I think it’s about time to write that followup post to my first impressions about Elden Ring. Somewhat of a correction, because my first impression didn’t give the right impression.
Yes, it’s finally here. The post that I’ve been drafting for months, about the only gaming topic of interest to me for the past several months.
I’ve been waiting until I finished Elden Ring to post this, but I’m not sure I ever will finish the game. I’ve been playing every day (except one) since February 26th, over three full months as I publish this, and have only just begun to see the inevitable burnout that drives me away from games. Unfortunately, I see no other games on the market that look interesting, so I continue to play Elden Ring until something else comes along.
I’ve seen the ending credits (I brought a thousand years of night to the land… oops), but I just keep right on finding new places and new things to see every day I log in. It’s the most massive single-player game I’ve ever seen in all my years of gaming. I’ve played numerous MMORPGs that have much smaller areas to explore.
Game of the Year
Elden Ring is definitely the game of the year for me. It’s impossible to imagine a single-player RPG of deeper immersion that’s made specifically for my exact type of gamer profile. I haven’t heard of any upcoming games this year that might even come close to this threshold. Anything I play after Elden Ring this year is probably going to be a huge let down.
In fact, I tried to play Ghost of Tsushima on the PS5 for a few days to wean myself off of Elden Ring and it’s just … boring. Really, really boring. Maybe it’ll click with me later, because it’s a game I thought would be perfect for me. But I just can’t right now. It’s so much staring at the screen doing nothing. I had a similar experience starting Horizon Forbidden West, too. They’re perfectly fine games, but that’s just it, they’re just … you know, okay. It’s like watching reruns of a 90s sitcom after finishing Broadchurch. Why would you play a game that’s just okay when you can play a game that’s fantastic. It’s a question I constantly ask of the gaming community, which seems perfectly content to keep consuming games that are just okay.
I can’t say if Elden Ring will stand up as the game of the decade, but it’s certainly among the top two that springs to mind so far (the other being The Last of Us, Part 2).
I can’t remember the last game that kept me 100% captivated and wanting to log in every day–not just wanting to log in, but dying to log in–for three months. It was probably the last From Software game, to be honest. And not only did I want to log in, but every time I logged in, I found something new to discover. I wasn’t just repeating some daily chore for three months, which is the standard mainstream game design these days.
I certainly can’t remember the last MMORPG that kept me wanting to log in every day for three months. Remember when we thought an MMORPG that only lasted three months was a failure? Har har. For me, it’s two or three weeks tops before putting it away to wait for the next expansion. New World lost its charm in a single week. Lost Ark turned into a repetitive slog in mere days.
Elden Ring isn’t perfect, of course, because no game ever is. There’s some repetition in content after a while. The buildings and caves and even bosses start to look the same over time. There’s a list of things I don’t particularly like and even some things I hate with a burning passion, which I’ll get into down below.
I still stand by my initial assessment that adding an “open world” to the Souls formula isn’t really an improvement. It’s just a minor diversion and mainly something to ride through as fast as possible. But what I’ve learned in the last three months of game time is that there isn’t as much open world as I initially feared, and you don’t need to engage with it as much as I feared. In fact, it’s one of the least annoying open world systems that I’ve seen since the explosion of this kind of gameplay.
In most games, “open world” means you can go anywhere, but you can’t really go anywhere until you reach some arbitrary level thresholds (it’s the same in most MMORPGs). You can’t start that quest on the other side of the map until you’re level 25 or 35 or whatever, even if you make it there. So you spend most of your time doing time-consuming tasks in the places you’re supposed to go to reach those thresholds before you can continue in the areas you want to go.
You could end up spending what feels like 75% of your game time just wandering around doing “filler material” in a typical open world game. (Horizon Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are two recent examples that spring to mind.) The main story of the game–the part you want to see–turns out to be fairly short, but you have to spend most of your game time gaining experience points to reach those arbitrary thresholds, engaging over and over again with gameplay that honestly isn’t that great. It’s mostly wasted time, an artificial extension of the length of the game to make it “feel” bigger, without having to expend the development effort to actually make it bigger.
In Elden Ring, the amount of time wandering around is fairly short. Almost without fail, just about the time I started to think, “Okay, I’m wandering around doing nothing except picking flowers and looking for something new, this is starting to waste my time,” that’s when I stumble upon something interesting that directs the remainder of my game session.
