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A strength build character in Elden Ring Image: FromSoftware/Namco Bandai via Polygon

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I’ve become the bully in Elden Ring

Attention, campers: Lunch has been cancelled due to lack of hustle

Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

I’ve had it with these jerks.

My first attempt at Elden Ring did not go well. My valiant efforts to chip away at any opponent’s health felt like a toothpick poking a cinder block. Power stancing helped, yes, and hemorrhage weapons got me past my fair share of scraps. But I succeeded by the skin of my teeth. Margit, Godrick, and Grave Warden Duelist were all jerks, and I could feel their joy as they tossed me around their respective arenas. Although I eventually achieved victories, they were slim.

Now, I’ve had six weeks away from the open-world epic. I got as far as beating Rennala before putting the game down to role-play as John Wick in Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. When I came back to Elden Ring, I restarted completely. I could have respecced with the Queen of the Full Moon’s help, but something about a fresh start seemed more appealing. I wanted to see this world, complete in all of its magisterial beauty, without clenching my teeth at every turn.

I chose to restart as the Vagabond, and nostalgia kicked in immediately, taking me back to the first time I awoke in Dark Souls’ Northern Undead Asylum before finding a sword and shield with which to batter the zombie horde. Elden Ring’s heartiest starting class gave me an early edge in the Vigor department, and its Strength stat (second only to the Warrior class) meant I could pummel foes from the outset. I could also withstand — or at least mitigate — the vast majority of enemy attacks. By the time I had entered the open world, the block, counterattack, stun lock muscle memory had already come rushing back.

A strength-build character against the Onyx Lord in a Liurnia evergaol in Elden Ring
If this evergaol had a toilet, I would have given this guy a swirly
Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco via Polygon

I shield-bashed my way across the Weeping Peninsula. I beat the living ass out of Leonine Misbegotten. I one-shot Margit with the help of my Lone Wolf Ashes and my watermelon triceps, and blocked each of Godrick’s attacks before circling around to give him an atomic wedgie with my Omen Cleaver. He crumpled to the ground and disappeared in a cloud of gold, and as I breathed a sigh of relief, I also felt a pang of pity. I had bullied the bully, and in doing so, I had become the very thing I used to hate.

Here at Polygon, we’ve lauded Elden Ring’s flexibility several times over. We’ve also praised Elden Ring’s willingness to encourage flexibility. Much of FromSoftware’s catalog has already done this to some extent, but The Lands Between is so packed with magical armor, mysterious armaments, and helpful NPCs that there are numerous ways to mount every hurdle. Elden Ring is not only the newest in a legacy of games that act as crucibles to test your character builds, but also that legacy’s most approachable incarnation.

In my first playthrough, I was a mere pest. But this time around, I’ve created a character that doesn’t put up with shit. Runebear could only nick my stamina bar, and Radagon’s Red Wolf couldn’t interrupt a single swipe of my Grafted Blade Greatsword. I’m the one tossing these would-be bullies around now. I’m making these jerks look like dorks. My new playthrough is the second act of Mean Girls, where the bullied Cady Heron fights back against Regina George only to become a bully herself.

The difference here is that I refuse to come down from my perch. I’m the Matt Wilson to Margit’s Encino Man. I am the Vice Principal Vernon to Royal Knight Loretta’s Breakfast Club. I am Tony Perkis, and Rennala is a gaggle of pubescent boys. I’ve become the bully and it’s served me well, and a dark part of me now understands the allure of punching down in FromSoft’s cruel world. Here, Johnny Lawrence will always sweep Danny LaRusso’s legs. In The Lands Between, O’Doyle will always rule.