Elden Ring Review: One Ring to Rule Them All
Elden Ring is a rare game that comes around once in a generation and is so powerful it may change how open-world games are made.
The Bottom Line
Introduction - Praise the Sun
- Developer: FromSoftware
- Publisher: Bandai Namco
- Release Date: February 25, 2022
- Platform: PS4 (Reviewed), PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
- MSRP: $59.99
- Genre: Action RPG, Soulsborne
Note: PC gamers are still reporting gameplay issues with Elden Ring, and we chose to review the game on PS4 due to some issues with the PS5 version at launch.
What it is - An epic RPG emphasizing skill, exploration, and discovery. One of the most enjoyable games on the market due to its living, breathing world, dazzling visuals, and unique gameplay design.
What it isn't - Elden Ring isn't easy. You're going to die and face frustration, but unlike a Souls game, you can choose where you want to go and what you want to do. It's not a linear game, and you can grind, level up, then try again.
Elden Ring is a game that only comes around once in a generation. It's as meaningful as Breath of the Wild and has all of the mystique of The Witcher 3. By now, you know that Elden Ring is good--really good--but this review will attempt to explain why it's so good and why you should play it if you aren't already.
I can comfortably say that Elden Ring could be the Skyrim of this generation. It really is on that kind of level. The game completely redefines what an open-world game could (and should) be while representing the convergence of over a decade's worth of game development. Elden Ring is the culmination of everything FromSoftware has done with the Souls franchise, stretching back from Demon's Souls in 2009 all the way to Dark Souls 3 in 2016.
And it shows. There's a refined grace to Elden Ring's gameplay that was hard-won through years of game releases, through struggles and defeats. The rough edges of the Souls franchise have been polished to a fine sheen, gleaming in the light of Raya Lucaria and the blessed sun's light. This is FromSoftware's magnum opus. It's an experience that is rare and isn't easily replicated.
The underlying magnetism of Elden Ring isn't just the gameplay, or the never-ending exploration, thrilling boss fights, grand dark fantasy scope, or the satisfying quest for loot.
The real magic of Elden Ring lies in with the community.
The Great Hunt - Gaming's Most Satisfying Scavenger Hunt
Today's video games are ingrained with social media in a way that opens new realms of interactivity. Everything you want to know about a game is just a click away, and there are endless communities and spaces devoted to specific games. You can jump into a Discord chat room and share tips, tidbits, and screenshots with other players. Gamers can invite friends, make new ones, and generally get involved in video games like never before.
The pandemic has cemented gamers into these digital ecosystems, and they are thriving in a way never before seen in video games history. Everyone is playing, everyone is involved, and everyone is interacting. It's one of the best times to be a gamer.
Despite not technically being a live game, Elden Ring has some of the strongest engagement elements I've ever seen in a video game. Elden Ring doesn't march to the beat of the industry's current live game drum, though, and instead makes its own way to a strange tune. FromSoftware has created its own unique formula that works incredibly well--so well that it may change how open-world video games are made.
It's not a forever game like Destiny that inundates you with constant grinding and quests. Elden Ring doesn't really confuse you or bombard you with things to do. There's no microtransactions or pressure to constantly log in, complete dailies, and get your rewards.
Elden Ring is a game you can play at your own pace. There are options and flexibility here that isn't seen in most of today's games. There's no handholding or quest markers, no incessant icons bidding you hitherto. You forge your own path, make your own decisions, and discover things as you go.
There are multiple distinct layers to Elden Ring's magic. One part of this sorcery is the open world, but it's a spell that everyday gamers are just as much responsible for as FromSoftware is.
There's so much to uncover that gamers are constantly creating guides, tips, and tricks to better optimize specific builds. Everyone is sharing something, and there are hundreds (if not thousands of videos) posted online about Elden Ring, which makes it gaming's largest scavenger hunt.
