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An exhilarating open-world high-fantasy "Tolkienized" version of Dark Souls? Maybe.
Elden Ring was exactly what I expected it to be, nothing more, nothing less. From Software - with Hidetaka Miyazaki at the helm - didn't exactly leave much to the imagination in the duration of the game's trailers, but this is not a bad thing. These last generations of gaming have been marred by unjustified hype and fake expectations, so to see a game live up to what the developers initially offered is a joyous treat.
Surely, we would be compelled to point out some notable drawbacks - alluded to by virtually every reviewer on earth at this point - such as the poor performance of the game's PC port, an issue that has not yet been fully addressed, after months of release. From once again shows its favoritism for consoles, unfortunately.
Anyways, jumping to another topic, a question that's often asked around these circles is: Is Elden Ring an open-world Dark Souls 3? I would answer "not exactly".
Those two games share lots of traits and tropes, such as the same graphics engine, same overall mechanics, similar breathtaking vistas, "bonfires" (called "sites of grace" in the game under review), and even Patches (the recurrent trickster that annoys the hell out of you in every Soulsborne game), but the similarities kind of end there.
The world of Elden Ring - the Lands Between - is bright and colorful for the most part. The involvement of R.R. Martin (of Game of Thrones fame) in the lore creation might have something to do with that, and we're told he's a Tolkien enthusiast, so that should already explain the "Lord of the Rings" vibe that this game oozes.
By contrast, DS3's Kingdom of Lothric is decidedly darker, gloomier, and more opaque. The color scheme is monochromatic, which fits perfectly within that game's lore, but can likewise turn repetitive and boring after a few hours.
Elden Ring also introduces us to a vast open world with a plethora of sites to visit and entire dungeons and locations hidden from plain sight (even a complete underground map!). It's the first of its kind to be featured in a From Software release.
So far, Soulsborne games have accustomed us to largely linear levels with the illusion of an open world. The first Dark Souls achieved this semi-open world design perfectly via highly interconnected areas (reminiscent of how levels in Metroid and Castlevania games were laid out), but you were still left with the impression that you were basically traversing a very broad and intricate corridor.
Dark Souls 3 was far blunter about its linearity, with only a few branching paths to choose from. In Elden Ring, there are only a few hints about where to go and what to do, and you're essentially on your own, with nearly absolute freedom to roam around and go wherever you want, save for a few locations that needed to be unlocked by killing certain bosses.
Graphically speaking, this game is a notable improvement upon the last Soulsborne title. The lighting is not as "baked in" as it was in Dark Souls 3, but rather, the shadows are cast dynamically, which is an overdue improvement. This means that, when light hits an object at a certain angle, that object will cast a shadow upon any other objects below it or the soil at that same angle.
Speaking of the world itself, it feels alive, even if it appears devoid of characters to interact with (explained by the fact that we're playing in a decaying world). The inclusion of weather effects, abundant flora/fauna, and day/night cycles are welcome additions.
Finally, with regards to the day/night cycle, this may sound a bit nitpicky, but the nighttime visuals failed to impress me. There are some salvageable aspects here and there, but the feeling I get is that I'm playing in the daytime with a filter applied to it, rather than "genuine" nighttime. I know this is explained away by the presence of a giant glowing tree and a giant moon lighting up the environment, but I personally still wish it was just a tad darker.
Elden Ring is an open-world game set in a high-fantasy location that is played from a third-person perspective. You take the role of a "Tarnished", an individual who lost the grace of the Erdtree and was hence banished from the Lands Between, a kingdom abandoned by its god and plunged into chaos as a result.
Your objective is somehow disclosed from the beginning by the first NPCs you interact with: "Become the Elden Lord". Despite this, not much is said about your motivations or the finer details of the story. As with every Soulsborne game, the storytelling is not explicit but, rather, hidden in various item descriptions and beneath cryptic dialogues. From Software also makes use of environmental storytelling for immersion purposes.
