Elden Ring Review

My gaming tastes have shifted over the past few years. I used to love playing big AAA games where I could spend seventy, eighty, or sometimes over a hundred hours totally immersing myself into a game world. Games like Oblivion, Skyrim, the modern Fallout games, Dragon Age, and the Assassin’s Creed series all come to mind. When I say immerse I really mean it; once I started a game like that I would only have eyes for that game and play it for weeks and weeks until I beat it (or on the rare occasion grew tired of it). At some point, a switch flipped and I found myself drawn to shorter indie games where I could experience the whole thing in a fraction of the time. I also realized that I like playing lots of different games; however when I find one I like I still usually stick with it until the end. When I was given the opportunity to review Elden Ring here at Xbox Tavern, I admit that I was a little hesitant. I love FromSoftware games, they’re probably my favorite developer. I’ve played through all of their modern games except Sekiro. I was hesitant for a few reasons. First of all, I didn’t want to have to rush through the game for review. FromSoftware builds some of the most intriguing and breathtaking worlds and has finely tuned their gameplay to perfection, both of which suck the player in. I wanted to be able to take my time and enjoy the game – I wanted to get sucked in. I was also worried that I might get stuck on a difficult boss or dungeon, a road block, causing me to prolong my review process. Finally, I had a feeling that I’d get totally immersed into the game and not want to play anything else. This last part has certainly happened. I just passed one hundred hours played, exploring every inch of the magnificent world FromSoftware has created. I didn’t really know what to expect for an open-world Souls-style game, but I’m completely enamored. FromSoftware and Bandai Namco have bestowed on us a true masterpiece, and while it shares many similarities to their past work, they’ve created an open-world action RPG that breaks the mold, is incredibly enjoyable, and is probably their most accessible game to date.

You begin the game as a Tarnished, someone who had been exiled after losing the blessing of the Elden Ring and the Erdtree. Now that the Elden Ring has been broken the Tarnished have begun to return to the Lands Between in the hopes of tracking down the pieces and rebuilding the Ring. If one can accomplish this tall task they could become the new Elden Lord. The story in Elden Ring is delivered in a similar manner to other FromSoftware games, given to you in bits and pieces from the various NPCs you meet, as well as what can be found in item descriptions. There are a fair amount of cut scenes that help to paint a picture of the world and the plot. The novelty of cut scenes wore off on me long ago. I remember how excited I was to watch each one while playing games like Final Fantasy 7, but now most of the time I just skip them or wish they would end. The cut scenes in Elden Ring are well done and spaced out appropriately, and each time one of them triggered I felt a hint of that excitement I thought was gone.

One of the selling points of the game is that George R.R. Martin assisted in writing the story, and while the basis for the story sounds similar to anyone who’s played their the past games (starting as the chosen undead, or the ashen one) this story and lore as a whole feel much more fleshed out. Part of that is due to the immense size of the game. They have created a very interesting game world that is chock full of history and lore, you just have to go and find most of it yourself. One thing you’ll notice early on that feels different from most open-world RPGs you’ve played is that there aren’t many NPCs. When you do come across an NPC it makes it feel much more special, but overall there are a good number of them. They’re just spread out a lot – with a few exceptions such as the Round Table hub area that you are invited to early in the game.

One of the criticisms I’ve seen leveled at the game is the lack of traditional quests and no quest log. Half of this criticism is true, the game does not feature a quest log, but FromSoftware has a good reason for this. They don’t want the player to be burdened with a list of things to do. At the start of the game, there is a feeling of freedom that I have rarely experienced when playing open-world games. You can pretty much go anywhere and explore however you see fit. The only thing holding you back is your level, equipment, and how well you can play the game. That might sound negative to some people, but there are plenty of areas to explore right at the start that are appropriate for a new player. You will also gradually gain better equipment as well as runes (XP), which allow you to level up. FromSoftware is known for doing an excellent job of teaching the player how to play their games and what to look out for. I thought this might be lost in the transition to open-world, but really that just means that there are even more opportunities to learn the different enemy and world tendencies within the game. 

