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Elden Ring is the Culmination Of a Decade’s Work – But is It Balanced?

Soulsborne’s Final Form?

 

Elden Ring

 

The best artists experiment and learn before creating their magnum opus. Before Michelangelo painted The Creation of Adam on the walls of the Sistine Chapel, the maestro plied his trade elsewhere and learned from it. It was the same for Francis Ford Coppola before he filmed his greatest work – The Godfather I and II.

While I’m not quite ready to call Elden Ring a masterpiece, the 10-hours or so I’ve spent with it clearly demonstrate that Elden Ring is the definitive culmination of over ten years of Soulsborne. It takes the best bits of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Demon Souls, and Metal Gear Solid V, implementing them in one sizable package.

 

One Big Dark Souls Level With Smaller Ones In It

 

A Shocking Sword From Elden Ring

Much has been made of Elden Ring’s open world. Commentators have expressed concerns about whether FromSoftware would be able to transfer their carefully orchestrated, yet linear environments into a large open space. Specifically, those moments where you get ambushed by enemies hidden in a corner, out of camera view, or when you finally unlock a shortcut after dying, repeatedly, as you learn a route through a new area.

Largely, these key tenets that govern Soulsborne games are intact. I think Elden Ring’s world is best described as a Matryoshka doll, whereby the open world is actually one big FromSoftware-styled level with much smaller levels contained within it. For instance, Limgrave, the opening area, contains many caves, dungeons, and mines. Packed into these mini-levels is loot, enemies, and some other obstacle you have to get through. They remind me of Bloodborne’s chalice dungeons, but they’re not procedurally generated, and instead contain all the quirks and idiosyncrasies associated with Miyazaki and his sadistic team.

But how do you find these dungeons? You simply have to explore. Elden Ring scoffs at traditional open-world design, championed by decades of sandbox design. Instead, it offers a distinctly FromSoftware approach to the genre: you simply walk, run or ride your spectral steed (yes, Elden Ring has a horse) and find stuff to do. I have to say, after years of ‘climb this tower to unlock this part of the map’ or ‘clear this base to unlock this mission,’ it’s just brilliant to ride around and find interesting stuff to do. Sometimes, I end up hitting a dead-end, but that’s fine because most of the time (in this small slice of the game), I’ve bumped into something interesting. Whether it’s an NPC posing as a bush, another cave, or some giants pulling a carriage full of awesome armour, Elden Ring empowers you to check every nook and cranny to find something interesting to do.

 

The Combat You Know And Love

 

A Dragon From Elden Ring

Many imitators have tried to emulate FromSoftware’s punishing yet rewarding combat mechanics. The Surge, Nioh, and others spring to mind. But I don’t think many have quite nailed the feeling you get after dispatching an enemy with a carefully timed parry, mikiri counter, or miracle you’ve cast. Indeed, combat remains a central plank of Souls game’s value proposition.

And after my time with the Elden Ring beta, I’m delighted to say it’s largely there. Once again, attacking is carefully balanced between defensive duties, stamina management, while there’s a new focus on stealth and counter-attacking – and it’s the latter that’s most interesting.

It’s clear FromSoftware has learned much from Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, where counterattacking was a central part of gameplay. In Elden Ring, guard counters is a new ability that I believe is central to Miyazaki’s design philosophy for this game. It’s less risky than a parry, does less damage, but it’s easier to pull off. You simply block an attack and then hit R2 immediately to serve up a counterblow. Timing is crucial – it’s not designed to interrupt an attack sequence that’s already in motion –  instead, it’s designed to help you pack a punch while staying relatively safe. The ability rewards patience, and those players that have a sense for what’s blockable and unblockable.

Elsewhere, it seems magic has had a considerable buff. I don’t main magic builds in Soulsborne games, but I’ve been watching commentators on YouTube such as Fextralife, VaatiVidya, and Marz, who played some of the different builds that were on offer in the closed network test, and it’s clear to see that spells are significantly more powerful than they ever have been in a Souls game: in particular summons.

During the closed network test, a small slate icon on the left-hand side of the screen indicated that you use spirit ashes by using a portion of your FP. These spectral stalwarts help by taking enemy aggro, and attacking in their own right. They’re extremely powerful, and range wildly in their application. Some, like the dragon’s head, summon, do incredible burst damage, before rapidly disappearing. Others, like the spectral wolves, are great at taking enemy aggro and allowing you some breathing space, or to cheese a boss.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the summons, and mainly, it’s about their use against bosses.

