Elden Ring (2022)

My time spent with the newest game developed by From Software has been much longer than any previous game in the series. While Bloodborne did intrigue me with its setting and atmosphere and general quick movement, compared to the other Souls games I just never purchased it to give it a try. I did however sink a few hours into Dark Souls 1 several times, and I always put it down after around 7-15ish hours because I just hated everything about the game. I found it boring, unenjoyable, unfair and the character moved like molasses. I wanted to see what everyone else saw in these games, but every time I tried the game it pushed me away like no other game I played in my entire life has. It was aggressive in its nature, which I believe is what people enjoy about it.

I didn’t pay attention to Elden Ring in its promotional cycle as it just seemed like “yet another Dark Souls game”. I didn’t even know until the game came out that it was an open world game, which did pique my interest. So after watching the discussions around the embargo being lifted, and how everyone seemed to be losing their minds at “the next greatest game of all time”, I was cautiously optimistic that this time I would get it and understand why people hype these games up so much. It also helps that the day before release date, the game was on sale for $45 instead of $60 with the use of a coupon, thanks to Green Man Gaming and a post in the Couch Money discord.

Elden Ring, taken at face value, is a Dark Souls game placed in an open world, that allows you to explore and tackle most things in whatever order you please. But the DNA and the underlying gameplay are all based on the same exact formula From Software has been using for decades. They really like this style of game and it’s that style that I just don’t find all that enjoyable.

For those who don’t know what a Dark Souls game really is, it’s a game where you control a player created character and have to navigate a very bleak and desolate world in a very linear fashion. There is one way to go and in each area you encounter many enemies who are placed in your path. Those enemies have specific attack patterns that you must learn and memorize, and then must take out to advance. But with those enemies, the game prides itself on being dishearteningly difficult. Brutal in its persistence to not let you advance. So those enemies deal a massive amount of damage if you don’t take the time to memorize the attack patterns and wait for the opportune moment to strike. Watered down, it culminates into, bait the enemy to focus on you and have it start attacking, watch for an attack pattern, then dodge and block until there is an opening in the animation cool down between attacks, then use your character to deal damage, whittling it down until it dies.

With a very brief explanation of the underlying gameplay out of the way, let’s get to the actual game, Elden Ring. Starting up the game you are given the time to build out your own created character. Choosing their name, what their facial and body features look like and even their voice, which seems a bit pointless since your character is mute and doesn’t speak a single word. You are also given an opportunity to choose your starting class, such as a Samurai which has great armor and endurance, or an astrologer who can wield a wizard’s staff and cast magic spells. Right from the start, I was frozen with a choice I didn’t really understand. So I went with something simple and easy to really dip my feet into the game with, a Warrior. He seemed powerful and looked like Conan The Barbarian, so I was down to play as him.

Once that was done, I was given a quick cutscene (one of the very few in the game) and sent off to go tackle a best right at the beginning that kills you instantly. I’m sure the fans of Souls games howled at the “THIS IS DARK SOULS” moment of preparing to die over and over again, but as I just started and didn’t even understand the controls I wasn’t even able to get a single hit before I was dead and I knew it was purposely done like that. Once I rose back up to my feet, I was in a new place and stepping out into a beautiful new area filled with tons of green grass and trees. Something I was not prepared to see, since every Dark Souls game in my mind was that of a dark, dreary castle like setting.

I immediately gravitated more towards this game just in that moment alone than the several hours with the original game. Having color in a game, especially one that prides itself in the grotesque and disgusting with plenty of gray and brown that rivals a Xbox 360 era game, was really nice to see. Walking out into the first area of a plot of land and seeing down the hill a massive armored knight on a massive armored horse got me petrified pretty quickly. But luckily I learned that they took a few mechanics from the Assassin’s Creed games, and a quick stealth crouch in some tall bushes hides you from enemies.

Spending the next few hours learning the ropes of baiting enemies, learning their attack patterns and going in for a few hits felt somehow much more enjoyable. Surrounded by lush greenery and something new off in the near distance really kept my mind occupied and my bravery at the forefront to continue pushing forward. I could stop progressing forward, and ended up at the first real boss, Margit The Omen Fell. Which I proceeded to bash my head into a wall for the next hour and a half. Quitting the game several times in frustration. While I knew I wasn’t the best player of these games in the world, I felt like I should have been making much more of a dent in the bosses’ overall health bar. Especially given the fact that the game allows you to summon an NPC to help you out too.

After some time away, I kept seeing people say “If you’re stuck on a boss, go somewhere else”. So I did. I later found out as well, that Margit is really something you should be much more leveled up to tackle. Which again, I found quite strange as the game basically pushes you there. It goes against a lot of the gameplay designs that developers use to herd players to the next stage or area in a game. So I packed up my things and headed to a new area. Learning along the way that I now had a horse and a safe place to hang out in and level up my stats and spend runes on weapon upgrades and other various things. Also being able to speak to several NPC’s to bring a bit more of the world that was created, together.

