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Review: Elden Ring (PC)By mikem52 At 27.08.2022 13:58

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Elden Ring is without a doubt FromSoftware's most ambitious, and its most commercially successful product to date, so perhaps audiences do want something different, that will challenge, and that isn't just another mildly evolved clone of . It tacitly stands for an alternative, it has a deeper definition for those that "get it," but it's also more than that. Apart from the non-Miyazaki directed misstep that was Dark Souls II, FromSoftware has steadily been building awareness of its Soulsborne "brand" with incremental, but meaningful updates since the release of the original Demon Souls in 2009, but notably, too, that awareness has been built upon via word of mouth, particularly after the home runs that were Dark Souls and Bloodborne.

These look, play and smell like a modern game (albeit all with not-so-good camera controls), but at the same time they also recount an old-school standard quite heavily; one that can be reminiscent of the experience of playing a classic on the NES, when much value would be derived from it being the only title owned within a 6 month period. It would require bloody-minded repetition, determination, grit, determination, determination and memorisation just to progress a little bit further before hitting the next blockade. One would eventually end up knowing it like the back of their hand. This certainly applies to Elden Ring and the wider Soulborne oeuvre, and generally speaking, they differentiate themselves and create this feeling by having a deeper combat system Vs. (the overly broad and unfair generalisation of) other current adventure titles on the market, whereby hitboxes, defence, stamina, character stats and build, weapon type, positioning, attack type and, most importantly, rolling are all relevant to the strategy.

There is a constant push and pull, or risk and reward, at play, and the coalescence of these systems overlapping concurrently is intoxicating in practice. This is further reinforced by the central game mechanic of acquiring 'Souls,' or, as such in Elden Ring, they're now called 'Runes.' Upon every successful thwarting of an enemy the protagonist will acquire Runes and will continue to compound them unless they themselves are defeated by an enemy. Upon the loss of life, all these are dropped and then there is one chance to retrieve them on the following life, however, if the protagonist dies again during this run the Runes are lost for good. Indeed, Runes act as the main currency for character progression and everything else in The Lands Between so one can imagine how key this mechanic is to the experience and how brutal it can feel when a large number of Runes are lost.

It's the same as before, and it's this push and then subsequent pullback that forms much of the backbone of the experience. Rush into a room to take out a lone enemy at the risk of being ambushed or hang back, lure the enemy out and hope it isn't too aggressive, and that there will be an opening to parry? One must constantly have their wits about them and must consider multiple possibilities when approachingā€¦ well, anything. This isn't exclusive to the combat either. The same applies to item use, quest lines and equipment loadout. In this respect as a "genre" it asks a lot more from the player, and because it does there is a great reward baked into just the act of overcoming, and not having their intelligence underestimated. The reward feels earned and less artificial in that sense. Elden Ring is the grand culmination of this design philosophy but there's also an obiter dictum present that Soulsbourne is at risk of becoming the very thing that it's been positioned to be an alternative to. Some of those systems and tropes are perhaps showing signs of age and predictability in an attempt to also modernise. This becomes only more evident upon a complete play-through of Elden Ring.

What separates Elden Ring from other SoulBorne titles beyond nomenclature? Well, the big banner feature on the front of the box is that this time it is now fully open world. Other Soulborne titles have been predominantly linear affairs albeit with a few smaller open areas and with a few various looping paths that one can navigate towards the goal. Here, after character creation, the introductory area and a short optional tutorial area, Elden Ring presents a sprawling landscape of potential, a vista that is by immediate appearance unbound by the limits of invisible walls and corridors upon other corridors. See a lake, tower or encampment far off into the distance and it almost certainly can be reached and explored, if not always directly, and the achievement of having this openness in a "Souls" title is huge. It's been likened to the sense of awe that Zelda: Breath of the Wild elicits when leaving the Shrine of Resurrection for the first time and that is going to be echoed here as it is something that Elden Ring does get right.

