Elden Ring

My history with FromSoftware games is virtually non-existent. I own a copy of Bloodborne that a friend gave to me, and I bought the Demon’s Souls remake for PS5, but I have yet to play either. My exposure to their games comes in the form of the persistent discussion about their difficulty and accessibility with the release of each new game. You know how it goes. A new FromSoft game comes out, hardcore fans get excited and hype rises, curious newcomers enter the fray and decide to check it out, some of them are in love and some of them dare to criticize the inflexible difficulty and lack of accessibility options, a certain contingent of toxic FromSoft fans attack any and all critics, shouting “git gud,” “this game isn’t made for you,” “accessibility options would ruin the game,” all that fun stuff, rinse and repeat. Though I hadn’t played them, I found myself on the side of those calling for more accessibility. I was irked by two main things: for one, accessibility options don’t have to “ruin” a game because they are, as their name implies, options. Adding optional modes for people with disabilities or people who lack the time, patience, or skill to navigate an infamously challenging game doesn’t mean longtime fans can’t play the game how they want to play it. Just because the options are there doesn’t mean you have to use them. The second thing (other than the obvious annoyance at the ridiculousness of the “git gud” refrain) is the lack of willingness by critics to hold the game’s difficulty against it. We seem more than willing to hold a game’s difficulty against it when it’s “too easy,” but there seems to be a hesitation to do the same for inordinately hard games. Read or listen to criticism of games like Kirby, or Luigi’s Mansion, or Super Princess Peach, and you’ll often see scores purposely lowered because the games are “too easy” and don’t present much of a challenge. It’s not a criticism of the design of the game, just the perceived lack of difficulty. I struggle to think of an example of a critic taking significant points off for games that are “too challenging.” Even when a game like Returnal is so challenging that some reviewers can’t finish their review copies in time for embargo, the critical response is mostly unphased. So, to see so many lament that each FromSoft game was difficult, maybe too difficult, yet on the whole be unwilling to hold that difficulty against them was somewhat frustrating.

So, maybe it’s obvious, but I wasn’t all that hyped for Elden Ring when it was announced. The first trailer didn’t look great either, so I had no intention of playing it, at least not until I tried that copy of Demon’s Souls that I have. Just because the discourse around the game frustrated me didn’t mean I was unwilling to try these games. Aside from the toxic fanboys/defenders, I’ve heard great things about them, so I had every intention of playing my copy of Demon’s Souls… eventually. Then Elden Ring was released to even greater fanfare and praise than other Souls games, and my good friend Paul (who has great taste in games) was very hyped for it. Maybe I should start with this game and not Demon’s Souls, I told myself, and decided that I’d pick it up if I just so happened to see it on sale – which I did, in late March. I was, of course, somewhat excited to try it, because it did look pretty cool in the TikTok and Twitter clips I’d seen, but most of those clips highlighted the unrelenting, seemingly imbalanced difficulty I’d heard so much about, so my excitement was buffered by the expectation that this game might not be for me. I would try it, I told myself, and if I got too frustrated or the game was as obstinate as some have said, then I’d just quit. No pressure to finish. Just have a little fun and move on, able to judge for myself if the game is “too hard.”

I won’t beat around the bush too much. I did not quit, dear reader. I spent 154 hours in the world of Elden Ring, completed the story and most optional bosses (the ones I could find, anyway), and even got the platinum trophy for PS5 (which I guess isn’t that impressive, since a massive 10% of people who’ve played it on PS5 have done the same!). I had a lot of fun with this game, and there is a lot to love about it. Do I think it’s a “perfect game,” as many have claimed? Lord, no. Even after playing and loving it, there are some notable issues with it in terms of design and accessibility. But this is a game of moments and memories. There are some confounding, confusing design decisions, but when I found a way around some of the design, I had some amazing, incredible moments. I suppose I could say it’s an incredible game despite itself.

