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A Tarnished on horseback battles a dragon beneath the moon in Elden Ring Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

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Elden Ring is FromSoftware’s best, most approachable, and difficult game yet

The open-world Dark Souls successor is staggering in breadth and challenge

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls game director Hidetaka Miyazaki has not taken comparisons of those games to The Legend of Zelda series with much joy. “I feel deeply unworthy of the comparison,” Miyazaki has said, calling the early Zelda games “monumental” works. But it is hard not to see the Zelda series’ influence, particularly the groundbreaking open-world adventure The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, on his company FromSoftware’s new game, Elden Ring.

Nintendo’s 2017 Zelda game appears to have had a powerful, and overwhelmingly positive, impact on FromSoftware’s beloved style of action-RPG. Elden Ring is a deeply impressive adventure of incredible breadth and depth, blending From’s style of rich, challenging combat with exploration, discovery, and new levels of player freedom.

It starts with the Tree Sentinel. This meaty, golden warrior sitting astride a powerful steed is the first thing you encounter in Elden Ring’s vast fantasy world, the Lands Between. He’s nigh-impossible to defeat in your weak starting state. But just behind him is a church in which to find refuge and supplies, and a bit farther, a castle to explore. Around you are woods with abundant natural resources, with which you can craft curative items. Elden Ring communicates quickly that your means of survival require exploration, learning, growth, and returning to face challenges, like the Tree Sentinel, when you’re physically and mentally ready for them.

Anyone who’s ever faced down a Lynel in Breath of the Wild will know that process.

A Tarnished wielding a spear looks at the Tree Sentinel, with the Erdtree in the background, in a screenshot from Elden Ring. Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco via Polygon

Elden Ring is a clear continuation of Miyazaki’s Souls series, and it hits many of the same notes: A quiet, blank-slate warrior travels to a far-off, blighted land, where man and beast alike are cursed by some awesome power and cataclysmic event. And while Elden Ring starts its conversation with the player in ways familiar to anyone who’s played those renowned games, the conversation quickly changes only minutes into the game.

The game’s massive map — and yes, there is an honest-to-goodness on-screen map this time — is only barely revealed to you at the beginning. But as you explore, on foot and on horseback, you find enemy encampments, castles, dungeons, catacombs, caravans of warriors, and the occasional friendly face. Every discovery in the world helps you grow stronger, either through experience or material rewards. In an easily accessible catacomb tucked away on a nearby cliffside, for instance, I discover an equippable talisman that restores precious health points when I land critical hits. In an enemy camp, I find a better shield that fully absorbs enemies’ strikes. At glowing saplings, I find Golden Seeds that add extra charges to my healing flasks. Every new power I discover makes taking on the next challenge a tiny bit easier.

Many challenges in Elden Ring are monumentally difficult. Take Margit the Fell Omen, a twisted, stocky, stick-wielding warrior who appears to be in the painful process of becoming a tree. Facing him alone in the early hours of Elden Ring feels all but impossible. However, I can now summon a trio of ghostly wolves to aid me in battle, and enlist a powerful warrior in spirit form to fight alongside me. Neither makes Margit a cakewalk; boss battles in FromSoftware games are notoriously difficult — and Margit’s immediate successor is even more challenging — but Elden Ring gives me myriad tools to make myself just a bit more capable in tense situations. I can also visit a hub area, geographically unmoored from the Lands Between, called the Roundtable Hold, to strengthen my weapons of war even more.

Godrick the Grafted, a boss from Elden Ring Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

Forty-five hours into Elden Ring, I’ve defeated three of the game’s major bosses. They’ve granted me powerful runes, which I can temporarily use to empower my character. I also have a broad arsenal of weapons — swords, pikes, clubs, bows, even a rusted anchor — and magic at my disposal. I have learned healing spells and pyromancies. I can concoct deadly perfumes to poison my enemies. I can summon forth a ghostly jellyfish or a snakeman to fight for me. I can cook unsavory dishes made from mushrooms, animal livers, and wild fruits, which cure ailments or confer a temporary buff. Elden Ring’s toolset for growing more capable against daunting odds is deep and impressively varied — but it has not made me a god.

Which is to say that FromSoftware’s signature high level of challenge remains intact in Elden Ring. Just as From has given me a deep well of tools I can use to tailor my play style, it has also compensated by deploying some of the hardest, most frustrating enemies it’s ever created. But I have found respite riding my steed Torrent through the game’s open-world areas, discovering caves and catacombs and wrecked little towns where I find even more tools with which to arm myself. I just learned how to summon a disembodied fire-breathing dragon head at the end of my arm, for example. And that feels great.