I almost always logged in knowing what I was going to do next, because I was usually in the middle of something. Which is a big contrast to most open world games, where you log in almost every day and think, “Okay what do I do? I need to get 10 more levels before I can do the main story that I want to do, which is probably going to take another 10 hours of game time, so I guess I’ll turn on a Netflix show and grind out levels because it’ll be quite a while before the good part returns.”
That never happens in Elden Ring. You can do the main story (“story” isn’t really the right word for Elden Ring though… it’s more like one very, very long “quest”) from start to finish uninterrupted, from the moment you enter the game … if you know where to go and what to do and how to do it without getting killed. There’s never any “down time.” You never have to stop what you’re doing and farm, grind, or level up before you can proceed.
You may choose to farm or grind or level up, because you may find the places you want to go are pretty hard. But you get to make the choice of whether to try the hard thing, or try a different thing, or spend all evening killing rats that respawn around a bonfire to gain levels.
There are some exceptions here and there. There are a handful of gates that require you to meet some condition before proceeding, the most obvious early gate being one Margit the Fell Omen. (Although, as I learned much later, even that isn’t really a gate, technically, because you can simply walk around Stormveil Castle.) But the condition is never arbitrary, like “get to level 20.” The condition is always something concrete like “kill this dude.” It doesn’t matter when or how you do it. You can do it at level 10 or level 100, in a solo no-hit grudge match for days or co-op with friends in seconds.
So, Elden Ring is more than just good enough. It’s a great game, well worth a game of the year title.
Even if it isn’t your cup of tea, which I can certainly understand. From Software games definitely aren’t for everyone. Somewhere I wrote a post, or maybe I only thought about writing a post, about how From Software games probably only appeal to people with very specific personality traits. They don’t have mainstream appeal, no matter how much they might try to sell them as such. Each successive game inches slightly closer to that mainstream center-line, but they’re still a long way away from it.
Still, they should be endlessly praised for delivering a quality product at launch time. It’s a miracle in this day and age of endless shovelware copycat games and business-driven exploitative lootbox games that there’s still at least one game studio out there who knows how to design, build, and release a great game, in perfect working order, on launch day. I have no idea how they do it time and time again.
Actually that’s not true, I do know how. They don’t really update their game engine. They mainly just copy what they did last time into each new game, only making new maps and slight iterations each time … which, honestly, I’m fine with, because the formula works. I commented on this quite often during my playthrough: Elden Ring is basically a greatest hits compilation of every previous Soulsborne game. If they just made DLC for their existing games for the rest of their lives I’d be perfectly happy with that.
It’s not the best Souls game though. That’s probably Dark Souls 1 or Dark Souls 3 or maybe Bloodborne. I would have preferred a more confined path of progression, as seen in those other games. More of having to go through obstacles rather than around them, if you will.
Whatever Happened to GRRM
Incidentally, it was extremely rare during my playthrough that I ever thought, “Oh, this must be where George R. R. Martin contributed something.” His contributions, whatever they might have been, were largely a non-factor the entire game. There were only a couple of times I thought that something reminded me of Game of Thrones in passing. (Honestly, there was stuff in the older games that reminded me of Game of Thrones, too. Mostly dialog.)
What I Didn’t Like
And in the category of things that I don’t like about Elden Ring–things that make it an imperfect game: I think From Software has completely lost their way on designing boss fights. Some of the boss fights are… hrm, what’s the word… ridiculous? Yeah, ridiculous. I said that I lot while I was playing. “This is ridiculous.” And other less kind things that I mostly tried to cut out of my videos.
A staple of previous games was being able to approach boss fights as a tactical dance, where the boss would make their moves, you’d study their patterns, spot the boss’s weaknesses, then defeat it with a surgical application of your character’s combat toolset. It was an intellectual exercise, in other words, not a game of reflexes.
That was mostly gone in my first playthrough of Elden Ring. The typical boss fight was less an intellectual exercise in problem-solving and tactics, and more a period of time hoping random rotten bad luck wouldn’t strike for a sufficiently long-enough time to get through it. It was mostly just Hulk Smash brute force your way through them. The best strategy almost always boiled down to: Hit with as much damage as you can, as fast as you can, before you inevitably get killed (or more accurately, before your overpowered Mimic Tear gets killed).