Heading off in any direction promises the discovery of adventure and the unknown, presenting none of the usual blatant map markers or clearly defined objectives, just the world. It's entirely up to the player to discover, and it further encourages exploration with less of a feeling of ticking off a checklist. Just this change alone offers a huge amount of freedom but it does too have huge implications on the core SoulsBorne experience that has been described thus far. The world map is massive and the lack of direction can occasionally be overwhelming and purposeless in a way that no other Soulsborne before it has been. FromSoftware attempts to mitigate this with Sites of Grace, Elden Ring's version of bonfires, where progress can be saved and other character options can be accessed. Touching and/or discovering a key Site of Grace will cause it to emit a streak of light heading towards the general direction of a main pathline or objective, which ultimately will be a demigod boss to defeat.

It's a halfway elegant solution to navigation, but later on into the playtime it's difficult to relate what's been done with what these markers are aiming toward, and because they stay on the in-game map once discovered it ends up becoming littered with these streaks. It feels like a compromise that the developer didn't really want to include but had to after play-testing. It would have been preferred if they gave some kind of indication once their objective is complete or either not be there at all. It should be noted though that the in-game map design, and its implementation, otherwise is masterful and one of the unsung triumphs of Elden Ring. Not only is the illustration an evolution of something Tolkien-esque, but it conveys so much information without expressly giving it away for free. The other way in which Elden Ring infers direction is taught when encountering the first Tree Sentinal, intentionally placed at the starting area to coax a confrontation out of the inexperienced and under-levelled. Taking on this enemy straight away is almost guaranteed to result in an out-and-out flattening. By extension, this also applies to the first major boss, Margit, in that these enemies are placed intentionally to wordlessly guide the players' hand in a different direction. Their placement suggests that one should explore another location, find enemies that their character is levelled to, then level up and return later for a hopefully easier time. Many have said that this is a good thing to alleviate butting one's head up against a wall, which is true, but it often damages the flow.

Balance. This is the albatross placed around Elden Ring's neck. It could be speculated that this is the way in which the developer wanted Elden Ring to be experienced, but for the purposes of this review it comes off as a design struggle, and further seems plausible that with such a bold change as going open world that it'd be inevitably a design struggle. Certainly, this does appear to be a creeping opinion within the discourse now the dust has settled somewhat. Because of their linearity, previous Soulsborne titles have always been far more controlled affairs. Every boss or obstacle encountered is placed right on the cusp of learnability and overcoming, even if it doesn't immediately seem possible. All of the tools required to progress are persistently present and it is one of, if not the most compelling aspects of those titles along with how the push and pull is directed and composed. It is impossible for Elden Ring to do this as it never quite knows where the player progression will be at (in relation to enemy levels which always remain static) or where they will be situated on the map at any given moment or what equipment they'll have acquired, so it deals with this by gating sections of the progression off and some really harsh artificial difficulty spikes.

Experiences will of course vary but for this review play-through with a Strength/Dexterity build it either felt like the character was far too overpowered going into certain areas and battles but conversely way, way, way underpowered for others. Almost always at a bottleneck, when it seemed like there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to thwart, Elden Ring opts to dial the difficulty up to 11 from, like, a previous six-to-eight on the only route forward, just to ensure a challenge, the Soulborne raison d'etre, is still there. Grinding Runes, egregiously so, becomes a requirement at these junctures unlike any other "Souls" before it, leaning heavily on levelling-up as the default strategy, and this ultimately just isn't fun to do.

