Elden Ring Breathes New Life Into the Souls Formula

We sat down with the network test preview of hotly-anticipated From Software title Elden Ring. Will it live up to expectations? Read on to find out.

Published: November 15, 2021 11:30 AM /

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The player talking to an NPC in Elden Ring

If you want to understand why Dark Souls works where so many Soulslikes don't, look to its fauna. The hulking knights and shadowy mages are one thing, but the native inhabitants of Lordran's varied biomes give the world a feeling of lived-in realism. That feeling is abundant throughout Elden Ring, From Software's newest action RPG. In every corner of its open world, you'll find majestic eagles, curious fawns, and recalcitrant turtles, all of whom are merely going about their business as you explore. Of course, you'll also find a billion things wanting to murder you, but begrudge the tired warrior a small break.

Like with From Software's other titles, if you've played a Souls game (or indeed Bloodborne or Sekiro), you'll understand a lot of the language Elden Ring uses. Bonfires are now "Sites of Grace", souls are now "runes", and various other surface-level changes have been made to the lingo, but many of the systems remain the same. With that said, Elden Ring makes a lot of intriguing changes to the formula, resulting in an experience that feels fresh. It's open-world Souls, yes, but it takes inspiration from other sources too, and it feels like a genuine leap forward for a gameplay model that might have started to feel stale otherwise.

Elden Ring Wants You To Get Lost

A beautiful vista in Elden Ring
The world of Elden Ring is a stunning and enticing one to explore.

The Elden Ring network test preview presents only a small fraction of the finished game's open world, but it still feels huge and expansive. After emerging from the cavern in which you begin, the entirety of Elden Ring's expanse stretches out before you, and it's up to you where you go. I was immediately distracted by some wildlife I wanted to examine in close detail, and as a consequence, I missed an important NPC who lays out the structure of the game and some of the world's ground rules. I can see how this might be exasperating for some, but I love that Elden Ring lets you wander at your own potential peril.

The inspiration from Breath of the Wild is obvious in Elden Ring. Its open world isn't the Ubisoft model of endless icons and copy-pasted fortresses. Rather, it's a vast plain dotted with interesting ruins to explore and enemies to battle. Convoys roam the grasslands protecting important items. A sentinel on horseback mercilessly murders players who venture too far into his domain. In the distance, imposing castles and dilapidated towers promise adventure and danger in equal measure. None of it is marked on any kind of minimap, which makes the world feel like your oyster. Everything in Elden Ring is yours to discover at your own pace.

That's not to say there aren't any anti-frustration features to help you navigate the map. Fast travel is available from the beginning, and you can easily move to any of the Sites of Grace you've visited previously. Areas you've discovered are marked on your map, and discovering Map Fragments out in the world fills out the topography and general layout of the map. There's just enough structure to prevent getting annoyed with the sheer scope of the world, but not so much that Elden Ring ever feels like it's holding your hand, as you might expect from a developer with a storied history of hands-off game design.

Combat In Elden Ring Feels Great

The Beastman of Farum Azula boss in Elden Ring
This is one of Elden Ring's many bosses. As you can imagine, they are not very nice.

Right from the off, it's clear From Software has nailed the combat in Elden Ring. Blows land with satisfying thunks, whether that's your sword connecting with a grotesque bat monster or an enemy's weapon bouncing off your shield. The network preview shows that From Software isn't going to fall into the Dark Souls 2 trap; there are plenty of different enemy types on offer. From monstrous dragons to eldritch blobs of writhing tentacles, exploring Elden Ring's world in full looks like it's going to be rewarding for nature enthusiasts. There are, of course, a few humanoid enemies with standard fantasy weapons, but they help to ground the more fantastical stuff rather than overtaking it.

An effort has obviously been made to accommodate different builds, too. Dual-wielding, so often a fantasy for Souls players, comes into its own in Elden Ring. The standard Warrior class begins with two scimitars, and you'll need to take advantage of both of them if you want to deal maximum damage. You can't simply wail on an enemy with your right-hand weapon; skilfully weaving in left-hand blows is important. Magic, too, feels much better than it has in previous Souls games. You can now weave spells in between standard attacks, making spell-slinging warrior builds and battlemages feel viable. The promise of versatility in Elden Ring is not an empty one.

