ELDEN RING- The Price of Ambition

I’ve put this one off for nearly a year so let’s talk about our proud 2022 Game of the Year winner. As far as my opinion goes, it didn’t really have that much competition. The math tells me it took 52 days for me to finish Elden Ring but I count around 46 because I took a couple days off because I was busy with obligations and had no time to fit in a session because most of the early game stuff would take me like 4-5 hours a day, this game is THAT hard to put down. Allow me to preface this by also saying that I apologize for so many of the pictures being boring UI/Menu stuff, I mostly discuss the newer additions to the game as a long-time player of Fromsoft games so those were the elements I liked to discuss.

Let’s review the calendar and rewind the clock a bit. The last Fromsoft game was Sekiro in 2019 and Dark Souls 3 was another 3 years before that in 2016. You could consider the Demon’s Souls remake as one but that doesn’t count for me since I already played the original. It’s been SIX YEARS since we’ve had a traditional souls game and it definitely feels like it has been that long because it was such a refreshing system to return to. I was so glad to be back that I spent the first two hours of Elden Ring killing the Tree Sentinel because I knew I could do it. I was laughing through the whole thing as I committed his patterns to memory and finally killed him and unleashed myself to the rest of the game’s world.

Now, there’s no real reason for me to explain the gameplay of Elden Ring but I will be talking about the changes and my impressions on the new additions to the core gameplay. Then we’ll address the open world and the few of my issues for the experience.

Familiar Yet New

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The first playthrough of any Souls games is the most important one, and this statement has never been more true than with Elden Ring with the sheer amount of optional content in the open world. Moreso than any other Souls game will the first-time exploration and the thrill of discovery be vital to a person’s experience as, after everything is said and done, a convincing majority of the game is purely optional. I personally do not feel the need to add my two cents into the growing pile on the discussion involving proper open world building because I firmly agree with Elden Ring’s design philosophy. The open world itself should be the feature and organically goad players into exploring all that they can instead of advertising their areas like in western open world games.

As someone who has been around the Souls sub-series since their inception with Demon’s Souls in 2009, the changes in Elden Ring were exciting to see in just how a familiar change of pace to an established formula shakes things up. We’ve gone from Soul form, Hollowing, Ash, and Dragon Rot systems more or less “punish” dying too much but like Bloodborne here, Elden Ring has no real penalty for failure aside from the classic run back to the boss, enemy, or to the place you died to retrieve your lost Runes. Alleviating some of the pain are Stakes of Marika, a new addition to your boss/dungeon runs that act as check points for you to revive closer to the challenge in question. It’s not entirely automatic either. If you wanted to employ new tactics to the fight then you can choose whether or not to revive at a Stake or your last rested Site of Grace.

The world has gotten big enough to the point where merchants, kind of like Sekiro’s tented merchants, now sell notes with tidbits of information for you to reference at any point after you buy them. Some of them point you towards ruins, like the earliest notes from Kale hinting at the ruins where you find Sellen, and others give you tidbits about enemy weakspots. Some even give big suggestions to explore places like the Frenzy Flame Village in the Weeping Peninsula all the way down to the Leyndell Sewers.

Pertinent to your survival and convenience, the new open world nature of the game allows for two new quality of life additions aside from your double-jumping mount. The first of which is that in the overworld, or at any point you are not in combat, your stamina does not go down. This allows you to run forever or test out your new moves and attacks, the details of combat we’ll talk about in a bit. The next new convenience in exploration is that killing groups of enemies, usually ones clustered together or one tough enemy in the overworld, rewards you with replenishing charges to your flasks which doesn’t limit you to your static count of flasks in that point in time. The overworld and some dungeons have health/focus point scarabs that specifically drop flask charges once you kill them. And yes, dung beetle/scarabs are your new crystal lizard/weird rock things so kill each one you see. Just don’t be too surprised to see them flying in certain regions. Speaking of flasks, you get a third means of assisting yourself in combat with the Flask of Wondrous Physick. While initially giving you an extra failsafe for healing, you can find more Crystal Tears from the overworld, usually from the base of Minor Erdtrees, to customize the effects of your flask. You can pick up to two options between restoring half your HP/MP, increasing stamina regen, health regen, more damage on consecutive hits, removing mana costs, and more.

