Elden Ring review – a beautiful nightmare

Always remember the five D’s of Elden Ring: Dodge, dodge, dodge, dodge, and die

Elden Ring review: the Tarnished stares up at a towering castle

It’s a battle I’ve fought a dozen times before. Several large chimeral beasts – part rat, part hound – charge at me, their caricaturish-large heads and comically-tiny arms dragging across the floor as they struggle to keep themselves upright, like a horribly misshapen T-Rex. The first musters its strength, yanking its huge jaws upwards and towards me, forcing me to roll away. Before it can follow up, however, its neck is met by a satisfyingly-weighty strike from the rust-worn steel of my blade.

But I cannot get complacent knowing that I have the creature’s number, as its feral nature prevents it from going down without a fight. Before I can swing again, its compatriots are on top of me, snapping at my armour. Knowing I’m at a major numbers disadvantage, I sprint into the ruined doorway of a nearby church, hoping to funnel my foes. It provides little cover, but it does just enough to prevent me from being completely overwhelmed.

Before I can restore my stamina, Fido #1 makes its move, forcing me onto the back foot once more. Fortunately, I get a moment to summon my spirit wolves – a fine addition for newer players – buying me enough space to reassert myself in the fight. The first beast goes down, while its friends are busy fighting my wolves. From there, it’s a simple matter of cleaning up the rest while they’re distracted.

I congratulate myself on another good hunt, as a trickle of Runes – the currency of the Lands Between – and a smattering of crafting materials enter my inventory. However, the relief from this adrenaline-filled sequence is cut short, as a chorus of anguished moans echo out from behind me. I turn to find several flame-coated zombies have risen from a nearby fire. They swell up. I swear to myself. They explode. ‘You Died’.

After picking myself back up at a nearby Site of Grace – the Lands Between’s equivalent of Dark Souls’ bonfires – I return to my place of death, this time riding past my assailants on my trusty steed, Torrent, before scooping up my lost Runes. It’s an all-too familiar scenario for seasoned FromSoftware players – minus the horse – but as a newcomer to the studio’s work, the punishment of death is something I have had to learn to deal with during the 60+ hours I have sunk into Elden Ring.

Elden Ring review: the Tarnished overlooking a misty swamp

As I mentioned in our Elden Rings preview, this is very much my first rodeo with FromSoftware’s work. Although I have always admired the ingenuity of the developer, I have historically shied away from these brutal games in favour of more forgiving hack ‘n’ slash titles. Get your ‘games journalist difficulty’ jokes in now, as if we haven’t heard them a million times before.

Between the addition of spirits to aid you in certain scenarios, the return of stealth from Sekiro, and the mobility provided by Torrent, FromSoftware has provided a suite of tools – some new, some refined – that help ease newcomers like myself into their inaugural visit to the Lands Between. But not only that, these additions also provide numerous tactical options for how you take an engagement, while simultaneously allowing the studio to fill up Elden Rings’ vast overworld with larger-scale encounters – both in terms of enemy quantity and size – that won’t overwhelm you.

As for the types of enemy you’ll encounter, weird ratdogs and exploding zombies aren’t the only horrors I have been brutally bumped off by. Elden Ring subtly draws from a variety of mythos to inform its own – the Yggdrasil-esque Erdtrees which stitch the Elden Ring map together being the most obvious. But not only has FromSoftware and George R.R. Martin looked to the divine, or demi-divine for inspiration, but it has, as exemplified by my earlier encounter, looked to more earthly points of reference, too.

The Lands Between spark awe, delight, and pure, unadulterated horror in the unlikeliest of ways

Perhaps my favourite thing about the Lands Between’s locals is the way the developer has made even the most banal of creatures more fantastical. Between care package wolves which drop in from the heavens onto your unwitting bonce, eagles with swords for feet – Sweagles? Sworgles? – and goats that curl up into a ball and roly poly away when spooked, the Lands Between spark awe, delight, and of course pure, unadulterated horror in the unlikeliest of ways.