Early on you’ll come across a few NPCs, some of which give you simple quests, such as retaking their small castle or retrieving a nearby item. Occasionally these get marked on your map, other times you might get a crude map or a letter with some of the pertinent information on it, but in most instances, you need to pay attention to what they told you. Not everything is known about how the quests function in Elden Ring. It seems like you can miss out on some quests if you advance too far into the game, but there is definitely some leeway as many NPCs will move farther into the map if you don’t interact with them at their first location and you’ll have a chance to start the questline at the next part of their story. While playing the game I got the feeling that the developers do not expect players to do everything in one playthrough (l know some want to though, and probably will). There is so much to explore and a ton of content and the gameplay in FromSoft games always lends itself to a high degree of replayability – trying out new classes and builds. So on subsequent playthroughs, you can always attempt to do the stuff you missed out on the first time around.

In regards to the non-traditional quests complaint, I would actually disagree with that notion. Most of the quests feel like your typical Action RPG style quests, but with a FromSoftware spin that their fans have grown to love, meaning that some of them might be esoteric, bizarre, or obtuse and a few of them have the humor that fans have grown accustomed to as well. There is one character that continues to get stuck in the ground; you’ll hear him wailing for help as you pass by. When approached he’ll ask you to whack him a few times in the rear to knock him loose. The quests might start out simple, but there are some later on in the game that are very long, somewhat convoluted, but extremely interesting and well designed. The developers have also populated the game world with little puzzles. Most are part of sets, so you can expect to find the same type of puzzle when visiting a similar location. I thought this was a nice way to add more elements to the game besides just exploration and combat.

Elden Ring truly is a massive game. The first few days I played, I kept hearing people say that the game world is ginormous and I’d look at my map and think “yeah it’s pretty big”, but then I continued to find new areas and new map fragments and my map just kept expanding. At ninety hours I still don’t have the full map, but they were right, the game world is gigantic. After beginning the game I scoured pretty much the entire starting area, Limgrave, looking for every location of interest and killing every enemy that crossed my path (maybe not every enemy). I really felt like I was on an adventure. The designers did a fabulous job of making the player feel rewarded for exploring and defeating enemies. One of the biggest additions to the game in comparison to the Dark Souls series is the inclusion of a dedicated jump button. This opens up so many more exploration options and allows the designers to create much more elaborate environments. Another new addition is the ability to ride a mount, early on you are gifted a magical steed named Torrent. This makes exploring the world much more enjoyable since you can get around more quickly, and additionally adds a whole new layer of combat to the game since you can use your entire arsenal from horseback. Oh, and he can double jump! Which adds an extra layer to the platforming in the game. The mount and the fact that you can warp to and from the points of grace (bonfires/checkpoints/safety) make traversing such a large environment much easier.  

FromSoftware subscribes to the idea that the player should be rewarded for their actions. Beating a tough enemy, completing a dungeon, braving a treacherous pathway where one misstep means you’ll fall to your death, or even just exploring a side path – there should be some sort of reward for the player at the end, and most of the time there is. These rewards come in all forms, most commonly though it is some sort of item such as an armament (weapon), a talisman (equivalent to the rings in Dark Souls), or a piece of armor (just like the Souls games there are four armor equipment slots: head, body, hands, and legs). Other times it might be gaining access to a secret area, and just like the game world, these areas are almost always bigger and more complex than you would expect. Since the game is open-world, obviously they can’t put swords, spells, and helmets as rewards for everything you do, so they have added a new game mechanic that greatly increases the number of items scattered about the world. This would be the crafting system. After buying the crafting kit from what will most likely be the first merchant you meet, you can access the crafting menu from the pause screen menu while not in combat (be careful though, just like in their other games there is not any way to actually pause the game, so enemies can sneak up on you and attack while you’re fletching arrows or pickling turtle necks). 