The Lands Between is dotted with destinations both big and small. There are huge, mazelike castles to explore, yes, but there are also underground tunnels and mines where I can farm for materials and battle unique bosses of lesser difficulty. I’m measurably improving in the in-between moments before harder and harder boss battles. There is wonderful variety in the Lands Between, ranging from towering medieval fortresses to putrid, poison-flooded forts, from gorgeous autumnal landscapes to caverns carpeted with skinned corpses. One area of the game, a rotten, red-skied land called Caelid, is so grim and unsettling that merely existing in it felt exhausting. FromSoftware has raised the bar, once again, for miserable fantasy worlds.

A Tarnished on horseback leaps across a cavern in a screenshot from Elden Ring Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

The Lands Between can be bleak to the point of depressing, but it can also be magical. Take, for instance, the mysterious four-legged walking cathedrals that clomp through plains and shallow lakes, ringing their bells for a purpose I have yet to discover. Like many oddities in Elden Ring’s vast world, these beings also represent a puzzle to solve — and should these self-contained tiny mysteries become too perplexing, there is often a merchant or helpful resident nearby who can sell me a clue. These people will also sometimes sell me recipes from which to craft new items, or offer a task to undertake for a reward. There are massive dragons, towering golems, and large sentient pots out in the open world, to be sure — but the smaller details work wonders. They feel less like crossing off a checklist, and more like new brushes of color for this impressively realized world.

Elden Ring eschews traditional open-world video game bloat. There are no strict directives about where to go and what to do — merely suggestions and guidance from the Light of Grace at places of rest. Rarely will any character I meet in the world put a mission on my map or issue a demand. Instead, I fill in the details, discovering the castles and keeps for myself, marking new destinations and points of interest. Elden Ring encourages me to get lost and to make new discoveries on my own.

The open world of the Lands Between is only lightly gated by progress. On Torrent’s back, I can go just about anywhere, anytime. And by using Sites of Grace — Elden Ring’s version of Dark Souls bonfires — I can quickly move around the game’s continent in mere seconds.

This movement is also shockingly convenient. Anytime I need to stock up on arrows or spend my current bank of Runes on a spell I might think I need, I simply pull up my map and teleport to my desired location. Likewise, anytime I find myself stuck on a particular problem — let’s say, for example, a damnable knight who can telekinetically throw his sword at me from across the room — I go do something else. There’s always something else to do.

A Tarnished holds a torch aloft and looks down at a crystal cave in a screenshot from Elden Ring Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

Elden Ring’s story is, like many FromSoftware games, opaque, and often tangential to the immediate action. Fantasy author George R.R. Martin, who contributed to the game’s lore, has done little to alter how From tells a story. It still comes across in short conversations, item descriptions, and in the very landscape itself. Almost everywhere you go is in some state of ruin; churches are destroyed, castles have been crumbled, and only the most powerful survivors thrive here. Martin does appear to have given Elden Ring a more grounded fictional basis in terms of familial relationships, a lust for power, and how the influence of that power has tremendous repercussions for the people they rule. But it’s hard to gauge the real impact of Martin’s contributions here, particularly since I have yet to finish the story, or stitch together its piecemeal lore. While the characters I’ve met in Elden Ring are more verbose than in past FromSoftware games, this is not a straightforward tale. Much of which is to say that if you’re coming to Elden Ring for Game of Thrones-style drama — a vast fantasy epic spread across a similarly vast open world — you will not be served that. Instead, you’ll get whispers of a wider narrative and a mostly clear mission: Slay everyone and become the Elden Lord yourself.

Elden Ring is the natural next step for FromSoftware, which last delivered a huge fantasy world like this in Dark Souls 3. That game featured a sprawling, interconnected world, a vast armory, and an incredible amount to learn, wield, and discover. Elden Ring is that game amplified — it plucks the best from Bloodborne, with its compact, puzzlelike mini-dungeons, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which offered new levels of mobility and faster action.

But, all told, FromSoftware has done more than just remix its earlier games and layer on open-world influence with Elden Ring. The studio’s conversation with the player goes in fascinating new directions, and there are great surprises here for longtime fans of Souls games; From clearly knows what we expect of its castles, its boss encounters, and the random out-of-nowhere ambushes, and it plays with those expectations. Sometimes it means I die unexpectedly. And sometimes it makes me smile.

Elden Ring will be released Feb. 25 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a download code provided by Bandai Namco Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.