Elden Ring is a mere four months away and players have had their first chance to explore The Lands Between in the Closed Network Test. Players had a total of 15 hours to hack and slash through hordes of enemies and FromSoftware’s signature bosses. Going into the test, my expectations were very high. The Soulsborne games have become a staple in my game rotation, with Bloodborne and Sekiro playing a part in some of my favourite gaming moments of all time.
The extended gameplay showcase that dropped on November 4th (check out my thoughts here) gave a brand new look at Elden Ring, featuring some of the weapon skills, combat, and traversal. It’s safe to say I was incredibly hyped along with the rest of the community. I did have minor reservations, however; for instance, the mixing of the previous game’s mechanics as well as the sheer size of the open world. The looming shadow of the Bloodborne and the Souls series was great, and I was worried if Elden Ring couldn’t live up to them. Could it be done or had FromSoftware bitten off more than they could chew?
In my first hour, I thought this was the case. I felt overwhelmed by the size of the map and the lack of obvious direction. This isn’t something new, with the series priding itself on giving the player as little guidance as possible. Elden Ring seemed to have taken this one step further, offering just a “Guiding Light” from the Site of Grace and a singular NPC wishing you luck on your journey. The sheer size of the map blew my mind. Stormveil Castle loomed in the distance and felt like an eternity away. I didn’t know where to start. Spotting the Tree Sentinel atop his horse was a sight to behold, but was quickly followed by the classic “You Died” screen as he promptly trampled me down. I felt a little disillusioned as I wandered around, looking for enemies to defeat. This isn’t what I was used to and I was disappointed. After failing to take down my first dungeon boss, I switched up my strategy. I started afresh with the Warrior class and closely followed the “Guiding Lights” to the next Site.
This strategy proved fruitful. The route the light took me on allowed me to try out the new stealth system implemented in the game. Similar to Sekiro, crouching makes you a lot quieter and allows you to get the jump on enemies doing massive critical damage. Elden Ring introduces some enemies for you to test this out on. Armed with a sword and a huge trumpet, this enemy rallies the troops, bringing all of them in the immediate area swarming toward you. Killing them made my life a lot easier and allowed me to take out the encampment with little issue. When I was faced with a few enemies, combat felt familiar and I quickly slipped back into the style that I’d adopted in Dark Souls 3—this is very much an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” situation. Striking down enemies with my dual scimitars was as satisfying as ever.
Elden Ring builds on the pre-existing weapon art system and puts them front and centre. These skills may be something as simple as parrying with a shield, or a little more special, such as Storm Blade. This skill creates a mini whirlwind that can be launched towards enemies dealing magic damage and using some of your FP. Storm Blade was my go-to skill in almost any situation; it added some much-needed range to my setup and made me think differently about a lot of the encounters. The skill also made light work on the flying enemies, which are frequently seen around the world. Weapon skills can be swapped off at Sites of Grace with items called Ashes of War. These items can be found around the world in dungeons and chests.
After visiting three Sites of Grace, Melina—Elden Ring’s hand-maiden—appeared, allowing me to level up and providing me with the Spectral Steed. Levelling up is largely unchanged, but the addition of the Spectral Steed is brand new and a breath of fresh air. The huge open world has been offset by a really enjoyable way to traverse. The steed is an extension of yourself, with sprinting, dodging, and combat all available while riding. I don’t have the best relationship with mounts in RPG’s, but I really love the Spectral Steed. Its magical double jump paired with strategic jump pads that rocket you into the air makes it a joy to traverse The Lands Between. An almost instantaneous call time also offers a nice escape plan when overwhelmed in battle. Combat on the steed can be a little fiddly, but I can definitely see it being something you can master given time.
As a fan of the Chalice Dungeons in Bloodborne, I was keen to try out the dungeons introduced in Elden Ring. Dungeons are individual activities that, right now, do not seem to play into the larger story of the game. I explored four of them, all of which were thematically different. One that really stood out to me had a very similar theme to the second world in Demon’s Souls. This mine had hidden tunnels and alternate routes that can be taken, yielding better rewards.
What is the standout thing about these dungeons is the sense of achievement and progress that I had when completing them. When stuck on one of the biggest bosses (more on that soon), heading into a dungeon, gaining some runes to further level up, and returning to the main story felt natural and offered a great alternative to grinding small enemies, like in previous games. I’m really excited to see how these dungeons evolve as the game progresses. We already know that Stormveil Castle will be one of the larger dungeons in the game, and I feel that FromSoft have got some surprises in store for us.
