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Elden Ring review: Come see the softer side of punishing difficulty

OK, a little to your right. Little more... there. Hold it. OK, say
Enlarge / OK, a little to your right. Little more… there. Hold it. OK, say “cheese.”

I’ve never been able to get very deep into Demon’s Souls or any of the thematically similar follow-ups developer From Software has become known for in recent years. The last time I seriously tried, delving into Dark Souls II in 2014, I documented the “maddeningly beautiful suffering” I endured while dying 65 times in an eight-hour slog to beat a single boss.

While that experience gave me some appreciation for From Software’s uncompromising game design, it was also enough to convince me that I didn’t have the temperament to pour dozens of hours into these sorts of games. I get why so many people find this unforgiving style appealing, and I’ve even willingly dipped my toes into From Software’s further catalog from time to time. But I just couldn’t overcome the frustration factor necessary to really commit to a deep dive into these meticulously crafted worlds.

Then the buzz began for Elden Ring, the latest game in what has become known as From’s “Soulsborne” style. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki promised in interviews that the new title would be more accessible than his previous From Software work, with quality-of-life improvements like more frequent checkpoints, easier health management, and an open world design that doesn’t gatekeep progress behind nigh-impossible bosses.

“I don’t want to enforce any playstyle or particular route because I’d like [players] to experience that sense of freedom,” Miyazaki said. “And I realize that while we offer games with a high level of challenge, we design them in a way that feels fulfilling to overcome.”

What a lovely day for a stroll.
Enlarge / What a lovely day for a stroll.

That kind of talk was enough to get me to dive deep into the Soulsborne world one more time. And I’m glad I did. While Elden Ring doesn’t really make the Soulsborne experience any easier, per se, its open-world design and gameplay adjustments tweak the balance of rewards and frustrations just enough to make the whole experience enjoyable—even for a skeptic like me.

A fallen world

The involvement of legendary fantasy author George R. R. Martin in Elden Ring’s development might have some players hoping for a Song of Ice and Fire-style story that captures the internecine history and complex interpersonal family drama of warring factions. Those hopes would be misplaced, though, as Elden Ring’s storytelling is characteristically sparse and cryptic.

A short introductory cutscene introduces players to the titular Elden Ring, a powerful, magical piece of jewelry that has been shattered and had its pieces distributed to the children of Queen Marika. The shards give those children the “mad taint of the newfound strength” that leads to a “war from which no lord arose.”

As a result, the shattered world of the Lands Beyond is now filled with the Tarnished, those who are “dead who yet live.” As one such Tarnished of “no renown,” it’s up to you to hunt down your fellow Tarnished, unite the pieces of the shattered ring, and bring order to a now-chaotic land.

One of the only expository cutscenes in the game comes right at the start.
Enlarge / One of the only expository cutscenes in the game comes right at the start.

That initial info dump is by far the most direct exposition you’ll get from Elden Ring. You’ll have to figure out everything else from the snippets of information shared by the world’s scattered non-player characters, who are holding out amid the destruction in ruined churches or dilapidated shacks.

Almost to a person, these “survivors” speak with a creepy, ethereal tone that suggests an utter lack of hope. They all present their fragmentary lore in a cryptic, roundabout manner that offers only the barest hint of how the world got to its current state. Piecing together the social history of this fallen world is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle when you only get a single random piece every half hour.

Instead of exposition, Elden Ring leans on extremely strong environmental storytelling. Every part of the game’s sprawling map seems masterfully crafted to point to a deeper history you’ll only ever be vaguely aware of.

You might climb a jagged stone outcropping to realize minutes later that it’s actually the half-shattered head of a gigantic statue for some long-forgotten hero of the old world. Later, you could stumble on a flooded town where you have to dance across the barely visible rooftops above the swamp-waterline to reach your next objective. Then you’ll happen upon a ramshackle mining operation with layer upon layer of vertical scaffolding extending deep into a mountain.

What the hell happened here?
Enlarge / What the hell happened here?

It’s not just the architecture, either. You’ll catch enemies lingering around the tattered remains of fallen heroes, guarding their valuable gear with both zealousness and indifference. Or you might spot a caravan of undead soldiers leading two giants chained to a mysterious cart and marching in a damned circuit forever.

There’s a pervasive, unsettling air of recently faded grandeur—echoes of a massive civilization you’ll never truly know. While there’s surely lore to be mined for those determined enough to piece it together, Elden Ring is much more effective at imparting vibes than distinct plotlines, and it’s probably better off for it.

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