Elden Ring – The First Fifteen Hours
It should go without saying that Elden Ring is a title requiring far more than 15 hours investment to see all it has to offer. While a full review will appear on Player2 in time, we also want to do what we can to give our readers some idea of their potential purchase before launch on the 25th. Here’s our take on the first 15 hours of gameplay, which given the nature of the game will (and should) vary wildly from writer to writer.
The phrase “Open world Dark Souls” seems to have been bandied about mere frames into the Elden Ring reveal trailer, their 2011 masterpiece both a blessing and a curse for each subsequent work in From Softwares oeuvre, casting a shadow that seemingly can’t be escaped despite such masterful attempts as Bloodborne. At fifteen hours in, such a reductive phrase isn’t entirely out of order, but requires so many caveats and “yes, buts…” that it would be easy to build this entire preview around them. But why not? Why shouldn’t I use such a tired framing device so close to embargo and running on so little sleep?
So there you have it; if all you desire is an answer to the question “Is Elden Ring just open world Dark Souls?”, then yes, but… it is so much more, in so many ways small and large. Many elements that have become synonymous with the Soulsborne formula are turned on their head in Elden Ring, with major adjustments to pacing, content gating, build efficacy; a cascade of changes across every system that stem from a level of freedom heretofore unthought of in a game of its ilk.
Taking place in The Lands Between, Elden Ring’s story delivery remains as obtuse as its forebears, slowly unfurling through item descriptions, environmental storytelling and infrequent character interactions. Despite an opening cinematic that sets up the major figures of the world, I’m still teasing out the connections and have yet to meet half of them in-game. The basic gameplay loop here will feel familiar to FromSoft veterans; players control a ‘tarnished’ character, cursed to revive after death at the nearest Site of Grace and losing precious Runes in the process. I’m not the first to allude to a find/replace joke here and I won’t be the last.
Yes, but… an open world rebels against the very core of this framework, taking control away from the developer and giving players more agency that any previous Soulsborne title has. Where prior entries in the ‘genre’ pushed poor-to-average players towards a fairly linear path, The Lands Between host an incredible array of challenges both great and small, some in very close proximity to one another. I have cowered in fear from enormous trolls, only to enter a small dungeon and ‘one-shot’ it’s ‘boss’. These small dungeons, often only a handful of rooms, are miniature encounters with simpler end bosses that seem designed to slowly ramp up player skill and equipment. These contrast against Legacy Dungeons, much larger and more intricate locations which feel far closer to the discrete areas of previous games, chock full of exploration and combat against a range of foes and in some cases multiple mini-bosses and ‘big red bar’ bosses proper.
The open world itself is moody and sparse, designed to be traversed via Torrent, a ghostly mount gained in the first few hours which bestows both speed and a double jump. The ability to move through the world while avoiding combat if desired can be further taken advantage of in conjunction with Sites of Grace, Elden Ring’s bonfire equivalents that double as numerous fast-travel points with absolutely zero cost to warp between. I’m not kidding when I say that the generous placement of Sites of Grace feels like FromSoft catering to those players who do want to endlessly run an encounter until mastered, while also throwing a bone to those who would prefer to avoid unnecessary fighting as they skulk about the world, crouched and stealthing their way through bushes much like in Sekiro. Being able to pivot so quickly and easily to new areas, or simply run amok on the map and ‘save’ locations for later exploration can provide the breathing space needed when an encounter doesn’t click.
These changes present likely the greatest challenge for dyed in the wool ‘Souls’ fans – an admonishment to not to beat your head against a boss for hours on end, because while it’s not explicitly discouraged there seems to be plenty of implicit design work pushing players away from this philosophy. Before, it was more often than not a progress requirement rather than a choice. Fifteen hours in, there is no singular barrier to story or ‘content’ in the way a particular boss could be in Dark Souls or Bloodborne; instead, players are free to move about the world, discovering it’s many secrets until they find another insurmountable challenge, at which point they can shift direction yet again or perhaps go back to that initial roadblock with a new level of skill and equipment which meets the task. Of course, there is a chance that at a certain point every direction leads to a roadblock, but systems new and old work to mitigate even this slim possibility.
Jolly cooperation is a controversial issue for Soulsborne players of a particular type – you ‘haven’t really beaten a boss’ unless it was done solo/at level 1/on a Guitar Hero controller/gatekeeping excuse etc. etc. Pardon my language, but fuck that noise. To quote noted thespian Vin Diesel, “It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile, winning’s winning”, so the abundance of AI companion summons for boss fights will help many players through these tougher encounters which also seem to forego a previous tradition of increasing a bosses health pool for summoning. A secondary summon system appears in the form of Ashes, upgradeable items occasionally dropped when a group of foes is destroyed that allow a player to summon their ghostly aid, but with a few conditions; only one and once per encounter within certain geographical boundaries. Don’t expect to roll across The Lands Beyond with a spooky entourage in tow, as they will disappear the instant these invisible borders are crossed. While Ashes can be the difference between victory and defeat, they are by no means a ‘win’ button.
What would an open world be without a crafting system? Not content to avoid the bandwagon forever, FromSoft have graciously included one in Elden Ring which works as intended and, in some ways, exceeds those of its contemporaries. The logic behind the implementation here seems obvious, as crafting provides incentive for exploration and combat as a means of acquiring raw materials and recipes for improved items, reducing the players need to repeatedly visit merchants scattered throughout The Lands Between who, as a result, seem a little understocked. Crafting also encourages the ‘push your luck’ element when making progress between Sites of Grace, providing damage boosts and status effect healing items alongside arrows and crossbow bolts in a pinch. What sets the crafting in Elden Ring apart is that I think there is a chance it will noticeably mitigate some difficulty for players who take full advantage of it, but thus far I haven’t had to rely on it outside of some fire pots and bone arrows in a pinch. Git gud or git crafting?
When I say that Elden Ring is more approachable than Sekiro or Bloodborne, please realise that this is a very FromSoft definition of approachable – you will still need to put the work in, but think of it as a split shift instead of a full 18 hour graveyard. If you are not a fan of Soulsborne games for specific reasons, multiple of which to your mind will be addressed by the changes I’ve outlined above, then Elden Ring may indeed be what you’ve yearned for all this time. I expect I will have more fully fleshed out points in the forthcoming full review, but for now I caution those who balk at Soulsborne titles on the basis of their combat or storytelling – I don’t yet feel either of these systems have been altered in any way as to alleviate those concerns. Let me shoot my shot at a box quote and put it this way – Elden Ring is the equivalent of Dark Souls Sizzler; you can eat your cheese toast last and hit the desert bar first, but you’re still at a Sizzler. Personally, I can’t wait to get my fill of another 45 plus hours of Elden Ring, even if I need to summon the ghost of Miyazaki himself to help me finish it. As for GRRM, I wouldn’t ask for his help to finish anything.
Elden Ring was played on a PlayStation 5 console with code kindly supplied by Bandai Namco AU.