Living and Dying

Elden Ring’s Stone of Ephemeral Eyes, Humanity, Human Effigy, and Embers system are called Rune Arcs. Each time you defeat a Shardbearer, a major boss of a large legacy dungeon, you gain their Great Rune. Great Runes must be activated from the region’s Divine Tower before being able to be equipped and activated with the use of a Rune Arc to confer specific effects. Like Embers, the effects of these buffs last until death.

Speaking of bosses, really important bosses don’t drop souls but Remembrances, consumables that are functionally boss souls. The hub world of the game has your usual shop for boss armor and they double as your boss weapon seller. A new convenient feature are those enormous Walking Mausoleums roaming certain areas in the overworld where you can knock off some bits off their legs or heads to have them crash down, allowing you entry and letting you duplicate a Remembrance of your choosing. This allows you to forego having to New Game + your playthrough to play around with most of the boss gear as there are more Remembrances than mausoleums to dupe them so you still have to pick and choose. I found this system really nice since there were multiple things I wanted to play around with as not all Remembrances yield weapons but spells, talismans (the game’s rings), and the revamped addition to the game’s combat system.

Weapon Traits and Combat

Within the early Souls games were unique weapons with unique attacks that used up durability points for something really flashy but often times not worth damaging the weapon for. This was the case for Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2. Dark Souls 3’s reintegration of the FP meter now allowed your regular weapons to have unique stances and attacks called Weapon Arts that functionally fulfilled this purpose. However, unique weapons still had their unique moves like sword beams while regular equipment mostly had static abilities shared across weapon types. Not only does durability NOT FUCKING EXIST in Elden Ring but we now have the new Ashes of War system. The AoW system revamps the Weapon Arts as unique weapons still have their unique weapon arts but now regular weapons can now have customizable unique moves particular to a broad type of weapon types. The AoW system also conveniently rehauls the weapon infusion upgrade path system that was admittedly tedious to maintain. Gone are the days of needing different colored titanite or stones to infuse your gear with elemental properties, the AoW system now integrates your chosen weapon infusions in the process of changing your weapon arts. What’s more, is that this system is entirely without any cost, allowing you to experiment at your leisure. The only caveat is that one ashes of war can be fit onto one weapon at a time, and this is alleviated through the use of AoW duplication by finding Lost Ashes out in the overworld to assume new AoW. By far one of my favorite additions to the game’s combat.

Horse combat is a lot less exciting as you’re mostly limited to two attacks on each side. What is a bit fun though is how you can cast spells but only if your catalyst is on your right hand or two-handing it while on horseback. Beyond that, I feel that Torrent bails on you a bit too quick when the damage instances rack up and you fall on your back to eat even more hits.

More conveniences are that the Attunement Stat is gone. Replacing them are Memory Stones that you can purchase and find in the overworld to increase your spell memory cap which is infinitely more interesting than just pumping levels into a stat that only increases every 4-5 levels. This also means the casting speed “stat” is also gone but apparently that has been moved to the Dex stat. Stat level soft-caps in general seem really geared toward the mid-game where stats have at least two soft-caps and also rise in payoff around the 20-30 area where you gain like 5-6 FP at later levels than you do early.

There are two additional systems to the combat that I want to address. The first one is pretty quick and it’s the Spell Comboing system where certain spells have an additional line in their description that says they can be cast immediately after performing an action. This leads to a new “spell combo” system that’s pretty interesting to look at with the amount of spell variety there is in the game. Or at the very least, the incantation side of things seem a lot more combo-friendly as there’s a bit more unique incantations then there are spells.

The Dungeons

Now it’s time to discuss the biggest change to the formula, the open world. As mentioned before, you have damn near infinite stamina provided you are out of direct combat and are given a horse with a double jump to explore the Lands Between at your leisure. As far as the game progression goes, you are free to fight any two shardbearers, minus Rennala, for their Great Rune to access Leyndell and then go on to the mountaintops, Farum Azula, and the final stretch. Everything else, which I approximate to around 75% of the game is optional. The prospect of more runes to level up and discover more weapons, spells, ashes of war, and talismans makes exploring more dungeons a worthwhile venture, even if subsequent playthroughs will see more dungeon exploring for build-specific items and a free level or two.

