Sorcerer Rogier is on the brink of death, but I can’t do it alone.
My beloved adventuring partner has been at alarmingly low health for a large portion of this Elden Ring boss fight, and it’s unlikely he’ll make it out alive. As the giant, horned beast towers over us, hurling spells and slamming its hammer down, Rogier somehow avoids getting hit — all while I cast my own incantations from afar.
Then, the enormous creature rears back and in one fell swoop sends Rogier flying to his death. I’m done for. But then, I look at the boss’ health bar and see what I’ve been wanting to see for hours: just a sliver left. Immediately, I ready my most powerful melee attack. It’s one I’ve used countless times, but it seems to take an eternity to charge while the boss approaches. If I miss this, I’m dead. The epic music crescendos as the boss pulls back its arm to unleash a killing blow, but not before my attack connects with a crunch. A wave of relief washes over me as the monster crumbles.
That was just the first of many bosses in the game.
Elden Ring is filled with little moments like this one, whether they be tense, jaw-clenching battles, an unnerving journey through a poisonous lake, or a triumphant victory over an enemy who has been a thorn in your side for hours. This isn’t just Dark Souls with an open world tacked on. Instead, developer FromSoftware weaves its familiar formula into a massive playground so expertly that we can’t help but wonder how we ever played Dark Souls without it.
No stone unturned
Elden Ring will instantly feel familiar to anyone who’s played the Dark Souls games, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, or Bloodborne. Tutorials and hand-holding are scarce, and the UI is quite similar. But unlike its predecessors, Elden Ring features an expansive open world that never feels empty.
Like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring is driven by an underlying sense of discovery and mystery. You feel simultaneously terrified and excited when entering a new section because you know deadly enemies await, but there’s no other way to level up and become stronger.
One moment, you stumble upon a beach littered with deadly crabs. The next, you find yourself amidst a vast castle. Beyond that, a cave full of bug creatures dares you to explore. Thanks to your horse and the ability to fast travel, getting around is never tedious. In fact, I’d sometimes skip fast traveling altogether so I could take out enemies to earn runes — essentially your currency and XP — and discover items I might’ve missed.
Then again, maybe I just wanted to take in the beautiful visuals which are indisputably the best FromSoftware has ever created.
Elden Ring strikes an impressive balance between its interior and exterior spaces, with plenty of labyrinthine buildings and claustrophobic dungeons that offset the rest of the game’s expansiveness. Certain sections are reminiscent of the Duke's Archives from the first Dark Souls, an intimidating library full of moving staircases, shortcuts, and winding paths. But between those dungeons and castles lies a beautiful, mysterious land.
“Elden Ring is FromSoftware at the top of its game.”
Stuck on a boss? Go back out and explore — you’re guaranteed to stumble upon a new area that might make you stronger. Not sure how to get past a certain door? Open up your map and go to a location you haven’t visited before. There’s almost always a plan B, C, or D that takes away the restrictions of having to conquer a boss or area right now. This makes Elden Ring satisfying in a way previous Souls games weren’t. Come back to a tricky boss after you’ve leveled up, and you’re rewarded with a gratifying sense of growth and mastery.
The Souls games are notorious for their unrelenting difficulty. Because of this, the series has long appealed to diehards, while keeping curious casuals at arm's length. In Elden Ring, that difficulty is turned up to 11, particularly during boss battles. You have to “get good,” a phrase some members of the Souls community use to gatekeep newcomers.
Yet even the small mercy of putting a pin in a particular boss battle makes Elden Ring more palatable. Even after dozens of hours, there was always another area I hadn’t discovered yet, preserving a meaningful sense of progression at all times. There were times when I’d try a boss for 20 minutes or so, head to a new area to discover yet another boss, only to get stuck yet again. But then, I’d simply go in another direction and come across a powerful item, weapon, or a huge source of runes. I’d then revisit a boss and take it down, or at the very least, make much more progress than before.
Elden Ring adds a slew of new mechanics and quality-of-life improvements that enhance the well-honed formula, like a jump button, which means no more falling off a ledge because you didn’t time your roll perfectly. You can also get to certain areas that wouldn’t be accessible in the Souls games, which is a nice touch.
The spawning system has also been streamlined, as fast-traveling is unlocked from the beginning of the game, and some save points let you respawn closer to bosses. There are still a few long, dreadful walks back to particular baddies, but FromSoft has gone a long way toward addressing this longtime problem. Ashes, essentially sentient NPCs that can be summoned at any time during battle — like a pack of wolves — are another welcome inclusion. They don’t completely turn the tide of a fight but can give you a little push over the hump, just as Rogier did for me.
“Even the small mercy of putting a pin in a particular boss battle makes Elden Ring more palatable.”
Most boss encounters in Elden Ring take place in vast, open arenas with little to no cover, which forces you to become a master at dodging, managing stamina, and timing your attacks. That means newcomers still might be put off by the uncompromising difficulty. Eventually, after you’ve explored every inch of the map, you’ll have no other choice but to tackle a boss, but what happens if you still can’t beat it? The open-ended exploration goes a long way to offset those bottlenecks, but it doesn’t eliminate them.
FromSoftware’s action RPGs demand a unique rhythm to master each encounter, but once it clicks, you’ll be able to make more progress. That’s still true in Elden Ring, but now there are more ways to approach any given situation. Thanks to the new crouch mechanic, you can now sneak around to take out enemies unnoticed.
You can challenge foes head-on, then stab them in the back to deal loads of damage. If you’re like me, you might fancy using magic, which allows you to pick off enemies from afar. While there’s more variety on offer, Elden Ring maintains FromSoft’s high-risk/high-reward balance that keeps fights exhilarating, even when you’re getting your butt kicked (which will happen often).
The second boss battle caused me to nearly tear up due to how badass it was. Just when you think you’ve seen every cool creature design imaginable, FromSoftware throws another curveball. (We won’t spoil it here, but when you get there, you’ll know it.) It’s almost worth it to die over and over again just to watch this extraordinary transformation.
And you’ll need to watch it. Because in Elden Ring, enemy design isn’t just for show. It’s meant to give you a hint about how to defeat the beast or clue you into its arsenal of attacks. (You better believe an enemy with a tail will be able to attack you with it.) Everything feels meticulously designed, with careful intent always at the forefront of the entire experience.
Elden Ring is FromSoftware at the top of its game. Those who are up for the challenge are in for a rich experience that breathes new life into both the Souls-like and open-world genres.
Inverse played Elden Ring on PS5 before its February 25, 2022 release date.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.