I've had almost as much fun scouting for loot locations, tips, and other tidbits as I have actually playing the game. There's a kind of cathartic charm in searching for items in Elden Ring. If you know the location for a specific piece of gear, you can technically go there even if you're under-leveled and woefully squishy. Sometimes you need to kill a boss to get it, and sometimes the item is just in a chest or on the floor somewhere.
There are not a lot of barriers or things preventing you from just riding wherever you want to go. You just have to have the gumption, the guts, and the perseverance. It's pretty thrilling going to an area that's full of enemies that can kill you in one hit, creating a quest of dire and epic proportions akin to a heroic mission of sorts.
The community has come together to create a kind of never-ending cycle of guidebooks that are constantly being written--and re-written--as time goes by. The more someone discovers, the more they share, and the community gets fed with new paths to explore. There's an inherent desire to find the best items, the best spells, and just maximize your effectiveness as much as possible. It really is fascinating just watching the Elden Ring Discord continually discuss min-max builds, the best gear, and overall, just trade knowledge with one another.
This is the perfect kind of RPG for me (and apparently 12 million other people, too), it's the kind of experience where you can sequence out your game plan, go after specific loot, and generally make significant progress each time you play.
I owe a large part of my enjoyment with Elden Ring to the community itself. The way gamers have come together in a positive way is something special.
The Elden Strand
Elden Ring has a shared-world experience that's both direct and indirect, creating a kind of harmonious synergy that isn't really seen outside of Souls games. The world feels alive as a result. The Lands Between feels like a meaningful place where you can make a significant impact on other players' experiences.
There's an in-game communal aspect that all Souls games have employed since Demon's Souls in 2009. In a very real way, Jeff Grubb was right when he said Demon's Souls was the first strand game (a reference to Death Stranding's positive online multiplayer mechanics where players come together to work towards a common goal, albeit in a passive way).
The online multiplayer elements are present in three ways: Passive, co-operative, and brutal PVP battles.
Like other Souls games, you can leave messages for other players throughout the game. Some are extremely helpful and deliver vital clues to navigating the game's many pitfalls and traps. Messages like "dog ahead" or "shortcut, down!" can save your life and make your gameplay session much easier.
As a reward for your helpful messages, Elden Ring will heal you in real-time as you're playing. This can save your life during a horrendously difficult boss fight. There's a bunch of videos of players tackling bosses like Radahn who are about to die only to get their messages appraised, get healed, and finish the fight. Having this happen during a boss fight is one of the most enjoyable things about the game.
As such, players are encouraged to leave helpful messages and continue the positive feedback loop. It's Pay It Forward built into a video game.
You can watch ghosts of other players who are in the same area as you, little reminders that you're never truly alone in your struggles. And you can see the evidence of their death all around you as warnings to beware.
Being able to see other players die in real-time is both grim and rewarding in that you can learn from their mistakes. It's this kind of interaction that creates a silent bond between players that makes everything feel more engaging.
Elden Ring also features direct co-op play where you can summon the help of another random player in specific scenarios.
These phantom allies can help you tackle bosses, complete a tough area like Raya Lucaria or Sellia, Town of Sorcery when you're in over your head trying to get the Meteorite Staff in Caelid Wilds. This, too, is an extremely rewarding experience. As you level up, you genuinely want to help others and flex out your build to see how it stacks up against certain foes. There's an unspoken camaraderie here that's magical; everyone is having a tough time, so they're working together to make it a little bit easier.
Then there's PVP. Elden Ring lets you invade others' worlds and take them on in brutal duels. This, too, can be a fun way to test out your mettle, skill, and build's prowess. While it is annoying when someone randomly invades your world, it does add a thrill and danger to the experience that's prevalent throughout the game.
Mystique and Mystery: The Dark Crusades in The Land Between
Another part of Elden Ring's magic spell is the world's presentation.
The game has a dark, grim, and macabre style that's foreboding and somehow inviting. It's so strange, so unique, so visually appealing that you are compelled to explore and venture onward. Sometimes the world is so completely freakish and weird that you feel like you're on a holy crusade through the depths of hell itself, battling demons and monstrosities straight out of a Wayne Barlowe painting.