The result of all of this is a remarkably-diverse bestiary of beasties, each with its own unique moveset, which can vary region-by-region. And for the bosses? Well, they are a treat in themselves. While FromSoftware doesn’t reinvent the wheel with most of its miniboss encounters, larger, lore-driven fights are spectacular. Although I cannot say anything about who you’ll meet within the magic-imbued walls of Raya Lucaria, just know that you’re in for a visual marvel. There’s also a raid-style battle with a familiar face, but once again I shall leave that to you to revel in for yourself.

What I can say is that FromSoftware has once again showcased its mastery of producing boss fights which force you to think and adapt. Although I had awkwardly prodded my sword through a number of named enemies in Limgrave’s beginner dungeons, taking on Elden Rings’ first major boss – or at least the one we recommend fighting first in our Elden Ring boss order guide – Margit the Fell Omen, was a completely different – and rather humbling – experience altogether. Despite the aid of summoned comrade, Rogier, as well as my wispy dogs, Margit had my number attempt after attempt. So, I decided to get creative.

I took a proper look at my stats for the first time, and started spending some of my Runes on levelling up. Although I spent a little bit of time checking out basic Dark Souls 3 builds to offer up some inspiration – eventually settling on a ‘quality’ build for my Vagabond – I found myself naturally diverting here and there as I began beefing up. A point into Faith for a handy spell here, a little extra Endurance there to bolster my carry load, and not once did it feel like I was bricking myself, as the pros of versatility in Elden Ring often outweigh the cons.

The addition of the Flask of Wondrous Physick massively helped maintain that versatility later in the game, too. At one point I gained access to a particularly powerful spirit, though its summoning cost was too high. Fortunately I had found a tear that could be mixed into the potion to briefly eliminate the cost. This meant I didn’t have to respec, or begin allocating points into Mind, giving me the best of both worlds without compromising my build.

Gear-wise, you are spoiled for choice. No matter how far down the melee, ranged, or magic rabbit hole you go, there are always opportunities to pick up a different type of weapon or don a different set of armour, similarly to the flexibility in your stat distribution. After studying Margit’s moveset and getting a sense of the timings down, I switched up my loadout entirely to fit the needs of the fight, which suffice to say made a world of difference.

Elden Ring review: Margit the Fell Omen

After experimenting with various types of status-inflicting projectiles – made possible by Elden Rings’ excellent crafting system and the abundance of resources available to pillage from downed enemies – I was also able to figure out Margit’s weaknesses. Thanks to my exploration efforts, I also happened upon a particularly useful item specifically made for taking the Fell Omen down. If you’re interested in the minutiae of that, then have a gander at our Elden Ring Margit guide.

Now beefed up, better-equipped, and wiser to his attack patterns than I was before, I was finally able to overcome Margit. It’s this cycle of getting stronger, becoming confident in your strength, and subsequently being put down by the next big boss that makes Elden Ring so addictive. Although dying over and over doesn’t offer a tangible reward, it bolsters the value of progression by making you really work for it.

As with Margit, each major victory I have chalked up in Elden Ring has been the result of adaptation and exploration, and while they are both a necessity considering the nature of the game, FromSoftware has excelled at enabling both. Exploration is also core to unravelling the rich lore scattered throughout the Lands Between.

While roaming around the starting region of Limgrave, players will be offered an accord by a young Finger Maiden called Melina. In return for taking her to the base of the Great Erdtree, she guides you on your journey. Then she disappears. Poof. Gone. You might see her a few more times when resting at Sites of Grace, but the main heft of Elden Ring’s narrative – as with all of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s creations – is revealed predominantly through the finer details.

An item’s description can offer just as much to understanding what’s going on in Elden Ring’s lore as a full discussion with an NPC. Although the puzzle’s edges are outlined through Melina, finding the rest of the pieces is left entirely to you, the player.

Indeed, just as it does with the combat, the game makes you work to progress your understanding of the world around you, but it absolutely is a labour of love. Though not the kind of storytelling I am used to experiencing, I found myself constantly seeking out those lightbulb moments that come with filling out sections of the full picture.

