I did it. I fuuuuuucking did it. I’ve mentioned in the past that my experience with Souls-like games is pretty limited. I dabbled with Bloodborne, but only barely got past the first boss and in Dark Souls I reached Quelaag but never killed her. In short, I got enough of a taste of both, but very quickly hit a wall and never finished it.
So, last year, when a relatively small and unknown company called From Software decided to release a pretty unheard-of Souls game called Elden Ring I made myself a promise. I would fucking beat this one or die trying.
And I did it. I beat it. 100% in fact. Now nobody can ever again accuse me of not gitting gud. Nobody can ever again say that I lack gamer cred, because I fucking beat the game. I also heard from more than one place that Elden Ring might even be the hardest of the Souls games so far, something I’m personally unqualified to make a statement on, but I will allow myself to believe it because it makes me feel even more like a big man.
Aside from the obvious desire to show off my e-peen here, I would also like to mention that as this is the first Souls game I have completed, there are some statements I will make about the game which could basically be applied to any of them, and its only now that I’ve really actually cottoned on to what they mean.
So, a Fromsoft Souls game (as I’ve lovingly taken to calling the game Dark Souls IV), we all know the drill here. A grimdark and failing world, collapsing and crumbling into ruin. You are the lone 3rd-person protagonist who must go around walking up to massive fucking monstrosities and whacking them with your sword until the game tells you to stop.
You also need to learn the many arts of war. Such as the “always use a jump attack so that your enemy gets staggered with every single blow” school. Or the “stick your nose up the big-bad’s butt and knife away” stance. And, of course, you’ll need about ten or twelve controllers after wearing down the dodge-roll button on each one.
Not that it always helps, as the game will regularly punish you and squish you into paste. Because that’s what it does. In particular the game seems to love throwing enemies at you who use the “spaz the fuck out” attack, in which they flail wildly for two hours straight, so that after you dodge the first hit you still end up smacked around by the next seven.
I think it sort of goes without saying, but honestly, the combat is fucking great. There’s a reason it’s so beloved and a good part of it is precisely because of the things I am making fun of here. It’s responsive and rapid, but also weighty and considered. If you get whacked and killed for the dozenth time that day, obviously you lose your temper and swear at the game, you scream about how the controller doesn’t respond and the game is just being a LITTLE BITCH THAT ENJOYS RUINING YOUR FUN… But in actuality, you also know that underneath all of that, for the most part if you die it’s probably your fault.
There’s a reason “git gud” exists as a meme after all. Although, there are one or two exceptions to this…
I think Elden Ring has also actually helped me stumble upon a new opinion, or rather a new frame of mind, for me as a person. I’ve always said that I appreciate “story” in my games. I like plot and characters and good writing, and these are the things which, in my (correct) opinion are what really elevate a game from good to GREAT.
I’ve heard for years about how good the story of Souls games are, how deep and detailed they are, how there’s always more layers to be peeled back and explored. So now I come to you and tell you: people really need better vocabulary for this kind of thing.
The WORLD of Elden Ring is insanely deep. There’s world-building and crafting here that is on another level to other RPGs I’ve experienced like Dragon Age. It feels like absolutely every single stone and tree, every legendary artefact, every castle, is all deliberate. Everything is placed just-so, because that contributes to the history and lore of the world. Also, much like real life, the world doesn’t rush around dumping exposition at your feet for why a castle is there. Instead, it simply is, and through clues and considered thinking (and watching a 2-hour long theory video on YouTube) you can figure out from this sword and this pile of poo and this butterfly that Malenia is heckin gay…
HOWEVER… The actual story of Elden Ring is: you want to become Elden Lord. You want this because you are told that everyone does. And the way you achieve this is you kill absolutely everything everywhere until the game tells you to stop. And I’m not really even exaggerating.
This is a very hard thing for me to reconcile, because frankly I can absolutely appreciate the depth and grandiosity of the lore they’ve built, but it’s also obscure and obtuse (deliberately so, granted) and so figuring things out is a community effort. You are not being told a story, you’re just plonked down in the world and told to figure it out. Because of this, there’s very little emotion (at least for me) in getting through the game aside from pain, suffering and eventual catharsis. I don’t really feel attached to the characters, I don’t really feel like anything progresses much and I don’t get as drawn into the experience as I would when a game actually tells me a story (e.g. Dragon Age).
