Publisher: FromSoftware, Bandai Namco
Reviewed on: Xbox Series S
Also available on: Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PS4, PS5, PC
Release: 25th February 2022
Price: $109.95 - EB Games
With all the hype and chatter surrounding Elden Ring, is it worth a try, or should you hastily dodge this one? Our intrepid explorer James Hilan unsheathes his Katana and gets down to business…
One of three majorly hyped releases so far in 2022 (alongside Dying Light 2 & Horizon Forbidden West), Elden Ring has perhaps been the most polarising, chiefly due to developer FromSoftware’s reputation for rather difficult enemies and boss battles, a major selling point of their previous games. With word spreading that the combat in Elden Ring would be somewhat easier, veterans of the Souls series were concerned that the challenges they’d grown to love would be neutered, while newcomers were still sceptical as to whether they’d stand much of a chance. All things considered, and as a newcomer myself (who does enjoy a fair challenge), I think FromSoftware have struck the balance just right here.
At the very start, I thought “what have you signed yourself up for”, though it was quite amusing to get constantly axed by the game’s very first enemies. I should add this is not unique to the Souls games among RPGs – you get one-hit KO’d by pretty much everything for the first few hours of Elex (which I highly recommend), and death is far less frustrating in Elden Ring than in something like Outward, which also had some highly fiendish enemies. Here I found I was learning more about the tactical AI for each battle, and quickly started to get a sense of how dying is worked into the gameplay. Clearing this first camp and finding some nifty items including the first Map, I started toward the adjoining path through some massive gate… and was promptly dispatched by a monstrous Troll guarding the way.
Upon returning I decided to level up my Strength a few notches by grinding the camp I’d already cleared. The troll was still too strong, so I set off in the opposite direction (which felt strange, as the troll’s gate was right next to that first enemy camp). I had also by this point forgotten one pivotal line from a previous cutscene about light-trails from the Sites of Grace “guiding your path”. Thus I rode out into the bleak expanses of Limgrave, which has a bit of a Twilight Princess x Witcher 3 vibe… its colour palette of heavily muted yellows, greens and greys was definitely unique and quite agreeable. Textures, models, and environments all look fantastic, and I thought the weather and lighting systems were extremely well done.
But after a few more deaths (and don’t forget, upon dying you drop all your runes – the game’s currency – which are lost forever if you die a second time before retrieving them) the anxiety of running around a huge and dangerous world without any sense of purpose or direction became too much, and I knew I would have to resort to the inevitable… the unspeakable… I would have to look up what to do on the internet. FromSoftware have opted for absolutely minimal hand-holding in most respects, and I think overall they do balance this well enough, but the troll situation was slightly annoying. Still, I’m glad I didn’t spend hours going the wrong way and getting smashed for missing a rather vague hint (like it or not, this is an RPG where you will definitely benefit from reading a quick “what to do first” guide, especially for certain functions like weapon improvement and spellcasting).
In Gavin Mackenzie’s article for Gamepur.com titled ‘How to beat the Stormgate Troll in Elden Ring’, he writes (emphasis added) ~
“The first thing you should know about the Troll that guards Stormgate in Elden Ring is that you don’t have to fight it. If you’ve been following the golden rays from Site of Grace to Site of Grace, then the Site of Grace in front of Stormgate will be your third, and you will have therefore encountered Melina and accepted her gift of the Spectral Steed Whistle. This is Elden Ring’s way of hinting that you should use the Whistle right away, and ride through Stormgate at high speed, ignoring the Troll and the guards.”
I took no such hint, especially because once you reach that Site of Grace and receive your ghostly mount, there is a wide open world in the opposite direction that A) you haven’t seen, B) a horse seems ideally suited to exploring, and C) isn’t guarded by a super hectic troll. It would have taken me a fair while to realise you’re supposed to just bolt past him and not even bother until later when you’ve leveled up. More likely I would have assumed that the “hint” with the Spectral Speed Whistle was to fight the troll on horseback instead, perhaps to gain a speed boost. I don’t think I’ve ever thought to simply run past a major enemy in a game like this, except on a speedrun or in utter desperation! Thankfully most of the game design logic encountered thereafter has been solid, even genius at times.
Putting this out of the way, I pressed on, keen to find some better weapons but more eager at this stage for the story to start picking up. Which it certainly did, though I won’t spoil anything. This is not a dialogue-heavy RPG, and friendly NPC interactions are sparse, but that fits with the game and the characters you do come across are all pretty interesting. Soon enough I arrived at the first real boss, which was a considerable challenge indeed. After many failed attempts I decided to grind a bit and come back later. No biggie, we were prepared for this… and still having fun! So I went off the beaten track for a few hours and found success more often than not, having a nice adventure which felt like a more organic and immersive way of completing sub-quests (as there is no actual quest log in Elden Ring).
