handhold people in terms of lore. But it sometimes becomes simply another map-mopping game, with hours and hours and hours of wandering about swording-up bastards with no sense of plot or character progression at all. This becomes tiring and frustrating, especially when you find yourself being splattered across the map by a sod, suddenly. The open-world is a detriment to the tight combat design of previous works, innit.

I’m not going to go on too much longer—I do really, really like this game, and I seem to be just complaining. What it does right it does right

There’s that uneasy sense of fear you get from enemies that only From seem to get right: often, you’ll fight something that clearly doesn’t want to get into this with you, and is afraid of dying. Nothing quite as spectacularly bleak as the fight against Rom in Bloodborne but still—an incredible sense of becoming the predator. 

There’s a wonderful visual trick or two with the Erdtree (the massive tree that someone or other tells you to go to at the start of the game, or something)—it appears larger and larger the further into the story you trudge, sometimes invisible until you turn a corner at which time it fills your vision.

There’s the sense of decay, destruction and things falling apart at great speed that kicks off after you enter Crumbling Farum Azula, a decay that brings up a lot of moral ambiguities regarding exactly what the fuck you’re doing  to this world.

There’re big swords, and cool hats. 

It’s all right.


Yeah, it’s all right. It’s Elden Ring—but small.

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About Da5e

A writer and a black metal musician.
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