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Elden Ring

Elden Ring is an exceptional game in its genre. FromSoftware have created a gorgeous, expansive world which is, for large portions of its playtime, a joy to explore. From the start it is dense with activity and areas of interest. On first entering Limgrave, the enormous golden Erdtree looms over the landscape. To the north west, crumbling Stormveil Castle perches on a cliffside. Down below a sentinel patrols. Within a short distance of one another the player can discover a church, a cave and some catacombs. Travel far enough in one direction and you’ll find a large lake where a dragon swoops down. It’s difficult to go very far without encountering something worth seeing. The world feels alive and foreboding.


40 hours later, on encountering your 10th cave, 15th catacomb or 100th dragon, the novelty has worn thin. This is one of Elden Ring’s two biggest interrelated flaws: repetition. Some repetition is unavoidable in a game of this scale and can even be a useful way to create thematic connections or explain how disparate areas of a world relate to one another. Some, such as Elden Ring’s rises or lumbering mausoleums, add welcome colour to useful gameplay mechanics. Sadly, the vast majority of the time this repetition takes the shape of reskinned or copy pasted enemies, bosses, environments and challenges. Elden Ring even goes so far as to reskin several narratively significant bosses (Godrick and Godefroy; Mohg and… Mohg). It’s thrilling to find the Fallingstar Beast, dormant in a giant crater, at the utmost peak of Mt. Glemir, or to encounter the strange Godskin Noble in the Volcano Manor. Greater the disappointment, then, when this is undercut by that same boss reappearing in one of the game’s many mini dungeons or even doubled up for one among a litany of lazy group bosses.


As a consequence of this repetition comes Elden Ring's second biggest flaw: it is marred by inconsistency. Moments of brilliance are punctuated by significant spans of boredom. Stormveil Castle is a zenith of FromSoft’s level design, a marvellously interconnected and rewarding area that offers surprises in every direction. It’s among the most interesting and satisfying areas of any Souls game to date. Lyndell is similarly excellent, a sprawling legacy dungeon that uses every dimension to its advantage, leading the player over rooftops and under the city through dank sewers. Following Ranni and Fia’s connected questlines will lead one underground through buried cities, rotten lakes, finally plunging in a coffin into a dismal void. Above the surface, stumbling into foetid Caelid for the first time is suitably unnerving. Moments like this provide fantastic variety and help build a full, rich world that rivals any from FromSoft’s other titles. But between them are those same caves, catacombs and recycled bosses; the nth dragon with a different elemental tweak.


In a game like Dark Souls every choice felt deliberate, with as little space wasted as possible. Every new area was distinct and exciting, unlocking a little more of the history and structure of the world. The scope of an open world game has almost inevitably held FromSoft back in this regard. Unless they had opted for a 2042 release date, it was probably not possible to fill every nook and cranny of The Lands Between with precise detail. There are positives to this trade off - Elden Ring has a sense of scale that is almost unprecedented - but on the whole it serves to undermine some of the developer’s strengths.


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A strange and counter-intuitive mechanic in Elden Ring are the sending gates. These teleport the player to a seemingly unrelated area of the map, sometimes back where they have already been, sometimes skipping forward over chunks of content that, had the player encountered it organically, would have created a much more potent sense of discovery. A particularly nasty example of this is a gate that warps the player directly to the door of Raya Lucaria, one of the game’s legacy dungeons. If an unsuspecting player stumbles upon this gate and decides to go through, they’ll be robbed of the experience of making their way through the nearby areas and finding their way in themselves. The handful of examples where gates are used to transport you to an otherwise inaccessible area should have been the pattern and not the exception. As it stands the temptation is to skip them altogether as they bear mixed results at best.


While Elden Ring continues FromSoft’s established method of world building and storytelling through level design and item descriptions, more information than usual is given up front. Paradoxically, the story is more difficult than ever to unpack. The sheer size of the game is one contributing factor. It’s possible to only pick up the thread of a quest 20 hours after it started, by which time you’ve likely forgotten some crucial details. If the plot itself weren’t convoluted enough, all of this is compounded by a cast of characters with frustratingly similar mononyms. Godrick, Godefroy, Godfrey and Godwyn. Ranni, Rennala and Renna. Radagon and Radahn. Margit and Margott. Mohg and… Mohg. Much is left unexplained or at least extremely obscure. More than usual the convenience of the fantasy setting is given explanatory power to fill in the blanks. No doubt hours upon hours of obsessive study and video essays will eventually make sense of much of what seems impenetrable, but on a first playthrough most answers only raise more questions.


Despite these shortcomings Elden Ring is a very good game. There are enough exciting and memorable moments to make it more than worth playing. Stormveil Castle shows that FromSoft remains unmatched in terms of level design, while passages like the underground exploration of Fia/Ranni’s quests are engaging from start to finish. NPCs are unique and full of character and the world is consistently striking. The addition of summons and a preposterous number of weapons and spells mean a greater number of playstyles than ever before are rewarded. Sadly, the limitations of the genre conflict with the better parts of FromSofts design philosophy, leaving Elden Ring suffering from a minor identity crisis: a great Souls game trapped inside an exceptional but flawed open world game.

© 2022 Daniel Gill

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