You will find dozens of crafting cookbooks while playing the game (another form of reward), and each one will add recipes to your menu allowing you to create more and more items. To create all these things there must be close to a hundred different crafting materials. There is a huge variety in these items and they range from plants, such as erdleaf flowers, rowa fruit (used to make raisins for your horsey!) and mushrooms, edible and non-edible animal parts such as bones, chunks of meat, beast livers, and land octopus ovaries as well as other odd components such as gold fireflies, dragonfly heads, rocks, and crystals. When viewing each item in your inventory it has a beautifully rendered drawing of the item as well as some flavor text. In addition, there is a little note indicating where the item might be found (what type of environment or type of animal). I’m not big on crafting in games, but here it seems to work extremely well. There are so many options for what you can make if you desire to do so, and if you aren’t interested you can ignore it for the most part; however it is extremely helpful being able to craft all different types of arrows and crossbow bolts while you are in the middle of delving through a dungeon. 

As soon as you gain control of your character you’ll realize that everything feels very similar to the Souls series, Dark Souls 3 in particular. FromSoftware pretty much started their own subgenre of action RPG games so it’s no surprise they are sticking to that formula. There are a few more gameplay additions besides the horse and the jump button. There is now a dedicated sneak button, meaning you can creep around enemy forts and outposts or sneak up on patrols and get in a quick backstab. Unfortunately, once you attack you are usually spotted, but I like the addition nonetheless. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I dispatched an entire group of soldiers camped at some ruins while sneaking around in a suit of armor.

 As a Dark Souls veteran, the controls felt very comfortable, with one exception. Since there is now a dedicated jump button that means that the interact button is assigned elsewhere – Y on an Xbox controller. The Y button has multiple other functions as well. Holding it down and pressing the RB or LB button will make you two-hand whichever armament is equipped. Holding Y and pressing one of the Dpad buttons will let you quickly use one of the items you have assigned to that button. I like this added functionality, but keep finding myself making mistakes in regards to the Y button. Perhaps I’ve played too many of their previous games where the layout was slightly different.

Each of the Dark Souls games improves upon its predecessor’s combat system, adding new mechanics and refining what was there. Elden Ring feels like the culmination of their efforts. Pretty much everything that worked in the previous games has made a return: parrying, backstabbing, dual wielding, charge attacks, and weapon arts are all here, and now that you can jump you can perform powerful jump attacks. One other new addition is the devastating guard break moves you can perform by pressing the heavy attack button after successfully blocking an attack with your shield. I understand that the combat can take some getting used to but I think that overall it is one of the best combat systems in all of video games. You have so many options at your disposal on how to play and it is extremely rewarding. The amount of combat options you are given is mind-boggling. There must be at least a hundred different weapons in the game, as well as dozens and dozens of weapon arts. These are special moves that can be initiated by pressing the L2 button when two-handing a weapon or dual-wielding. Some are kind of basic and are repeats of moves from Dark Souls 3, but there are a ton of unique weapon arts, some of which are pretty crazy (such as creating a gravity well around you that pulls all the enemies in and damages them). When resting at a grace point, you can change the weapon art on any regular weapon you own as long as you have obtained that weapon art item (not a weapon with that art but essentially a scroll that shows up in your inventory; these can be found in the game world or bought from vendors). Some arts can only be used with certain weapons, but all in all I’m amazed at the attention to detail FromSoftware has put into their game; there are so many options and so many great looking animations for all the different moves, it’s really incredible. 

FromSoftware have also upped the ante on the number and variety of spells in Elden Ring. They are split into two groups: sorceries (intelligence) and incantations (faith). I started my first playthrough as the Vagabond class, he looks like a Knight and is melee-focused. Obviously, you can level up your character however you see fit but after a dozen hours or so and lots of points sunk into strength, vigor, and endurance, I kind of wished I picked a magic-user. There are so many awesome-sounding spells. In addition, it seems like the majority of the coolest weapon i’ve found so far require a decent amount of intelligence, meaning my character is too dumb to use any of them, which I suppose makes sense since his name is Dingus.