There are times when the game wobbles in this regard, though. The camera feels a little shaky sometimes, especially when you're battling airborne enemies. Locking on to an enemy that takes to the sky feels like a gamble. Sometimes, the camera will remain faithfully attached to your quarry. At other times, it'll either detach randomly or begin jerkily moving around, disorientating you. It only takes a couple of seconds to rectify this issue, but it still feels like a problem when being able to see your enemy consistently is paramount. A little more work on the camera may be needed for Elden Ring's combat to feel truly brilliant.

Elden Ring Is Still Pretty Darn Difficult

Margit the Fell Omen in Elden Ring
I get the feeling ol' Margit here is going to give a lot of Elden Ring players grief.

Inevitably, there will be a lot of discussion about difficulty when Elden Ring is released. In some ways, this is the most accommodating From Software has ever been. Elden Ring offers a whole host of different builds, options, and items to help you if you're struggling with a boss. There are items you can buy that will summon spectral assistants to aid you in combat, taking the place of NPC summons from previous Souls titles. Sometimes, these items make encounters trivial. Certain bosses become cakewalks when you have a ghostly buddy to watch your back. Of course, you can also still summon players, although I struggled to do so during the network test, as players' summon signs seemed to disappear as soon as I touched them.

Even with these options in place, Elden Ring is still brutal. One early boss, the Tree Sentinel, will absolutely wreck you if you fight him soon after emerging from the tomb (especially if, as I did, you miss an important item that lets you summon your horse). After battling him on horseback in what turned out to be a brilliantly tense and frenetic joust, I firmly believe he's a tutorial for fighting atop Torrent, your trusty steed. Still, Elden Ring lets you miss this piece of information, so it's up to you to discover where you might be going wrong and how you could rectify that situation.

I don't want to spoil Elden Ring's many surprises, but suffice it to say that I'm a seasoned series veteran, and there's a boss in the network test I couldn't best across two hours of trying. He's a fearsome, imposing giant with access to a number of weapons, all of which he'll use against you as he attempts to deter you from progressing any further. This boss is brilliantly designed, and if he's anything to go by, Elden Ring will be more than enough to test the mettle of even the most weathered Souls warrior. Even so, I don't feel that Elden Ring is doing a huge amount to accommodate players who aren't willing to face a significant challenge. Your mileage will vary on whether that's an issue or not.

It's Not Just "Dark Souls But Bigger"

A distant tower in Elden Ring
Elden Ring has everything that made Dark Souls special, plus a little more for good measure.

Spending a little time with Elden Ring makes it clear that it isn't just "Dark Souls but bigger". The open-world environment really does make a huge difference. While the network test limited the amount of it I was able to discover, I always felt that if I was struggling with a boss, there was somewhere else I could go and explore with ease. Doing so is helpful, too; I discovered several out-of-the-way bosses guarding important equipment just by wandering off the beaten path a little. In Dark Souls, you're encouraged to bang your head against any particular boss's brick wall until it breaks. While that's still true to a certain degree in Elden Ring, it feels like you have more options.

Lore-wise, too, Elden Ring feels like it's deviating somewhat from the pattern. There's a famous quote by Souls mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki in which he's describing the design philosophy behind Dark Souls' undead dragons. Miyazaki tells his artists to portray the "deep sorrow of a magnificent beast doomed to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin". There's a little of that in Elden Ring, but George R.R. Martin's influence is felt in the fact that this is a much more grandiose, classical fantasy world. Of course, delving deep into its nooks and crannies will almost certainly reveal that "deep sorrow" Miyazaki is fond of, but Elden Ring's world feels nobler and less grim than SoulsBloodborne, or Sekiro.

What I've seen of Elden Ring suggests a significant evolution of the Souls formula. It'll provide what you want if you're looking for more challenging fantasy RPG fare, of course, but there are many wrinkles that will make it feel fresh for veterans. The open-world is consistently compelling and exciting; I frequently found myself deviating from the path just to see what lay on a beach in the distance or what a convoy was guarding. It remains to be seen whether Elden Ring can sustain this interest across its running time, but the network test is very promising indeed.

TechRaptor previewed Elden Ring on PlayStation 5 using a code provided by the publisher.

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More Info About This Game
Learn More About Elden Ring
Game Page Elden Ring
Bandai Namco
Release Date
February 25, 2022 (Calendar)
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