While everyone else was getting excited about what a FromSoftware / George R. R. Martin mashup could bring, the announcement of Elden Ring honestly just made me feel tired. What could the Game of Thrones author bring to the table that Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team don’t already do better? What might be lost in the process?
But a few hours with the Closed Network Test was enough to make me very excited for what FromSoft’s latest adventure has in store. Whatever Martin’s involvement—he apparently “constructed the world”—this is Dark Souls IV in all but name, with the quintessential tone, theme, and atmosphere that makes Dark Souls what it is, and even that wry sense of black humour.
I had to chuckle when I approached the first “boss” with trepidation, only to kill it in two hits—not even hits of my own choice, but the result of a tutorial introducing Elden Ring’s new counterattack mechanic. “You want an easy mode? You want us to show you the way?”, this boss seems to say. Shortly thereafter, I narrowly avoided falling to death in my hubris, the warning-laden bloodstains of dozens of others who’d done exactly that being the only reason I didn’t. Not too long after that, I took my first death at the hands not of a boss, or even a mini-boss, but a slightly-stronger-than-normal regular old foe.
Elden Ring is Dark Souls in the way it blends an oppressive atmosphere with a sense of wonder at the intricate detail of the world around you, and the endless stories that seem to hide beneath every rock and shrubbery. It’s got the same rhythm to its combat, methodical and precise, and the same unrivalled approach to horrific yet captivating enemy designs. With bosses in particular, it’s got the same ebb and flow of mastery through practice, failure, and learning from mistakes—of making you fight hard for your victories, letting you feel the exhilaration of triumph, and then quickly, painfully, often hilariously bringing you back down to earth.
With its dark fantasy setting, it cuts closer to Dark Souls than even Bloodborne and Sekiro, FromSoftware more thematically divergent “Soulslikes”. Light may take the place of fire as the recurring motif, but themes of death and rebirth, bodily corruption, and religious dogma still take centre stage.
But it also takes some big steps in new directions, not least of all with its open world framework. Where Dark Souls and Bloodborne are known for their intricate labyrinths, Elden Ring gives players a vast world to traverse. That brings with it a very different approach to many of the encounters you’ll face—for one thing, fleeing to lick your wounds when things go awry is far more viable. The open nature of the map, coupled with things like a spectral mount and a light stealth element, means a lot more freedom in how you choose to approach any given situation. In some ways, it makes the game feel more manageable than typical FromSoft fare: not by removing the challenge, but by giving more scope for players to get creative and play the way they like. A stealthy approach, whether sneaking past foes entirely, quietly thinning their numbers, or even using hit-and-run tactics to whittle away a hardier foe’s health bar are all viable options now. And while you’ll still need to fight bosses head-on, a less linear structure also means that, when you grow weary of bashing your head against one wall, you can just take a break and go explore somewhere else until you’re ready to try again.
Having said that, I’m not entirely convinced about the open-world direction. Much of the intricacy of Dark Souls’ level design is lost in favour of big, open spaces and the occasional mini-dungeon. “Legacy Dungeons” carry the promise of a more traditional Souls dungeon experience, and while the one found in the Network Test went some way to scratching that exploration itch, the question remains about to what extent these self-contained dungeons can capture the interconnected nature of the maps in Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro. I do worry that something might be lost in the transition.
But I’m excited to find out what that full picture looks like, which is more than I could say when Elden Ring was first announced. A few hours with the Network Test proved that, whatever George R. R. Martin’s involvement, this is a FromSoftware game through and through—Dark Souls IV by another name—and I can’t wait to uncover its secrets next year.