What is a Hedge Knight? It is the title of a wandering knight who makes a living lending their sword to those in need. Specifically in the fictional Westeros. They look for their fortune, and rarely find it, spending large partions of their career in the open air, under the stars. Elden Ring embodies this in of of the best ways possible. As the player often finds themselves aiding characters for little or no compensation. The wealth is found in the journey taken and the respite found in a rarely hospitable wilderness.
I have been playing Elden Ring since its release on February the 25th. I have put in around 100 hours as of the writing of this review. I am far from finished, but have beaten more bosses than I can count, found many secret areas, and have been smiling the entire time. This review won’t include any spoilers, as I hold the “first playthrough” to be a sacred time of discovery for the playerbase. I have a filter on my Twitter preventing the words “Elden, Ring, and FromSoftware” from reaching my eyes. I haven’t seen any trailer from 2022, and have only watched content regarding the network test. As a result, I have kept some parts intentionally vague, as Dark Souls would. You might say this is the Dark Souls of the Elden Ring Reviews.
Elden Ring is the greatest game that I have ever played. All parts feel like a great and logical next step and refinement from Dark Souls. That being said, it still retains the famous difficulty from the series.
Elden Ring is huge, generous, and horrifying. It presents so many different ideas between interesting enemy concepts, varied world puzzles, hugely vertical and engaging landscapes. The hidden dungeons that it tries to hide from you make the game world into something you search, rather than simply traverse. Around each corner, there is the potential for some new discovery that makes every corner valuable for you to search. If that sounds exhausting, it is, and I love it. You’re going to miss things in this game. That’s why FromSoftware games can live on for over a decade after they are released. It’s a community effort to pry the secrets out of the world. The message system is the embodiment of this.
Elden Ring is what I imagined when playing The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64. The was wider than I had encountered in a video game before, and it blew my mind with the scale of Hyrule Field and the vastness of each area. In Elden RIng, the characters are just as wacky, imaginative, and interesting to talk to as they are in the best of Zelda games – as they are in any FromSoftware game. Except they are fully voiced. They present dark, sober, and meaningful commentary on their surroundings in a beautiful and harsh world. They juxtapose the screaming monsters and knights with flaming swords you have to fight and offer a smile as they too, are dealing with these same difficulties.
Elden Ring will change how people design their open world video games. “Open World” has shifted from an incredible and open concept to become an excuse to create a hollow and lifeless world around a few dozen worthwhile linear story paths. Elden Ring does not subject its player into any one story path, as all of them are free to occur at once. Progressing NPC’s across their paths can bring the player along their quest paths without being linear. Talking to an NPC, helping them traverse the world, and they might help you by selling you gear, or by fighting alongside you. Advancing an NPC far enough may open up a new vendor that other players may not have. This style of storytelling is one of the reasons I love FromSoftware games. It doesn’t talk down to you and respects the intelligence of the players to be able to physically take notes and remember what was said in a conversation across the world and use that knowledge to their advantage in another place. This is nothing new to a souls game, but it is expanded upon here. Just as in the other souls games, Elden Ring respects the intelligence of the players and leaves them with riddles and the means to mark their own map.
The combat has never felt better.
Combat in Dark Souls is better than combat in most games. Each weapon feels different in meaningful ways, and each fight, even with small-fry enemies, can result in player death. Elden Ring’s combat feels like the next step for Dark Souls combat. The hit registry is so accurate, that if the player is clever enough, they can bob and weave through sword attacks like some kind of medieval-themed Matrix movie. Clips of people using emotes to dodge out of the way of incoming attacks have already populated the internet.
Weapon Customization is enhanced and refined, and like all other parts of the game, player choice is placed at the forefront. The new “ashes of war” mechanic allows for further tuning of weapons by changing what stats they scale off of AND customizing their, as Dark Souls 3 would call them, weapon arts. This adds a layer of refinement to your kit that furthers the general feeling of increased player agency as they go through the game.
In my pre-review, linked here, I had stated that Elden Ring was less gross than Dark Souls. While the zones for the network test content were decidedly un-gross. There are still areas of high-grossness. I love that. I won’t spoil it, but there are a lot of screaming abominations for you to fight. As well as mashups of animals that would make Bloodborne proud. Sewers, bloody heaps, and fungi make their presence known. Also hands. It’s very not okay. I love it.