Even the most fleshed-out characters that you become attached to like Ranni, Blaidd, Hewg and Melina. They really only have the tiniest amount of actual STORY to experience, and a lot of what I learned about them comes again from YouTube and not from the game. And is that really the ideal way to experience something?
As an aside here as well, I’m not a fan of the ultra-grimdark genre as a whole (fantasy, sci-fi or cyberpunk). Every SINGLE storyline of the game is basically tragic and depressing. The good guys die. The bad guys suffer and die. The okay guys occasionally achieve their goals before they say “my time has come” and you have to kill them. If the aim is to make me feel depressed, it works occasionally in the crushing weight the game feels like it puts on your shoulders, but also there’s an element of eye-rolling involved. Like “hey, what’s the worst thing that could happen to this character” and then it happens. The constant depression just becomes kinda silly without ANY good to contextualise it. Without any form of light or warmth or happy endings in a world full of sorrow and despair to balance it out, it just loses its impact.
Again, I realise that what I’m saying here describes literally ALL of the Souls games and could well be described as part of their appeal. I just think at least part of that is somewhat overhyped…
On top of that. Are Fromsoft not bored of writing the same ending for all of their games? The world is in decay and despair, its up to you to decide whether it continues or whether you burn it down and start fresh. It’s a teeny-tiny bit repetitive isn’t it guys?
As an additional aside to this whole thing: the game makes a big deal about George R. R. Martin being involved in its creation and I’m gonna tell you right now: I couldn’t really detect his influence in it. It quite simply felt like any other Souls game, except now all the characters are called like Martin and Martini and Martwosee and Martili and it’s impossible to remember which is which.
I will admit, the depth of the game is genuinely a constant source of awe for me. I will watch a YouTube theory video and oftentimes they mention that if you look at the particular design for an item and can pluck out pieces of lore from one tiny corner of it. And it’s not even just meaning being ascribed to these things by the YouTuber, it’s very clearly been designed in exactly that way for that reason.
It’s just difficult to reconcile the fact that the lore and world-building is so fabulous but the actual story of the game is almost literally a non-entity. I mean, as a prime example, towards the end of the game you have an encounter with a boss called Hourah Loux. This is something I don’t mind spoiling whatsoever because the way Hourah Loux reveals himself in-game is done as if it is a massive fucking deal. And it’s literally the first time anyone or any item mentions him. So, his reveal is actually a bit more of “oh, that’s neat, who the fuck are you?” moment.
Excellent lore-crafting, godawful story-telling.
I also think that the difficulty curve of the game is an interesting one. For me the game can sort of be divided into three distinct segments. There was the first 50 hours where I would regularly get pulped by enemies and bosses. Even the smaller and easier ones were often a challenge and killed me a few times before I succeeded.
Then there was the next 80 hours which I will describe as the “broke the game’s difficulty” segment. Where any time a new boss or group of enemies appeared, threatening to ruin my day, I would just scream “SWORD OF NIGHT AND FLAME” and watch their health somehow vanish while they failed to even kill my Mimic Tear. That was fun.
Then there was the final 20 hours where it was like the game realised the whole point was that I should be dying and so there was the Haligtree, Placidusax and fffffffucking Malenia. If anyone else is counting, I died 107 times to Malenia. 107. I will never recover from that.
Also, as an aside, I want to draw special attention to the Fromsoft making a BUNCH of end-game bosses whose favourite thing is to live inside a huge fucking arena and jump miles away from you between attacks, so every attempt takes 20 minutes, of which 19 is just spent chasing after them…
Once again though, I guess what I’m describing is something everyone else has known since Dark Souls and that is “magic makes the game easy-mode”. Turns out there’s a little truth to it!
