video games

Go Ahead, Play Elden Ring

Photo: Bandai Namco

In my first session with Elden Ring, I crossed blades with a man named Margit the Fell Omen. He wielded a club about the same size as my character, and he could obliterate half my health bar with a mere glancing blow. My puny katana seemed to ricochet off his armor, and every advance I made was deftly nullified by a liquid-quick counter maneuver. I was lucky if I got to phase two of the fight, at which point Margit conjured a wicked sledgehammer made of pure light. He’d launch into the acrid sky above and crash down like a meteor slamming into the earth. Dodge a second too late and you’re toast.

This was a sensation I’ve grown quite accustomed to in my decade playing FromSoftware games. The studio is known for its unrelenting difficulty curve — it’s been a constant in every game they’ve made, from 2009’s Demon Souls to 2019’s Sekiro — but Margit is probably the hardest first boss they’ve ever coded. Barely an hour into the game, Elden Ring had me stuck, with no cheese to exploit or shortcuts to uncover. I needed to die over and over again until Margit’s animations were encrypted in my reflexes, which is not an easy ask for newcomers to FromSoftware’s masochistic gameplay. I thought of the many people who purchased one of the most anticipated games of the year, enticed by the promise of worldbuilding by George R.R. Martin, with faint hopes that the arcane Dark Souls philosophy would finally snap into place for them. Surely they would all be sorely disappointed as Elden Ring revealed itself to be yet another cruel beatdown intended for the masochistic sickos already in the cult.

That is, of course, until I remembered that Elden Ring offers a sprawling open world. I exited Margit’s dungeon, soundly defeated, and sunk into the overflowing landscape that stretched out in every direction. Countless mysteries, treasures, and, most importantly, easier bosses glimmered on the lush horizon. I trawled through catacombs, broke bread with strangers, and collected armor sets without any centrifugal force pushing me back toward my adversary. Suddenly, it became clear that in Elden Ring, you can put off the showdown with any villain in the main storyline indefinitely with no repercussions. (Perhaps you wait until you’re at a much higher level, with better weapons and an acute sense for the rhythm of the combat.) Margit, as it turns out, wasn’t a punitive skill check or a hauty taunt to amateurs. No, he offers us all a valuable gift: permission to do anything we want — or at least something else — in the Lands Between. For the first time ever, FromSoftware has made a video game that’s more about joy than pain. Elden Ring will still kick your ass, but in a novel turn for the studio, it doesn’t want to grind you into a pulp.

Even if you haven’t played a FromSoftware game before, you’re probably already aware of Dark Souls’ portentous reputation. The game arrived in 2011 and gleefully subverted all of the pragmatic trends in the games industry. In a field dominated by waypoint-laden minimaps, generous checkpoints, and a barrage of tutorials, Dark Souls threw us into a crumbling kingdom, bereft of life, and asked us to figure out how to not die. Even the basic mechanics were cloaked in an opaque fog. To play competitive multiplayer, one must venture into a verdant parallel dimension that exists inside a nondescript painting and loot an item called the “Red Sign Soapstone.” (Make sure you bring the “Peculiar Doll” that can only be found by hitching a ride in the talons of a giant crow back to the first location in the game. You’ll need that too.) The journey is entirely optional, of course; if you missed it, you could complete the whole story without knowing a fundamental part of the game existed. That lack of intuitiveness made Dark Souls a classic. As frustrating as FromSoftware’s doctrine could be, there is an irreplicable wonder when everything you discover — and don’t discover — can be credited to your own cunning. After all, rummaging around in the void is maddening until you find something interesting.

Compare that stubbornness to Elden Ring, a game that contains an inventory section titled simply “Info.” Navigate there to read about nearly all of the mechanics in the game, spelled out in plain English. Did you forget how to execute a guard counter? Elden Ring is eager to remind you. Are you interested in signing up for some multiplayer that doesn’t require a multi-hour sojourn into a noncritical level that can be exclusively accessed in the second act of the plot? Elden Ring has your back there, too. Frankly, the more time I spend in the game, the more it becomes clear that FromSoftware has made a comprehensive effort to reform its intransigence. The Lands Between are dotted with those once-sacrilegious incidental checkpoints. Every time Margit killed me I respawned right outside of his quarters, eliminating the interminable corpse runs that were responsible for more rage-quits than any other force in gaming.

FromSoftware has even gone so far to include loading screen tips, perhaps its greatest olive branch to fearful recruits. Yes, whenever you fast travel, expect to be gently reacquainted with the richness of Elden Ring’s mechanics. FromSoftware previously used to use that real estate to dispense more of its spectacularly esoteric lore. Now it wants to make sure we remember that our horse can double-jump. That pairs nicely with the compass the studio has included at the top of the screen. Open up the map and plop down waypoints, which make Elden Ring look a bit like the notoriously player-friendly Assassin’s Creed. Hell, they even reduced falling damage. I never thought I’d see the day.

The most conservative FromSoftware fans might fear that those concessions could result in a more mundane universe. That, perhaps, Dark Souls’ one-of-a-kind awe can only be achieved when players are futzing around with mechanics they don’t fully understand. But the studio has heroically defeated those concerns by building one of the largest, deepest, and most enchanting open worlds I’ve ever witnessed. Turn tail from Margit and you might find yourself charging at a full gallop toward an infernal giant launching massive ballistae bolts into the rain-slicked turf around you. (I promise you he’s a lot easier to defeat than it sounds.) Currently, I’m lost in a staggering underground labyrinth that I discovered completely incidentally by exploring a pile of alabaster ruins. Elden Ring contains so many overwhelming moments of profound, earth-shattering discovery that any petty gripes about accessibility are rendered counterfeit. I promise you FromSoftware hasn’t lost its fastball, even if the PvP is a little bit easier to decipher.

And honestly, I think FromSoftware needed to make these concessions. The company’s last game was Sekiro, a fantastic ronin adventure that included a uniquely tough final boss. I never beat him, because the game pushed me past my breaking point. I simply didn’t want to spend another hour mastering the fight after I spent the 30 previous hours doing the same for Sekiro’s many other labors. That’s always been the core issue with FromSoftware games: We overcome a vexing encounter only to be rewarded with another vexing encounter, with no opportunity to revel in our victory. The formula was just beginning to feel stale, but Elden Ring never backs you into a corner; choose to throw yourself at Margit over and over again, or choose anything else under the sun. After years of coaching my neophyte friends on attack timing and evasion strategies when they got caught in another one of FromSoftware’s tricky death traps, now I can simply tell them to cut bait and see what they find. Elden Ring doesn’t chastise that instinct. In fact, it couldn’t be happier that you’re along for the ride.

Go Ahead, Play Elden Ring