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Elden Ring brings open-world ambition to Dark Souls’ winning formula

FromSoftware builds on a decade of Souls game experience

Elden Ring, the new game from Dark Souls and Bloodborne developer FromSoftware, feels like reconnecting with an old friend. Playing through a few hours of the game’s upcoming network test — a beta version of the game that offers a walled-off slice of Elden Ring’s large open world — felt like slipping back into a game of Dark Souls 3, only bigger, wider, and with sundry new things to see, to collect, and to battle.

But it will assuredly feel familiar, especially if you’ve been playing the new breed of FromSoftware game pioneered by Demon’s Souls more than a decade ago.

In the beta’s opening area, there’s a section called the Cave of Knowledge, a tutorial zone that teaches players the basics of Elden Ring. Longtime Dark Souls players will need little of this education beyond brushing up on new jargon. Instead of finding relief at Dark Souls bonfires, players rest and recover at Sites of Grace. Instead of harvesting Souls as the all-purpose currency, players collect Runes. There are the requisite items to summon other players to your world, the colorful stones that one can leave behind as breadcrumbs, and a pair of flasks to refuel one’s health and magic points. The combat itself is nearly identical to that of FromSoft’s most recent fantasy action RPG, 2016’s Dark Souls 3. (That’s fine. These games have excellent combat.)

In other words, veteran FromSoftware fans should feel right at home after learning the local dialect.

Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

Stepping outside into the world of Elden Ring, a vast open plain called the Lands Between, is a different experience. In contrast to the mostly cordoned off areas of games like Dark Souls, the Lands Between are an expanse on par with the Hyrule of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or The Elder Scrolls land of Skyrim. In fact, you’ll get a summonable horse, known as a Spirit Steed, to help you explore Elden Ring’s map quickly and (surprisingly) safely.

The Lands Between is easy to move through for other reasons. Sites of Grace will offer visual guidance about where to go next. There are routes for traveling stealthily in the event that some major threat stands between you and your destination. And, at least in the beta test slice of the game, my character could teleport from place to place from anywhere on the map. Sites of Grace are plentiful, and at one point during my time with the beta, I briefly groused about a long trip back to a different location only to realize “Oh right, I can just instantly teleport there from here. From anywhere.” Players even have the choice to revive themselves at other holy sites, called Stakes of Marika, if they encounter one.

That new level of convenience is not unheard of in a FromSoftware game. The developer has given players more plentiful and more generous options for traveling through its worlds over the years. But I wonder how much of the unlockable, interconnected worlds of Bloodborne and Dark Souls will be sacrificed for Elden Ring’s open-world ambitions.

Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

In the slice of Elden Ring that I could explore, I saw some interesting things. From the get-go, a mounted forest warrior in golden armor drove home the point that some threats should be avoided for now. I tried to fight him twice before realizing that I was underpowered and underskilled to take him on. Elsewhere, I encountered a shallow lake filled with crabs — many large, a few of them gigantic, some hidden underground until I walked close to them. There were pockets of human guards outside a keep, groups of goblins minding their own business, and slimy creatures roaming a nearby beach. Surely, there are plenty of other weird and dangerous things to encounter out there, having only scratched the surface. (Curiously, I also encountered an invisible enemy, unsure whether it was a glitch or if FromSoftware was throwing something truly impossible at me.)

Another section of the game, a “Legacy Dungeon” called Stormveil Castle, feels plucked from a Souls game and dropped into Elden Ring’s open world. At the castle’s gates, a helpful (but suspicious) character told me that the castle had two routes: one very difficult, one very easy. He was correct. The easy route had a horrible, multi-armed abomination at the end of it, but was otherwise populated by easily killed grunts. The hard route threw more than a dozen guards armed with crossbows at me — plus some vaguely lion-shaped beast that thrashed me when I got too close. (The beta limits how deeply players can venture into Stormveil Castle, so expect a “To be continued…” message if you play the closed network test.)

The difficulty of FromSoftware’s pedigree is certainly here in Elden Ring. The game’s demo offers a taste of it in a battle against Margit, a giant, hammer-wielding man with too many arms who really shouldn’t move as fast as he does. He’s tough. It took me at least a dozen tries to finally overcome him through patience, studying his moves, and remembering to keep my shield up. In other words, he’s a boss in FromSoftware’s style: headbangingly difficult, but only if you’re careless.

Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

So don’t expect Elden Ring, despite fantasy author George R.R. Martin’s well-publicized involvement, to be much more approachable than Dark Souls, Bloodborne, or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. This is a hard game. Players will die and die again. They’ll experience a mostly threadbare narrative told through lore and the occasional interaction with other characters, all of whom seem to know much more about this world than you do. Some players will be put off by that level of difficulty and deciphering of lore, while others will relish the challenge and the rush of putting down a formerly terrifying threat.

Elden Ring does take a new approach in other areas of gameplay. There’s a high emphasis on crafting. Rather than rely on random drops or merchants to sell you consumable goods, they can be crafted using recipes and naturally occurring resources. Expect to pick flowers, hunt wildlife, and purchase stoneware in which to bake your balms and bombs. Players also have help in the form of new summonable creatures; items called ashes can be purchased from merchants which will let you call forth wolves, sword-wielding skeletons, and undead magic users to aid you in battle. Of course, players can also summon other players over the internet, or go help them in their worlds. Or invade them, as an evil spirit.

FromSoftware’s taste of Elden Ring is enticing. While much of it feels incredibly familiar, the Lands Between’s open world already offers all-new opportunities for exploration, memorable moments, and discovery in just a small quadrant of the game. Players will have more to explore in February, when Elden Ring comes to PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.