Where the game really did differ from its predecessors is the shift into open world and the mounted combat. Now, I’ll be the first to say that I liked the mounted combat! I thought it was pretty fun and felt like a good inclusion. However, it also was so fucking easy the absolute vast majority of the time. So, to compensate the game had a terrible habit of pitting you against bosses which just take off half your health in one slap and also have a bajillion health. This means you have to spend 25 minutes riding around it, whittling away at their health, only to juuuuust miss one dodge and get squished and then do it all over again. Just… Just LOADS of fun.
I have a similarly balanced view of the open world. Personally, I like open world games and Dark Souls actually seems ideally suited to the format. You follow the main story objective when you first start the game and then encounter your first boss and just get absolutely shat on. And it’s like the devs basically reached through the computer and said “hey, go fucking do some side-quests and dungeons first you idiot! Get levels!” And so off you go into the wider world and then come back massively overlevelled and kick the boss’s butt. It feels like it just makes sense from a progression of strength perspective (and is also why in the mid-game I found it so easy given that I was about 15 levels higher than what the forums recommended for each area). So that’s cool!
However, then there’s the downside of this that there were dozens of dungeons which were just basically the same thing over and over and each one would have a boss which was just a slightly bigger and nastier version of another boss or monster you’d already fought. It is, quite simply, padding out the game’s run time and size.
I have a few more minor nitpicks as well now. First of all, the character quests in the game are genuinely just ridiculous. Like, if you want to meet Blaidd you have to hearing a wolf howling while in a forest (because that’s unusual), you then have to go all the way back to a merchant you meet at the start of the game (a character you would be forgiven for having totally forgotten even existed because there’s literally no reason for you to ever go talk to him a second time) and learn about having to do a specific gesture by the foot of a tower. It’s obtuse to the point of absurdity and means that if you want to complete a quest, then you literally need a guide.
Another nitpick, just a teeny tiny one. For all that game’s world looks gorgeous, with settings and scenery which often blew my mind (and I cannot emphasise that enough). It is kinda crazy how bad the lip syncing of the characters is…
And lastly, the item crafting. I have genuinely no idea who thought this was a good idea, but I after being introduced to the crafting system at the start, I think I may have used it literally once across 140 hours of play. The items are generally varying degrees of pointless but you’re absolutely pelted with crafting mats as if Fromsoft genuinely expected everyone to be constantly using the item which makes you more resistant to the sniffles, but only if you use it while being coughed on.
So, a lot of what I’m saying here comes with a point and that is that maybe Souls games just aren’t for me? Half of my complaints come down to something which is legit part of the character of Fromsoft games. Equally though, I don’t think that makes the complaints any less valid.
I also think it’s important to remember that while completing Elden Ring was absolutely an act of stubbornness on my part, for a big chunk of the game I really was enjoying it. I think the single most important part of Souls-likes is a sensation that I absolutely got from Elden Ring: that feeling of adventure. Everything is a discovery, everything is awe-inspiring and grandiose and gobsmacking. You can ride around gigantic citadels filled with denizens who wish you nothing but death, and even if you are following directions from a guide, there is STILL that sense of discovery and achievement every time you manage to get a little further and find a hidden artefact or invisible wall.
I think unquestionably this is the real draw of Souls games. For all that the world is collapsing into ruin before your very eyes, exploring it is still just absolutely worth your time. There is still that genuine feeling of satisfaction when you beat a boss or complete and area. I will however fight to the death my opinion that the story itself isn’t quite as good as everyone insists…
· Gobsmacking world design and lore-building that WILL constantly surprise and impress you
· A genuine sense of adventure and exploration when travelling the huge open world
· While it’s a challenge, there generally is often alternative routes and avenues you can explore to gain strength before returning to bashing your head against the wall
· As much as I like the complain, the difficulty of the game felt fair the absolute vast majority of the time
· Gives you a sense of achievement in completing it, and not in the EA way
· “Story” as in plot is almost literally non-existent, but it’s not cool to say it
· Character quests necessitate the use of a wiki to even actually find them
· Some fights and bosses are just absolutely exhausting due to either relying on riding in circles or their propensity for running away
· Nobody is EVER allowed to be happy at any point in the past, present or future
· Fuck you Malenia, fuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyou