I am a paid member of the FromSoft fan club. I’ve been playing these games since Demon’s Souls, my favorite game is Bloodborne, and I’ve written pages and pages of the studio’s intricate, interwoven mechanic and narrative design. So my expectation from Elden Ring – especially after the comments came out, phwoar – was that this might be a highlight of my warped life.
Elden Ring is really a great game. I’ve spent many nights now wandering the lands in between, delighted to discover vast new territories, caves fading away in the folds of the landscape, and climbing up a hill to be met by the wonderful spectacle of “WTF Is This Thing”. You’ve hit several bearers of Great Runes, a bunch of little bosses, what look like dozens of corrupt tree spirits, and then something never happened before in Soulsborne. I got bored.
I haven’t finished Elden Ring yet, I plan to, but it’s been about a week since I last loaded the game. It’s true that I’m older, have kids, and therefore am poor in time, but when I want to play something I can always squeeze it in a few hours somehow: well, I’ve been doing that with the Elden chime for weeks.
Now I’m Elden Ed. Not because I need to gud – I’ve handed my ass to me a few times, but nothing has stopped me for more than a few hours – and not because I think I’ve seen all you have to offer. It’s more than that, the more time you spend in the lands in between, the more you will feel there is in between, and the more things you will discover Fine rather than outstanding.
The Elden Ring Scale means FromSoft has had to maximize what it is getting from the various assets. This game has a lot of repetition, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but as soon as you see the same boss arise in a slightly different form four times, you start to learn a little bit about a “skill” about them. All of these games have some elements of this, and it’s really nice to see a hardworking Stray Demon who can still get work all these years after that.
But, after a while, she begins to dampen the excitement of exploration. In my first period with the game I loved the little dungeons. But now I feel like I’ve seen everything they have to offer, so many times, and it almost feels like a chore. It’s that kind of enemy, right, it’s that kind of planning, mm-hmm, there’s the lever, there’s the fog door, oh, that guy you’ve beaten twice already: but now he’s got dogs!
This is not just about bosses. The Lands Among is an open world that is seriously compromised because after a certain point you spend very little time in it. Seriously, have you seen how many sites of grace are scattered around? I did a fair amount of exploring to start with but now it’s just zip-zip-zip. When I want to re-explore an area, even, I will triangulate the most likely places and run around rather than ride.
Yes, it’s pretty massive, but when you don’t end up actually crossing it or having to take a weird long trip, it can also be a series of disparate locations.
I understand why Elden Ring enabled fast travel right from the start of the game. This idea may not have found favor with the wider audience, but I hope FromSoft has successfully tricked the Dark Souls into making your way through Lordran’s guts to the halfway point or so before finally giving you fast travel after defeating a notable boss. I feel like I’m exploring every big area at once when I first find it, and then…going forward, sometimes twisting back and then turning again.
The open world games that really settle in my mind, mostly Rockstar productions, are the ones where I finally feel like I know this place. I have a mind map that doesn’t require pressing or faking a button. I had this feeling about most of Soulsborne’s previous titles as well, particularly Yharnam’s Inner Connections and Surrealist architectural logic. The Lands Between has the most amazing looking site out there, but I don’t feel that this world is entirely successful. It has become more of a theme park feel.
To be clear, I love the Elden ring. It’s a good game. But the overall experience stopped holding together at a certain point for me, and the sessions began to feel aimless: new dungeons that looked old, and the bosses of the underworld forgotten as quickly as they were killed, picking up endless objects. Never used… I lost the thread, somewhere along the way. I still have at least a few major heads on and I’ve taken enough time with it that I’ll definitely, eventually, drag my smudged butt across the line (and people tell me the finish extension is awesome).
To me, the Elden Ring is too big, and perhaps most importantly, too dilute at that size. It’s a remarkable feat in some ways, but the amazing thing is how memorable little is: Nothing here terrified me like Darkbeast Paarl, made me weird like Micolash, or shocked me like Gwyn. One of the best things about these games is the bosses, and while they all come off as weird, Elden Ring stretches quite a bit through certain archetypes in this way that many of them end up being just ‘good enough’ rather than ‘good enough’ ‘Once at a time’. Lifelong encounters.
Elden Ring will be sweeping the awards this year, you guess, and many will argue that it deserves it. It also found a much wider audience, so for a lot of its players this was their first experience with FromSoft, and if it was my experience, I probably think this was the best game ever. But it seems that many of the strengths that have brought this series of games to this point – the intricate, sinuous world structures, obsessive details to connect narrative to observation, and best-in-class boss formations – are so pervasive here that the overall experience is larger but less satisfying.
I’ll finish the Elden ring. And maybe I’ll find something that blows my mind, flip it over, and start naming this masterpiece. Immediately? I’m thinking of turning it on, wondering where I might end up, then go and do something else instead.