Fifteen hours into Elden Ring, I defeated Godrick, the first of five Elden Lords. In the time between emerging into the Lands Between and striking him down, I'd discovered decrepit ruins, ventured into twisting caves, stumbled upon enemy encampments, and battled tooth and nail against challenging bosses. From Software's games have always made you feel small in many ways: They tell you that you're worthless--a plague-ridden rat or accursed Undead, unfit even to be cinders. They ask you to navigate unflinching brutal worlds and pit you against enemies that systematically dismantle your ego. Elden Ring maintains the nail-biting combat and air of mystery that has distinguished From Software's Soulsborne games, but it's elevated to new heights by the studio's interpretation of what an open-world game can be. Having brought down Godrick, the breadth of the world--and the way in which From Software has applied its signature style to an open world--was on full display, reinforcing how insignificant I really was and driving home the magnitude of the task that still awaited me.
Standing on the edge of a cliffside in Liurnia of the Lakes, the area beyond Godrick's arena, I took in the world laid out in front of me: the enormous Erdtree casting brilliant golden beams of light onto the land that exists in its shadow; the sharp peaks of a distant mountain that look like claws tearing at the sky; a castle standing proudly amidst ruins; a forest blanketed in an ominous fog. It was all overwhelming, and none of the hardships I'd experienced in Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice have come close to making me feel as small. At the same time, I was overcome with excitement for what the Lands Between had in store for me and all the seemingly insurmountable battles awaiting--and it did not disappoint.
Elden Ring is From Software's crowning achievement in world design--epic in scale and scope. But what makes it special isn't just how visually stunning it all is, or that its open-world is vast, rich in detail, and teeming with possibilities. Instead, it's how the studio has applied its own esoteric design principles to deliver an experience that feels fresh, elegant, and uniquely From Software. The game's core pillars are built on the same strong action and role-playing foundations as previous titles while offering more freedom to explore than ever before. Elden Ring is an open-world game entirely in a category of its own. That delicate orchestration of highs and lows and the build-up and release of tension that From Software has mastered, coupled with the thrill of freeform exploration and discovery, is an intoxicating cocktail of game design.
In guiding the player, Elden Ring employs the lightest of touches. The Lands Between is truly open and offers the player complete agency in exploration, whether on foot or horseback. The world is ruled by five Elden Lords, each in possession of a shard of the titular Elden Ring. As a lowly Tarnished, you aim to defeat these corrupt lords, take their shards, stand before the Erdtree, and become an Elden Lord in your own right. With the premise established through a quick cutscene, you are let loose and left to forge a path through the world as you see fit.
A key part of From Software's design ethos is to strip down to the essentials, and in Elden Ring that process strengthens exploration and discovery, the heart and soul of the experience. The studio's games typically give the player very little while asking a lot, and Elden Ring is the most obtuse and demanding of its games so far. This is largely because everything you've come to expect from modern open-world games is absent; for instance, there's no map until you find an item that reveals the topography of a region. Even then, the points of interest in that region aren't marked until you've been there and seen them. There is no minimap, just a compass to show the cardinal directions and any waypoints you've placed.
Characters, meanwhile, aren't desperate for your attention; as with previous games, the quests they task you with aren't noted down or tracked in any kind of log--it's up to you to do your due diligence. Areas you go to won't be gated depending on your level, and there's no clear indication on when you should go to key locations. The best you get is at the Sites of Grace, which function as rest points in the same way Bonfires, Lanterns, or Idols did in other titles. At each of these sites is a dim trail of golden light pointing in the general direction of… something. Perhaps it's the next milestone in your quest or maybe it's just another area that has a dungeon--the only way to find out is to make the journey.
The challenge for From Software lies in the friction between the studio's design hallmarks and the expected conventions of a genre filled with games that try to be all things to everyone. And although the execution is an unmitigated success, one thing's for sure: Elden Ring is not a smooth-edged, one-size-fits-all kind of experience that will accommodate everyone. Instead, it's unrelentingly opaque, relishes in the savagery of confronting players with unfavorable odds, and delights in watching the ensuing struggle. Elden Ring's gameplay will feel familiar to those with experience of previous From Software games. The tried-and-true formula of measured third-person combat against enemies that are swift to punish foolhardiness is both as thrilling and nerve-racking as ever. Whether you wield a sword and shield, swing something that's closer to a heap of raw iron, or stand back as a mage and launch spells to topple your foes, Elden Ring tests patience and skill with tricky enemy mobs and ferocious bosses.
From Software has added some new gameplay wrinkles to its Soulsborne formula this time around, most notably a jump, which has been pulled from the more dynamic movement style of Sekiro. This is useful not just for traversal but also for performing a leaping strike that can break through an enemy's defense and create a critical strike opportunity. Another new mechanic is the ability to strike back after blocking an enemy's attack with a heavy counter--dealing a good amount of damage and, if it's part of a sustained offense, could even leave the target open to a critical strike.