Outside of dungeons and hallways, vast open spaces are now boss arenas. The Tree Sentinel can easily be stumbled upon when leaving the tutorial area, and the outpost destroying dragon are some of the bosses that take advantage of the open-world nature Elden Ring. I have mixed feelings about these additions. I think it’s great that the bosses feel a lot more natural and a part of the wider world, but feel really taken out of the world when a boss health bar appears as I’m just passing through. It isn’t a huge thing and didn’t really affect my overall experience, but I thought it was something worth mentioning.
However, having a huge area to fight in feels great. You can take advantage of the terrain around you to gain an upper hand over your foe, which is something that was fairly limited in previous games (bar Sekiro, which leant itself to mobility around the battlefield). Agheel the Dragon had some particularly stunning interactions with the surrounding environment, namely when unleashing his fiery breath on some nearby ruins, causing walls to crumble and singeing decrepit trees. Another plus to these battles, which is something that is applicable to other large scale fights in the open world, is the new flask system. When killing enemies, you have a chance to refill your health flasks, known as “Flasks of Crimson Tears.” They still refill when resting at a Site of Grace, but the added benefit of getting rewarded for staying out in the field is a nice touch.
After fighting my way to the gatehouse, I was faced with my first “Great Foe,” one of the mandatory bosses of Elden Ring. Guarding the entrance to Stormveil Castle was Margit the Fell Omen, and my first proper look at the demi-gods I would be fighting in the full game. Margit isn’t easy. A mix of devastating combos and ferocious gap-closers meant he could easily chunk down your health. Margit didn’t ask for your respect, he demanded it. Set on a crumbling bridge, I really needed to think about spacing and stamina management. With many Soulsborne bosses, there are multiple phases and this was no exception. I managed to push through his first phase but regularly got caught with little flasks left and in a fragile position.
For the first time in the test, I turned to the Phantoms, a mechanic that has been heavily featured in the promotion of the game. Phantoms can be called upon in set areas to offer assistance with either bosses or general enemies. This assistance can come in the form of a sorcerer, a pack of wolves, or even a huge jellyfish. For this instance, I chose a group of phantoms called the Wandering Nobles. After a short cast time, 5 ghostly figures appeared wielding torches and swords. Although not doing a huge amount of damage, they acted as a great distraction for me to go behind him and get some hits in. The phantoms did not have a huge health pool, but they’d done their job and put me in a much better position to pull off the victory.
Going into the network test, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about Phantoms. I’d gone through the majority of Soulsborne fights alone, so I didn’t feel like I’d need the assistance this time around. However, instead of making it overly difficult for myself, to the point of not enjoying it, I decided to enlist the help of the ghoul squad. It made me realise that Elden Ring is its own beast. Phantoms should be utilised just like spells and powerful weapons are—they’re part of your arsenal, so make the most of it.
Upon reaching Stormveil Castle, the game presents you with a choice. As seen in the showcase, you can either take the safer route into the castle, around the outside with some light platforming, or put yourself in harm’s way for a faster route to the boss. I attempted both ways and I feel this will be how I will progress in the full game. After first taking the easier route (and reaching the inevitable “Come back laterl message), I then took the harder route. Lined with stationary turrets and stacked with crossbow-wielding soldiers, I would have been better off heeding the warning given to me from an earlier NPC. It’s difficult, but you are rewarded with tons of runes from fairly weak enemies, along with getting the experience of fighting a huge lion beast with swords strapped to its arms. Even though I’d be exploring both routes, I appreciate the choice in these situations. If I’m not feeling as adventurous and I’m hoping to keep hold of my precious runes, the quieter route will suit me more.
Choice is at the core of Elden Ring and I think that is why it could be one of the best games in the series. The game gives you all the tools you need to succeed and provides you with the space and time to develop your skills in a fun and interesting ways. Instead of grinding the same enemies over and over to gain runes, you can head to a dungeon to collect materials to sell to a vendor. It feels like an RPG in a way that other Soulsborne games haven’t. The world offers depth without being overwhelming. It can still provide those moments of awe and the feeling that you’ve found something no one else has. Eight hours wasn’t anywhere near enough time in the world of Elden Ring, but it’s certainly enough to get me hooked.