After 25 hours of nonstop playing, Elden Ring is a beguiling masterpiece

The painted world we've been waiting for.

Let's start with the jar people.

(A quick note: while we've avoided major spoilers when possible, there are some minor spoilers for the first few hours of the game below.)

Every few hours in Elden Ring, I stumble across colonies of jars that rise to their feet (yes, their feet), sprout arms, and pummel the tar out of me. This was a bit jarring the first time it happened, but when you consider that Hidetaka Miyazaki has previously hit us with treasure chests that become skittering monstrosities with feet-long tongues when you hit them with your sword, perhaps it shouldn't have been.

In the dozens of hours since I first encountered them, I've learned how to avoid their blows, particularly the tornado-like spin move the big ones like to use when you're not looking. The living jars aren't hurting anybody as long as you leave them undisturbed, but unfortunately, they tend to guard cracked pots that I can use to craft consumables — such as magic bombs I can hurl at bad guys from afar, or arrows for my bow — so I have to show them who's boss. Still, I feel pretty rotten about sneaking into their home and murdering them, even if they are living loot. That's kinda how life goes in the Lands Between.

The Lands Between are frequently stunning to look at.

The weight of expectation

As you've no doubt heard, Elden Ring is the latest game by visionary auteur Hidetaka Miyazaki. Over the past decade-and-change, Miyazaki's studio FromSoftware has leapt from its former post as an obscure Japanese studio to the heights of triple-A gaming, thanks entirely to Dark Souls and its hardened offspring, like 2019's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. However, this new game is a major departure: it’s an open-world game that takes the beloved Souls formula and entwines it with the newfound sense of exploration and freedom.

I'll dispense with the long drumroll: as a video game, as a descendant of Souls, and as a work of art, Elden Ring delivers on every level. This is a different kind of open-world game, one that offers a seemingly endless gauntlet of challenges, lore, and brazen creativity — while avoiding the wearying content grind of its competitors.

After 25 hours, I feel as though I've barely chipped away at the tip of the iceberg. Though it does little to convince Souls skeptics (or the challenge-averse), and there are certain pratfalls inherent to the open-field concept that it falls into, it's difficult to imagine any Souls fan walking away from this game with any degree of disappointment.

Old souls

If you've played any FromSoftware game, you'll be familiar with the basic setup of Elden Ring: there are equivalents to the usual concepts of souls, bonfires, and Estus flasks. You gain "runes" from killing enemies, which you spend to level up at life-restoring "sites of grace." These golden safe zones also refill your various flasks, which can be used to heal, refill your magic meter, and buff your stats. When you die, you drop all your runes, which you can pick up when you revive — but if you die again without retrieving them, they're gone forever.

You can find upgrades to your flasks underneath these golden saplings.A golden sapling from Elden Ring

Besides its open-world structure, there are two major additions that Elden Ring brings to the core formula: its crafting system and your faithful spirit steed, Torrent. While the game pushes you to gather the ubiquitous crafting materials that you'll find all over its massive world, for the most part, I found myself making the same basic recipes over and over, such as poison arrows, firebombs, and "magic grease" to give my sword magic damage. (Turns out increasing your stamina regen or resistance to all status ailments is still as useful at hour 25 as it is in hour 1.) That said, I would occasionally experiment with consumables that give your weapon poison buildup or elemental damage against tough foes, and they are quite helpful in certain situations.

Torrent, on the other hand, is simultaneously an amazing new facet of the Souls prism and one of its worst flaws. Cresting a hill on his back as dawn brightens to full day never gets old, and he controls quite well, even when you're abusing his double jump to glitch your way up a ridge to avoid a two-minute ride up a slope. (Yes, Elden Ring has a lot of horse platforming — get used to it.)

However, the much-hyped horseback combat never quite gelled for me; it comes off as floaty and imprecise when compared to the rest of Elden Ring's expertly balanced swordplay. This is unfortunate because most of the (optional) bosses that you'll find in the expansive overworld are much easier when you take advantage of Torrent's maneuverability. When a dragon swoops through the air to rain its fiery breath down on you, summoning Torrent is often the only way to avoid getting burnt to cinders — but abusing his fleetness to avoid the dragon's every tail swipe and claw is pretty damn unfulfilling, almost akin to a cheese strategy.

Comparisons between Elden Ring and other open-world games are inevitable given the genre's stranglehold on big-budget gaming, but this is a different kind of sandbox. Yes, as many of you no doubt suspected, the game hews much closer to the "find the fun!" approach embodied by Zelda: Breath of the Wild than the trademark waypoint-to-waypoint slog of the Ubisofts of the world, but it's even more dramatic than that.

What’s over there? That question is the essence of Elden Ring.

By modern gaming standards, Elden Ring gives you hardly any direction, especially past its first major dungeon, Stormveil Castle. The most guidance the game gives you for core progression is in the form of vague compass headings like "east of [X landmark]" or "the northwest part" of a continent you haven't even discovered yet. Even finding the map fragments needed to piece together a basic layout of the world's topography and scale can be difficult, especially for the more remote regions. While you eventually unlock a hub of NPCs who give you useful (and some less-than-useful) hints as to how to proceed, it's ultimately up to you to put it together.

