Elden Ring is a game unlike anything else you'll play. This team-up of legendary game director Hidetaka Miyazaki and fantasy author George RR Martin sets a new benchmark for role-playing games and open-world adventures.
Shield up, sword at the ready, we’re exploring the ramparts of Stormveil Castle. As I think I'm on a roll, I'm jumped by eagles with knives on their feet who drop bombs. Before I can flee, a knight with a powerful wind attack intercepts. I died. But instead of grinding out the sequence, Elden Ring helps me 'get good' by making exploring part of the loop.
The huge open world of the Lands Between is filled with things to do, meaning you can always come back to the bigger dungeons like Stormveil Castle, which looms over the start of the game. It looks incredible and you'll certainly want one of the best TVs for PS5 for this one. Poking around, we find a friendly magician in a crypt, and stumble upon ruins where we slay a mini-boss Demi-Human Queen and nick her sorcerer’s staff. (Elden Ring has been nominated in the BAFTA Games Awards 2023.)
Investigating a strange, ancient evergaol treats me to another boss; beating it gains me a curved sword with an ‘arte of war’ (like weapon skills from past soulsbornes) that allows me to combo together a slicing leap back with a follow-up gap-closer. Exploring a nearby mine, torch in hand, gains us enough ore to upgrade it. Before I know it, I'm back at that rampart, shooting spells at the eagles from range, and deftly leaping back and forth against the knight. Elden Ring is one of few fantasy open worlds where exploring feels like an epic journey very much your own.
Elde Ring review: a godly sandbox
It’s all similar enough to what came before that anyone who’s played one of FromSoftware’s tough-as-dragon-leather adventures could pick up the controller and know how the core experience works. If you're after more from this developer then pick up Demon's Souls, one of the best PS5 games.
You have light and heavy attacks; you lose all levelling-up material when you die, and then have one chance to pick it back up; you have an item in your Flask that refills health and focus points (governing skills and magic) when you rest at the enemy respawning safe-zones.
But the open world is a huge departure. It’s not just about having a mount – the ghostly elk Torrent – to zip around on and use in combat when out in the wilds, but in how the whole game is structured. This freedom is a breath of fresh air for a genre that can sometimes feel a little bit samey, but it is at once both Elden Ring’s greatest strength and weakness. PS5 handles open worlds incredibly well, read our Horizon Forbidden West review for another example.
The map is huge, and the sense of scale is like nothing else. Each new vista fills you with awe, and there’s something unexpected over every horizon. However after a while, you begin to notice some repetition throughout the many points of interest (mostly ruins, caves, tombs, and the like), and that there’s not always much point in stopping to engage with foes instead of blazing past them on Torrent to get somewhere more interesting.
It also means the Legacy Dungeons, the more weaving, maze-like areas you tackle on foot, can end up feeling familiar. As most rural areas are, well, lands between (the name is appropriate), Legacy Dungeons are mostly forts or castles. Key locations have an individual identity visually, but the places you’re poking around often feel similar.
These basic areas are usually devoid of significant storytelling, though the things you do find in the larger areas are as tantalising as ever. You can feel Game Of Thrones author George RR Martin’s fingerprints all over the lore. It’s a blend of high fantasy with Bloodborne-style cosmic horror that ensures the world feels distinct.
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The open nature of the game can also make it hard to know where you’re expected to go. Are you having a hard time with one of the Demilords you’re hunting down (in order to become the true lord yourself, natch) just because FromSoftware games can be harder than glintstone, or is it because really you shouldn’t be in this area at all?
Then, a little cavern nearby might have a mini-boss you end up killing in just a few hits. Finding that sweet spot of challenge you can just about overcome can be difficult as a result, even if you can ping-pong around until you find easier areas.
However, some are oddly locked behind gates you need to unlock with special keys, meaning exploration can sometimes feel pointless. Graces where you can rest are plentiful, and certain ones emit a beam of light pointing you towards those key dungeons, so finding your way is actually quite generously signposted. But Elden Ring is open enough that, if you know where to go, you can run to even a later-game area within an hour if you really want to (though the boss guarding the way to the North-East will grind you into bone dust immediately).
Because of the number of things to do, you begin to notice chunks of level repeating, and mini-bosses that are similar to one another. The treasures and mystery are more exciting than Bloodborne’s chalice dungeons, but it can drain some excitement out of playing.
While combat feels familiar, it hasn’t simply been lifted from past games. Gear reflects the open design philosophy in that even basic equipment can be customised. Skills like ‘Artes of War’ can be freely added like they’re extra attachments, and can alter the affinity of some weapons, adding elemental damage or changing it to scale more closely to your Strength level rather than your Dexterity.
Elden Ring review: here be dragons
The huge number of treasure and boss drops means you gain a lot of unique gear with fancy skills that you’ll be salivating to respec. Spells are fancier than ever, including meteor strikes and shooting fire from your eyes X-Men style. While you still need to use a currency to re-spec, this is unlocked relatively early (in the second main dungeon).
Like in Sekiro, breaking enemy stances is extremely important, but enemies are rarely one-size-fits-all. At times, the variety is so large it’s hard to feel settled on just one build. Thankfully, multiplayer summons can help you out, as can the enemy spirit summons you can find and use.
Boss fights get experimental too – there’s a lot of variety. Axe-wielding hulks like Godrick feel like classic Souls opponents, but other boss encounters switch things up considerably, whether you’re going toe-to-toe with a fire giant on horseback or tackling a battlefield-like festival of warfare where you’re joined by heaps of spectral NPCs running across dunes strewn with weapons. Though, some in the open world can get stuck on geometry a bit too often. It’s a new chapter for FromSoftware that excites you with every turn of the page, but you can’t help but feel like it’s still only the beginning of a book.
This article first appeared in Play Magazine issue 12. You can subscribe to the print edition, digital version, or save even more with the print/digital bundle – whatever you choose, you’ll be receiving an unprecedented trove of dedicated PlayStation coverage every month.