The best part about this fantasy world is that it doesn't have to make sense. Gamers are forced to take Elden Ring at face value, and it's all the better because of it. This is something different that doesn't just break the mold but shatters it in a way that only FromSoftware can do.
It's a Souls-like, so it has its own grand fantasy formula that's both arcane and eldritch, speaking in the tongues of Lovecraft, Giger, Beksinski, Barker, and all the horror greats. It has the naming scheme and flow of a George R.R. Martin series (and rightfully so, considering GRRM helped write the game world and lore) while blending in that distinct splash of FromSoftware otherworldliness.
The result is an in-game world that is oddly enchanting. The Lands Between is mysterious and captivating. There's a mystique to the world that is only possible due to extreme creativity, passion, and vivid presentation.
FromSoftware uses fantasy as a means of breaking reality to the point where things simply don't have to conform to any one set of rules. Nothing you see makes any sort of rational sense. You are thrown into a world that ebbs and flows from dream to nightmare at a moment's notice.
The sky to the east blazes scarlet like a baleful hellscape. Gothic monasteries and ruined fanes stretch to the heavens above, all broken, cold stones. Dragons soar, strange beasts roam, abhorrent terrors wait to utterly smash your being into dust. Terrifying disemboweled giant zombies stomp around, pulling carts with metal chains around their necks. The world is bleak and brutal. Death lies waiting around every corner.
In some spaces the sky is a golden amber not unlike Xibalba, the underworld of the Mayans (see The Fountain starring Hugh Jackman).
Despite this, there is a gleeful splendor in exploring the world. You want to see, you want to uncover, you want to excavate The Lands Between because there's an uncanny sense of thrilling excitement in not only seeing but partaking in the discovery itself. This is a meaningful journey that is just as much about visuals as it is gameplay.
Exploring in Elden Ring is a lot like digging up a sarcophagus from an ancient era to discover what dazzling and strange things lie within.
And above all else there's a beacon of hope blazing across the entire world; The Erdtree, much like the World Tree Yggdrasil in Norse mythology. No matter how many times you die or what kinds of things you see, the tree is there, gleaming in glorious, coruscant light.
There is tremendous reward in simply roaming around in Elden Ring. It's the kind of game where you want to get lost. There's something interesting behind every corner, whether it be a gigantic pile of stones that animates itself into a towering boss that you didn't expect, or a thrilling ambush from a horde of monstrosities.
The world is incredibly alluring, and there's a powerful motivation to seek, find, uncover, and explore. The call to adventure is felt in every inch of this game. No matter what you're doing, that pull is there; It's like living a high fantasy novel that you write yourself bit by bit. It's not unreasonable to imagine your story being writ in some hallowed tome somewhere, possibly in a library among corrupt mages or on the bookshelf in the Roundtable Hold, an obvious nod to King Arthur's epic.
Another layer of Elden Ring's engagement is how FromSoftware keeps players interested in the game itself. There are many motivations to explore and blaze onward, whether it be to find loot, new spells, or just ride off into that weird gleaming tree in the sky.
The Quest for Epic Loot
One of the biggest motivations to explore The Lands Between is to get better gear. This chase is one of the best parts of Elden Ring. Items, gear, and loot in this game are enigmatic at first, and unless you have a guide, it's not readily apparent what anything is or what it does (apart from the obvious things like swords and armor). There's a bunch of collectibles, buffs, and items you can find that will help you along the way, and bit by bit, you decide what they do and what they are.
In a very real sense, you feel like a detective trying to piece things together. It's part of the fun, and you shouldn't always try to spoil this part of the game--the learning process is progressively rewarding.
Finding better gear empowers you in an obvious, tangible way and feeds the core gameplay loop. You're motivated to explore in even parts to progress through the story, see more weird things, and get better and better. The great thing is you're not limited to linearity the way you were in Dark Souls games; if you can't beat a boss, you can roam around, level up, find better gear, and try again. There's no more throwing yourself into a meat grinder over and over.
