My last Elden Ring hands-on was illuminating, to say the least. As I got turned to mulch by a mechanical chariot, split in two by an ulcerated lizard, and bullied by a beast man, I simply... gave up. I said to myself, "I'll come back to this later. Yeah", with that final "yeah" escaping from my lips like a wisp of steam from a kettle.
The game boiled me alive, but its open world accommodated these feverish outbursts far better than previous Souls games. There were vast swathes of map to help bring my temperature back down from simmer to sparkling. One thing troubled me, though, and that was the rate at which I'd zip between bosses in-between distractions. It felt like I lacked the focus needed to keep up with Elden Ring's open world.
Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro. If you've played any of the games from this holy trinity, there's no doubt you'll be able unfurl an image of their maps in your mind. Or at the very least, I'd imagine the satnav buried in your subconscious would suddenly recall the rights and lefts needed to reach the important spots: breastroke frantically past the man-eating carp, then hop up into Sanctuary. Spiral right to the Catacombs. Hop down the precarious ledges and into the Abandoned Old Workshop.
From the preview builds I've played and what we've heard about its playtime, Elden Ring is unlikely to go full Ubisoft on us. There certainly aren't map markers up the wazoo, let me tell you. The opening area Limgrave, however, is a big boy. Optional bosses lurk in graves and mines and castles. One resides in a field, surrounded by alien worms. They are scattered all over this starting land, and many of them can be teleported to in a jiffy. This means you can add them to your to-do list and warp off elsewhere if you're struggling or just fancy a change of scene.
Where Dark Souls or Bloodborne's bosses may have proved frustrating roadblocks or insurmountable obstacles, Elden Ring's opening area presents you with reams of things to bash your skull against, then. Some may prove harder, which hurts. Some may prove softer, which hurts less. Limgrave certainly provides plenty of avenues from which to rebuild lost confidence, like environmental puzzles or dungeons where enemy health bars deplete a smidgeon faster than the last nightmare realm.
As you could've guessed, though, Limgrave is anything but relaxing. There are occasional moments of stillness and quiet, perhaps on a cliff edge, or as you trot between Graces. But Limgrave is populated by nasty, horrid things. Much like The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild had that, "You see it, you can go there!" thing going on. Elden Ring has that too. Just with, "...and get torn to giblets!" nailed on at the end, alongside a claw mark and a spattering of blood.
From what I've played, at least, the game was relentlessly challenging. At one point, I bounced between three different optional bosses. I was the ping-pong ball and they were the paddles, swatting me to and fro. Sure, in the full release I could follow the main path, earn EXP, get those GAINS, and return as a hulking paddle myself. But given so many options, I found it hard to knuckle down. They were all beatable, but given the option I couldn't beat any of them.
With so much space and so many avenues to explore, I struggled to draw on the Souls discipline I'd developed over the years. Where I might've charged at a boss repeatedly in another Souls game, and gradually learned how to beat them, in Elden Ring was more inclined to snuff out my efforts and move onto something else. Perhaps this was an effect of the limited time I had with the hands-on, but even still, my hamstrung attention span felt more of a product of Elden Ring's open world than anything else.
While my attention span could readjust, and the structure of the game's open world could flip wildly come full release, I still believe its trade-off of intimacy for more "stuff" may come as a surprise to some. Like I said in my first preview, it does veer between classic, suffocating Souls as you explore catacombs and such, but I hadn't realised quite how vast it would be.
The myriad of choice is suffocating in its own way, I think, and can prompt flitting between checkpoints in an attempt to focus, an approach that only serves to highlight just how optional the optional bits are. Bounce between them for a while and you might come to realise that they aren't gatekeepers to a world beyond, but boxes to tick later. I don't doubt Elden Ring will surprise me at launch, I just need to improve my focus in anticipation of a world that demands it more than ever.