The smaller overworld dungeons are divided into four categories the Mines, the Catacombs, the Caves, and the Hero’s Graves. The Mines and Tunnels are your basic deal, they are filled with miners and a location endemic enemy. The Mines are however good spots to obtain your upgrade materials while caves are more for other natural resources for crafting. The catacombs are a bit more special as they can be filled with Skeletons and other enemies associated with the Deathroot subquest. The Hero Graves are particularly annoying because it features these enormous automated chariots that used to deal enormous damage to people that get run over but now they’re a bit more tolerable. Some dungeons do give you the opportunity to dismantle them by dropping bombs on top of them or making them collide with one another.

At first, the enormous amount of dungeons is an exciting prospect and in some respects they are. The amount of content is damn near unprecedented for a souls game but the same amount of content is also cause for things to feel repetitive as certain bosses for these dungeons end up reusing enemies and bosses from the overworld and other locations. The easiest comparisons for these overworld dungeons are the Chalice Dungeons from Bloodborne with is really familiar layouts and enemy placements. Granted, a select few open world dungeons have some interesting and creative gimmicks that threw me for a loop but a grand majority of them are pretty simple and forgettable.

The real quality work put into classic Souls level design are found in the larger dungeon instances called Legacy Dungeons which there are around six of. There are some smaller dungeons that aren’t as big as Legacy Dungeons but also not as small as the overworld dungeons which I also count at six. Legacy Dungeons are full on dungeons with shortcuts, hidden paths, and a extra layer of vertical exploration that had me revisit a lot of them to try and find stuff I missed. I think I visited Stormveil Castle at least 6 times to find everything stuffed in it, it’s pretty neat. The Legacy Dungeons are easily the strongest points for Elden Ring while the lesser dungeons are a bit on the weaker side once you realize most of them are incredibly simple and redundant.

So the question comes up if the amount of quality material makes up for the sacrifices that were made to make things open world. I personally think the good bits edge out. Purely because the overworld content is entirely optional and the legacy dungeons are just that good. It’s the usual good-to-bad ratio of dungeons in Souls games and I think Stormveil, Raya Lucaria, Leyndell, and Farum Azula were the stand out ones. The Haligtree and Volcano Manor both felt a bit unsatisfying and too short, respectively. Caria Manor, Redmane Castle, Castle Morne, the Mountaintop, and the underground areas, while cool and atmospheric, weren’t as big as I had hoped. The Lake of Rot just hurt to look at but at least it was really short. Siofra was a bit tough to explore given the aimbot Ancestral Followers but it was one of the most dazzling areas in the game, and also completely unexpected.

Offline Summoning

The last aspect of Elden Ring that we need to discuss is the Spirit Ash summoning system. Entirely new to the series, spirit ashes allows you to summon spectral forms of enemies to assist you in combat in certain areas. These summons are upgradeable and I am inclined to believe that their inclusion is the intended experience to play the game. There are multitude of fights with multiple enemies and bosses in certain cases that do not necessarily have the AI and movesets to act like Ornstein and Smough, where both their AIs are aggressive but have limited attacked patterns to cover each other. Bosses fought solo like the Crucible Knight has a multitude of attack strings and they’re fought with another enemy in tow at least twice in the game. I’m not sure what any of the recent patches have done to the multi-boss aggression but the summons are pretty powerful in 1 vs. 1 humanoid fights due to their nature of drawing aggro.

There’s been a conversation on this topic of how Elden Ring’s enemies have these insane combos that last up to like 5-7 attacks in sequence which is more reminiscent of Bloodborne or Sekiro. Those games had unique mechanics such as the Lock-On Dash or the Parry-Posture system to compensate the heightened aggression but because Elden Ring works like a traditional Souls game, veterans who’ve been around since Demon’s/Dark Souls have gotten used to the song and dance of circle strafing and just timing dodges. Ever since DS2 have enemies begun to utilize delays in their swings and bosses such as Raime and Alonne started using more attacks in their combos. Over a decade of games have made people really good at these games so naturally it makes sense that trying to make the game harder has seemingly made Elden Ring’s bosses utilize more delays and longer combos. I may be wrong but that’s what I can make of this heightened enemy aggression. It makes sense to me but probably not for the 10 million plus newcomers to the Souls series given Elden Ring’s phenomenal sales numbers.

Smaller Things

I had a couple more things to think about in the months delay I had in finishing this up. For one thing, a handful of musical tracks stood out for me such as the Regal Ancestor Spirit, Godskin Apostles, and Radagon. I’ll definitely need to go through a deeper dive into some themes because to be honest, the theme that’s mostly stuck in my head is the Limgrave ambient themes.