The changes to combat play into this issue, especially evident when tackling the main bosses, as the pressure to evolve the pre-existing systems from previous titles has led to it now being quicker and more unpredictable than it ever was before. The character build will have some effect on this, of course (and there is plenty of discussions out there on Faith and Magic builds), but stun locking, enemy attack randomness, enemy attack anticipation feints, enemy gap closing and one (or two) shot kills all appear to have been dialled right up and are far more frequent occurrences. This in conjunction with the aforementioned speed, the aggressiveness of enemies, the harder-to-judge I-frame windows, generally poor locking and camera controls, particularly in regards to larger enemies, and less obvious telegraphing of attacks can lead to a frustrating experience whereby one is either not given all of the tools needed to progress or defeat felt outside of their control. That's not to say that the combat is bad by any stretch of the imagination, it's frequently exhilarating and engaging, it's just that it's verging on favouring the unfair and being slightly overcooked this time around.

The number of weapons, spells and enchantments contained in Elden Ring is obscene - in a good way. Most have distinct animations and pros and cons, and can be mixed and matched for left and right-handed battle, or double-handed combat if desired. Experimentation with weapon type is discouraged, however, by the cost of upgrading, character point distribution commitments and the scarcity of higher level Smithing Stones that are needed to upgrade any equipment to be at least halfway effective. This is a double-edged sword (haha!) though, as later on there are systems introduced to mitigate this and it does encourage further play-throughs. There is now a dedicated 'jump' button for jump attacks (and platforming in the open world), light stealth mechanics, and a new counterattack that can be used directly after deflecting an enemy attack with a shield. One thing that is slightly disheartening is that the forward-heavy attack and kick from previous Dark Souls titles, which required a simultaneous forward and attack input to execute have been relegated to an Art of War; abilities you can also imbue certain weapons with, or the jump input respectively. It's a shame as these were always satisfying to pull off and fun to always have at one's disposal in previous titles.

That's not to mention the Flasks of Wonderous Physick and Rune Arcs; buffs that further aid and abet combat, and Spirit Ash summons, AI battle companions that are rewarded for navigating and defeating a mini-boss in one of the many catacombs, tombs, or caves dotted around The Lands Between. They are an interesting addition but also serve to highlight some of the aforementioned issues with boss battles, chiefly, that they become a relied upon tactic to distract a boss's attention for a second or two in order to regain composure. Otherwise, there is a great enemy variety to put to good use this myriad toolset and eventually one will learn satisfying and preferred strategies to dispatch easily what was previously, it would've seemed, insurmountable.

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Speaking of surmounting, another big new feature that can pertain to combat but also fundamentally changes the coreā€¦ Soulsborn-ing is a mount. Torrent is introduced relatively early on into the adventure, and is a steed that can be utilised in previously suggested horse combat and for covering the larger distances of the open world quicker. Torrent has a slightly arcane and janky way of controlling, having this fixed, higher and longer jump distance, and an averaging out of its position when turning. It can feel a bit odd at first but once it's gotten used to it offers a nice variety to the movement, combat and traversal, and the ever so slight wonkiness of the control seems like such an apt implementation for a Soulsborne title.

Rarely is the story in Elden Ring conveyed directly beyond item descriptions, cryptic snatches of character dialogue, often at times of their demise, and of course the opening cut-scene. Yet, the lore is, as to be expected, deep. FromSoftware is a master of environmental storytelling, so it's a story that must be absorbed through the world and it only gets richer the more one learns and on repeated play-throughs. Sure, at surface level it's a high fantasy deity family drama involving broken shards of the titular Elden Ring, but even to understand that much of it the first time around needs to be worked for, and that's not scratching the surface. Notably, George RR Martin of Game of Thrones fame lent his MS-DOS word editor to the Elden Ring lore also, although in retrospect beyond a couple of subtle references this might've been primarily a marketing thing.

The art direction supports the story building throughout with some stunning, jaw-dropping environments and backdrops to explore. Some of these environments take the form of legacy dungeons which are sprawling, meticulously designed areas - levels essentially. They end up being some of the highest points of Elden Ring's long playtime, ironically as they closest resemble the classic Soulsborne gameplay loop. They take the form of breath-taking castles or manor houses, et cetera, all with unique architecture, secrets and stories to get lost within. They're worlds inside a world, and contribute towards creating a sense of scale and atmosphere that's unlike much else in the market. Navigating these legacy dungeons almost always feels epic and memorable as well as being much tighter, focused gameplay areas versus the open world.

