Rise, Tarnished. Elden Ring is a behemoth. It's huge. It's monstrous. And it will eat you up and spit you out if you're not careful.
I should know as within my first few hours I ended up taking on a bizarre stone statue of what appeared to be a decrepit cat wearing a cape that spewed fire, only to experience it repeatedly kick my ass. The satisfaction, though, on returning to that damn cat and tearing it apart piece by piece was out of this world.
Almost three years on from the launch of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, FromSoftware is back with its largest game yet and its first attempt at an open world in Elden Ring. Hidetaka Miyazaki, who is often credited as the creator of the gruelling Souls genre, returns as the game's director with Game of Thrones novelist George R. R. Martin joining as a collaborator.
It's a star-studded appointment that has got those who don't normally play these types of games interested. But is it just a cash-in on a big-name, or is it actually the real deal? Does George R. R. Martin elevate or hinder Miyazaki? And does Elden Ring live up to the hype?
Elden Ring: price and release date
- What is it? The first open-world action RPG from FromSoftware, directed by Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki in collaboration with George R. R. Martin
- Release date? February 25, 2022
- What platforms can I play it on? PS5 (tested), PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Windows
- Price? $59.99 / £49.99 / AU$99.95
Elden Ring review: What is it?
Elden Ring is an action role-playing game that takes place in The Lands Between, a huge open world split into six main areas that house linear dungeons to complete. Each one can be attempted in any order, kind of. There's a clear path set out for the player to follow and while you can veer from the beaten path almost immediately, the sharp rise in difficulty makes it incredibly arduous to progress.
So with George R. R. Martin handling the story and lore of Elden Ring, what has the man behind Game of Thrones cooked up? Something deep, something complicated and something that I'm desperate to know more about.
The narrative picks up after the Elden Ring is shattered into six shards, only to be possessed by the demigod offspring of Queen Marika the Eternal, the reigning sovereign of the world where the game is set. As a Tarnished, who was once banished from The Lands Between, you are recalled to the world after the ring's destruction to vanquish the demigods, piece the Elden Ring back together and become the Elden Lord.
Players can create their own unique Tarnished from an extensive (and I mean extensive) character maker. Outside of choosing Body Type (male or female), Elden Ring offers 10 different classes to build your character: Vagabond, Warrior, Hero, Bandit, Astrologer, Prophet, Samurai, Prisoner, Confessor, Wretch.
I chose a Confessor, one who is designed for magic but in truth, I just liked the look of him and began building his stats to play more like a Vagabond (more hand-to-hand combat). This arguably was a mistake. Levelling up in Elden Ring takes time and not until the second demigod is destroyed can you reallocate stats. The opening half a dozen hours or so were rough as a result, something that impacted my enjoyment alongside the abundance of jargon presented during that same time.
The amount of detail you can input into a character's design is comprehensive, if not bordering on ridiculous. Do we really need bone structure? I couldn't help laughing. I'd rather more time was devoted to the voice of my Tarnished, with only limited noises available for the odd grunt or death cry. Or to more diverse hairstyles. Still, Sir Stark stood there in all his glory, ready to embark on a perilous journey like no other.
Elden Ring review: How does it play?
Elden Ring continues to prune and perfect the same methodical combat and gameplay loop that all Souls games have utilised for over a decade now, starting with the original Demon's Souls back in 2009.
This has the player taking on purposely challenging enemies until they are defeated, earning a currency (Runes) to level up and take on further adversaries. If the player dies, they lose all the Runes they were holding at the time and must retrieve them before dying again. If they fail to do so, the Runes will disappear forever. That can be quite a scary prospect but it's rare that this happened to me, and if it did, it was due to stupidity. Elden Ring, like its predecessors, is both punishing and fair.
Combat can be addressed via weapons or magic, depending on your class and build. Swordplay worked best for my style. For ranged play, I've been using a bow and arrow however find it extremely underdeveloped in comparison, a prevalent issue among the Souls series. A big part of combat is strictly down to timing. There's a rhythm to the fight: attack, dodge, attack, dodge, etcetera. It might be tempting to try and deal those final few blows quickly but you can just as easily be crucified for your hastiness.
Players are also given a spectral steed, a horse named Torrent to help with travelling the Lands Between and make gravity-defying jumps if a swirling gust of wind is present. Torrent is unlocked in the opening hours (if you follow the story) and can be called upon at any time, making traversal around the bleak world effortless. It's just a shame that the open world sections are the weakest parts of Elden Ring.
Limgrave, the first region, is desolate of little life aside from the odd wandering skeleton crew, or giant bears in a nearby forest. These encounters feel fleeting. It's once you discover hidden catacombs, a secret boss fight, or an optional castle to invade that things get going. The open world feels unnecessary at times and just stands in the way of getting you to the next point of interest. As the Westeros-like world map expands, it also becomes very clear that each section is reasonably identical to one another with a different element in its place – grass, water, fire, you've seen this all before. Perhaps the linear structure should have remained, as once within these dungeons, the real action begins – and it is superb.