See, the big marketing bullet point for Elden Ring is that George Martin was brought in to help create the world of Elden Ring. And while the world that the game inhabits is indeed interesting and even breathtaking at times, I’d much prefer Mr. Martin to go back and finish his book that he’s been working on for over a decade instead of the various other projects he seems to be doing instead of writing his own book. Elden Ring’s world feels like any other Dark Souls game to me, and that money would have been infinitely put to better use any other way. The creature designs are awesome, the lands that you travel to; beautiful and terrifying at the same time. But the story… well let’s just say after completing the game, I couldn’t tell you most of the main characters, plot or anything else other than it’s a “You are the chosen one” style of story. Which is just about the most boring and rote story there is at this point.

You are a “Tarnished”, which I have no clue what that really means, and you are brought back to life after dying and transported into “The Lands Between”. There were kings and queens and they fought and now the whole place is in disarray and it’s up to you to put a stop to all the weirdos trying to vie for the throne. There is a lot more to the story than that, but really at it’s core, that is the plot. From Software is big on making games as obtuse as possible. Hiding many things from the player, and leaving it up to them to figure it all out. While Elden Ring has certainly learned how to help players out a bit, a relative newcomer to the series, like myself still found it frustratingly difficult to understand basic things. Like calling your horse, whos name is Torrent to your side. That requires you to equip the horse item, and bring it up and use it. If you go exploring in a cave, and there is no light source, you’ll have to equip a torch to see anything more than yourself, and even then, it still only lights about five feet in front of you. These are very basic, but still frustrating things that I had to learn while playing a game that doesn’t allow you to pause and look things up. Sure you are basically safe if you sit at a Site Of Grace, but you can’t use certain menu options while sitting down, so you can leave yourself open to attack.

One of my biggest fears of the game comes from the feeling of losing progression. It’s just something I can’t stand in games, especially ones like Run Based Games, where you see how far you can get in a single run, before you die and restart all over from the very beginning. As an adult, I have a life outside of the games I play, and that time is also limited when I do devote it to a game. Progression is one of the biggest factors for me. If I am not making meaningful progress in some fashion after a certain amount of time, I count that as “wasted time” and a game like Dark Souls prides itself on making you feel like you're losing progress.

Now, if you notice, I said “Feels” like losing progress. Because as I learned in my time with Elden Ring, progress isn’t lost. Even when you die and drop your runes, and try to get it back in a mad dash to pick it backup and end up dying again and losing those runes… that’s really all you lose. You lose currency to upgrade. With the game being open world, and fast travel to any previously visited Site Of Grace, you can easily regain those precious runes fairly quickly. I did this at the outset, just killing the same several knights over and over right next to a beginning Site Of Grace to build up my runes and then go level up and get stronger and better upgrades for my weapons.

This tactic of “farming” runes because a little side activity whenever I had amassed an amount of runes I wasn’t comfortable carrying around, but needed to get more before I could upgrade or level up. I found several spots where I would spend twenty minutes or so just repeating the same loop of killing enemies while a podcast played in the background, or talking to my wife about her day. Over the course of a couple weeks, it was a nightly ritual when I got stuck on a boss that I felt I wasn’t powerful enough to take on.

Exploration was, I believe, the main driving factor for me with Elden Ring. Being able to set out in any direction I chose and fight the enemies I felt comfortable with, gave me the confidence to continue on. Even when the area’s became terrifying and upsetting, if I knew I could hold my own against most enemies, I was able to power through and conquer them all. Several spots I would end up dying several times, even losing those precious runes, but the failure was something I learned to deal with, instead of becoming depressed at the thought of wasted time.

While most enemies seemed easy enough to take on, the bosses were something very different. It’s odd, because the game is open world, I stumbled into many areas I was not prepared for or places I “Shouldn’t be in yet”. Some bosses wrecked me right out of the gate, one shotting me almost instantly, while others seemed like a pushover. While something like Margit took me hours, and I only killed him while barely holding on to my last sliver of health…. Others like Godrick I killed on the first attempt. However, boss battles are something I never enjoyed in video games, and the last hour or two of the game is basically a Boss Rush mode.

I found the bosses to be quite unenjoyable and really unfair. While I know some will roll their eyes, or I’ll catch some sort of flack with claiming the game “cheats”, There were several stand out bosses where I genuinely felt at a disadvantage the whole way (especially at the end of the game). Bosses who can’t be staggered, who’s attacks reach across the screen far beyond what they should, and also constantly heal or come back to life for a second round. The boss that broke me was around an hour before the end. A boss called “Godskin Duo”. This is two bosses that attack you at the same time at breakneck speed and come back to life after you kill them, so you are basically fighting four bosses. I actually looked up how to defeat them and was annoyed to find that earlier in the morning, an update came out that ruined an Ash Of War that I got the evening before and was basically worthless.

