Of all the things I expected from Elden Ring, a sense of serenity wasn't one of them. Whether you've played From Software's games or are simply aware of them, you likely have an idea of what they offer: doomed kingdoms, tragic characters, a pervasive sense of melancholy, and gameplay that will challenge both your skill and your resolve. And yet, what defined my seven hours of hands-on time with the Elden Ring closed network test was what many would consider uncharacteristic of a Soulsborne game: tranquility.
As much of a surprise as that was, it's not something that's completely uncommon in these games. Whether it's the Nexus, Firelink Shrine, Hunter's Dream, or the Dilapidated Temple, each FromSoft title has a place where adventurers can find respite from the cruelty of the world beyond. These places have a sympathetic quality to them, somehow being able to acknowledge the harshness of the world, lament that its fate has been put upon your shoulders, and comfort you when you're at your lowest, giving you the space to put yourself together before you pick yourself up and venture out once more.
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Walking around the Lands Between, specifically a small section of an area called Lingrave, I felt that same intent, but laid out over a vast open world. The gentle, understated music that played as I wandered around aimlessly, or marveled at the beautiful golden Erdtree towering above, invited me to let my guard down and take in the world around me without the fear that a blade would suddenly be plunged into me. And when I did, I found the world to be both familiar and unlike anything in From Software's previous games.
The Lands Between is undoubtedly yet another place ruled by figures that have been tainted by otherworldly power and corrupted, but it's also a beautiful place teeming with life. That came through strongest when I opened the map, picked a location that interested me, and attempted to reach it. Along the way, I stopped on the edge of cliffs and gazed out into the horizon, as day turned to night. I watched animals like goats and penguins (or whatever their fantasy equivalents are called in this world) just being.
For some reason, I was oddly fascinated with birds, which didn't attack me when I approached, as I expected. Instead, they simply took flight and landed elsewhere. Then there was the sound of the wild: crashing ocean waves, whispering winds, rustling trees, the pitter-pattering of raindrops--it was hypnotic. This is all incredibly basic stuff for an open-world game, perhaps even unremarkable given their prevalence in similar games. But in a Soulsborne game, these sounds are more unusual than multi-armed monsters wielding swords. The reason it stuck with me is because, as the Tarnished, you're not walking in the ashes of a fallen kingdom or doomed city, but fighting to change the fate of a place that is still very much alive. And that is something new for From Software.
Elden Ring, it seems, is a game built around both exploration and discovery. The setting of the Lands Between feels like a place that is designed to constantly pique your curiosity and then reward you for seeking out answers. In my time with the game, I found all manner of interesting things unprompted: underground crypts that held new weapons; caves so dark that each step forward felt like a perilous risk; and--yes--that classic From Software moment where I ventured into the unknown and emerged in the familiar, showing that the world was constructed thoughtfully. Truth be told, I am certain that I didn't see all of what most would call the "main events" in the demo because I just wanted to poke around in different parts of the map.
This, thankfully, was made incredibly easy thanks to the fast-travel system From Software has implemented. From the very outset, I was able to move between Sites of Grace--the game's equivalent of Bonfires--as I discovered them. Elden Ring allows you to progress time at the Sites of Grace, so I kept checking out different areas at different times of day to see if anything changed (they didn't here, but may do in the full release) or just to get a sense of how it felt to be there as the state of the world shifted. Needless to say, I lost myself in the game before I'd even crossed swords with a challenging boss.
But cross swords I did, and it was pretty much exactly what I wanted from the game. For better or for worse, depending on your perspective, the combat-oriented gameplay in Elden Ring feels like a Dark Souls game. I mention those two specifically, because Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice have distinct pacing, feel, and mechanics that distinguish them. Elden Ring is built within the framework of Souls, albeit with some changes here and there. The most noticeable of these is the ability to jump, which not only makes hopping around for traversal considerably easier and more reliable, but also introduces some interesting new wrinkles to combat. Naturally, leaping away from danger is now a viable escape tactic, but its use in offense is likely where most will get mileage from the jump. Launching at an enemy and executing a heavy attack will deal a crushing blow that breaks a target's stance, opening them up for follow-ups, provided you've got the stamina to do so.
