For a moment, pretend you're an examiner marking FromSoftware games. Get that red biro ready. "Tried jumping, didn't work", you might pop by Dark Souls. "Nothing but grief here", you mark by Bloodborne. "Time for crab", you scribble across each one in a mad frenzy. You are so tired of the crabs. They aren't the most encouraging games, to say the least.
But Elden Ring is different. Yes, it's an action-RPG that retains Souls' difficulty, but it's one that expands their labyrinthine worlds with a single offering that's dizzying in its scope. Perhaps most importantly, it's a world that encourages you to explore and wants you to win, even if its way of showing it is with a massive rock troll that wants to cave your face in. What Elden Ring provides is an adventure unlike anything else or anyone else's. An unmissable jaunt through one of, if not the most impressive open world to date. "Visions of joy" sums it up nicely.
Like I said in my first Elden Ring preview, drill down into the game's core and you'll find that Souls heart pulsing away. You start by choosing from a number of preset classes, each steering you towards an early playstyle you can break away from later, if you so choose. I went for Hero, because they had stats closely mirroring that of a brainless Yakuza thug. More adventurous options are available, including battle priests and lithe prisoners. Of course, you can always pick the Wretch, a half-naked sod who I'm never brave enough to lock-in whenever their pale thighs grace my Souls character-select screen.
The game feels like Souls too, from combat to exploration to interacting with NPCs. In the way your character creaks some double doors open or the duhnn sounds when you pick up glinting loot. From the outside looking in, then, it's easy to misplace Elden Ring in the Dark Souls 4 camp. Isn't it just Dark Souls, but bigger? No, not at all. The game borrows from Souls past, sure, but it's remarkably present. Elden Ring is an arrival of sorts, a generational shift away from the mould of old and into something that, well, only Elden Ring could provide.
And that's an open world that hasn't buckled under the weight of its ambition. Instead, it never falters, delivering a mind-bending number of caverns to crack and cathedrals to cleanse. FromSoftware have stamped their signature richness on every locale, where even a quiet exploratory trot on your spectral steed seems deliberate, like an orchestrated respite teeing up several options: a towering fortress jutting out of a lake; a procession of undead milling around an encampment; a sequence of giant steps leading to a murky beyond; a sleeping dragon. Choose one, come back to the others later? That is, if you don't bump into something else.
Oh, you'll stumble into a fine assortment of cursed creatures, that's for sure. And they carry the Souls baton with their disproportionately long limbs and boiled backs and flowing locks. Progression lies in razing their homes, stealing their souls, and pushing further into the fog of war. Each enemy has their place in this world too, though, I'm sure of it. What I mean by this is I don't have a chuffing clue what's going on in the story. But that's part of the allure of a Souls game. Info is drip-fed as you discover new locales, and clock environmental cues, decipher boss fights, and natter with forlorn NPCs. Confusion never leads to frustration, only curiosity.
If you're in need of some direction, Graces act as glowing checkpoints that produce wispy trails in the breeze. Follow these golden markers and they'll lead you onto the next story beat. That's about as much handholding as Elden Ring deigns to offer you. Exploration is your business and your business alone. Despite appearances, though, the game's open world acts as an extension of support when you need it most. The challenges it sets before you aren't ever going to be easy, no way! But you have options – look at those Graces again. It's where they aren't blowing that makes the open world so brilliant. No longer are you chained to obstacles in your path. What path? You have many now. Go against the wind and see what's out there. Go probe other sections of the map and come back stronger and wiser and with a pair of bolt cutters. Then give it another crack.
Encouragement is what sets this game apart from old Souls. Elden Ring's open world is vast and dense, but you can tell FromSoftware didn't build a sprawling map for the sake of it. Unlike some other open world games, Elden Ring's offering is tightly bound by a sense of purpose. Every discovery matters in some way, whether that's in pushing your character's stats up or gaining entry to a spooky academy over yonder. Remove one sliver and the way it's stitched together would mean the rest unraveling, probably into a pit of monstrous crawfish.
While Elden Ring's open world is a blast, it's also a relentless blowtorch to your patience. You might stumble into the odd gruff NPC with a grudge and a basket on their head, but whatever that is on the hill over there wants to kill you. Rarely are you going to discover a new location with something that doesn't want to melt your skin into chippy fat. So, don't expect nice little towns bustling with life and cheery shopkeepers and canned cries of laughter. The only cries of laughter you'll get here are of the despairing variety, either from yourself or from said NPC with a basket on his head. This can grate if you're just not in the mood for misery, although the myriad of options helps to offset the pain and makes it the most accessible Souls yet.
Rarely are you going to discover a new location with something that doesn't want to melt your skin into chippy fat.
Options, options, you're probably thinking, "This guy bangs on about options, doesn't he? Get a room." Seriously, though. It's not just the open world that hits you with plenty of them. The combat may be very similar to Souls in the way you dodge, block, and swing, but there's a few new additions that steer you towards experimentation.
Namely, Ashes Of War. These are special moves you can attach to weapons that can fundamentally change the way they operate too. For instance, one of my greatswords is now infused with blood, meaning I can perform a bloody slash that stacks a bleed debuff on enemies; at the cost of my own blood. That's a LOT of blood. But there's also no penalty to switching these moves out, so if I fancy something less self-destructive, I can do just that. It's...surprisingly nice? What I mean by this is I haven't been pursued by a three-eyed hog with razor blades for teeth yet.
Even the ability to craft items lets you fill your pockets with useful things that'll get you out of a pinch. Elden Ring's world is filled with flowers to pick, mushrooms to pluck, and lots of rare meats (we're talking dragon hearts, not like, salami). All of which can be slapped together to make bombs, knives, and magical crease you can slather on your weapons. Cookbooks scattered around the lands will increase your repertoire too, presumably left by the final boss: Gordon Ramsey. Word on the grapevine is his final move is a big shout and two slices of ciabatta fly in from the sides and compress you to death.
If you'd rather rely on a pair of extra hands, Elden Ring has your back. Given the right tools and the right spells, you can tinkle a bell and have some ghostly Pokémon fight by your side. Later on, there's a way of making them stronger. It's yet another way the game accommodates for solo players who'd like to ease the pressure slightly.
That's the thing about Elden Ring, its open world has your back, in its own - often painful - way. Souls has always been about inching through claustrophobic corridors and bashing your skull against whatever's in the way. You compare foreheads with friends, "Look at this bruise Barry, that's me five hours in". And Barry would probably peel his hair back and reveal the exact same bruise. Adventures in past Souls games tend to line up, as you're all wandering down the same pathways. But that's not the case with Elden Ring. You might show your bruise to Barry and he'll peel his hair back to reveal a scar or a massive indent or a tattoo of a mouse tustling with a skeleton. Both of may be five hours in but you'll be on totally different trajectories. No matter how hostile the game's world may be, it pushes you to succeed and carve out your own adventures. It is, by far, the most encouraging Souls yet.