You might be wondering what you do with all of those weapons and firepower. Continuing the trend of magnitude and scale; the enemy selection and variety are also astonishing. FromSoftware have some of the most creative designers and artists in the industry. There are a few returning enemies like the dogs and rats, as well as a few fan favorites – I won’t point out who, it’s always a nice surprise running into an old friend. The enemies they create always run the gamut from gruesome and disgusting, to odd and abnormal, and then all the way in the other direction to silly and humorous. The funniest enemies in this are probably a tie between the jar enemies and the cartwheeling, frog-headed, alien-looking men (the Albinaurics). A few other creatures do rolling attacks as well. The sheep-like creatures that you find in many of the areas do a silly somersault roll to get away from you, but they can also use it to attack (doesn’t do much damage, although there is a supercharged version later on that’s also pretty goofy). There are a number of other wildlife creatures that you can hunt and kill to gain crafting materials. This is just one more aspect that helps fill out the game world.

Elden Ring has a huge number of bosses, gigantic bosses, and little bosses. They come in all shapes and sizes, and the developers’ creativity is on display once more. All the dungeons I’ve explored so far have at least one boss, and a few of the regular dungeons have a second secret boss; some of which are hidden particularly well. They do reuse some of the bosses at certain points, either making you fight two or three in later encounters or altering their appearance and moveset somewhat. One really cool feature in Elden Ring is the day/night cycle. On the surface it’s no different from any open-world game with a day-night cycle, but the cool part is how you’ll come across different enemies while exploring at night. This even extends to the bosses – there are some field bosses (the bosses in the open world sections) that only appear at night. The legacy dungeons typically have two bosses, and these are usually the toughest ones in the game. I should point out that when I say dungeons that doesn’t always mean an underground area. There are a lot of different templates for the dungeons. Most of the regular ones are underground, in caves, mines, and catacombs, but the legacy dungeons usually take place in large castles or other immense structures. They are all designed immaculately well, with fantastic layouts and architecture. The main bosses at the end of these massive and complex legacy dungeons (story dungeons) are all very impressive, each fight feels extremely unique. In one you fight a huge general riding a tiny horse on a massive beach (he specifically learned gravity magic so he could continue to ride his favorite frail horse). You can summon half a dozen companions to come in and help during this fight, and the fight itself felt totally epic. These main bosses all feel like a fantastic climax for reaching the end of the lengthy dungeons and/or quest lines.

Some people really appreciate the difficulty of the Souls series, but I know just as many don’t like it. Elden Ring in many ways is just as difficult because it shares so much of the same DNA, but the developers have implemented a few mechanics to ease the struggle somewhat. First off, making a return is the summon system, allowing you to summon other real-world people into your game world to help you with a level or a boss, or you could summon in a friend or two and just explore if you want; however, you cannot ride your horse while CO-OPing and exploring on foot is not desirable. Early in the game, you are also presented with a new mechanic: the spirit calling bell. This allows you to summon a blueish-white spectral form of an enemy to fight by your side. The system works similarly to the spell system, you must find the summon item for a particular creature to be able to use it, and then to summon it you use it like any item. It consumes your magic points (FP) and you can only summon in certain areas, but this includes most boss fights and many of the tougher encounters in the game. Having an extra target for a boss to aggro makes a huge difference in the game just like its predecessors, making some boss fights feel like night and day depending on whether you summon someone or something to help you. Just like with everything else in the game, there are a plethora of spirits you can find to add to your spiri-dex, I mean inventory. Also, you can increase their strength by leveling them up in the same fashion as your weapons.

Perhaps the only criticism I can level against Elden Ring is that the graphics are kind of dated. The game is running on the same engine as their last few games, and it doesn’t really compare to newer games releasing on the current-gen consoles. Honestly though, I think that the most important aspect of a game’s art design is the art direction, and the game looks phenomenal in terms of atmosphere. There are so many interesting locations, breathtaking views, and amazing set pieces proving once again that FromSoftware are at the top of their game. The day-night cycle adds an extra layer of attractiveness to the game, especially at night. I will admit that I started to grow tired of the green grass, rocky cliffs, and gold-leafed trees of the first area, Limgrave. Once I reached the second area I was so excited to see trees with green leaves. If you do get bored with a section you can always just warp to a grace point elsewhere on the map (unless you’re in combat or in a dungeon). I also noticed some frame rate issues while playing on my Xbox One, especially when there were a large number of enemies on screen.

