Well, It was only a matter of time before this game turned up. How could it not? Elden Ring was one of the biggest titles of the year, outselling previous hits like Dark Souls III by a wide margin and dominating games media and conversation for the months after its release. It spawned a story about a player who joined co-op sessions and fought solo against the most difficult boss in the game, it inspired lovingly-produced 40-minute dramatized lore explanations, and it drew in new fans who had found previous titles too punishing and narrow.
And obviously it’s not on my list because it was popular, but it does fill me with joy to see that it is. I knew folks for whom it was their first brush with any of From Software’s dark fantasy titans, I exchanged stories with friends about the things we each discovered. For a time, it felt a bit like a gaming phenomenon like Skyrim or Breath of the Wild, always a part of water cooler conversations. And to be able to see so much discussion, so much critical analysis, and so much enthusiasm for this colossal game, from a studio whose output I love dearly, was a huge part of what made it all so special.
Rise, Ye Tarnished
While it’s set in an entirely new world, Elden Ring is in many ways a spiritual successor to the Dark Souls trilogy, built upon the accumulated knowledge and experience of the studio’s previous titles. The story as presented follows “a Tarnished of no renown”, one of many aimless undead who were banished from The Lands Between and are now being beckoned back. Their goal is to attempt to restore the Elden Ring by reclaiming Great Runes from the disgraced demigods who still possess them.
From that proper-noun-heavy setup, the game spirals out into a spiderweb of stories big and small as the Tarnished takes on demigods and meets numerous friendly characters in the world who are struggling towards their own goals. The Lands Between are expansive and broken up into distinct regions, all of which can be explored freely as soon as the player finds their way into them.
Like the Souls series, Elden Ring is infamously difficult. Its combat requires attentiveness to enemy moves and careful timing in order to succeed, along with a lot of patience and perseverance. However, while previous titles provided subtle mechanical levers that knowing players could pull to adjust the difficulty they experienced, Elden Ring approaches this idea more simply: you can just go somewhere else. Elden Ring’s world is so enormous, so dense with interesting things to find, that players hitting roadblocks will be able to explore elsewhere or pursue other goals before returning to difficult challenges.
Immediately noticeable in the game’s opening area is a great mounted warrior called the Tree Sentinel, a monstrous enemy that’s nearly impossible for a new player to overcome with the tools available at the beginning of the game. It’s a lesson in circumnavigation, an indicator that progress need not be halted by difficult challenges in the open world. The same opening area includes a dragon to battle, a trapped chest that teleports victims to a horrible crystal mine across the world, and much more. All of these things can be ignored until later (well, the trapped chest might get you, but it’s not too bad to get out) or plumbed for interesting treasures.
The expansiveness and variety to be found inspire experimentation and exploration, and there are even ways to fully re-spec in the middle of a playthrough if you want to try something new. It’s an acknowledgement of the sheer breadth the game has to offer, and an invitation for players to engage with it without needing to start a whole new playthrough.
From Roots to Branches
The Lands Between are filled with the cataclysmic echoes of a forgotten past, a time of demigods and war. The cliffs and lakes and ruins are filled to the brim with endless details that characterize the powerful beings that once shaped it and now languish in their castles and towers, awaiting a challenge from the Tarnished. The story isn’t often on the surface, but is ever present in the margins and is foregrounded more often than in past Souls titles.
Some of the “quests” in Elden Ring span from the beginning of the game to its late game areas, and others jump all over the map to bring characters to various inflection points in their storylines. And though these stories are often hidden or unclear or disjointed, the player community assembles the pieces and retells them with enthusiasm. The internet is full of interpretations, lore explanations, and guides to help interested players untangle the web of characters and events that preceded the arrival of Tarnished in the Lands Between.
The richness of the world is a culmination of all of the hard-earned experience that From Software has accumulated building the Dark Souls series and its spiritual spinoffs (Bloodborne and Sekiro), as is the mechanical breadth available in the game’s systems. In both the moments of enormous spectacle and the quiet, barely-noticed details, Elden Ring is telling the story of a coherent place with an elaborate history, and it does its best to surface just enough of that information for players to start noticing the rest.
And even on a surface level, the world of Elden Ring is stunning to look at and listen to. Each new area makes a stark impression, and the melancholic music that plays while exploring the world lingers with me. The Erdtree, an impossibly enormous tree that’s entangled with the shattered Elden Ring itself, ever looms over the Lands Between, visible from nearly all of its numerous regions, a reminder of the sheer scale of the legacy that the Tarnished will face.
From the grand set-pieces to the smallest minutiae, the Lands Between exude character and placeness, worthy of many dozens of hours of exploration. While the game does feel a bit long in the tooth, I never felt that any areas in particular were so weak that they should have been cut for brevity; the developers truly had that much quality material that they wanted to include.
There was no way that Elden Ring would have missed my top 10 list. Ever since a Let’s Play of Dark Souls convinced me to pick up the Souls series, I’ve played through every title and found something to love in all of them. These games have become a beloved genre to me, one in which I regularly seek out indie titles to see what they do differently and eagerly await the big installments.
Elden Ring marks only the second time I’ve been able to engage with a big From Software title at launch, rather than revisiting it later (I only became interested in the series in 2016, and worked my way forward from there). It’s a joy to see newcomers finding their way into the genre through it, and it’s easily the game I spent the most time with this year. While I’ve worn myself down from my first playthrough, I have no doubt I’ll be coming back to explore The Lands Between more in the future.