The Good: Marvelous open world. Great dungeons. Ghastly, memorable bosses. Enemies for the most part fight well. Horseback riding is fun.
The Bad: Maybe too open. Sometimes have no idea where to go next or how to progress. Some really high difficulty spikes, even when playing in the areas you’re more or less supposed to be given your level.
The Ugly: Clearly made for a gamepad. Some keyboard commands don’t seem to work. I’m not even sure if all the game controls are possible using a keyboard – there are things I couldn’t find a way to do. Menu layout is a mess. Some serious performance drops at weird moments. I also want to punch George R. R. Martin for doing this and not working on finishing Game of Thrones.
Reviewing a game like Elden Ring is both easy and hard to do.
Easy because people who are long time players of the Souls series already know what they’re in for: an open world with little direction given, the ability to wander into areas that will lead to a quick death, and dying about a million times along the way. Those people are going to love Elden Ring, which is among the finest open worlds I’ve ever seen, with breathtaking vistas, fantastic beasts, enticing ruins, and intricate dungeons. The enemies are quick, with complex fighting patterns that make combat a real joy. The bosses – whew, hard to describe – great shambling monsters, some of them giants, some of them with extra limbs, some with great, jagged weapons. I think the boss fights are even tougher now, and a new magic system is supposed to take the edge off of that (the reason I write “supposed to” for reasons I’ll discuss later). You can now summon and ride a spirit horse, which is fun, and brings a new dynamic to combat. You can also sneak (like in Elder Scrolls – Oblivion and Skyrim, for examples), giving you critical hits upon unaware enemies.
It’s also hard because how do you explain the allure of a game that wantonly kills you a bajillion times, the satisfaction of finally putting together enough pieces to build a character to go back and kill that boss who had killed you so many times? In a world where RPGs often keep you on some kind of rails that expose you to enemies that you can most probably beat, working your way up a leveling scheme to beat harder bosses later on, how do you describe an open world almost completely lacking in such safety systems?
That’s the conundrum that is the Souls series, and Elden Ring is no exception to that rule. For those people who enjoy banging their heads against the difficulty walls, there is a certain elation and sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in killing a really tough boss. It is confusing to me then why all the monsters respawn when you either camp or go into and out of a dungeon. It allows you to create the ultimate grind. There’s a sort of arboreal field early in the game loosely guarded by half a dozen or so soldiers. It’s a great place to try out the new sneak system. You can kill them, loot the bodies, pick up some equipment near them, collect those experience points, then camp and mow through them again. You can even collect duplicates of much of the same equipment to sell to the merchant. It does make some of the “good, I’ve killed him and now that guy is dead” satisfaction feeling less impactful. Same is true of you – if you die, you just come back having lost only the experience you hadn’t spent on upgrades, which you can actually go and collect if you can get back to where you died. For a game so much about death, it really does make death kind of meaningless. I’ll add that there are some janky difficulty spikes here and there. I cleared out a group of pretty easy soldiers outside a castle; just plowed through them. But inside that castle there is a guy who very nearly one shot kills me (unhelpful note on the floor: try summoning). I’ve tried it half a dozen different ways. My weapon doesn’t even do that much damage to him. I’d have to hit him a hundred times. Maybe I need magic I don’t have, which is probably a good place to write about that.
So, the magic system – here’s where I confess that the last Dark Souls I played was #2, and I don’t remember much other than dying early and often. In the intervening seven or eight years, I’ve probably played 300 other games. I don’t recall what magic was like in DS2 at all. The press materials for Elden Ring make much of the new magic system. I can imbue my weapons with ashes to give them skills. I can use other ashes to summon spirits to help me in battle. I can also memorize and cast spells. The problem came in that I couldn’t do much of any of that. All of the in-game tutorials and hints are given for a game pad, which is where you should probably know four important facts about me:
1) I suck at a gamepad.
2) I’ve never owned a console, and can’t seem to make my thumbs run two joysticks at once (I also suck as twin-stick shooters).
3) So I’ve never even owned a gamepad, because…
4) I suck at a gamepad.
I could imbue weapons with ashes, but couldn’t get the skills to work. I could use summoning equipment, like an enchanted bell, but even doing that was complicated because I had to do that out of my inventory because I couldn’t get the quick use items to work (I think it uses the d-pad on the gamepad). Another non-magic stuff thing couldn’t figure out how to do: fire anything other than standard arrows (I could equip them in my inventory, but they still wouldn’t shoot). So all of this is a long way of saying, Souls is a series with console heritage, and it’s very clear that a gamepad is the way it is intended to be played. Mouse and keyboard guys like me are going to suffer for it. Speaking of suffering, my frame rate dropped to a stutter sometimes – not often, but sometimes at critical moments like a big boss fight. It would also sometimes drop just running across a field (possibly passing between different regions?). In any case, at least on the PC, there is some optimization yet to do.
I also will admit that I don’t recall the DS2 world being so open. I’m up around hour 20 and have no idea where to find a spell to memorize. There’s a whole crafting system, and I have yet to run into anything that tells me how to use it, though I’m collecting bushels of ingredients and found a crafting pot hours ago. My suspicion is that I was supposed to use the weapon skill to kill a boss somewhere that I’m presently not able to kill straight out, and so have bypassed, and in doing so have missed out on the whole crafting angle. I’m sure I could look at a wiki or a walkthrough guide to figure it out, but in general I’m not a read a walkthrough kind of guy. I’ll add here that much has been made of the story being created by George R. R. Martin, but except for a brief narrative bit at the beginning, I’ve found little in the way of plot, though there are some very memorable creatures with poetic yet confusing dialog (which is kind of a Martin hallmark). Actually the whole game is filled with little confusing and often pointless messages and such (“hidden passage ahead” with no actual passage – that old Dark Souls knee slapper).
There is a small multiplayer component to Elden Ring. I can place a beacon in my world to summon another player for coop or PvP play, and other players can do the same. I’m frankly not sure if it is working. I mean, I can place the beacon, but I’ve never had anyone respond to it, and I’ve never seen a beacon show up in my world. So I don’t know. To be fair, much of the playing I did was during the early press release time, so maybe now that the game is for sale and more people are playing perhaps there is more beaconing going on. I might do some more playing around with that yet (though lacking magic I expect to be very bad at PvP).
So in conclusion, Dark Souls fans rejoice! Elden Ring is exactly the game you have been hoping it would be, I think, and it is created in grand style. I feel pretty frustrated that the keyboard controls are either so broken or so poorly laid out that I just couldn’t figure them out, and I spent a lot of time trying to (and where some things lie in the menu system are crazy counterintuitive), and I installed it on two different machines to see if it was a hardware problem (note: didn’t help). Elden Ring actually made me want to go back and play Skyrim again, because it always seemed to me that GUI was very well laid out and just made sense. But for you gamepad guys, sharpen up your sword and get in there. You have blood to spill (a lot of which may be your own).
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Bandai Namco
This review is based on a digital copy of Elden Ring for the PC provided by Bandai Namco.