The other major new addition is the Guard Counter, which is executed by using a heavy attack immediately after guarding. When done properly, this will also break an enemy's stance. It felt like a satisfying way to turn defense into offense quickly, but it also requires some thought as many enemies--especially mini-bosses and bosses--will have follow-ups of their own and may even shrug off incoming damage to deliver those. Picking the right moment and employing a solid strategy is still important when using a Guard Counter. This, I feel, has the potential to switch up the dynamics of combat in the same way that counters with the gun in Bloodborne did, but without the strict execution that they demanded.
I spent the majority of my time using the Bloody Wolf class and, by default, it had a broadsword and a shield, the latter of which allowed me to execute the parry and riposte combo. Interestingly, different equipment can often bestow different abilities too. Using their sword, my character was able to summon a bolt of lightning that struck targeted enemies to deal big damage, at the cost of some of my Focus Point bar. Later, I stumbled upon a cavalcade of soldiers protecting a carriage being dragged by two giants. Throwing caution to the wind, I decided to engage, initially crouching to sneak into nearby foliage and hide, using basic stealth to approach when safe and backstab a specific enemy that looked like trouble. Once they were on to me, I created some distance and picked off the approaching soldier with my lightning strike, taking out any that got close by swinging my sword. The giants, meanwhile, required a new strategy. Elden Ring gives players the ability to summon a steed--more of an extremely capable goat than a horse--which in turn enables mounted combat. My strategy for the giants, given their massive reach and devastating power, was hit-and-run, which worked very effectively even if it did take a while.
As the Tarnished, you're not walking in the ashes of a fallen kingdom or doomed city, but fighting to change the fate of a place that is still very much alive ... and that is something new for From Software
Mounted combat felt cumbersome at first, but I was able to eventually get comfortable by adopting different strategies depending on the size of the enemy. For larger enemies like the giants or other mounted opponents, locking on and strafing around them was the way to go. However, moving while attempting to hit smaller on-foot enemies proved to be very unwieldy. In most cases though, I could simply stop and use the knockback from my attacks to keep me safe.
One of the smart additions to the Souls formula in Elden Ring comes in the form of rewards for defeating enemy mobs. One-on-one combat against enemies in the open world is very simple and, I suspect, won't be a challenge for many players. So as not to make combat in the open-world trivial, From Software has also peppered in groups of enemies, which prove to be a much greater challenge. Some, like strange bat-like creatures, will take the opportunity to swarm you. Others, like soldiers, will alert nearby troops and a skirmish against a handful of enemies can quickly escalate to a battle against multiple knights and even heavily-armored mounted soldiers. To ensure players are engaging these mobs, instead of just circumventing them, the game offers replenishments to your HP and FP flasks if you manage to emerge victorious. It's not always worth the risk, but I often found that I was inclined to engage mobs knowing that I had a good chance of regaining recovery items over the course of the fight. This approach seems to create a good risk-versus-reward consideration while also delivering some edge-of-the-seat combat scenarios.
If single enemies and mobs represented challenge at the low- and mid-tier, the more classically Souls level of challenge--namely hard--was found in the boss enemies I encountered. These presented the classic loop of being mercilessly ravaged while trying to defend myself, find the right moments to strike, chip away at the boss' health, and have the good sense to not overextend, lest I be crushed in an instant. What stuck out to me most about these fights was that From Software clearly has identified that, after four Souls games, their bosses often fit into archetypes and, as a result, there are effective strategies that can be relied upon. Ask any Soulsborne player about how to deal with big, lumbering enemies with swords and there's a good chance they'll say, "Get up in their booty and start stabbing." For knight-like opponents, circle-strafing and rolling between their sword swings is generally a decent starting point. However, I found that these strategies were not nearly as reliable in the fights I had.