This heavy counter has some of the satisfaction of Bloodborne's gunshot and visceral combo, though it's not as gratifyingly dramatic. While it's easy to rely on it, a great deal of strategy is still needed to perfectly execute it--an enemy's quick follow-up strike could cut you down before you've initiated the counter. The new gameplay mechanics certainly provide more options against tough foes, but they still require the player to know their opponent and carefully select their moments.
The last major addition is Spirit Ashes, which allow the player to summon upgradable AI-controlled fighters to their side. These can range from a pack of wolves that aggressively pursue targets or a single mage that'll hang back and fire off spells, to stranger options such as a jellyfish that floats about and spews poison at foes. Of course, there are restrictions around summoning them, as Spirit Ashes can only be used in specific locations and only once per life. They're also susceptible to being killed by more powerful enemies, making them better equipped for pulling aggro than securing victories.
These kinds of thoughtful tweaks extend to the checkpointing system, which is a little more lenient to accommodate the open nature of the game. Instead of being returned to a Site of Grace when killed, the open world is littered with small statues called Stakes of Marika. These can usually be found around particularly challenging areas, whether that's because there's a group of enemies in a fortified location or a singular mini-boss that must be faced in one of the many heart-pounding, soul-crushing, and utterly confidence-destroying encounters. This might sound like something that makes the game easier, and not having to fight your way through corridors and trap-filled dungeons like previous Soulsborne games certainly makes the repetition smoother and more approachable, but it's more of a necessity for taking out the frustration of having to travel large distances in an open world. The challenges the Stakes of Marika precede are no less forgiving.
That delicate orchestration of highs and lows and the build-up and release of tension that From Software has mastered, coupled with the thrill of freeform exploration and discovery, is an intoxicating cocktail of game design
Elden Ring is undoubtedly difficult--much harder than any of From Software's previous games. And while a great deal of that is owed to challenging bosses and enemies, a significant amount is also because of the freedom the game offers the player. It doesn't tell you where to go in any way, so it can be very easy to find yourself in places that are too difficult for you to navigate. It won't stop you from riding to Caelid, a region that looks like it's ripped straight out of Bloodborne, or Caria Manor, a place with enemies so unsettling they made me leap out of my seat in a panic. Instead, it trusts you to assess the situation and consider your own capabilities both as a player and a character, then decide if you should return to a place that is more manageable and continue building your character up to come back later.
Some, like me, will fall hopelessly in love with the thrill of blindly wandering into a corner of the map and being ruthlessly murdered for hours on end, just to walk away with little more than the satisfaction that I kept picking myself up and eventually emerged victorious, albeit battered and bruised. Others, however, will find the idea of navigating a perilous catacomb down to its deepest depths while braving all manner of horrifying creatures for a few measly crafting materials to be the epitome of unrewarding. But, either way, there's a boldness to the approach that deserves to be respected.
The Lands Between is no less content-rich than many of its open-world contemporaries, and it offers much to do. In fact, it's an immensely large game that is bursting with activities to undertake--so much so that by the 35-hour mark, I had defeated just two of the five Elden Lords. In the starting area of Limgrave alone, there are numerous caves, tunnels, ruins, catacombs, shacks, and encampments to find. You may be wandering the woods at night and hear distant howls of what sounds like a man imitating a wolf, or step upon a mysterious lift that plunges deep below the surface and emerges into an entire kingdom buried underground. You could find a forlorn merchant, hiding out in a remote church, or accidentally walk into the territory of a rampaging dragon. These may not always lead to meaningful progress in becoming an Elden Lord or advancing a key questline, but none of it felt superfluous or boring. That is because what these activities offer is far more meaningful: a gameplay loop that sparks a curiosity to uncover the secrets that the Lands Between hold, and the raw satisfaction of discovery.
Discovering things to do is as intensely satisfying as doing them, and that is what Elden Ring is predicated upon. The same sense of growth and satisfaction that comes from conquering Lordran or becoming completely at home in Yharnam is present as you brave the Lands Between. What once struck fear into your heart becomes trivial as you venture deeper and spend runes to level up and grow stronger. It should come as no surprise that a From Software game isn't quick to dish out rewards and praise for tasks you undertake. Instead, the most valuable rewards are intangible and internal: a sense of personal growth that comes from your mastery of mechanics and domination of the world's vicious denizens, or the feeling of journeying through this inhospitable land as a cartographer, poking into its various nooks and crannies, and seeing what lurks there.
There are countless moments that will catch you off-guard and fuel that desire to explore. On one occasion, I traveled to a remote shack where a Warmaster had taken up residence. He had always been there, but this was my first time visiting at night. He wasn't in the shack, and when I approached it a cloud of red appeared and from within it a knight menacingly stepped out to do battle. He proceeded to wipe the floor with me, but considering he was telekinetically wielding a large spectral blade, I'd say he had a bit of an advantage.