Let’s talk about some of those things I love. The art style and world design (on a visual level) are amazing. The actual graphics, as in things like texture, lighting, unique assets, etc. are not exactly optimal, but if you view the world from a distance and focus on the macro instead of the micro, this is a stunningly beautiful world. The word that came to mind at one point, as I was riding my spectral steed (what a cool description, too) through a low valley with a massive dragon sleeping in the distance and an enormous, glowing tree towering over virtually every corner of the map, was “majesty.” Elden Ring does the majesty of epic fantasy better than almost any game I’ve played. Regardless of the part of the world I was in, I could almost always swing the camera around and have some spectacular view (though this made the lack of a photo mode extra annoying).

The quiet, low soundtrack provides the perfect backdrop for this world, too. It doesn’t have the same kind of rousing pieces with dramatic swells that other fantasy games have (though I do like those types), and in fact it feels sort of… well, dead. But how perfect is that, given that this is a dying world, filled with ruins, both well-aged and in-progress? I kept waiting for the tempo or volume to kick up as I approached one of the many epic set pieces in the world, but it never did. The music stayed quiet, subdued. Like even the music had given up hope that this world could be saved. It’s seen too many Tarnished try and fail. You are no different. You don’t get a hero’s score.

Zooming in a bit more, I also loved the variety of cool locations in the world. Though there was a lot of copy/pasting with some assets, there were also a whole host of unique environments. An enormous mansion, beset on multiple sides by lava that flows beneath and around the grounds, spawning fiery slugs and seemingly tended by automaton iron maidens with masks and deadly, extending pendulum arms. A decaying swamp of putrid rot, surrounded by slapdash barriers of fire, meant to slow the spread of this poisonous disease. A besieged fortress, overtaken by monster and man, set on a hill over the sea. Seemingly endless enchanted towers with books and mystical trinkets scattered here and there. One my favorites: an underground city with (somehow) a starry sky, toppled buildings, ancestral woods, and crumbling columns.

There are also numerous caves, mines, and dungeons, though they’re all very similar in terms of design. One of the types of mines is crystal, though, which is important for considering something else I liked: environmental storytelling. There is an argument that the environmental storytelling in Elden Ring is too sparse, as the game’s insistence on being unhelpful to the player means that it’s easy to miss out on lots of narrative beats, big and small – but when it works, it’s incredibly satisfying. Let’s consider those enchanted towers I mentioned. I was in love as soon as I stepped through the threshold of the first tower. It was a tall, stone tower, set deep and solitary in the woods. There was a table with scrolls and what looked to be astrological devices strewn about, and the walls were lined with books, with a few piles stacked sloppily here and there as well. I said to Bella, my cat, “I think this is a wizard tower.” As I made my way up the winding steps, I noticed glowing crystals set on desks and floors. Not many, but enough to connect the idea of these crystals and magic use. Later, when I found one of the mines, the workers were mining the same crystals, and the beings overseeing them used magic, which reinforced the connection between magic and crystals. There’s a whole crystal economy, where witches/wizards somehow contract teams to mine crystals for them. So when I found a witch’s tower later in the game, I knew she was very powerful because the crystals in her castle were so massive they took up huge portions of the rooms in the tower. It may seem like an obvious connection, of course, but the game didn’t rely on written texts or logs to explain it, like many games do. I don’t mind reading lore, but there is something more elegant and efficient about dropping visual clues that the player can piece together.

Unfortunately, this design decision to be sparce in terms of how much the game communicates with the player was not always so elegant and efficient. As many have pointed out (and perhaps this isn’t new to Souls games, I’m not sure), the game doesn’t explain many of its systems. The “tutorial” section is easy to miss and provides very little in the way of real guidance. The game also lacks a quest list or way to track progress, which is especially frustrating when you aren’t sure where you should be going or where you’ve already been. Add to this what feels like sloppier combat than I expected (oh, this boss can swipe me through a wall? And this one somehow adjusts course in mid-air to hit me as I roll away? Cool cool), and I am more frustrated by the game’s design than its difficulty. If a game is challenging, that’s one thing. When a game’s design is lacking or seemingly antagonistic to the player, then the difficulty is a result of poor design, not legitimate challenge. I had to turn to my friends or the internet to explain many of the things that the game does not. I’ve seen some critics say that it’s just a part of the FromSoft formula. It builds community. I can understand that, and it sounds nice. That “community” was not always kind, or even helpful, though. Probably half of the threads or posts that I looked to for advice were filled with people refusing to provide aid because they thought the player should figure it out themselves and “just play the game.” In one Reddit post, someone asked a simple question about where to go after a certain big story event. The game, of course, doesn’t make it obvious. The first reply was something like “You could try playing the game.” Another was “Have you tried talking to NPCs?” The OP replied and said that they didn’t see any NPCs, to which the poster said something like “an NPC tells you.” Someone else chimed in and said that they could tell OP which NPC or where to find them, and someone else responded with “and play the game for them? Try actually looking around.” This is just one example, but there were many others, and some weren’t so tame. I don’t think the lack of information or instruction in a game deserves critical praise, and if the retort is that it drives you to a community outside of the game, and that community is even less helpful at times, that’s a pretty critical design flaw.

