FromSoftware’s Elden Ring, at first blush, looks like a sort of Super Dark Souls, a spiritual continuation of that action RPG series in a vast, vaguely familiar fantasy world of sword and sorcery. But the developer of staunchly challenging games like Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is attempting something grander with Elden Ring’s huge open world.
This is a fantasy land so massive that it requires an in-game map, something that past FromSoftware games have never offered. Players have had to memorize the worlds of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro by exploring their dungeons and castles repeatedly, building up those maps inside their brains. But in Elden Ring’s the Lands Between, the game’s landmass, they’ll be able to place markers on a map and receive guidance on where to go next.
As players adventure through the densely packed Lands Between, they’ll encounter dungeons, giant castles, and the occasional dragon bolting out of the sky to attack them. “We want the Lands Between to be filled with threats and discoveries,” said FromSoftware producer Yasuhiro Kitao, in a video presentation with Polygon, who described the game’s large map as “not just big for the sake of being big.” In that video presentation, FromSoftware showcased diverse settings: wintry plains, an autumnal forest, a flooded city, and a decaying, swampy land.
Kitao said that the dungeons that players will encounter in the fields of the Lands Between will have variety — there are caves, cemeteries, and catacombs, and they’re handcrafted, not procedurally generated like the Chalice Dungeons of Bloodborne. But players may find some familiarity down in those dungeons, with traps, contraptions, torch-lit tunnels, treasure, and minibosses scattered throughout.
Players, known as Tarnished in Elden Ring, will also encounter terrible monsters and enemy soldiers. There are big, majestic ashen dragons and armored knights. There are bizarre enemies, some with a dozen arms in which to wield weapons, some with snakelike bodies. In one fight, an oversized falcon with swords affixed to its talons pecked and sliced at the player, while also throwing powder kegs at him.
Tarnished will have a variety of combat techniques at their disposal to deal with threats in the Lands Between: sword combat, archery, magic spells, stealth, and arrows that will put enemies to sleep.
Like Dark Souls games, players can also summon help. They can call upon their Spirit Steed, a horse-like creature that will aid them in traversal and when mounted combat is warranted. Players can also summon other players, up to two at a time, to assist them in cooperative multiplayer. Different is the option to summon AI-controlled allies of other types. Kitao described “tanky defenders” and “assault types” — and even a small mob of friendly monsters — that can be summoned with the ashes of the deceased. While he didn’t offer many details, it sounds like the creatures you slay in Elden Ring may offer their assistance in the afterlife as disposable, consumable allies.
Even moving through the world of Elden Ring is different. In addition to the aforementioned Spirit Steed, which can double jump across ravines and launch a hundred feet in the air with the aid of mystical jump pads, players can … jump. Similar to how the Wolf of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice moved through his world, Elden Ring players will be able to leap and bound without fear of fall damage through the environment. Traversing some areas, like crumbling castles or rocky terrain, appears to require liberal jumping around.
In one section of the game, known as Stormveil Castle, we watched a Tarnished approach the entrance gates, only to be greeted by a friendly character who told them that going through the front door was a bad idea. He offered a second safer route. But the player opted for the hard path, had the gates open for them, and was immediately welcomed — with a volley of arrows. Doubling back to pursue the easier, circuitous path, we were shown that it required a lot of jumping, sneaking, and battles with armed but underprepared guards. There was also a giant troll — had the player chosen the direct, more difficult path, it would have been a face-to-face fight. In this secret path, they took it down stealthily with a sleep arrow and let it lie.
In another section, the player approached a caravan containing treasure under the cover of night. They sneaked through tall grass to hide themselves, shot a sleep arrow into a guard, and finished him off with their blade. The other guards, now alerted, were dispatched with a curved sword and magical skills imbued into that weapon. It was short work, and the treasure was quickly earned. More guards were dispatched by summoning a quartet of red-eyed phantoms with their ashes. It was a battle unlike anything I’d seen in a FromSoftware game: the player, five ghostly creatures, and a half-dozen soldiers all fighting at once.
The core combat will likely feel familiar to Dark Souls players (slow and calculating), but FromSoftware is also borrowing from the faster-paced elements from Bloodborne and Sekiro. Players can dash out of harm’s way and whittle down an enemy’s stance to deal critical damage — not quite the guaranteed kill of a deathblow from Sekiro, but deadly nonetheless, Kitao said. There’s also a new combat mechanic (Guard Counter), that will let players quickly respond after blocking at the expense of stamina. Kitao said that Guard Counter is separate from parrying, which will return from Dark Souls.
There will be other familiar elements from FromSoftware games past: fast travel via Elden Ring’s equivalent of bonfires (Sites of Lost Light); a young maiden who will help them level up and learn new skills (her name is Melina); a hub world where friends and allies met in the fields will congregate; and fragmented storytelling that will let the player interpret the events and history of this world. It will also be, in the FromSoftware tradition, a challenging game. The developer may encapsulate that best in its own description of Elden Ring: “a good, old-fashioned RPG.”
Elden Ring comes to PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X on Jan. 21, 2022.