CIRCLING THE DRAGONS
PC Gamer|February 2022
FromSoftware’s ELDEN RING is a fraught and fascinating balance between expansiveness and intrigue.
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

One mark of a great videogame is how clearly you remember it. A decade on from Dark Souls, there are still parts of its flame-cursed world I can readily map out on paper – their layouts, threats, and variables hammered into me by a combination of fabulous aesthetics, surgical perspectives, and brutal trial and error.

I already have a similarly crisp memory of parts of Elden Ring, FromSoftware’s blend of Souls dungeons and combat with an open world and day/night cycle reminiscent of Breath of the Wild. One of the first areas you’ll reach in the early Limgrave region is a crumbling encampment backed by candle-strewn hearses. Guards in red peer into campfires. Others roam the paths, accompanied by wolves. It’s a tidy little murder-maze with some familiar AI behaviours – as in Souls, the canines are fond of circling you before they pounce. Playing as an Enchanted Knight equipped with spear and staff, I do a bit of circling myself – creeping through bushes to different entrance points and felling sentries with Glintstone spells.

STAB LIBBING

One enemy makes it into melee range unscathed – a caped elite with midboss pretensions. It’s a straightforward duel to begin with: wait out his combos and don’t overextend my own, dividing my stamina carefully between attack and retreat. I experiment with Elden Ring’s fancy dedicated jump button, a small but decisive departure from Souls, which lets you quickly stagger many shielded adversaries using plunging blows. I also make effective use of the new guard counter, which grants bonus damage when you launch a heavy attack after blocking a hit. But when I get the elite below 50% health, they raise the stakes, switching to a two-handed stance with more florid combos. I’m nearly killed by one riposte, but yank victory from the jaws of defeat through sheer Determination – that being a Dark Souls 3-style weapon skill that supercharges your next blow.

A lot of Elden Ring stands out this sharply in the memory, demanding meticulous attention to every inch of ground. But then you summon your valiant steed Torrent, a souped-up mountain goat with a double-jump, and the edges start to blur. The first of six open world regions, Limgrave is as glorious and torrid a backdrop as any Souls environment before: mountainous trees of frozen starlight, temples that curve into the earth, hinting at bottomless chambers beneath; winding, island-haunted shores that conjure up the Shadow of the Colossus. But there are some disappointments that illustrate what a challenge From has set for itself, in starting up a conversation between Souls and the open world.

The new emphasis on 360 degree wandering requires a degree of simplification and standardisation, which seems totally opposed to the intricacies of Souls level design. There’s a touch of Far Cry to certain enemy gatherings – take out the horn-blowers first, or they’ll summon reinforcements! – and the freedom to tackle them in any order makes them feel all the more interchangeable. Sites of Grace – where you can level up and fast travel – are found moments away from each other rather than being precious discoveries. For all the surface spectacle, Limgrave doesn’t seem to have much of an underbelly: many optional dungeons are just stairways to boss chambers. Horseback combat often turns skilled opponents into angry traffic cones, to be ridden around and hacked apart without much regard for their movesets.

HORSING ABOUT

Above all, there’s the bombardment of raw materials. Elden Ring shares many types of consumable with Souls, from flammable resins to foods that accelerate stamina recovery, but you can now craft your own on the hoof using berries, bones, and bits of gold-studded excrement. This is helpful, but it alters the ambience. In Souls, the real value of treasure is that it makes the geography intriguing. You’ll see a glowing trinket dangling from a gibbet and suck in your breath. Can you reach that item on this path, or must you circle back later? Assess your blindspots: where will the inevitable ambush come from if you dare to collect it? It feels like you’re playing poker with the designer, except that rather than a trump card the designer has a firebomb cocked to throw.

Elden Ring’s grander dungeons can be similarly mischievous. Below the seaward wall of Stormveil Castle, there’s a sparsely wooded cliffside with dropped valuables unobtrusively defended by softly swooping eagles. At the other end of Limgrave, in the Murkwater Catacombs, goblins pose as statues near a sarcophagus, catching tomb raiders with their trousers down. But there’s much less artfulness to the crafting resources that litter the surface world. These are just respawning collectibles to be hoovered up automatically, as much to be rid of the HUD prompt as anything else.

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