 

The Jury’s Still Out On Bosses

 

Elden Ring Artwork

 

The closed network test offered a generous dollop of bosses, all of varying difficulty. The first true boss, Margit The Fell Omen, is a well-designed encounter, with at least 20 attacks to memorise and two phases to contend with. He’s a classic FromSoftware boss: quick, relentless, and extremely powerful. He even breaks the fourth wall by taunting you as you die: “Put these foolish ambitions to rest.” Brilliant!

However, using spectral summons on Margit and other lesser bosses, such as Tree Sentinel, Beastman of Farum Azula, and Grave Warden, really cheapened the experience for me. I know calling allies has been a big part of the PvE and PvP elements of the Soulsborne franchise, but having soloed previous FromSoftware games, and with spectral summons such a big part of Elden Ring, I’m concerned it’s watering down the experience a little too much. I’m by no means an elite gamer, but one of the most attractive features of any Souls game, for me, is how hard it is. 

I discovered the Souls franchise quite late, and I remember playing Dark Souls 3 for the first time and getting relentlessly pounded by Iudex Gundyr. It took a couple of hours of me being broken down into tiny little pieces before I memorised his attacks, identified patterns, blocked and timed attacks appropriately before sending the prick back to the First Flame.

With Elden Ring, and I do admit the closed network test offered only a glimpse of the full game, those that get frustrated won’t experience the exhilarating feeling you get when defeating a boss, and instead, summon some wolves to take aggro and make the whole experience easier.

 

Reskinned Enemy Complaints Miss The Point

 

Elden Ring Character closeup

 

There’s been justifiable concerns about enemy design in Elden Ring. Much has been said about reskinned enemies, including Tree Sentinel (who’s a reskinned Gyoubu Oniwa from Sekiro) and those bloody giant crabs from Dark Souls 3. Some have said that it’s lazy game design – but my take on that is that people are missing the point. 

Yes, many of these enemies have similar animations and attacks, however, Elden Ring combines much of what FromSoftware has created in the last ten years or so into one super-sized package. To offer considerable enemy variety, on the scale that Miyazaki and his team have demonstrated in earlier trailers, you can forgive them for taking assets from other games in their franchise to help flesh out their new, sprawling world. In fact, I welcome the opportunity to test my mettle against slightly tweaked enemies, in a different sandbox, with different weapons and skills.

If I was to speculate, I think the game’s critical path will be where the challenges really lie. Margit, The Fell Omen, was an extremely challenging boss in this beta – similar to how Genichiro Ashina tested Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice players, and how Iudex Gundyr welcomed new people into Dark Souls 3. There’ll be numerous outliers, no doubt hidden away in the humongous world we’ll weep our way through in February 2022.

 

Certain This Will Be a Great Game

 

When I’m previewing a game, I don’t like to make too many sweeping statements. You’re only getting a small portion of the finished product, and often, when we get our hands on titles for preview, things may be subject to change.

But for Elden Ring, I’m willing to stick my neck out. I’m confident that this game will be a strong candidate for Game of The Year in 2022. It’s shaping up to be a truly special title, with a well-written and well-crafted universe, courtesy of the essential worldbuilding by acclaimed fantasy author George R. R. Martin. And while much has been made about the Game of Thrones creator’s contribution to the game, I think it does a disservice to the work FromSoftware has done over the last 10-years or so, and of course, the series supremo, the multi-phase, red bar boss himself, Hidetaka Miyazaki. 

From this small portion of Elden Ring, you can clearly see the love, passion, and energy that’s been poured into this fabulous game. But crucially, in Elden Ring, you can clearly see the lessons FromSoftware have learned over the last decade in one cohesive package.

Yes, there are questions that need to be answered about bosses, yes some of the cutting and pasting of enemies could raise eyebrows, and yes, I have questions about balance re: spectral summons. But, honestly, I won’t have long to wait until I get these questions answered. And I’m sure FromSoftware will have an answer.

February can’t come soon enough.

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Since my Dad bought me a Master System after a stint in hospital I've been utterly obsessed with video games. Sonic The Hedgehog was my first love, but since then, I've not been fussy with genres - RPGs, FPSs, MMORPGs, beat 'em ups and sports simulators - I play them all.

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