The sound design is just one more notch in Elden Ring’s exquisitely crafted belt. The sound effects are very similar to their past games, the Dark Souls series in particular, but if it’s not broken why fix it? Many of the enemies make unique sounds that really add to the ambiance and eeriness of the game. Two in particular that I recently encountered in the Atlus Plateau region really struck a chord with me. While exploring around the minor Erdtree of that area I encountered these big hunched over monstrosities with what looked like tentacles coming out of their hooded faces – they might have been fingers though, since fingers are a recurring theme in the game. Some patrolled the area, but others sat huddled in small circles whispering gibberish; it was very unsettling. Up the mountain from there, I made my way into a windmill village, right past the grace point I could see a trio of women dressed in festive garb dancing and humming a melody. They were so caught up in their revelry that they didn’t even attack me as I rode past. Both of these examples show how much care went into crafting this game, the enemies all have different tendencies and many are engaged in actions when you come across them making the game world truly feel alive, and I think the sound effects really help put it all together. The soundtrack is equally instrumental in filling out the game world with an added sense of atmosphere.

Like many other games, Elden Ring features an adaptive music system. When you are exploring there is usually just a low-volume orchestral track playing, or sometimes no music is playing and just the ambient sound is audible. Once you are engaged in combat the intensity amps up. Similarly, when you are at a cinematic or culminating point in your journey the music becomes much more epic in tone. The change in music during combat is actually very helpful being an auditory cue letting you know when enemies have spotted you and are moving in. It’s also pretty cool walloping enemies to a fierce orchestral score. It kind of feels like they know you’re about to kick some ass, or more likely get your’s kicked.

Conclusion

FromSoftware has combined everything they learned while designing their past games and created something that will stand as a benchmark for years to come. Elden Ring is probably the most accessible game in their Soulsborne series, but it is very difficult. This difficulty and the esoteric nature of their design isn’t for everyone, but if you like fantasy RPGs there is no question as to whether you should give this a try. The amount of enjoyment, excitement, wonder, and reward I have felt while playing this game is unmatched. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it before. Elden Ring is easily the best game I’ve played so far this year, and I know it’s early but it should be in the discussion when talking about the greatest games of all time.

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This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox One console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.
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Good
  • Huge world to explore, almost feels endless. Level design is exquisite
  • Familiar gameplay, plus extra mechanics that take it to the next level
  • Huge number of dungeons and bosses, main boss fights are epic
  • Art direction is astonishing, there is so much variety between the areas
  • Slightly more welcoming to new players
Bad
  • Graphics look kind of last gen, also some framerate issues and stuttering at times
  • Some minor bosses and assets get recycled one too many times in smaller dungeons
  • Cannot summon your horse while in CO-OP
10
Incredible
Gameplay - 10
Graphics - 9.8
Audio - 10
Longevity - 10
Written by
I started my gaming odyssey playing 8-bit console and arcade games. My first Xbox was the 360 and I immediately fell in love with achievement hunting and the overall ecosystem. That love was cemented with my purchase of an Xbox One. I play a bit of everything, but I usually end up playing fast paced games that remind me of my days spent in dark, smoky arcades spending quarter after quarter, telling myself "one more try!". Gamertag: Morbid237.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for such a well-thought out and comprehensive review!

    Reply
  2. I am just reading this today. Many thanks for this outstanding review. I wanted to see a review Of the Xbox iteration since I would be playing that. I’ve played all the Elder Scrolls games (Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim, and ESO) and they are my only experience with massive role playing. (I don’t count the Diablos). I’ve read that Elden Ring is darker and grimmer. I can’t wait!

    Reply

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