This is a spoiler-free Elden Ring review for PS5, revealing only some minor early-game details.
In all my years as a gamer, I’ve not seen many games release to as much hype as Elden Ring. It represents FromSoftware’s transition from creators of brutal, niche challengers to a bona fide gaming powerhouse, capitalising on the industry’s love affair with open worlds. However, this is an open world experience that is very much their own thing, impressively managing to retain their trademark essence whilst appealing to new fans.
Despite my own high expectations, Elden Ring pleasantly took me by surprise as soon as it came out of the very box. A smattering of little ancillary products, like artwork and a woven patch was a lovely, unexpected touch, telling me something of the effort being made to give me an unforgettable experience. It reminded me of days gone by, when RPGs came with chunky manuals and maps. Speaking of which I’d have absolutely loved a full paper map, but I won’t hold it against them.
Elden Ring places you in control of a self-created character known as the Tarnished, tasked with a long, arduous journey through the Lands Between to become the Elden Lord. There’s an opening segment that identifies a few of the characters and establishes some lore, but little more than that. Even after my first playthrough (some 83 hours), I don’t think I could offer a coherent plot summary, or tell you exactly what the Elden Ring even is. That’s by design – the plot is secondary, relegated to breadcrumbs found in item descriptions or via missable NPCs.
This cryptic approach decidedly extends into the gameplay. Released just a week after Horizon Forbidden West, it’s almost impossible not to notice the clear distinctions in the developers’ respective philosophies. Elden Ring does not plaster your map with waypoints, shower you with tutorials and repeatedly prompt you on what to do and where to go. I’m perfectly aware that many gamers out there far prefer this methodology. As an adult, gaming time is valuable and there is merit in trying to stop it flitting away by nudging players in the right direction.
However, personally I found it so refreshing to be thrust into the wilderness with no direction. The Lands Between is absolutely huge and there are secrets big and small packed everywhere. It’s entirely possible to miss huge chunks of the game; enormous areas crafted so superbly that most developers wouldn’t dream of allowing them to go untouched. I was determined to make it through Elden Ring entirely on my own steam without Googling anything, but I confess that once or twice my curiosity got the better of me and I looked up locations I didn’t want to pass by.
As much as I generally loved the hands-off approach, I still think some gameplay mechanics could have done with a bit more explanation. I really wouldn’t want this dialled up much, but a small additional nudge in the right direction would have worked. There is a ‘base’ type location that could easily have installed a library to elaborate on some of the finer points without intruding too much.
Nonetheless, the world is stunningly presented, boasting various different areas with their distinct geography and style, whether the grasslands of Limgrave, the wispy mysteries of Liurnia or the Autumnal feel of Altus Plateau. It features a dulled colour palette, perfectly capturing the essence of a once-grand realm that has fallen into turmoil and death. Even crucial pathways are often found via uneven, rocky terrain or narrow ladders that blend into the background. There’s a sense of realism here, as it simply makes sense that not everything in such a world would be clearly marked out for your convenience. And it makes it so satisfying when you stumble upon your latest exploration zone.
Another aspect of Elden Ring that makes exploring a joy comes in the form of Torrent, the magical horse who can be summoned from thin air to dash around, double-jump and even propel you to a new location if you find a suitable launch point on your travels. He’s quick, responsive and useful, which sounds like a simple thing to praise, but Torrent’s gameplay is such a breath of fresh air compared to the clunky mount mechanics found elsewhere. It’s also completely viable to fight on horseback, and comes with a pretty good balance – easier to avoid damage by breezing past enemies, but trickier to land hits and if you take too much of a risk, you can end up dismounted and vulnerable very quickly.
Little caves, caverns and outposts are aplenty, hiding rewards in the form of loot, weapons or materials. It’s enjoyable to conquer these areas (invariably containing a boss at the end), even if the spoils may often prove completely useless for your build. As an old-fashioned sword and shield wielder, snagging a powerful staff always came with a sinking realisation that I would never ever use it. Again, this is a more realistic outlook than always uncovering something slightly better than the last thing you found, even if it can be a bit disappointing. In these cases, you’ll simply have to satisfy yourself with the other reward invariably on offer – runes.
Runes serve as both EXP and currency, rewarded for defeating enemies and bosses. They are lost upon death but can be reclaimed if you return to the place you died. If you die again before you reach them, then they are lost forever. This is a returning feature of FromSoftware’s games, where you can only level up if you hold the necessary number of runes in one go. Therefore the more runes you accumulate, the more pressure inherently falls on your shoulders as an untimely death risks the loss of your hard-earned progress. However, the simple fast travel system definitely alleviates some of this danger. As long as enemies aren’t targeting you, you can fast travel to a Site of Grace at any point to rest up and replenish your stock of healing flasks.
Whilst I used this to my advantage so I didn’t lose out on my level gain, I can’t help but think that fast travel should only be available when out on the open world. Enemies respawn after a fast travel but there’s nothing at all stopping you getting to the end of a dungeon, teleporting back to level up and recover, before rushing through it again whilst ignoring all of the enemies. The balance to this is that bosses are sometimes faced out of the blue, but this is rare. Usually the ominous green mist will be in your way, alerting you that you might be better off turning back and recuperating first.