The theme of increased player agency continues as the player decides where to go, how to go, and what to do once you get there may seem daunting at times, but thankfully the starter classes and approach of “all ways lead to something interesting and worthwhile” creates one of the best simulations of a living world I have ever seen. Battles break out organically between enemies, where an ambush was set up for a traveling party of knights, and I just so happened upon this encounter and created, in my own imagination, the events that lead up to that encounter.
I argue that the seemingly wandering enemies are all doing a great wandering dance that the player can’t completely account for initially, but just as all of the other games, can master in time. These enemies are specifically tailored to be exactly where they are, just as they are in Dark Souls. Except this time, it feels more living than a reverse tower defense game that placed obstacles in the player’s way for them to conquer.
The Dungeons are an interesting part of the game. They each reward the player with a meaningful upgrade for their build, as well as a generous helping of experience/currency. The small, hidden ones are literal holes in the wall. They are concealed in the overworld in clever ways. The larger areas, which are huge locations that loom tall over the terrain. You want to approach the magical castle in the distance and conquer the angry things within. There is something magical to looking at a distant castle, then going there and experiencing the new enemies. The first large dungeon area, Stormveil Castle, is at least as large as the undead burg, the forest, AND the catacombs combined. That is just a small part of the map. More importantly, all pieces of the game and the dungeons are not simply a backdrop, but are actually explorable; it is often these far flung and hidden places harbor high level upgrade materials and wonderful loot.
This game is unbelievably huge – and it is simultaneously full of interesting and meaningful encounters.
While encounters in the world are all worth your time in the form of compensation in runes, the game’s experience and currency. As well as being able to experience the combat system one more time. What if you want to get from point A to point B and don’t want to be bothered with walking or fast travel? What if I told you Elden Ring has the best horse combat I have ever encountered? It’s wonderful. The heavy attacks introduce a large window of opportunity for attacking which makes the increased mobility a benefit not annoying to keep track of. Holding down heavy attack creates a hit box that lingers by way of your character holding out their weapon while riding. This solves the speed and accuracy problem the horse creates.
George R.R. Martin and Hidetaka Myazaki have gone all out with the interresting people you casually run into in your journey. It plays out exactly they way that I thought a A knight of the Seven Kingdoms made into a video game would play out. You approach a new area, and first notice the new inhabitants, and run into an NPC who you can gain information from. I ran into this scenario many times and got tangled up in the liberation of castles, delivery of letters, and cures. Much as Dunk and Egg would have. I intend on creating a Sir Dunk the Tall character on my second play through, a pure strength build who uses heavy armor. “Dunk the lunk, thick as a castle wall”, making magic inaccessible to him.
How does it look?
Elden Ring is the most beautiful game I have played. And I’ve played Cyberpunk 2077 at 60FPS on a 4K 65 inch OLED TV. Elden Ring on my PlayStation 4 Slim looks and plays better. The art direction of any FromSoftware game presents a dark fantasy that is gritty, colorful, and beautiful. It plays at a solid 30 FPS and has some of the best lighting effects I have seen my beloved plastic rectangle produce. On that same 4K 65 inch OLED TV, the atmosphere and world pop with the contrast of the horrifyingly beautiful world. What is the kicker is that this is the lower end of what the game could look like, and on PlayStation 5, it looks gorgeous. And when Sony makes more than five of them, I will be able to transfer my saves and my purchase over to that (far larger) plastic rectangle when I get it in 2024 as the PS5 Slim model. It doesn’t matter what you’re playing it on, you’re playing Elden RIng and having a great time. I am glad that the aforementioned “it isn’t as pretty as Bluepoint’s remake of Demon’s Souls” criticism has perished since the writing of my pre-review. Those people hadn’t yet played the game and have now fallen silent. In my 100 hours, I have experienced zero freezes or frame drops.
On base PS4, the game creatively preserves performance by lowering the frames in the animations of distant enemies and limiting the number of frames in their animations in situations when you find yourself fighting more than, say, 15-20 enemies. This is a fine way to play and I didn’t find it distracting or limit the way I could anticipate attacks.
This is what a complete on release video game looks and feels like. Eat my shorts Cyberpunk.
Elden Ring is hauntingly beautiful, feels like the next logical step by taking with it all of the learning that has taken place over the past thirteen years since Demon’s Souls by taking all of the good, and leaving all of the headaches and annoyances. This presents a polished and breathtaking masterpiece that will win Game of the Year, Game of the Decade, and already has become one of the best games of all time.