These are the Legacy Dungeons of Elden Ring. Each one is a sublime piece of craftsmanship designed to be explored from top to bottom, filled with enemies, monstrous bosses and a demigod to defeat. Think Zelda dungeons with more combat, less puzzles. Figuring out how to enter these buildings is exciting enough on its own. Ironically, this is what I wanted from Breath of the Wild's Divine Beats.
One side quest I found was with a man called the Great Kenneth Haight, heir to the throne of Limgrave, who requested that I clear out Fort Haight on his behalf. It was simple but the quirkiness of the Great Kenneth Haight (as he frequently refers to himself) made the interaction worthwhile, while also helping me discover an optional area that yielded a decent reward at the end of it. Discovery is all down to the player.
The map plays a big part in this. Slowly you begin to understand what goes where and where is best to set a course too. While NPCs are few and far between, it's the simple premise of exploring The Lands Between that serves as side-content.
Again similar to past Souls games, multiplayer is available in the form of summons and messages left by other players on the same server as you. Summoning Signs allows up to four players to join in on the fight, though it also permits opposing players out for blood into the world too, which you will need to take down or run away from.
Often helpful, sometimes misleading, occasionally comical. These notes depend entirely on how much you trust your fellow player, with a system available to either upvote or downvote their usefulness. Multiplayer can be as integral as you want it to be. I spent almost three hours on one of the Legacy Dungeon bosses, only to kill off Renalla, Queen of the Full Moon as soon as another online player answered my call for help. I'll never forget you, Peter.
Elden Ring review: How does it look and sound?
Coming off the back of my Horizon Forbidden West review, I'd be lying if Elden Ring on PS5 didn't feel like stepping back a generation in terms of its graphical fidelity. It's not an ugly game by any standards, it just doesn't wow you either. The ideas are all there – the green open plains tinted by yellow light from the Erdtree in Limgrave, the barren ocean of ruined buildings in Liurnia of the Lakes and the desolate red sky that sweeps across Caelid – it's just quite stilted by today's expectations. In that respect, it's hardly surprising that a photo mode wasn't included. Also, no pause menu. I get it's an online game, but really?
That said, I adored all of the Legacy Dungeons with the first, Stormveil Castle, being a major highlight. A wonderfully designed structure that culminates with Godrick the Grafted, a huge man/abomination that has fixed numerous arms to his body and wields a golden axe. It's then a third of the way into the fight that things go even more berserk as Godrick claims the power of a dead dragon, replacing one of his now decapitated arms for the creature's head. A downright terrifying monster design that is impossible to take your eyes off.
Two graphical modes are available at launch: a Performance mode that runs up to 60fps and a Resolution mode that offers 4K. Ray tracing will be added in a future update for PS5, Xbox Series X and PC.
Elden Ring has performed extremely well across PlayStation 5 barely encountering any hiccups aside from the intermittent frame rate drop. There's the odd daft thing like enemy attacks going through walls, which caused one or two unexpected death, however, nothing game-breaking to speak of. The same can't be said for PC, as lots of disgruntled Steam players shared their issues over its launch weekend.
One thing I've been dying to talk about is the opening cinematic, good lord what a rush. This glorious four-minute introduction is the epitome of hype, introducing the lore, the Lands Between, Queen Marika and each of the six demigods with gorgeous artwork depicting each. The narrator alone gets five stars from me for how hard he commits to the dialogue. This style was most recently used in the opening of the Demon's Souls remake on PS5 and I hope it continues in favour of the 3D cinematics of the past.
Likewise, the orchestral score from composer Yuka Kitamura is euphoric. It knows its place, seeping in when the danger becomes real while exiting for the quieter moments of solitude. The main Elden Ring theme for one is incredibly special, reminding me of Hans Zimmer's Man of Steel score once it peaks. I could charge into battle myself after listening.
Elden Ring review: How long to beat?
Elden Ring took me 120 hours to roll credits on PlayStation 5 and another 30 minutes to earn the Platinum trophy (100% completion), giving you an idea of how I played. This was not my original intention yet I was compelled to defeat all of the bosses and finish the odd task to earn the Platinum. It's something I very much enjoyed all the way through, never feeling like I was treading water.
FromSoftware producer Yasuhiro Kitao stated during a livestream that the game should take players approximately 30 hours to complete. This seems quite the underestimation. The only way Kitao's statement rings true is if you head directly to the final boss after defeating the first two demigods. Expect one hell of a challenge if you do.
That said, much more than most other genres out there, this completely depends on player skill. HowLongToBeat puts time to credits at 50 hours and I'd say that's not far away from the truth if you've played a Souls game before. If not, double it.
Elden Ring combines the addictive combat of FromSoftware's Souls genre with the deep lore that George R. R. Martin has reaped with Game of Thrones for an experience that fans of each will devour. While newcomers might be put off by both the amount of jargon and steep difficulty curve, those that commit to Elden Ring will find one of the most satisfying experiences this year.
From my experience, the PlayStation 5 remake of Demon's Souls is a better introduction to the series. Not only does the game better explain the mechanics, not overwhelm with jargon from the start and provide a better difficulty rise but graphically, it's stunning. The linear level design makes for an overall tighter experience too. If anything Souls-related feels too demanding, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order might be a good substitute. Its gameplay is very Souls-lite while featuring a brilliant story set in the Star Wars universe.