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Around Season 3 of Rick and Morty the fanbase and general awareness of the show appeared to hit a critical mass. It's broadly known for being the season with Pickle Rick in it, and it could be argued that Rick and Morty is primarily known by the masses for Pickle Rick. It's still a great show but it started to eschew a lot of the high-concept antics and the jokes-that-took-longer-to-pay-off that it was previously established on. It began eschewing some of the characteristics which were thought to define it. People were shouting "Pickle Rick!" around the watercooler incessantly and many, arguably shallower show imitators were abounding with the rise in popularity of streaming services. It had become the mainstream. It's a snobbish thing (although criticism is an inherently snobbish concern) "I liked them when they were cool." but it started to morph into a different beast. Most vexingly was it still being discussed like it was the same beast, even a better beast in many instance. The jury is out on whether this might be the case with Elden Ring, but it is clear with this release that Soulsborne is no longer the alternative. Far from it.

It is also far from the new standard in open-world games, much to the derision of many earlier critical reviews seen out in the wild. It's a very good one, yes, but strip away the accoutrements of combat, difficulty and lack of map markers (and excluding the legacy dungeons and environmental storytelling) and it slips into a very similar groove of, dare it to be said, an Ubisoft sandbox title. This is often used as a pejorative, but not here. There is a lot of value in Elden Ring's open world, (it took around 150 hours to thoroughly complete; that was following no guides or tutorials and probably is a bit on the tardy side of playtime), but the last 30% to 40% of the experience execrably drags and is repetitive. Other Soulsborne titles have done uneven endgames too, so it's not exclusive to Elden Ring but due to sheer size it is a much more prominent issue in this example. The midgame is excellent, often phenomenal, and builds steadily up to a second-act crescendo only for the concluding act to be an anti-climax. It leaves a bad lasting impression and all of the issues previously mentioned in this review are amplified in this last part.

This is a title full of systems. So much is it that it feels captious to criticise as it gives a lot of options and agency to the player. For something of this ilk in the triple-A space with the scope and high production values that it has is exceptional and nothing to be sneezed at. It's a great title to discuss with others and friends too as no two experiences are ever exactly the same. On the other side of the same coin, because there's so much in it there is naturally going to be more to criticise. It hints towards a feature creep as even menus and things like item selection, all immaculately designed but can't keep up with the amount of "stuff" that it's tasked with dealing with. It's baffling too that the decision was made to remove the feature of being able to read an item description immediately on item pick up in the one title that FromSoftware has made that it would be by far the most relevant to have this feature present. Performance on PC has been spotty with frequent frame rate dips occurring until a graphics driver and setting troubleshoot. At the time a workaround largely fixed the issue (although FromSoftware has also reassuringly been releasing patch updates consistently), but even then dips would still occur infrequently, not enough to ruin the experience but it is the last thing desired on the 50th attempt of the Fire Giant with its life bar below 25% for the first time ever.

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Final Score
[i]Elden Ring[/i] is an experience that will not be forgotten in a hurry. It's a tremendous, hulking, massive achievement but because it is tremendous, hulking and massive, it is one that comes with many caveats. The shelves in CeX and conversations with people who stopped playing at Stormveil castle can certainly attest to some of those caveats. Much like any FromSoftware title, it's not going to be for everybody, but paradoxically it is one of their hardest and one of their most accessible to date. It offers huge value in one package, and perhaps is a little too much value, only becoming clearer when nearing the endgame. Don't be mistaken by the criticism, though. This is a phenomenal achievement with a moment-to-moment that is incredibly engaging and immersive. No doubt it will be deserving of the end-of-year accolades it will inevitably receive. One pushes through [i]Elden Ring[/i] as one pushes through life, with all the highs and the lows that it brings.

7

/10

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