Elden Ring gives you so many options in how you want to build your character that it's pretty much like an Elden Scrolls game. In some ways, Elden Ring has out-Bethesda'd Bethesda. The sheer amount of gear, stat, ability, and overall build options are staggering to the point where gamers can constantly discuss new methods online. Someone is always finding some crazy new juxtaposition of gear and skills to utterly demolish bosses.
No matter what you're having trouble with, no matter what obstacle you're facing...there's a way out. There's a solution to every problem in Elden Ring because of the literal galaxy of gear and items strewn throughout the game. Nothing is impossible, and for the first time ever, these kinds of games can open to every type of player. With the right conjunction of armor, weaponry, ashes of war, and spells and abilities, you can pretty much tackle any area or any boss in the game.
But there's still a learning curve. Having great gear will make the game much easier, sure, but you still must develop that "git gud" prowess associated with all Souls games. No number of powerful items will compensate for not learning basic (and eventually, advanced) skills.
It's exciting that the gear meta is always changing, and new updates like v 1.03 will ensure things keep shifting. This is the kind of thing you'd expect to find in a live game...not a singleplayer-driven RPG from a Japanese developer. It's refreshing, to say the least.
Thrill and Glory
Elden Ring has different phases of gameplay. The loop is made up of exploration (usually for better loot, gear, or curiosity's sake), skirmishes with enemies (these are smaller-scale battles with baddies across the map), and boss fights. There's a nice lull in between these phases where you can plan, plot, and interact with the world.
What I've found most refreshing about Elden Ring is that I get to pick and choose what phase I want to be in.
It's entirely possible just to roam around the world on horseback (your spectral reindeer/stag/steed named Torrent, a clever way to thwart piracy) and just soak in the atmosphere. Or you could go gather flowers and other materials for crafting. Maybe you just want to hang out and take screenshots of an area, talk to some NPCs, learn a bit about the lore, soak up the rays by the octopus-infested beach.
Then when you're ready, you can just get into skirmish battles to test out your new wand, or your new ability. Flexing your build with smaller-scale battles is entertaining and a vital part of the learning process. The open-world scope ensures you have plenty of room and monsters to choose from, and you can go place-to-place at will, provided you've unlocked the necessary Grace spots along the way.
Once you're ready and prepped, you can go tackle the hulking boss of a specific region. These fights are tremendously thrilling and can be quite difficult (or easy) depending on what gear and things you've unlocked. This flexibility and choice is very welcome, but nothing replaces the know-how required to tackle the fights themselves. Without a guide, this requires a lot of persistence because you'll be dying, dying, and dying some more.
But that's part of the game, isn't it?
Wrap-Up and Score
Elden Ring isn't perfect, but it's still one of the most enjoyable games I've played in recent years. It's a contender for game of the year 2022, and it could be one of the only games you buy this year.
FromSoftware's latest RPG is a precarious balance of masochistic punishment and satisfaction, and thanks to new improvements and adjustments, it's the most accessible and user-friendly Souls-like on the market. But make no mistake, the Lands Between aren't for the faint of heart.
No matter how good you are or what kind of gear you get, you're still going to mess up, make mistakes, and die many, many times. Sometimes it's frustrating. Sometimes you understand your errors, but no matter what, you want to continue your experience to the end.
+ World feels alive because there's lots of engaging things to do
+ Quests are interesting and unique
+ Tons of build options with crazy gear combinations
+ Dazzling visuals
+ Strange dark fantasy lore
+ Passive co-operative play is harmonious and creates a genuinely positive atmosphere
+ Rewarding sense of progression and discovery
- Can be punishing and ruthlessly tough
- Minor performance issues
Graphics and Visuals
The Bottom Line
Elden Ring is FromSoftware's best game to date and redefines what open-world games should be.
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