Thursday, December 8, 2022

‘Elden Ring’ review in progress: The Lands Between stretch out forever

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Probably the best, most attractive solution to describe the sheer scale of “Elden Ring” is to say it’s like receiving two to three new Dark Souls games in one.

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I have played “Elden Ring” for more than 40 hours in the week since I was given the game in advance of the Feb. 23 review embargo. As I understand it, I’ve only scratched the surface of the game’s massive open world. In those first 40 hours, I am almost done exploring most of the first area, and am a bit more than halfway done with the second, sprawling lake region, which feels about as big as a Souls game by itself. After all that time, I genuinely do not know how many more regions there are in the game. I’ve explored large sections of the map, many of which have never been seen before in preview trailers and materials. Yet the game’s world continues to expand in impossible, unbelievable ways. The game’s borders limits are not something I can conceive at the moment.

“Elden Ring,” a From Software game co-written by Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki and Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin, has — so far — exceeded my high expectations: in terms of story; the styles of play it offers; the entrancing regions housing untold amounts of secrets; and the endless hordes of terrifying and tragic creatures to either kill or barter with.

But more than anything, I am in awe at the actual proportions of what From Software has achieved in designing this world. Unlike previous games in the Souls genre and series, “Elden Ring” is a true open world whose borders and boundaries are blocked only by cliffs and castle walls that scrape the sky.

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The opening area of the game will suggest that you head north to Stormveil Castle, a decrepit estate shrouded in tempest. Instead, I rode my spectral horse East. I was shocked to see how far I could ride without stopping. Suddenly, I was in a war-torn battlefield, with AI-controlled soldiers fighting massive creatures in never-ending combat. I snuck my way into a nearby castle, where I found its remaining denizens fighting among each other, a confusing and frightening spectacle, particularly for my level 12 knight. This is an area I can’t even begin to describe — I’d risk breaking the spoiler guidelines outlined by publisher Bandai Namco — yet here I was, fresh into the game and already in territories never seen or talked about in preview materials and last year’s network test preview.

In all but name, this is a sequel to “Dark Souls,” remixed and reimagined with George R.R. Martin’s writing, which does a lot of work to make this the most immediately coherent storytelling From Software has done in over a decade. The Elden Ring itself is a golden rule of order, made up of ancient runes. Someone stole away the rune of death, and The Lands Between is now a region of warring states, locked in immortal decay and bloodshed. It’s up to you, a Tarnished who is “not dead, yet lives,” to find out who stole this rune, and discover what exactly happened here.

This is no empty open world. Consider the iconic vista shot of the Liurna of the Lakes region, seen in many previews of the game. Hidden in the mist is a dry lakebed, freckled with buildings, villages, caves and other strange fantastic occurrences that might be expected in that mysterious, ancient setting. I wandered for hours on end, but barely a minute would go by without me noticing something fascinating or dangerous nearby. Every space in the game is designed with purpose, evoking a feeling of adventure and mystery.

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And wandering is almost always rewarding, whether you get a key quest item, an “Ash of War” that expands your combat skillset with powerful attacks, or a Spirit Summon, AI-controlled ghosts that do a large part in making this game far more accessible to players who have been scared off by the infamous challenge that gave Souls games their notoriety.

“Elden Ring” is a recreation so massive, YouTube creators who cowl the Souls style were able to spend 30 hours scouring the opening area available during last year’s network test. I can confirm that this opening area of Limgrave is but a sliver of the larger world on offer. Other regions literally dwarf the size of the opening area.

I was astounded at the variety of environments too. The game has an untold amount of hidden caves and catacombs to discover. Some of these areas repeat motifs and aesthetics, but “Elden Ring” keeps you on your toes; “yet another cave to mine” sometimes turns into something completely unexpected.

I’ve written a separate piece about why I believe this is probably the easiest Souls game for new players. And while this game has more ways to play than ever before, making it potentially more accessible to a wider group of people, make no mistake: this game can still be quite difficult. I spent more than an hour challenging one boss before finally defeating them. Yes, you still lose experience points when you die, but through generous checkpoints, “Elden Ring” makes it easier to re-engage in these encounters than past Souls games. That doesn’t mean the fights are in any way less violent or aggressive than in the past.

“Elden Ring” is a hard game to sum up — especially since I haven’t completed it. It’s very possible I’ve yet to see large portions of the game. Bandai Namco released a launch trailer on Feb. 22; I haven’t even seen half of what that trailer shows.

This review will be updated as more thoughts start to form, and the overall experience of the game becomes clearer. I recommend reading my piece on why this game may be friendlier to a wider assortment of players, as it goes into more granular detail on the minute-to-minute experience of this game.

This is also a difficult review to write, as my desire to inform is superseded by my hope that this game’s sense of discovery will overwhelm you as it did me. It would feel wrong to mention how I discovered certain places in great detail, or the nature of these locations and their denizens.

But when you’re ready for a advice, right here’s mine. If you’re a fan of the Souls video games, you’ve probably already made your choice. For everybody else, that is nonetheless a tough recreation to skip. So far, that is essentially the most compelling and thoughtfully designed open world recreation I’ve performed, exceeding presumably “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” a game often cited as the greatest ever made. The more you understand The Lands Between, the clearer that argument will become.

Before writing this review, I stumbled upon yet another part of the world that I had previously believed empty. “There’s nothing that could be there. It makes no sense. It’s impossible,” I thought to myself. Even if I’m beginning to get a good grasp of the landscape, I haven’t even seen what may be above, or below, what I’ve already explored.

“Elden Ring” is a recreation about discovering and pushing the bounds of chance. It dares you, time and again, to maintain pushing, making this not like another journey I’ve skilled. It could be understatement to say “Elden Ring” has exceeded my expectations. After 40 hours — and with a lot extra to go — I don’t even know what I anticipate from it anymore. Its sheer scale is humbling. In phrases of sq. footage, “Elden Ring” is probably not the most important recreation ever made, however no different expertise has made me really feel fairly as small.

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