Elden Ring is probably a contender for one of my favorite games of all time. Why am I about to wax lyrical about it nine months after its release? Well, it didn't fully grab me at first.
From the moment my character emerged blinking into the sunlight of Limgrave, I understood the brilliance of Elden Ring. There stood a whole world for me to explore — and I mean genuinely explore, with no markers festooning the map like in an Ubisoft game. There was a real sense of adventure. But I’m a coward.
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I’ve completed only one FromSoftware game in my life, and that’s the excellent Bloodborne. It was a tough, but fascinating, slog. But my sense of what a Souls-like game is meant to be only kicked in after I'd played through about one-quarter of it.
My problem, as many other gamers have pointed out, is that FromSoftware's recent clutch of games are hard. Very hard at times. As in, "throw-your-controller-across-the-room-with-frustration" hard. I like a challenge, but constantly feeling like I’m on the backfoot, especially in a world where the story and gameplay are so opaque, means I’m not immediately enamored by Soulsborne games.
In Elden Ring, I got my virtual backside handed to me a few times by a chunky knight or a vicious dog. And my fear of losing my hard-earned runes, Elden Ring's currency, meant that I made glacially slow progress through the game’s opening areas. Add in the intimidating array of items, abilities and systems to learn — some more obscure than others — as well as the vast map, and I felt a little intimidated by Elden Ring.
The game also arrived at a time when I had Horizon Forbidden West to play though, as well as other games competing for my attention. I’d often find that I needed to be in the right mood to play Elden Ring, as it was far easier to dip into Forbidden West and polish off a few side quests than to inch my way through a forest with gigantic bears that move at frightening speeds.
My character's build didn't help, either. I opted to go for a sword and shield, levelling up strength and dexterity into what I later learned is known as a “Quality” build. This was fine, but something was missing. My two-handed sword-and-shield combo was solid, but uninspired.
While I wasn't put off Elden Ring, per se, my aversion to getting stuck, having other games to play, and some sweltering summer heat stopped me from hunkering down and sinking all my gaming attention into FromSoft’s epic RPG.
The joy of dex (and magic)
But then September came, and I decided to break my self-imposed rule of figuring out Elden Ring for myself. I decided to indulge in a few guides on the game's best builds and weapons.
I learned at some point that I could "respec" my character, allowing me to reassign stat points so that I wouldn't be stuck with my sword and shield. And I found the Bloodhound’s Fang sword, which inflicts "bleed" damage and scales up alongside the dexterity stat.
After dabbling with with a few other items and tools, suddenly, I found myself drawn into Elden Ring. I then indulged in a few lore videos, such as those from YouTuber VaatiVidya, who makes a living uncovering the lore and stories of FromSoftware games. Now, I was starting to get hooked.
After a certain point in the game, I managed to rework my character into a dexterity-and-intelligence-focused spell-slinging, katana-wielding warrior.
Now, I was able to deal plenty of damage in a variety of ways. I was still playing cautiously, but I did take a few more risks and started making much more progress through the game. Elden Ring grabbed me, and now it won't let go.
Sure, I still get flattened by some enemies, and I'm hopeless at fighting dogs. But sniping giant crows with the Loretta’s Greatbow spell, then closing in to deal rapid damage with the Uchigatana and the Moonveil Katana, feels incredibly satisfying.
When the action simmers down, the world of the Lands Between is just a joy to explore. It’s not as dark and dank as the destroyed worlds of Dark Souls, offering more high fantasy elements, with a mix of dark horror and occasional bouts of existential dread. There’s always something interesting around the corner, often telling you more about the story through inference and intimation.
Speaking of which, the story feels a little easier to grasp than those in other Soulsborne games, and George R.R, Martin’s influence is evident in some of the backstory. It’s compelling stuff, and it doesn't hurt that a lot of the characters have Welsh accents, which puts a smile on this Welshman’s tired face.
I also have the excellent God of War Ragnarök to play, which will no doubt grab my full attention before too long. But this weekend, Elden Ring is calling, and I can already hear that deceptively bombastic menu music in my ears.
Elden Ring's director doesn't want to let fan feedback color his ideas for the next FromSoftware project too much.