The combat was tough, yes, but once I power leveled a few times, it was much more satisfying. Without power leveling and/or having help with my build, the combat would have turned me away. Enemy AI seems to be programed to predict and punish many defensive moves, which makes some encounters feel cheap and unfair. After leveling to 125-150, I felt far more capable. I still got my ass kicked on occasion, but it usually felt like the result of bad decisions on my part. The thrill of beating some of the hardest bosses, like Malenia or Placidusax, was unparalleled, though. Each took me several tries, even at high level, so I was so charged when they went down. Similarly, fighting the Fire Giant with my friend Tab was fun if infuriating. My level was capped so I was much weaker than when I fought him alone, so we struggled a lot. We fought him dozens of times, and many of our deaths felt cheap (why is he suddenly floating yet still hitting us? And how does he keep magically sliding backwards without actually stepping?), but it was fun fighting alongside a friend and trying new strategies until we finally felled him. Tab was less than thrilled (they just wanted to progress, so it was a hollow victory for them), but I was energized by our big win. Less so with the final boss, though. He can eat my ass, cheap piece of shit.

I’d like to end by talking about my absolute favorite part of the game: a little witch named Ranni. Apparently, some people encounter Ranni early in the game, and she gives them the Spirit Calling Bell and Lone Wolf ashes. I missed her early on, so I had no clue who she was when I stumbled upon her witchy tower later in the game. With her big, floppy wizard hat and stitched-together doll body, she was like Gandalf mixed with the Corpse Bride. She has an ethereal glow and speaks softly, but she almost immediately asked if I would enter into her servitude. After spending hours in the world of Elden Ring, seeing all sorts of liars, backstabbers, and conniving murderers, the obvious answer to her question was “no.” So, of course I said “yes.” Because she is very pretty. And, luckily, it worked out! I totally fell for my other-worldly witchy doll woman. She has four hands and all my heart. When she went away during one part of her quest and I found her doll in my inventory, I was legitimately giddy with glee. I instantly sent pictures of my screen to friends with the caption: “best item in the game!” And I even made a meme about it:

Please, don’t judge my meme making skills. I made this with Snapchat in like 5 minutes, okay?

The scene where you find Ranni and slip a ring on that finger? Heart melting. And although I got all three major endings (to get the platinum trophy), hers was by far my favorite. But why did I love her? I mean, her visual design is stunning, and her voice is, indeed, ethereal and angelic, but how much did I really know about her? I went on to find out that I was far from alone in my love for this character, so it is “a thing,” but at a certain point I thought about how I would explain my adoration for Ranni without talking about how cool she looked, and I was left with little. Yes, she is a powerful witch who can visit the spirit world and take the form of inanimate objects, but her backstory is relatively thin, as is the case with much of the narrative in Elden Ring. But I still loved her, despite knowing only a small handful of things about her. In fact, my love for her is a pretty good metaphor for my love for this game. It might not make sense that I love her, because I know so little about her and am basing my affection mostly on design and a thin backstory. Elden Ring is imperfect, and I actively think some of the design is flawed, but I can’t say I didn’t love my time with it. Is it game of the year? Not for me. In fact, I’m fretting the fact that many outlets are already pledging to give this their Game of the Year because I feel it’s going to do anything but encourage FromSoft to address the many accessibility issues present. But, as I said, Elden Ring is a game of moments for me, and despite my complaints, I had some pretty fucking awesome moments in my 154 hours. And, of course, there’s always Ranni.

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