Aside from the lore snippets and handy loot the developer has hidden throughout the Lands Between, it has also been busy filling it with all sorts of side activities to do, including a number of quests – some minor, some with greater repercussions on the Elden Ring endings – oftentimes cryptically dished out by unassuming NPCs. The best thing is that none of these are marked on the map, resulting in plenty of happy little accidental discoveries, as well as a few less pleasant ones. You’ll want to keep a pen and pad handy for noting down quest checkpoints, or consult our Elden Ring walkthrough as you work through the game.

The sheer amount of neatly-obscured bonus objectives means that you’ll most likely have a completely different experience than other players, despite covering the same locales. This has certainly been the case for us, with all of our Elden Ring writers excitedly boasting that they’ve found some new secret that the others somehow missed.

In fact, I couldn’t tell you the number of times I caught myself saying ‘how the bloody hell did I not spot that earlier?’ throughout my playthrough. To say Elden Rings is layered is an understatement – if you chopped its seemingly ever-growing map in half, I bet it would look more like an ant colony.

Elden Ring review: the Tarnished stands at the end of a gloomy bridge

To exemplify how far the developer has gone, I distinctly remember finding a secret passage behind a dungeon boss, revealing a big old jumping puzzle for me to complete. Who creates a dungeon and goes ‘you know what, let’s add in a post-dungeon dungeon?’ FromSoftware, apparently.

FromSoft’s first attempt at going big, both on its topography and the weaving subterranean areas below, is nothing short of stellar

It’s one thing to craft an absolutely gorgeous world, featuring everything from gloomy wetlands punctuated with sunken buildings, to scorched lands dyed in a scarlet hue, but it’s another, all the more gargantuan task, to ensure it doesn’t feel empty or static. FromSoftware’s first attempt at going big, both on its topography and the weaving subterranean areas below, is nothing short of stellar. And while there is a lot to do, the devs balance it out by providing ample space for you to simply ride around and admire the stunning scenery.

With that said, it’s easy to fall into a false sense of security when cruising around on Torrent. After all, you’re only ever a few clippity clops from being ganked by some unseen threat. For the most part, the tension is palpable. Part of me is trying to enjoy the fancy vistas, the other is trying not to shit itself. And it’s this underlying tension, this fear of the unknown – and even of the known – which helps ensure the Lands Between remain at a constant simmer.

Unfortunately, Elden Ring does have its foibles on the performance side of things which at times mar the overall overworld experience. Despite having my PS5 set to performance mode, I’ve still experienced hefty frame drops in busier sections. Additionally, although being able to see for miles around makes for a greater visual spectacle, it can at times be jarring to see assets pop into existence, sometimes from out of nowhere, and sometimes from right in front of you.

While marauding around on Torrent, I have also found that fall damage when mounted can be rather inconsistent. Although you can double-jump mid-flight on the magnificent steed, the game ignores the break in your fall, and seems to calculate damage from your point of origin, rather than from that reset. This makes sense as it ensures you simply can’t fall into areas that require certain bosses to be defeated, or objectives to be cleared, but it’s something to keep in mind. It’s also strange considering Torrent can survive the huge Spiritspring super jumps, but will kill you off when hopping down a ledge that’s just a teensy bit too high.

Through the pillars of discovery and adaptation which Elden Ring is held aloft by, FromSoftware has once again showcased that it is at the peak of its game. Though you may be Tarnished, Elden Ring is a pristine package which will surely delight long-time FromSoftware fans, as well as fledgling players drawn to it through the sheer amount of hype the game has generated.

Though this is by far the studio’s most ambitious project yet, FromSoftware has excelled itself, crafting one of the finest open-world experiences I have ever had the joy of playing. As my most successful entry point into the studio’s work, it is the one which I absolutely recommend to anyone looking to dip their toe into the genre. But be warned: while Elden Ring is certainly the most approachable FromSoftware game, it will absolutely kick your arse if you underestimate its difficulty.

Elden Ring review

Elden Ring packs its intricately crafted world - a world which should be used as a reference point for open-world design moving forward - with more impressive boss fights and secrets than you can shake a giant greatsword at. Although its punishing combat system may not be to everyone’s taste, it is an essential experience both for FromSoftware newcomers and seasoned veterans alike.

10