On another occasion, I mounted my spectral steed, Torrent, and bounded through an area I had been to numerous times, except this time a gargantuan baby bird that had rotted down to its skeleton descended from above, knocking me off my mount and cornering me in battle. In these moments, and many others like it, my mind raced with possibilities: With a world as vast as the Lands Between that shifts dramatically depending on the time of day, what else was out there for me to see? Elden Ring is a game where the possibilities feel endless and I felt driven to chase them all down, as each one has offered a memorable moment and made the world feel richer.
Freeform exploration isn't completely new and the proverbial elephant in the room in that regard is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It's easy to draw comparisons between Elden Ring and Nintendo's acclaimed open-world Zelda, but what sets the two apart is a greater sense of authorship around the things you can stumble upon in the Lands Between and an overall cohesion between the open world and these activities. Elden Ring is seamless, whether you're delving into a cliffside cave or breaching a massive castle front, and in spite of the vast diversity among these locations. Although there are occasional breaks to make a transition, these are just for a few specific set-piece locations that are elaborate dungeons with ambitious design ideas--think of it as going from Hemwick Charnel Lane to Cainhurst Castle in Bloodborne.
While the open world represents a newer Soulsborne gameplay experience that prioritizes freedom and player agency, there are also numerous key locations that are more in line with the enclosed, directed areas of previous games. Stormvale Castle, Redmane Castle, and Raya Lucaria, among others, are where From Software continues to do what it does best: create visually arresting locations that are intricately designed to loop and weave in on themselves in a way that makes navigating through them as joyous as it is perilous. Each of the key locations in the game has a distinct atmosphere, aesthetic, and vibe, and I found it impossible not to marvel at the craftsmanship on show. This is the kind of game where you have to stop to see the sights, even when the sights are grotesque creatures that make you worry about the minds that created them.
There are areas of Elden Ring's world that feel as genuinely terrifying as Bloodborne, like the aforementioned Caelid, where the river runs the color of copper, fissures erupt like bursting arteries, trees are shriveled and curled like the hands of an ancient witch, and a blood-red sky stretches out as far as the eye can see. But hop on Torrent and ride west to Limgrave and you'll realize that Lands Between isn't entirely a world on the brink of collapse with life about to be snuffed out. It's very much alive, and that much is evident from the verdant fields, bustling wildlife, and picturesque vistas. If you're in the right place at the right time, you might even find yourself in a moment of serenity as the light of morning dawn sweeps over a forest and the trees gently sway in the wind. The most impressive part of it all is how it coalesces in a single landmass that the player can travel across, despite the fact that each area looks and feels like it could be from an entirely different game. Needless to say, Elden Ring is a gorgeous game and a spectacular feast for the eyes.
Much has been made of George R.R. Martin's involvement, but there's little in Elden Ring that stands out as having his fingerprints on it. From the characters to the narrative and the way it's delivered in broken pieces for the player to fill in the gaps, it's unmistakably Hidetaka Miyazaki and the From Software team--and it's all fascinating. To talk about it would be to deprive you and the larger Soulsborne community of one of the greatest joys of a new From Software game, so I won't do that, but it's safe to say that the expansive world, which Martin helped lay the foundation for, is filled with memorable characters. Some have mysterious motivations, while others have tragic fates and somber backstories. There are clashing ideologies, divine entities, and clandestine groups vying for power--all the pieces, and item descriptions, needed to supercharge the From Software lore video industrial complex are here. I have just a small grasp of everything going on, and I cannot wait for the larger community to get involved so we can piece it all together as a collective.
While there is a unique kind of joy to be gained from carving a path through the Lands Between as a solitary adventurer, Elden Ring can also be played cooperatively. Like previous From Software games, the process of connecting with others is not as smooth as you might expect from a modern-day game, requiring players to jump through hoops such as being positioned in specific ways, using specific items to establish connections, and sticking to certain areas. It is undoubtedly convoluted, but when it works, it leads to some of the most memorable multiplayer experiences you can have, whether that's simply adventuring out in the world or summoning in someone to help defeat a challenging boss. The same sense of achievement derived from taking down a powerful foe is there when you team up with another person, as difficulty scales to account for multiple combatants, so it still feels like you're earning a victory.
On the other hand, if you want to play the role of antagonist, you can invade other players' worlds and attempt to assassinate them. Souls games aren't often the first thing that come to mind when thinking of PvP experiences, but they have been the battlegrounds for thrilling brawls for some time now, and Elden Ring continues this tradition. The magic is in the fact that the game accommodates diverse builds, so you never quite know what weapon, armor, or ability an opponent may pull out. Fights are tense ballets of strafing, rolling, and striking that feel akin to a fighting game, and when you throw the game's remarkable vistas and punishing enemies into the mix, it can make for some truly memorable scenarios.
In a genre that has become wrought with bloated and over-designed games, Elden Ring is defiantly contrarian in almost every way. Its commitment to design by subtraction and to placing the responsibility of charting a path through its world entirely on the player makes it stand head and shoulders above other open-world titles. Elden Ring takes the shards of what came before and forges them into something that will go down in history as one of the all-time greats: a triumph in design and creativity, and an open-world game that distinguishes itself for what it doesn't do as much as what it does.