Elden Ring recently won the ‘Game of the Year’ award. I started playing this game when it debuted earlier this year, but this win caused me to pick it up again to see what all the fuss was about. To explain my starting point, I am no novice to Souls games. I’ve beaten Sekiro in NG +8, with the Demon bell and no charm. I’ve beaten Bloodborn, and I’ve played about half of Nioh 2.
I’ll start this review with what I think ‘Elden Ring’ did well.
- The worldbuilding, world design and character design is fantastic. The ‘vibes’ of the different zones does a great job of capturing the feel of the Lands Between.
- Entering Limgrave for the first time does a great job of capturing the sense of a huge world filled with wonder and possibility. Caelid feels like a rotten Morrowind. The Altus Plateau was a fantastic ‘fantasy kingdom’ in decline.
- The various megadungeons (Layendell, Nokron, Stormveil, the Heiligtree etc…) were great, easily the highlights of the game.
- Some of the bosses are GREAT. Rykard and Radahn in particular are iconic. Morgott/Margit does a great job of capturing the ‘tough but fair’ ethos the Souls genre is known for, even if he has his moments of being slightly unfair. Mohg is fantastically balanced. I love the spectacle of Rennala.
- I enjoyed Elden Ring’s lore. I say the word ‘lore’ and not ‘story’ because this game’s story is a classic murder romp, travelling from castle to castle killing lords; I’ve played games like this before, they aren’t special. However, the lore of the Shattering, the Lands Between, and the fallout of the wars which followed was fantastic and well realized. Now, caveat empator, I’ve listened to a few dozen Youtube videos on the various subjects listing theories about the history of the Lands Between. These videos bring to light the hidden layers of past events in a way it’s hard to parse on your own.
Now for the bad bits. I originally quit this game because it felt too massive, to ‘open worldy.’
- I’m a fan of Sekiro’s compressed game design. You’d leave one boss area, and within minutes you’d stumble into the next. The game- and the story- felt tightly paced, focusing on what the game did best: the combat. The few occasions in which you’re wandering inbetween bosses and mini-bosses, the game feels hand made and tailored experience. For example, the stealth sequence with the giant snake is memorable non-boss content. Bloodborne also does this well; the streets of Yharnam are a fantastic level.
- Elden Ring, on the other hand, doesn’t have that hand-crafted feel to nearly the same extent. You’d just wander around the open world, find a ruins, kill stuff, find a treasure chest, then leave. Each zone would have dozens of these little bursts of ‘content,’ be that ‘content’ a ruin, a dragon, an evergaol, or a zombie graveyard. But individually, this ‘content’ felt uninspired.
- I will make the concession that the open-world content of Elden Ring feels more rewarding than that of other open-world games I’ve played. However, after a point, I burned out on Elden Ring’s open-world content. I feel like the game should have prompted me to move onto the megadungeons regularly
- Next, the last two zones were basically empty, at least when compared to Limgrave, Liurnia, Altus and Caelid. You could really tell that the game’s development time and money went into those early game zones, and not into the Consecrated Snowfield or the Mountain of the Giants. Those two zones had very little of the ‘content’ I mentioned above, and they suffered for it.
Elden Ring suffered from repeated bosses.
- Probably the worst offenders were the Ulcerated Tree Spirits, the Erdtree Avatars, the Godskins and the robot dog statues. The first time I fought a Tree Spirit, I was terrified. The fifth time I was annoyed. And I didn’t fight all the Tree Spirits, I just found out there are nine of them. I didn’t even find all of them and I still got bored!
- I think the problem with repeated bosses is because of the problem with focusing on ‘content’ over actually good narrative. Having an open world filled with ‘content’ means the gamer gets a lot of bang for their buck, however the need of filling out a vast open world requires reusing a lot of assets. One thing leads to another, and here we are.
The Souls combat system is suffering from it’s own success
- I am a fan of the Souls combat style, so much so that I even branched out and played souls-like games by non-From developers. So when I say that Elden Ring’s combat was too top-heavy, I mean it from a point of experience with the genre.
- When I played Sekiro, the combat was smoothed out to the point it fit like a glove. The game was hard, but it was fair. You could take literally zero damage while fighting the games hardest bosses, if you played the game correctly. The same goes for Bloodborne. Both games encouraged you to go on the offensive, not play defensively. I think Sekiro was a triumph of precise tuning, while Bloodborn did the best job of providing a diversity of balanced play styles.
- Elden Ring’s combat sucked in comparison. I played a strength build with a Colossal Weapon, meaning I used a large weapon which attacked slowly. The game felt like I was fighting through molasses, while my enemies flashed around, impossible for me to deal with. I didn’t want to switch to a faster moving weapon/dexterity build, but a lot of the bosses made me question my own sanity for trying to play with such a sub-optimal weapon.
The late-game bosses seemed poorly balanced. Melina in particular was a problem
- About Malenia. I had so much difficulty with her, I power leveled up to about level 135, boosting my stats a lot. Even so, I still couldn’t beat her. At 135, I killed Maleketh, Gideon and Godfrey all in one attempt. I killed Radagon/Elden Beast in three attempts.
- I am honestly a bit angry with what happened. Me powerleveling for Malenia ruined the fun with the other lategame bosses, making them too easy. I never had to learn the boss moves or patterns with any of the other characters. My stats were so high, they just fell over.
- This was unacceptable, late game bosses should be hard even if you have powerlevel somewhat. I wasn’t even using a good build, and they still died!
- Malenia was poorly tuned. I think the problem was with her infamous ‘Waterfowl Dance’ ability.
- Each time I fought her, I was winning, controlling the tempo of battle. However, when she used ‘Waterfowl Dance,’ she would inevitably gain tempo and eventually win.
- She was a poorly thought out boss; comparing her to Sword Saint Isshin or Lady Maria, neither of them had a single ability which outshown all others in terms of difficulty. If you take away Isshin’s gun, he’s still a hard boss. If you take away ‘Waterfowl Dance’ from Malenia, her difficulty would be dramatically reduced.
- I feel as though the developers ran out of time/money to work on the late game. They wanted Malenia to be a hard boss, but didn’t have the time to fully tune her so each of her abilities were hard but fair a la Isshin or Maria. Instead, to save time they gave her an unfair ability. This is artificial difficulty, and the antithesis of the spirit of what I like about this genre of games.
- I want to rant about the camera when fighting large bosses.
- When fighting bosses like Astel, the Fire Giant, or the Ancient Dragons, you have to remove your lock-on and fight directly underneath them. However, because you’re underneath them, you can’t see their attacks coming. This is a game about precisely dodging attacks; how am I supposed to dodge attacks I can’t even see?
- Sekiro didn’t have this problem with Demon of Hatred and Bloodborne didn’t have it with Ebritas or The One Reborn. Why was this problem un-solved in Elden Ring?
This was a good game, and at moments great. However, I’m afraid that Fromsoft are going to learn the wrong lessons from Elden Ring’s success. I hope they don’t double down on this design style, and instead innovate more in the vein of Sekiro and Bloodborne.