The combat is pretty simple, and once again I found this refreshing. There are many, many different weapons and play styles, but the mechanics themselves are easy to pick up. I enjoyed the simplicity of it rather than an overwhelming skill tree packed with weird and wonderful moves that are barely needed. There are weapon skills but you can only equip one at a time, and typically cost FP (focus points, a.k.a. magic) so are best used sparingly.
The usual light and heavy attacks are available, as well as guard counters and jump attacks. Each option comes with its own pros and cons, as well as a stamina expense. Do you try and quickly dispatch an enemy with light attacks, leaving yourself open if you fail to stagger them? Or play more conservatively, blocking and waiting for your chance to counterattack, with the potential that more enemies can overrun you and break through your guard? Virtually every skirmish has a variety of these decisions, keeping you tense in the knowledge it can all go wrong in a split second if you lose concentration or make the wrong call.
At times, this is perfectly balanced and immensely rewarding as you make your way through a cave or dungeon. On other occasions, perhaps inevitably with the open-world nature of the game, it can go the other way. Since Elden Ring casts you out on your own, it’s easy to tackle things in the ‘wrong’ order in terms of power scaling. My first 30 or 40 hours were suitably challenging, but I then unwittingly tackled an area above my power level, managing to make it through and ending up completely overlevelled for the next few areas. This had a knock-on effect that lasted at least 20 hours, where I was beating bosses on the first attempt and easily steamrolling through the dungeons, which certainly took away from the experience.
There are still some excellent boss fights, particularly the ones that fit into the wider story. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and my favourite by far were the beefy humanoids rather than the outrageously large creatures that could set off some camera shenanigans. Outside of these, the sheer number of bosses means unfortunately most of these are recycled, taking away from their individuality and difficulty. After beating the same boss design a couple of times, encountering them again with slightly more health is less than exhilarating, and it feels like they are plonked at the end of dungeons for the sake of it.
These issues make it harder to appreciate some of the bosses when compared to more linear games that feel like the foe is hand-crafted to appropriately challenge you at your likely level. However, there is still nothing better than that moment when you finally take down that boss with your health low and your flasks empty. Pushed to the limit of your abilities, but victorious. Those moments eluded me for long periods of Elden Ring, and it was only when I got to the late-game areas that I really felt the sense of peril return. Then I found Malenia, and it most certainly returned (I took her down in the end).
The other criticism I have of the boss encounters is that they seem to have a precognitive element that borders on the ridiculous. Not since Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis have I felt bosses intrude so much into my mind. Most have combo moves that are clearly designed to try and lure you into a roll too early, in a way that seems unnatural and meta. They’ll swing a few times naturally before lifting their weapon….and holding it, and holding it, and holding it… and then striking just as you finish a roll. Appropriate boss behaviours are admittedly hard to pull off when there is such a large fanbase familiar with the FromSoftware mechanics, but this struck me as running out of ideas. Again, I think this could have been rectified by simply reducing the number of bosses and making them each present a bespoke challenge. Sometimes less is more.
This leads into another new feature that’s executed with mixed results – summoning. Early in the game, an item named the Spirit Calling Bell enables your character to summon the spirit of an NPC to provide assistance in battle. These range from wolves to a jellyfish or some seriously powerful warriors. Though you can’t summon everywhere, the option is available for virtually every boss fight, denoted by an icon that basically alerts you there’s a dangerous foe on the prowl.
Now, summoning is natural in some boss fights since you occasionally get outnumbered and it simply feels like balancing the odds. On other occasions, like solo battles, it can rather break the bosses. These enemies are clearly not intended to tackle two people at once, and they’ll end up being completely exposed by entirely directing their aggro at one foe. Rather than learning attack patterns and exploiting opportunities, it then become a trivial case of waiting until the boss turns its attention to your summon before railing on it from behind. There are even bosses that can be beaten single-handedly by summons without you doing anything.
The most obvious response to this criticism is to simply not use the summons, but I’m not convinced this is a valid argument. Anything included in the game is open to criticism, and it’s also impossible to know which bosses are suitably balanced until it’s too late.
This sort of hindsight-based knowledge, along with Elden Ring’s very nature, encourages repeat playthroughs. My melee build got the job done but there are lots of magic options I completely neglected that look pretty awesome, even if I’m led to believe they can become overpowered. The question of which playstyle to select is one that has to be answered early in the game, but there is scope to respec later on if you so desire.
There are some other questions that seem to recur when it comes to Elden Ring, which make a good conclusion point. How hard is it, and is it suitable for players who have never played a Soulsborne game?
Make no mistake, despite a few exploits and imbalances, Elden Ring is a very challenging game. You’ll die a lot, regardless of your build and prior experience. Even when I thought I’d grasped everything necessary, the late-game difficulty spike offers some really stern tests.
With this in mind, it’s still not going to be for everyone but I do think Elden Ring is a great starting point for newbies. The fact you can gallop off in another direction whenever you get stuck means you’ll always find something that can be conquered at your current skill level. I believe Elden Ring actively wants this to happen, with one of the earlier bosses highly likely to decimate you if you tackle him too soon.
In fact, Elden Ring comes highly recommended to most. FromSoftware have taken their thing and seamlessly blended it into the popular open world sphere. Despite a few issues that hold it back from being a true magnum opus, Elden Ring is still a wonderful experience that serves as both a love letter to prior generations whilst simultaneously making a significant stride forward for the genre.