It’s been just about 10 months since the game came out and the only news about DLC so far was the colosseum being finally unlocked but I haven’t participated in those just yet as I’m still waiting for meatier single player additions.

When compared to the other late-game secret areas in Souls games, the Haligtree didn’t feel as great compared the likes of Archdragon Peak in 3 or the DLC areas in 2. Farum Azula felt like that instead but that was one of the mandatory dungeons in the game. The Consecrated Snowfield’s constant blizzard also made exploring the place more of a hassle than anything else. Plus basing the secret area with Toxic’s brighter cousin definitely didn’t help my opinion.

I’ve come to appreciate the lore after piecing things together and the lore this time around is a lot more up front as NPCs are plentiful and pure exposition dialogues and cutscenes are numerous. You even have Gideon flat out telling you key information as well.

Melina I felt needed way more relevance in the game as her role as your traveling companion is very rarely felt. She shows up in only around 5-6 mandatory meetings while you can also talk to her during the times you enter a Church of Marika. For a such a HUGE game where you can ignore critical progression, Melina needed way more times to speak up to actually feel like your companion and her sacrifice near the end of the game doesn’t feel as impactful as it was supposed to be. Reading into the lore reveals that multiple characters such as Vyke and Bernahl abandoned their quest to become Elden Lord after learning what fate awaited their Finger Maiden.

The Endings only had three options for me to consider. One was the Ranni ending that statistically had the most people go for since everyone wants a waifu, and I admit, the offer was enticing since the Darkmoon Blade is the quest reward for what may be Fromsoft’s most elaborate quest line to date. However, I quickly changed my mind after realizing I had no idea what the Age of Stars would specifically mean for the Lands Between. I found comfort with Goldmask’s conclusion that the gods were fallible and decided that I wanted to stay in the Lands Between and impose a far more stringent rule. The Lord of Chaos ending did seem pretty cool with the Madness affliction but I also didn’t feel like listening to Shabriri. Plus the way down to the Three Fingers was a complete pain in the ass. Reminded me of the Great Hollow and not in a good way.

I couldn’t find a place to fit this but Rykard also deserves an award for being the best “setpiece” fight in the franchise. No more running towards danger to pick up the Stormruler and utterly trivialize the Storm King and Yhorm, you get your Serpent Killing Spear and actually fight the serpent + Rykard in a neat fight. The Divine Dragon can be in 2nd place.

In the End

All in all, I think Elden Ring has a lot more to like about it than to dislike about it. I personally see Elden Ring as a new age of Souls games and this is merely the Demon’s Souls of a new era, a jumping off point for more mechanics and ideas to be refined. I haven’t addressed the lore or even the NPCs of the game of which I am pretty pleased with. What I didn’t expect was how some quests were added in one of the patches like a month after release and I didn’t expect that all because I’m sure that had never happened before in a From game. I won’t bother explain the lore but one of the small details I was blown away by was the amount of unique magic crests that pop up when you cast a spell and the amount of times Godwyn’s face pops up near the capital and around deathroot afflicted areas. I will, however, not deny that the game’s faults lie with just how large the game is and how things were made to accommodate. The repeated use of enemies, bosses, dungeon layouts, etc. There will come a point where the magic of it kind of fades away but I truly believe that an extra bit of polish and more thoughtful boss placements could alleviate this issue going forward.

Elden Ring is not perfect. At some point, the magic of its formula does shatter but I still firmly believe there’s a more than solid experience underneath it all with the sheer amount of content and customizable fun you can experience and customize toward. I cannot tell you how great it was feeling and learning how there was just so much raw content to enjoy in this game as the map just kept growing. Discovering the Siofra Well and seeing how deep it went and seeing a completely new skybox also made me feel a certain type of way. Some people might complain that there’s too much to do but since most of the game is optional, it is purely on the player to explore as they like. I am never the one to put down content when it presents itself to me.

Is it as massive as DS2 with its weapon choices? Not yet. DLC could be on the way for the game and the spell variety is already at a pretty good start in that regard. The critical progression path, as long as we’re counting Legacy Dungeons, is still incredibly fun and worth playing through. The smaller details in the game help patch up what the game’s really like at its core but I believe Fromsoft really knocked it out of the park with their first open-world outing and they can only improve from here.

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