There were many times when I thought an area was made by Internet trolls instead of game designers. Many parts of Crumbling Farum Azula, for example, which was one of my least favorite areas of the game. Perhaps made by people who thought that the best part about Dark Souls–the defining feature, the thing that made Dark Souls great and memorable–was that one spot in Anor Londo where you had to tightrope across the buttresses and ledges at a full sprint to get past the Silver Knight Greatbow Archers. Me? I thought that was frustrating as hell, and dragged the overall game down.
In games, there are challenges that you overcome where you feel good about yourself for meeting the challenge, and there are challenges that you overcome where you’re just relieved that the pain is over. Many of the challenges in the first half of Elden Ring are the former kind, and that’s what previous From Software games are known for and what distinguishes them from most other “Souls-likes.” But there’s more than a few of the latter kind in Elden Ring, particularly in the second half of the game. More than I’d like to see, and seemingly more than previous games. They’ve gone much too far in trying to “one up” the difficulty of their previous games.
It seemed like they were trying to cater more to the “no-hit challenge run” player base than, you know, the majority of their player base.
To me, it’s a degradation in design quality, an erosion of the barrier that separates From Software games from the bargain bin of mediocre Souls-likes. So many Souls-likes (and players, frankly) think that merely making challenges ridiculously hard is the essential ingredient that makes something “Souls-like.” So hard that the only way to get past it is to keep throwing yourself at it for hours on end until that one time you get lucky. That’s the absolute worst kind of boss fighting, in my opinion, and Elden Ring itself now falls into that knock-off Souls-like trap, too.
Boss fighting is only supposed to be hard until you practice sufficiently, then you should be able to beat the boss on the first try every single time. I’ve made this analogy before: Fighting a new boss in a Souls-like, for me, is supposed to feel like learning to play a new piece of music on an instrument. I didn’t get that feeling much in Elden Ring boss fights: I only got the feeling that each boss fight had a random outcome, regardless of how well or how badly I played.
Anyway, I hope they change directions for the next game.
Despite that, I’m sure I’ll be replaying the game again, if not immediately, than in future years. This is another From Software game, like most of the Soulsborne games (except Sekiro), with virtually unlimited replayability options, making it one of the highest values in the industry in terms of time-played-versus-money-spent.
Offhand I can think of at least two different character styles I want to try. I spread out my stat points all across the board on my first character, which made my character versatile but not particularly good at anything, which became a massive handicap toward the end of the game.
I definitely want to try a more Faith-based character. In my first playthrough, my Faith stat stayed at 6 the entire time from beginning to end, rendering even the simplest of Faith-based game elements unreachable to me. And there were seemingly a lot of Faith skills and weapons, particularly toward the end of the game, where they seemed to rain down on you like candy.
I also want to try a beefy tank character, one that wears heavy armor and brandishes a greatshield. There are tons of greatshields in Elden Ring, but my first character couldn’t use any of them. My character’s poise was non-existent the entire game, and I kept getting interrupted and staggered and knocked down in combat all the time. It would be nice to not have to endure that. I don’t know if it’s possible to have all enemy attacks just bounce off of you like you could do in Dark Souls (probably not, for weird historical reasons–From Software didn’t think that was a “valid” play style), but it would be fun to try.
And of course my usage of sorceries was very limited with my first character. I mainly used the starting spell Magic Glintblade the entire time from start to finish, it was one of the best spells available to me. (Toward the end of the game I abandoned Sorceries completely and stuck with Dexterity-based weapons.)
And I’d like to try using bows more. And I used only one Spirit Ash for most of the game (the objectively best one–you know the one I mean), so I’d like to try some others. And of course there are seemingly hundreds of different weapons to use, each with their own unique combat style. And, and, and. There are just so many radically different playstyle possibilities in every From Software game, and Elden Ring makes more available than any other. It’s mind-boggling how much is packed into this one game.
And I just found and installed and tested an Elden Ring mod that randomizes the locations of all the items and enemies. Hours more fun for the whole family! Well, just me, probably.
P. S. Almost all of the writing I’ve done in the last few months has been the nearly 20,000 words of descriptions for the 250 videos I recorded of my first playthrough, which is currently uploading, two videos per day, to my channel. Thank god it’s all automated.