The Ashes Of War are a summonable NPC that can help take the focus off of you and let your enemy attack them instead, along with being able to attack as well, it helps give the player a fighting chance in a game designed with a single goal of “Kill the player at all costs” in mind. A late game Ash is called the Mimic, which I thought was going to be a Dark Souls mimic, one that looked like a treasure chest that pops open revealing a massive set of teeth. Luckily it is actually a mirror copy of your own character, with all the same armor boosts and spells you have currently equipped. Sadly, only several hours after I obtained this Mimic Ash, a game update came out completely ruining the power, and even the AI of it. I proceeded to use it, and witnessed my “Most powerful Ash in the game” stand still and take three hits and vanish.

It doesn’t help that the PC port of this game is tragically flawed in the technical department. So many times I would be riding my horse and the game would end up freezing for a second or two and then ramp up speed to a fast forward and play all the frames that were not displayed, resulting in me falling off a cliff that wasn’t there a few seconds prior. Or in a boss fight or large battle and the game would just freeze and then skip over what was missed and show me getting beaten mercilessly. Apparently From Software is known for their shoddy PC Ports, but was getting better with the last couple. Sadly this one seems to have set them back a few steps, and returns them to their “bad port” days. While it’s not “unplayable” by any standard, a game that is known for having to be absolutely precise with timing windows, having this many hiccups is just something that should not be glossed over.

Something I’ve been trying to avoid this whole time is talking about the difficulty. Because it’s a conversation that crops up over and over again, every time a new From Software game comes out. And I just want to give my opinion on the matter, once and for all. The Souls community, the die hard fans, always lament that when a new Souls game comes out, people cry about the game needing an “Easy Mode”. Which, to set the record straight, I’ve never seen. I don’t know anyone who wants to play these games on “Easy”. I know I sure don’t, that wouldn’t be remotely fun. I do however see people, and I’m one of them, who want a more balanced option to gameplay. A difficulty setting that isn’t so punishingly sadistic. Like my previous example with the Godskin Duo, it’s a unbalanced and unfair fight, and while sure, you can sit there dying over and over attempting to learn the patterns, it’s a waste of time, it involves little actual skill, and instead relies on the player memorizing animations and hitting a button at a very very specific time.

While you won’t get the same exact experience of conquering a tough as nails boss fight with something a bit more balanced, The truth is, everyone is going to have a different experience with the game, because it’s a game that gives players control, and every player approaches the game differently. I know I play a much different style than others that I have seen, and it’s what makes it fun talking about these games while we play them. Taking an option away only to say “You can only play the game this specific way” doesn’t help anyone, especially when you see many comments from the same community saying if you use a cheap tactic to win against a boss that “anyway you beat it is fine”. It just comes off as a bit hypocritical.

Wrapping the whole Difficulty thing up, no one is asking for an “Easy Mode”, people just want a bit more balanced experience, so we don’t have to go looking up guides on specific builds or weapons to take down a boss just so we don’t waste hours of our lives that we can never get back, or barely have to spend. NES Hard was something that popped up in the 2010’s as something to strive for, because older NES games were stupidly hard, and newer games were stupidly easy…I think the Dark Souls games swung in just too far of the opposite direction, priding itself of “This is absurdly hard for the sake of being absurdly hard” without any real reason other than “because we can”. Making a game slightly more balanced allows more players to play the game, which they’ll end up buying, which in turn makes the developers more money. It really is a win/win.

My time with Elden Ring is both parts wonderful and absolutely frustrating. Exploring the massive (and yeah, it really is massive) world being able to set off in any direction was such a joy to do. I poured over 95 hours into exploring as many nooks and crannies of the game’s eerie and unsettling world as I could in my playtime. I lost whole evenings to just exploring a single area, only to go head to head with an unbelievably crazy looking boss who killed me more times than I’d like to admit. I rage quitted and performed an Alt+F4 a couple times after realizing that I needed to go to bed instead of playing more. I fought Dragons and Demi-gods. I burned trees and torched countless enemies to a pile of ashes. I finally see what everyone who plays and loves a Souls game sees. I finally understand the pride that comes with beating a boss who has been kicking your butt thirty times in a row and what it feels like. I get it, and while I can’t say I feel the same way, I appreciate this series like I never thought I would. Sure the story basically is non-existent, and I really hated the boss battles and felt like there was a cheap way to pad out the game’s run time…. I’ll never forget the last two and a half weeks where Elden Ring occupied my mind in a way very few games have.