Expectations were high, but FromSoftware appears to have exceeded them.
To say Elden Ring is hotly anticipated would be a gross understatement. Announced in 2019, FromSoftware’s latest magnum opus bears the weight of the collective expectations of a veritable legion of fans who revere the work of director Hidetaka Miyazaki. The hype isn’t all that surprising when you consider the sterling reputation of mega hits like Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Throw in a collaboration with A Song of Ice and Fire author Goerge R.R. Martin and you’ve got a recipe for unrivaled fervor.
With reviews hitting this week, it would seem that Elden Ring lives up to--or perhaps even surpasses--the lofty standards set by its predecessors.
There are a number of expectations that come along with a FromSoftware title, characteristics that have come to define what it means to be a “Soulsborne” game. These are things like challenging combat, dense (and often vague) lore, a dark fantasy atmosphere, cryptic NPCs, and inspired enemy design, among others. By all accounts, Elden Ring embodies each one of these qualities, and elevates them.
“So far, this is the most compelling and thoughtfully designed open world game I’ve played, exceeding possibly The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game often cited as the greatest ever made,” Gene Park wrote in his glowing review-in-progress for The Washington Post’s Launcher.
Elden Ring has taken the core gameplay of Dark Souls and transferred it into an open world format. Linear dungeon-like levels in the vein of Dark Souls exist in Elden Ring, but they’re part of a larger, open map. On message boards and social media, many questioned if the Dark Souls formula was a good fit for such a conceit, but it appears the combination is fruitful.
“Elden Ring is a deeply impressive adventure of incredible breadth and depth, blending From’s style of rich, challenging combat with exploration, discovery, and new levels of player freedom,” Polygon’s Michael McWhertor wrote.
Comparisons to Breath of the Wild are apt, then, as Elden Ring’s world encourages exploration in a way few open world games do. It’s more than a map full of icons like your typical Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed, more than a checklist of side quests like the recent Horizon Forbidden West. FromSoftware has deliberately crafted Elden Ring’s to be player-driven, letting its world and NPCs direct decision making about where to go next. It’s a sense of organic discovery that drives much of the appeal here.
“There are massive dragons, towering golems, and large sentient pots out in the open world, to be sure--but the smaller details work wonders,” McWhertor said. “They feel less like crossing off a checklist, and more like new brushes of color for this impressively realized world.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by GameSpot’s Tamoor Hussain:
“...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,” Hussain wrote in a perfect 10-out-of-10 review. “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.”
Combat is the cornerstone of any FromSoftware game, the key to unveiling more of its fascinating, beckoning worlds. In Elden Ring, combat is said to be as challenging as any Dark Souls game, but, care of the open world and a checkpoint system, it’s more accessible than before. Gone are the “boss runs” that saw players running the same enemy-littered path over and over to face a boss that they may or may not defeat this time. That doesn’t mean Elden Ring is any “easier” than previous From games.
“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,” Hussain said.
Of course, the topic of difficulty is part and parcel of a FromSoftware game, and Elden Ring is no different. This is a deliberately challenging game through and through, according to reviewers, made for a specific audience: fans of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro. The open world is sure to attract new players, but it’s clear the developer is catering to its core audience.
One unexpected topic of discussion surrounding the release of Elden Ring is the nature of video games journalism. According to a number of reviewers, review codes for the game were received last Tuesday, a mere week before review embargoes were lifted. In many cases, these codes were provided under the stipulation that outlets publish a review on the day of the embargo, meaning that reviewers had just a week to experience as much of Elden Ring as possible.
The result is outcry from media and a heated discussion on Twitter.
“Wait people got their Elden Ring codes a WEEK before embargo? One WEEK????” Motherboard’s Gita Jackson Tweeted. “This is why I’m just not about writing for the embargo anymore. Playing a game like that in one week is not only not healthy, but just not an experience anyone will have except a reviewer. Not useful for anyone.”
Being expected to put 70-plus hours into a game on the scale of Elden Ring in under a week is unrealistic, many critics have said. It is mentally and physically harmful, leading to burnout for the reviewer. Meanwhile, players, the target audience for reviews, will not have the same experience, rendering the review inappropriate for their specific gaming environment and habits.
This is an ongoing debate that is unlikely to be settled any time soon. The nature of games journalism demands a great deal of time and attention from its professionals, and the relationship between game publishers and media is often defined by strict guidelines.
That unpleasantness aside, it seems Elden Ring has managed to surpass all the expectations it has commanded in the years since its announcement. This is no small feat considering the place FromSoftware occupies in the pantheon of game development. On paper, “open world Dark Souls” sounds like a risky prospect, but it seems to be a match for the ages.
It’s summed up perhaps most succinctly by Game Informer’s Daniel Tack, who said “Elden Ring represents a truly amazing combination of various game elements that all come together to create something fascinating, special, and unforgettable. Elden Ring isn’t just the best game this year; it’s one of the best games ever made.”
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