Bloodhound Darriwil, for example, was a boss I discovered out in the wild. A strange glyph in a circular arena transported me to what seemed to be a parallel instance of that location and I was face-to-face with an incredibly aggressive enemy. Despite clearly being some sort of twisted, oversized human, Bloodhound Darriwil moved like a rabid dog, leaping around the arena. It was incredibly aggressive, giving me very little opportunity to create space and, when I did manage to, it would swiftly close the gap and apply pressure. I barely had time to even sip from my HP flask, so using my lightning ability was a death sentence. Although the Guard Counter allowed me to do some damage, the erratic nature of its attacks meant we often traded blows, and it was doing way more damage than I could take to rely on it. Rolling through attacks and landing quick strikes was clearly the way to go, but I instead opted to stand my ground and learn the parry timing. It took a few attempts, but eventually, I was able to identify its tells and respond with a swing of my shield to knock it back and riposte, dealing huge damage. With each onslaught of attacks, the stakes grew, as did the pressure. But when I finally landed that final hit, the sense of elation I felt was… well, classic From Software. All these years later, that gameplay loop is as intoxicating as the first time I experienced it.
The other major fight of the beta is against the guardian of Stormvale Castle who, somehow, was even more aggressive. Despite being huge, Margit moved incredibly fast, jumping at me and swinging his massive sword in a sweeping motion, making it really difficult to maneuver around him. He was also able to summon ethereal golden blades that he could throw from a distance, or use as a secondary attack up close. For this fight, I had to employ spirit summons. These are done using special items and cost FP. They are also only possible in specific locations, where "rebirth monuments" are nearby. I called upon a pack of wolves that, while not particularly hardy when they met Margit's blades, gave me just enough breathing room to get attacks unchallenged and also back away from danger to recover health. Again, this was a situation where my years of playing Soulsborne games created an expectation of how this fight would go and how I could approach it, but From Software subverted that. Margit was a satisfying challenge, and one of many I expect.
The last major piece of the Soulsborne puzzle, death and rebirth, has also undergone some changes. In From Software's Dark Souls games, the penalty for dying was harsh: You'd respawn at a bonfire with all your currency lost, often a considerable distance away from where you died, and be encouraged to make the same perilous journey all over again in order to recover that lost currency. However, in an open world, this approach could become incredibly frustrating as players have greater freedom of approach. To address this, From Software has introduced Stakes of Marika, which are effectively checkpoints near a major encounter or area of interest in the open world. If you happen upon an encampment or a random dungeon, chances are one of the Stakes of Marika is located nearby (there is an on-screen indicator to confirm this). Upon death, you are given the choice to either revive at the last Site of Grace you visited or the Stakes of Marika in the area. This option will undoubtedly make the game less punishing as it won't feel like you need to go through an uphill struggle just to get to the starting line again. And it also feels good to be able to retry a challenge again almost immediately.
Elden Ring is From Software's first real attempt at an open-world action game and, based on what I've played so far, it feels like a smart elaboration of the games they make best. It isn't poised to be a fundamental reinvention of its gameplay template, but it's not one that I think is going to feel overly familiar. By pushing back the boundaries, they have created a wealth of new opportunities to explore and the chance to recontextualize some old ones. The soul of From Software's Souls games--the challenging gameplay--is very much present in Elden Ring. But From Software looks like it's creating a stronger body around that core with this new game. There are things that I've not stopped thinking about since playing, questions that remain unanswered: the beach that I accidentally found myself on, where strange silver glyphs were being stamped into the ground; the decrepit church that I discovered, which had a toppled-over statue of a dragon with a flame burning in its mouth. These were just a couple of the mysteries I encountered in a very small slice of the Lands Between. And I had very little context for how they fit into the narrative underpinning the game. Needless to say, I cannot wait to see how it all comes together and, as a fan of From Software's previous work, I hope it lives up to my hopes; few things are as exciting to me as the idea of an open-world Souls game.
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