Speaking of Stormveil Castle, it's absolutely magnificent, one of the best areas in any Souls game ever, and I don't say that lightly. Like the handful of Elden Ring's "legacy dungeons" I managed to find — areas that are built in the linear, looping style that FromSoftware made its name on — it's both a love letter to an iconic level from a previous entry and an evolution of it.

Stormveil makes no effort to hide the fact that it's an idealized version of the Boletarian Palace from Demon's Souls, but its ruined grandeur and mutated inhabitants are what finally convinced me that Elden Ring did not sacrifice the immaculate level and encounter design of previous Souls games in the transition to an open-world. I spent several hours scouring its dusty corridors and hopping from rooftop to rooftop in search of secrets — did I mention the new jump button, by the way? — only to discover that I missed no less than two secret minibosses when I returned a dozen hours later. (Whoops.)

Taken as a whole, Elden Ring is no less than a dream game: my dream game, to be exact.

A wide, wide world

It's hard to separate the experience of Elden Ring from the fact of its sheer scope. No matter how you slice it, this is an absolutely massive game, with an overwhelming amount of mini-dungeons to delve into, optional bosses to face, and sidequests to puzzle out. I spent most of my 25 hours with the game simply putting a beacon on an interesting feature on the map, riding to it, and seeing what I could find in the intervening space; I would usually run into one or two things to do before arriving.

Like Breath of the Wild's shrines before it, much of the challenge in Elden Ring's open world doesn't come from finding the content, but puzzling out what the hell you're supposed to do there in the first place. Over my time with the game, I've discovered no less than a half-dozen landmarks that I can't figure out, such as an NPC that I can't converse with yet or a door that I can't seem to open. If that sounds interesting to you, then you will be happy to get lost in Elden Ring.

Stealth is one of the only ways you can mitigate enemy mobs.

While the game's scale can be difficult to fathom at times, it also takes a toll on its performance. I played 25 hours of the PC version on my aging Nvidia GeForce 1080 GTX (thanks, GPU shortage) and while it runs at a consistent 60 fps for the most part (at 1080p), there's a persistent issue with micro-stutters every few seconds, especially during boss fights in the overworld. Though my PC is far from a world-beater, it does exceed the recommended specs, and I've heard reports that the micro-stuttering is an issue regardless of how powerful your rig is. Overall, while the stuttering is far from game-breaking, it can get somewhat annoying at times, so let's hope FromSoftware can fix it soon, ideally with a day one patch.

The topic of challenge in Elden Ring is a tricky one to tackle, as it varies strongly from person to person, and it's likely that a substantial number of its players will never have delved into a FromSoftware game before. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, the bottom line is this: Elden Ring is comparable in difficulty to previous Souls games, but its open-world nature makes it really easy to accidentally stumble your way into facing impossible odds. In those cases, it's best to sprint your way out and explore a part of the map that's more tuned to your current capabilities — though I doubt that'll stop the truly hardcore among us from carving their own strange path through the Lands Between.

For my own part, I've found most of Elden Ring's optional content to be stout but doable after a few tries at most. The two major bosses of Stormveil Castle, in contrast, tore me up and wiped the floor with me at least twenty or thirty times before I triumphed. For a series that prides itself on the quality of iconic first bosses like Bloodborne's Father Gascoigne and Dark Souls 3's Iudex Gundyr, Elden Ring's Mergit the Fell Omen is going to be a tough roadblock for many newbies to clear. Just remember: there's no shame in summoning, if that's your thing.

Mounted combat is one of the game’s few lowlights.

Overall, while it's fair to say that Elden Ring shares much of its design with previous games in the series, it does have its own unique flavor — which might not be to everyone's tastes. Mobs of easy-to-kill enemies are much more prevalent than in, say, Dark Souls 1, which means that ranged options like a bow are almost necessary at times.

The new stealth system can help you clear out enemy camps one-on-one to avoid dealing with crowds of mooks, even if it is a bit simplified. For the most part, as long as you're crouching, you can easily get the drop on even tough foes if they haven't looked directly at you, which can definitely help with the tougher minibosses.

Of course, the well-worn Souls complaints apply here, too: The game's camera still has a mind of its own in cramped spaces, and it's still annoying when you die because your sword clanked against the wall instead of hitting the guy right in front of you. It also seems like almost everything in the overworld wants to kill you, which can be an annoyance at times, especially because you can't use the map during combat, even when the foe is more than a league away.

But what else is there to say, really? Taken as a whole, Elden Ring is no less than a dream game: my dream game, to be exact. From the days we spent driving through Grand Theft Auto 3's messy, vibrant Liberty City to the sense of wonder that kindled in us when we first explored Ryo's immaculately-detailed house in Shenmue, we have waited for a game that combined first-rate gameplay with an enigmatic, beguiling world worthy of exploration. For me, Elden Ring is that game, and there can be no greater accolade than that.

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