Day 3 arrived, and that boss still wasn’t havin’ it. But just as I was beginning to lose hope, a miraculous thing happened... the network errors which had plagued the game since launch had been resolved, and a flood of players re-entered the world with online features enabled. I immediately felt more confident to take on greater challenges, knowing that I wasn’t alone in this cruel and punishing world! The message system is awesome and hilarious, as you have a set list of words, conjunctions & ‘gesture’ animations to mix and match for the situation at hand. Some of these were extremely funny, some were thoughtful, and others made no sense at all. You can rate messages you read as ‘Good’ or ‘Poor’, and there is a big incentive to write a ‘Good’ message, as each time another player ‘appraises’ your message, you will be immediately healed.
You can also check Bloodstains where other players have died for a short hologram of their demise, though they are most useful as a warning, as the sight of these from afar normally means there is danger nearby. Occasional ghostly silhouettes of other players will briefly pass you on their journey, and the fleeting, ethereal nature of these moments preserves the intimacy of your own experience.
Almost 8 hours into the game, and I still hadn’t defeated the first boss. However, what at first seemed impossible was now just within my grasp. Those soldiers from the first enemy base, which are likely to take over half an hour and several deaths on your initial run, should be easy targets at this point. By now you also should have visited a certain isolated “safe zone” (accessible via fast travel) containing NPCs, merchants, and a blacksmith. The latter is going to help you exponentially, so gather up some smithing stones and choose a weapon to upgrade which you’d be happy to stick with for a while. Check stats carefully and take weight/strike time into consideration – at first I upgraded a Greatsword as it had the highest base Damage stats of all the weapons in my inventory, but this was still too slow to land many hits on quicker enemies, and I eventually tasted sweet victory against that godforsaken first boss by upgrading my lighter Katana instead. As the game has no pause function, and definitely no chill in most areas, it can be nice to return to this safe zone when you just want to relax for a bit, too.
Honestly, the progression in terms of toughness did feel just right. The worst scenario by far is when you die a second time before recovering your runes, bringing your balance crashing back down to zero. This shouldn’t happen too often, but when it does, you’ll be most displeased! To avoid such a fate, I recommend travelling back to the nearest Site of Grace to level up as soon as you have enough runes to do so. Sometimes there are big gaps between Sites, and the further you go the further you’ll need to return, if you are killed before reaching the next one. There is no other benefit to stockpiling runes at all, unless you are saving up for a particular merchant item which costs more. Also, try not to get frustrated after your first death and speed through the same trail again in record time, as you may be quickly overwhelmed by enemies you took on easily beforehand. Stay focused, and once you’ve retrieved the dropped runes, try luring tougher enemies closer to your entry point (so that if you die again, next time you might be able to grab the runes and retreat without alerting the hostiles in that area).
Performance and optimisation on XSS is second to none and I experienced literally no bugs, glitches, or framerate issues whatsoever (24 hours of gameplay so far). Maybe some splintered chunks of a wooden crate hung around in the air once or twice, but that was it. Everything in this game looks absolutely incredible, from small background items and foliage through to the epic skyboxes and titanic Middle Earth-style cliffs and castles… these exude an ancient, foreboding presence, reminiscent of feudal Japan and Nosferatu’s Transylvania. I’m sure that Skyrim must have also influenced FromSoftware (the title itself is a dead giveaway) but it never feels like the game is trying to directly copy or one-up another IP. Elden Ring feels like Elden Ring, and I found myself regularly impressed by the dev team’s clever and fresh decisions, particularly in terms of dungeon/world/secret area design and how certain items and areas have been made to function. Movement and controls feel perfectly weighed, timed, and tightened. I’ve died so many times and can’t remember blaming the game for a single one. As long as you read a bare-bones “what to do first in Elden Ring” guide online, and consult the net again if you’re not sure how to use something (for example, most classes will need to buy a specific item from a specific merchant who doesn’t seem specifically related to magic, in order to even begin casting Spells), you should be right as rain.
The question on most prospective players’ lips has been this, at least in the Gaming Australia Facebook group – is Elden Ring going to be impossibly, maddeningly hard just for the sake of it? I have to say, no. If you’re like me and have never really played a Souls game before, it might seem that way for the first few hours. But trust me on this… you are going to want to persevere. After about 6-8 hours of gameplay you’ll be hooked, and likely making some good progress too.
I could go on for another few pages, but hopefully you get the gist. As long as you generally enjoy action-adventure RPGs and can get through the first few battles, you will absolutely love it. Don’t be discouraged by all the online chatter about combat difficulty, as this is tough but fair at the end of the day, and very satisfying once you really start to figure things out. There’s no harm in using a guide either, if you’re really struggling, as there are certain things in the game you’ll need to look up online anyhow. Elden Ring is a huge and commendable work of art, truly deserving of its so-far universal acclaim. Time will tell, but for me it’s the first really fantastic new IP since 2019’s Days Gone. The desire to keep playing holds strong. I bestow upon Elden Ring a lordly score of 9.5 / 10