Elden Ring review – Tarnished by ambition

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Announced as the brainchild of one Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R.R. Martin of “Game of Thrones” fame, Elden Ring was delivered at E3 2019 like a bolt of lightning and disappeared like one. A long drought of news followed and many doubted if the game was even real or if we were experiencing a collective Mandela Effect? Perhaps the real Elden Ring was the friends we made along the way.

And now a little over two years later, From Software’s ostensible magnum opus is finally here and as the dust settles, we find ourselves asking if the game delivers or if as the saying goes, that we should be careful what we wish for.

In the lore of Elden Ring, the Shattering of the titular artifact has brought all the Tarnished –individuals that lost the guidance of Grace— back to the Lands Between. As a rare Tarnished capable of seeing the guidance of lost Grace, players are tasked with searching for broken fragments of the Elden Ring to restore its glory and become Elden Lord. And that’s just the beginning. Actions and allegiances can shape the destiny of the Lands Between, should players wish to defy the powers that be in this world on the brink of ruin.

While it tries to distinguish itself by drawing from Norse and Arthurian myths, the universe of Elden Ring is one that you’ve seen before, which leaves a lot to wish for a new IP.

Those who have played any Dark Souls game will find this premise familiar. While it tries to distinguish itself by drawing from Norse and Arthurian myths, the universe of Elden Ring is one that you’ve seen before, which leaves a lot to wish for a new IP. All the From Software tropes are present: Sketchy merchants, crestfallen warriors, messed up creepy little guys that will undoubtedly become fan favorites (talking from personal experience, Boc the seamster, my beloved) and of course, dubious representation of femininity and motherhood in the game.

Elden Ring

Starting a new game in Elden Ring, as in most games, launches an introductory cinematic. But instead of showing either of the two gorgeous CGI trailers that From Software has put out, a slideshow of concept art is presented to introduce key characters and deliver exposition. It’s odd and potentially overwhelming, even more so than in previous Souls games. Such information could be better synthesized through gradual introduction, and it’s a strange choice to not integrate important plot details into this slideshow considering the amount of information already present in promotional story trailers.

After this first impression, what follows is a stunningly realized action role-playing game set in a lush open world, with tight combat, exploration and plenty of mysteries to unfold. After investing over 60 hours into the game, Elden Ring keeps revealing just how massive it truly is. Just after I thought I had made great progress I discovered that I wasn’t even halfway done with the game. Many of the areas I explored were optional zones, dedicated in its entirety to side quests and optional content. I still had several of the main story bosses to deal with and way more maps to unfold.

Many optional dungeons are hit or miss. Some are exciting mazes with tight design or distinct visuals. But most of the time they’re a reskinned cave, mine or catacomb with some rare gear at the end.”

Because of this, Elden Ring is a familiar experience that is in constant contradiction with what it is and what it wants to be. The smaller optional dungeons are hit or miss. Some are small exciting mazes with tight level design or distinct visuals. But most of the time they’re a reskinned cave, mine or catacomb with some rare piece of equipment at the end. But without prior knowledge, it becomes a gamble which dungeons are interesting and which ones aren’t.

The game is at its best when discovering new open areas and medium to large-sized dungeons, where the levels are focused and concise. A sense of wonder overwhelmed me while encountering gigantic fortifications enshrouded in mystery and lavish areas with a myriad of colors in the horizon. Visual variety is one of Elden Ring’s strongest suits and that makes it one of From Software’s most gorgeous games; it never stops surprising.

Elden Ring

I particularly liked some of the character and enemy designs in the game, with some sets of armors looking very weird and unique, in an almost Demon’s Souls way. Early enemies and bosses will play tricks with you by trying to pass as statues in the environment and with erratic and robotic movements, which makes for an interesting use of aesthetic and art cleverly affecting gameplay.

The soundtrack and sound design are fantastic. Beautifully haunting melodies and frantic songs during enemy encounters accompany your trek across the Lands Between, with music no longer relegated to bosses, a main hub and some story critical areas. The more powerful themes encountered during boss fights flex the musical muscles of Tsukasa Saitoh, and special mention goes to From Software’s audio design team for the excellent ambiance sounds.

Magic builds are a viable option again after their fall from grace in Dark Souls 3, but the aggressive nature of many bosses makes Vigor a necessity for most builds.

Gameplay borrows heavily from Dark Souls 3, which isn’t a bad thing. Elden Ring builds upon this foundation and adds welcome tweaks and fixes that refines mechanics originating from that game. Magic builds are a viable option again after their fall from grace in Dark Souls 3, but the aggressive nature of many bosses makes Vigor a necessity for most builds. This results in the balance for glass cannon and magic builds being mostly untouched. Enemies can be as ferocious as Sekiro bosses, made all the more frustrating when players don’t have similar tools to deal with them.

The new horse riding mechanics serve their purpose. They’re mostly a way to traverse the terrain fast and to make exploring potentially less tedious, with some clunky combat added to the mix. Although I found the option to heal while riding your mount a welcome addition for some overworld bosses and to gain spacing against the more aggressive bosses and mobs.

Elden Ring

Crafting merely exists to solve problems that the open world brings to the table and I didn’t find much use for it. Having a world so big means that it needs to be filled with content, but when that content is just an abundance of common items the result is a bunch of inventory busywork. Cookbooks which let you craft most ammunition or consumables are rendered moot by the game giving you most of the materials you need in one way or another.

And then there’s the elephant in the room: performance. My experience with the game was primarily on the base Xbox One, and I am sad to report that resolution and framerate are rough around the edges— both figuratively and literally. The image on previous-gen hardware is very blurry and visual artifacts are notable everywhere in the world. Foliage suffers a big downgrade and textures look less than ideal.

Framerate though, is where the hit is most noticeable, with the game rarely sticking to 30 FPS and constantly shifting. Fortunately, this is not the case on an Xbox One X, where resolution and visual fidelity maintain an acceptable level and framerate holds up. If your current option is to play on a base Xbox One, I would recommend holding out till you upgrade to a One X or a Series console.

Elden Ring is a truly ambitious game. It manages the scope necessary to be the biggest Soulsborne game ever, but its lack of focus and inconsistent pacing bogs down the experience. Pasting a working formula to a mandatory, Ubisoft-like triple A open world might not be the best way of transitioning into that format, not when games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Metal Gear Solid 5 have shown us a better way.

While many fans of From Software’s work might appreciate the sheer amount of content packed into the world of Elden Ring and find themselves constantly in awe of its scale, newer players will have a harder time being reeled in.

This game was reviewed on Xbox One using a launch day review code provided by the publisher, Bandai Namco Asia.

Elden Ring review
Elden Ring review – Tarnished by ambition
ABOUT THE SCORE
A good game is a game worth playing. While technical weaknesses or lack of originality might mar the experience, we enjoyed our time.
Pros
The level design shines during larger dungeons
Stunning art direction and environments
Welcomes a variety of builds and approaches
Cons
Vigor feels mandatory for some punishing bosses
Open world bogs down experience in the long run
New mechanics not enough to distinguish from previous games
7
GOOD