The beginning of the game is heavily scripted. After you create your custom character, you start off in an area called the "Chapel of Anticipation", wherein you'll face your first major mini-boss: The "Grafted Scion". You're initially supposed to die in this fight, though it's theoretically possible to kill this boss on your first try (so far, I haven't).
Afterwards, you'll fall unconscious in the Stranded Graveyard, which contains an optional tutorial area (with a mini-boss) accessible by jumping off a hole in the ground next to a ghostly-looking NPC, as well as another area behind a fog wall that is only dispelled via a special item called the "Stonesword Key". As you approach the elevator and open the main gate, the world opens up for you to explore and marvel at. Early in the game, you'll be gifted with a steed called "Torrent", which enables you to travel long distances while eluding unwanted encounters.
The first "Site of Grace" (Elden Ring's version of the Dark Souls' "bonfire") you'll find lies next to a weird NPC named "Varre", who will explain concepts such as "grace" and reveal your first destination - namely: Stormveil Castle - wherein you're supposed to kill a Demi-God called Godrick the Grafted in order to acquire a Great Rune, which will allow you to join the "Roundtable", a group of formerly venerated warriors that can offer you goods and services, as well as other benefits. By the way, this rude prick will also remind you that you're "maidenless" (mind your own business!)
From here on, you're basically on your own. and you'll have to choose your path wisely. Just like with Dark Souls 1, Miyazaki, in use of his peculiarly unfunny sense of humor, will often trick players into thinking they have to defeat the first field boss they come across, or that they're first supposed to engage the giant boss guarding Stormveil Castle (Margit, the Fell Omen) upon leaving the Stranded Graveyard (technically, it's doable, but you ought to "git gud" first.)
However, you'll soon learn to look around in search of useful items to aid you in combat and upgrade your equipment. You can also level up, which is done via the Site of Grace's menu. The runes ("souls") looted or obtained from killed enemies can be spent on stats, equipment upgrades, and purchases, as you prepare to face the next big challenge. In this regard, the game encourages exploration and the completion of side content.
In terms of gameplay, if you've played the previous Soulsborne games, you know the drill. You have the usual light/heavy attach scheme, a dodge button, a block button, and a "parry/special attack" button. Special attacks are bound to a specific "Ash of War", an item that endows a weapon with several magical or physical properties and/or capabilities.
Also, we finally have a dedicated jump button. No longer do we have to perform arduous finger-straining combinations to do platforming. I understand that the weak jumping mechanics of the previous Soulsborne games were devised that way due to level-design constraints, but they could have simply kept the weak jump and just map it to a specific button.
Lastly, it bears stressing that this game is hard and unforgiving. In this game, just as is the case with all Dark Souls titles (including Demon's Souls), Bloodborne, and Sekiro, you have to be mindful of every button you press. You're not supposed to do button-mashing, considering your stamina limitations. Any unnecessary button press could entail death in the most crucial moments of a fight, even when engaging minor enemies.
Some people would highlight that this game, albeit hard, is also fair. which is true, at least in most instances. I'd take issue with the unpredictability of certain bosses' movements and the frenzied impossible-to-telegraph combos, which get mind-bogglingly ridiculous with late-game bosses (this also happens in Dark Souls 3 by the way, but I digress.)
Additionally, I would have loved to be able to perform combos like some of those chad bosses. I mean, why can't I be the boss once in a while, for a change? I'm not asking for an easy mode, but this feeling of permanent weakness, even after defeating powerful enemies, gets tiresome. Sure, you're able to use the aforementioned Ashes of War, but I find myself often unimpressed by their performance in battle, save for a few occasions.
Even after that final rant, Elden Ring truly managed to live up to my expectations. Admittedly, I already became immune to hype, given all the gaming-related disappointments I've endured during the past decade but, nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by this outcome. Elden Ring may probably not be the best game ever, but it is, without a doubt, one of the best games I've played this year, and it will probably remain in this status for the remainder of 2022.
What about you, Tarnished? Did you finally become the Elden Lord? If you did, or if you rather want to share your thoughts, leave a comment below!
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