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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

'Elden Ring' Is the Game of the Year

For 13 years, FromSoftware has essentially been making the same game: The six titles that comprise the Soulsbourne series, a series of third-person fantasy role playing games. Each has its strengths. Demon’s Souls, the first, was the wildest in its invention; Dark Souls featured the most intricate world. Dark Souls 2, often maligned, deserves rehabilitation for its dizzying array of character builds. Dark Souls 3 had the finest, most monstrous bosses. Sekiro, released in 2019, was the furthest departure, but introduced stealth and clean, rhythmic combat. Until now, Bloodborne, released in 2015, had represented the finest combination of the other games’ sensibilities and mechanics.

Elden Ring, released on Friday, builds on the strengths of its predecessors in ways that will thrill longtime fans and convert new players. This is a game that could not have been made on the first attempt. It’s the culmination of everything the studio has been working toward, the best game they have ever made, and, in my opinion, one of the best games of all time.

At the game’s opening, you craft a hideous-looking character—in keeping with the series tradition—and escape a small cave, learning swordplay, shield-blocking, and magic along the way. Debouching into a glorious vista of green hills and golden trees, a masked man accuses you of being “maidenless” and suggests you “go and die and in a ditch.” As you walk down the stone steps toward the forest, an 8-foot golden knight on horseback immediately brutalizes you.

Your journey into one of the great game worlds—a blend of European medieval architecture and Japanese folklore, heavily influenced by the manga Berserk, by Kentaro Miura, and for this entry, suggestions by George R. R. Martin—has begun. Previous entries were deceptively linear: Each area, be it a forest, castle, or swamp, threaded together via narrow paths that propelled the player forward, or occasionally back on themselves. Like Breath of the Wild did for the Legend of Zelda franchise, Elden Ring reimagines Dark Souls in an open world. I replayed Dark Souls 3 in preparation for this review, and while it retained much of its charm, after 100 hours its linearity starts to chafe; I’ve spent 50 hours exploring The Lands Between, and I still have no sense of their circumference.

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This is a world for losing yourself in, among the storm-wracked hills and sorcerer’s towers and crystal caves; among the burnt-earth war zones decorated with human limbs, and the living mausoleums that stamp around on four stone legs. Portals and traps throw you miles across the world; a castle so large and well designed you believe it will hold a major boss turns out to be nothing more than a beautiful distraction. Galloping aimlessly on Torrent, your summonable spectral steed, will quickly see you lost, or besieged by high level enemies. You must explore methodically and slowly, aided by fastidious consultation of your map. Right after the boss that marked the limit of the network test (the game’s name for its invitation-only play testing), there is a moment, set to ambient orchestral strings, when you truly comprehend this world’s size.

FromSoftware’s titles have always reinvigorated video game systems often cited as off-putting or archaic: obscure leveling systems, endless items, big health bars, the “YOU DIED” screen, and, most infamously, prodigious difficulty. For those worried the newest entry would dial down the difficulty, fear not: Elden Ring is just as challenging. The Lands Between is dense with creatures trying to kill you—gold ringed, purple-nailed fingers that scuttle around like spiders; birds with knives for feet; blue dragons; ghostly boatmen who paddle on a foot of water; long-limbed, anthropomorphic pots—and it is equally dense with weapons and spells for use in your defense. Yet the more masochistic elements of the series have been blunted. Early on, for instance, you flee down stone corridors, pursued by a blade-wheeled chariot. On escape, you face a boss. In the older Souls games, death here would mean completing the labyrinth again. Elden Ring, instead, has “States of Marika,” wooden effigies that act like checkpoints before big fights. The game is still hard; but it is less unfair.

The game’s open world affects its difficulty in ways that new and old players will have to bear in mind. Dark Souls veterans have always exercised a varying level of restraint about how they play. They choose to increase these games’ challenge, from not summoning online help when fighting bosses, to avoiding weapons they see as cheesy, to beating them at level one in just their underpants. Elden Ring, I think, will require even more restraint, on and offline. The game’s openness, mixed with the mobility of your spectral steed, makes it quicker and easier than ever to become overpowered (particularly if you are someone who consults guides). This freedom is glorious for weaker players, who can leave bosses they find too challenging until they’ve scoured the lands for stronger weapons. For better players, this is the Faustian pact of open worlds: You have freedom, including the freedom to render that world trivial.

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Communication, and its limit, has always been central to FromSoftware’s narratives. In an opening cinematic, an amusingly hammy narrator growls the story over a lavishly violent slideshow of concept art. There’s been an apocalypse, par for the course in this series, and the Elden Ring has been shattered. You, “a tarnished of no renown,” must traverse the world, hunting characters like “the ever-brilliant gold mask” and “the loathsome dung eater,” to restore the Elden Ring, and become the Elden Lord. This is about as much insight as you are going to get. FromSoftware’s games are fundamentally cryptic. Characters speak in riddles: A witch suggests you “throw yourself in dim waters”; a turtle in a Pope’s hat complains about his aching legs. And these conversations are rare. There are no towns; travelers wander the road and die mad and alone. Most things attack you wordlessly.

It’s up to the players, therefore, to excavate the world’s mythology, and, just as in previous games, to help or hinder each other’s journeys. Jolly Cooperation and Invasions return; you can enter the worlds of other players to assist them on a boss, or transform into a pot and stab them in the back. And like its cryptic characters, FromSoftware whittles down communication between players to a small selection of words or emotes—or, of course, their fashion sense.

And, ultimately, it is the way these bonds are cultivated that elevates the series. Recently, while talking to the designers at Gardens—some of whom worked on Journey, another game similarly focused on multiplayer connection—their eyes lit up when I mentioned that I would be reviewing Elden Ring. We talked about how the series’ primitive communication can bring out the best in people, and how online play can bond us to wordless strangers, through moments as simple and profound as sharing the same point of view on a sunrise, or the falling rain. What I’m saying is that Elden Ring’s world remains unfinished until its release on Friday. Only when it teems with life, only on your arrival, will it finally be complete. And I—another tarnished of no renown—will be waiting.


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