FromSoftware released Demon’s Souls in 2009, and the game quickly became a critical and commercial success outside of Japan, resulting in Dark Souls two years later. A new genre was born, with studios inspired to develop their own take on the winning Souls-like formula, and gamers have since enjoyed an influx of titles like Salt and Sanctuary, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and Nioh. But few games have incited as much anticipation as FromSoftware’s latest, Elden Ring, whose worldbuilding was overseen by A Song of Ice and Fire author George R. R. Martin. And as the title’s 2022 launch day approached, eager fans jokingly worried that they might die before Elden Ring released.
The game takes place in a realm called the Lands Between, after the titular Elden Ring has been destroyed and its pieces scattered. When the Ring broke, so did the world. Though many have tried, none have proven powerful enough to rebuild the land, and so a stalemate exists between the warring inhabitants. The player is Tarnished, a person who lost the grace of the Erdtree and was banished from the Lands Between. After the Shattering, however, the Tarnished have been called upon to return and seek out the shards of the Elden Ring. One of them will be the champion who reunites the world and becomes the Elden Lord.
As expected from a game with a story penned by George R. R. Martin, the lore of Elden Ring is deep and compelling, fed to players through cryptic item descriptions and tantalizing hints uncovered in dialogue. Like with previous Souls games, the often tragic stories build a multi-layered world whose mysteries will drive many to continue playing even when the eviscerating difficulty makes them want to quit. Yes, Elden Ring’s combat is nearly as unforgiving as previous FromSoftware titles and will satisfy enthusiasts of the genre who enjoy the unrelenting challenge. Yet the game is also more accessible to casual players — unintentionally, according to game director Hidetaka Miyazaki – and this has been a sore spot for Souls fans. Minor gameplay adjustments make Elden Ring easier and thus diminish the constant feeling of unease that many players appreciate.
One of these changes is simple: defeating an enemy group refills flasks. This eliminates the frequency with which players need to rest to replenish health or mana items and therefore reduces the necessity of battling the same foes over and over. This change is understandable, given the open world of Elden Ring, as it would become tedious to fight through the same vast areas multiple times. However, the threat of having to repeat fights was a gameplay element that made Souls games unique. Weighing the need for flasks versus moving forward despite low health increased the sense of danger, and making it to the next area on a gamble added to the feeling of accomplishment.
The character classes or archetypes of Elden Ring bring another significant change. In previous Souls titles, players selected a specialization at the beginning of the game and then became constrained by stats and abilities with little room for experimentation. Elden Ring allows players to alter the effects on their armaments using Ashes of War, and this gives gamers a chance to adjust their play style if they’re not fond of their current setup. Ashes can be swapped freely between weapons, making it easy to adjust for specific fights and adding a degree of flexibility unavailable in previous titles.
Players can also summon spirits, spectral forms of enemies, to lend a hand in combat. This can transform a seemingly impossible battle into a mere speed bump and is particularly useful for solo players who can’t always stand on their own. For example, while magic users are extremely powerful, they’re also very vulnerable in a world that favors melee, strong armor, and oversized health bars. Summoning the Northern Mercenary spirit to tank and hold aggro lets casters step back and dole out damage without interruption.
While there are encounters with passive NPCs in Elden Ring, it’s safer to assume that everybody and everything is hostile and approach with shield raised. What appears to be a nice guy relaxing by a campfire will likely turn out to be a heart-pounding enemy encounter. Luckily, other players scatter helpful hints around Elden Ring's Lands Between, pointing out potential dangers or goodies that might be overlooked. However, this brings up another change that Souls fans may take issue with: the invasion system. In previous FromSoftware titles, it was risky to play online because other players could invade at inopportune times, leading to death, frustration, and a long trek to recover dropped souls.
Again, this was part of what made the games so distinctive. While undesirable to some, the threat of invasion was a welcome thrill for others. Similar to Bloodborne, Elden Ring's invasions are only possible if the player opts in using a Taunter’s Tongue or teams up in co-op mode. While many people have expressed anger about this change from the invasion systems in Dark Souls, it should be remembered that it was possible to avoid invasions in those games simply by playing offline. Elden Ring lets people avoid being attacked by unwanted visitors without forfeiting the fulfilling online interaction of notes, blood stains, and player phantoms.
Elden Ring may not dazzle everybody with incredible graphical detail like other current-gen games, but the world FromSoftware has created is nonetheless beautiful. The Lands Between has a brighter color palette than previous Souls titles and therefore doesn’t feel as stifling or foreboding as, say, Bloodborne. But the game features the diversity of environments, with breathtaking vistas stretching to the horizon and begging for exploration, that fans have come to expect from the developer. Windswept fields, occasional rainstorms, and lightning bolts flashing from the sky combine with a day and night cycle to make the Lands Between feel alive.
The soundtrack is one area of the game that seems to have received the least attention, and players will spend the majority of their time listening to negligible ambient noise and semi-silence. Despite that, some sounds in Elden Ring are incredibly effective. While standing on a cliff near the starting area, players will hear eerie howling and moaning in the distance. The source lies in the land below, and the sounds increase the feeling of apprehension when it’s time to explore the area. Eventually, players discover a dark pit that fades into blackness and realize that the hair-raising wails emit from its depths. Blood stains around the pit reveal that the howling was not sufficient to prevent some players from hopping in to seek answers, or perhaps it’s what enticed them.
People will inevitably compare Elden Ring to other Souls games, and on the surface FromSoftware’s latest creation seems like an open-world, less gloomy Dark Souls. Despite the subtle gameplay adjustments, it feels like a continuation of what has come before, and there are even direct callbacks to characters and items from other games. While that will satisfy the majority of fans, for some players Elden Ring may not displace previous titles for the top spot because it’s lacking some of the intensity and gothic moodiness that made those games so unforgettable.
However, when judged on its own merits, Elden Ring is a phenomenal game that will disappoint very few. It has most of the components that fans of the genre seek: a wondrous aesthetic, a feeling of mystery that invites exploration, skillfully designed and intimidating adversaries, and rich gameplay with a lot of replayability thanks to the various classes and builds. In the end, Elden Ring is more than just an open-world Dark Souls. It is strong in its own right, with tweaks to the classic Souls blueprint that create a refreshing new experience that still feels familiar.
Elden Ring releases for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S on February 25, 2022. Game Rant was provided a PS5 code for this review.