Few game developers run the gamut between the sublime and the ridiculous as gracefully as FromSoftware. One moment in Elden Ring I was scraping through an epic sword fight against a many-armed demi-god, each of us a sliver away from death as the fatal blow was finally delivered; the next I was battling the same boss alongside two other human players called Dirty Diaper Dan and Dank Grandma.
You might be marvelling at the elegiac beauty of a ravaged landscape, only to have the atmosphere punctured by an absurd message left by a fellow player, be it ironically captioning a giant tortoise as a “dog” or suggesting you “Try finger, but hole” when approaching a corpse slung over a wall. It’s not just other players with a dirty sense of humour – the game will often invite you to collect piles of “gold-tinged excrement”, a material that you can, should you desire, place inside a pot and throw at your enemies, just like in real life.
Elden Ring is the latest title from the makers of Demon Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy, Bloodborne and Sekiro – a company that’s become both famous and infamous for its exquisitely-crafted, inscrutable, masochistic titles that force players to become intimately acquainted with its labyrinthine systems through sheer, bloody-minded repetition.
Like its previous games, Elden Ring takes place in a world that is relentlessly hostile. Your character, a lowly “tarnished”, awakens in a strange land called the “Lands Between” and it’s up to you to slowly piece together what’s going on. After more than 30 hours I still only have the faintest inkling, pieced together from disparate fragments of lore scattered far and wide.
Where Elden Ring deviates from previous From Soft games is its open world design. No longer are you funnelled from area to area – now you can summon a spectral steed and gallop the length of this ridiculously large map. Spotted a dragon you don’t like the look of? Then hightail out of there and explore somewhere else. Banging your head against the brick wall of a boss? Then come back in a few hours’ time when you’ve sliced up the monsters in the dozens of caves and castles dotted around.
From Soft’s creative figurehead Hidetaka Miyazaki is fascinated by the idea of cycles. His worlds ebb and flow, with players often tasked with ending one cycle in order to begin the next, just as the minute-to-minute gameplay revolves around hundreds of mini-cycles that reset each time you are slain and reborn.
There are meta cycles at work, too, with each game a rekindling of those that have come before, and never is this more evident than in Elden Ring. Characters, items, locations, styles of architecture – everywhere you look there are echoes of the past. This is especially true of the thematically similar Dark Souls but you can also see shades of Bloodborne and Sekiro, not least in the stealth mechanics and frantic pacing. What makes this game really sing is the way these elements are packaged together. Inhabiting this world feels wonderful, whether you’re traversing rocky outcrops or fighting for your life.
The legendary difficulty is still there – boy is it still there, especially when you prpgress to the later areas – but you’re handed more tools than ever to help mitigate the game’s sadistic tendencies. As well as being able to summon other players for cooperative multiplayer, you now have your own roster of “spirits” you can call upon to help. While some enemies may be virtually unstoppable on foot, the ability to fight from horseback adds a new dimension to combat.
Sometimes, however, these tools will simply be unavailable, which is the game’s way of telling you to “git gud”, to borrow a Souls veteran cliche. This is a From Soft game, after all. Not just any FromSoftware game, either – perhaps the very best of them all.