I used to fantasize about paperback fantasy novels when I was a youngster. I was too young to read these stories of sex and bloodshed, but the hand-painted covers, which featured dragons, swords, and ancient ruins, enticed me with the promise of adventure. It’s a sensation I’ve pursued since embarking on my fantasy adventures in games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Few have been able to match my paperback-inspired imagination; they are frequently too rigid or linear to give me the sense of freedom I desired. Elden Ring has come the closest to capturing that sensation.

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Elden Ring is the latest game from FromSoftware, the studio behind Bloodborne and Sekiro. It’s an effort to combine the studio’s signature action-RPG system with a vast open world. Consider it a cross between Dark Souls and Breath of the Wild. It’s a bold notion, but one that Elden Ring more than delivers on. It combines everything you’d expect from the developer — deep and hard combat, complicated systems, and lore that’s equal parts beautiful and sad — with an enormous world that you may explore however you like.

The idea of Elden Ring’s story seems, at first, a little generic. It is set in the Lands Between and a dark fantasy kingdom bound by a magical ring and a goth queen. Unfortunately, the land has sunk into turmoil, tormented by monsters, ghouls, and bad feelings, with the ring shattered and the queen, vanished. You play as a Tarnished, a kind of undead creature bent on putting things right. (Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin created the basic world concept, although I’m not sure I’d have noticed if it hadn’t been part of the game’s marketing.)

Elden Ring dungeon locations | PCGamesN

This notion provides the game its fundamental framework — you must travel around the Lands Between to restore the Elden Ring — but it’s not about following a linear storyline like the finest open-world games. A golden road leads you to the following critical boss or event (similar to the guiding wind from Ghost of Tsushima), but you can ignore it if you genuinely want to. There are a few stumbling stones in the way of progress, but the most acceptable thing of Elden Ring for me is how open it feels.

There was a point early on when everything came together for me. The guiding light takes you towards a castle at the start of the game, leading you to the first significant boss after slaying some guards. He’s a gigantic, deformed swordmaster with a scorpion-like tail and an overabundance of horns sprouting from his head. I’ve died a lot of times. I couldn’t even decrease half of the considerable fellow’s health, no matter what tactic I used. This would be a dealbreaker in most games, including previous FromSoftware products. To move forward, I’d have to bash my head against a brick wall.

But, ultimately, I came to realize… I could do something else instead. I disregarded the guiding light and embarked on my journey. I mounted my phantom mount and ventured into unknown territory. I returned ten hours later, more muscular and wiser, and I had defeated that awful boss. The issue is, I wasn’t just out for the sake of gaining experience and gear. I was out on my escapades. I waded through poisonous bogs and onto savage beaches. Other castles were invaded, and I made my way through underground tunnels and mines. I just slew a dragon. All of this increased my character’s strength, but it also helped me better understand the game, allowing me to feel much more at ease during that hellish boss battle.

Elden Ring hands-on: an open world so pretty you won't mind dying a lot -  The Verge

The world that FromSoftware has developed is what makes it all work. It’s enormous and jam-packed with things to do and see. It appears to be quite large at first with a terrain that spans a vast continent, but the longer you play, the more it exposes its full, more fantastic scope. The Lands Between is many exciting things to find, from the numerous mini-bosses lurking about to the sheer variety of sceneries. You’re deep underground exploring a sunken metropolis with strange stars overhead one minute and in a burning land with a blood-red sky the next. It can be breathtakingly gorgeous, such as when a shower of golden leaves falls in the middle of the night. Elden Ring is the kind of game where you notice something interesting in the background — a castle piercing the sky, a golden tree the size of a skyscraper, a giant skull carved into a mountain — and figure out how to get there if you’re determined enough.

I’ve never found the scale to be daunting. To begin with, you don’t get a complete feeling of the scope right away; it’s not until you start wandering and looking for maps that you realize exactly how big the world is, giving you time to adjust. However, getting about is very simple. You have a horse-like spirit creature that you may summon at any time, allowing you to not only travel faster but even dodge conflicts if you’re careful. The Lands Between are also brimming with “sites of grace,” which essentially save points that double as fast-travel destinations so you can zoom back and forth between locales you’ve already seen. I spent a significant portion of the game going about looking for these to make exploration less intimidating; if I got into problems, I’d know there was somewhere nearby where I could gather my bearings.

The universe is also full of melancholy tales that FromSoftware is known for, with exploration playing an essential role in the plot. The few people who will genuinely speak to you are all tragic figures who give modest missions in exchange for a brief account of their sad past. My personal favorite offers to embrace you whenever you want so that she may experience your kindness. Even monsters have a tragic side. I came across one beast that was continuously agitated because it was confined in a metal helmet. I came across a beach full of skeletal creatures, who I later deduced were shipwreck survivors.

However, the game may also be pleasantly strange at times. My favorite helping spirit to summon was a giant, floating jellyfish, and I presently have a pouch full of ovaries obtained from the carcass of a land octopus. There’s a task where you have to clean the skulls off of a creature’s foot at one point.

What’s fantastic about a more open structure is that it preserves the qualities that make FromSoftware games popular. Instead, it exacerbates the problem. The bosses are still significant and fearsome, and the battle is still stressful and gratifying. I’m still discovering new things about how magic, crafting, and other in-game systems work after 40 hours. While the freedom is fantastic, making your way through the different dungeons, castes, and tombs gives you a heart-pounding, almost claustrophobic experience. I’ve mastered many things, but they always seem to be a new beast or location that I’m not quite ready for, which is what keeps me going back.

Elden Ring PC performance and best settings guide | Rock Paper Shotgun

All of this suggests that, while this is the studio’s most accessible game, it is still quite tricky. It’s still tough, but you’ve got more options for coping with the annoyances now. Not only does it require your undivided attention and focus in a manner that few other games do, but it also requires a significant amount of your time due to its size. I don’t think I’m anywhere close to finishing the game after 40 hours of exploration; at moments, it feels like I’m just getting started. Elden Ring isn’t a game that can be played for an hour at a time. It’s a game that eats up your time. It’s become a way of life for me, and I still think about it when I put the controller down.

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I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to beat it. And, to be honest, I’m not sure I want to — I’m old enough to read those books now, but I’d instead write my own.

NOTE: Elden Ring will be released for the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC on February 25th.

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