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Review: How I learned to stop worrying and love the deathly delights of 'Elden Ring'

A confrontation with a dragon in 'Elden Ring.'
FromSoftware

Looking back, I don't know why I agreed to do this, why I submitted myself to video game masochism. I don't know why I thought my first experience with a FromSoftware game would be like every other video game review: 30 hours gone, game finished, review written, thank you and goodnight.

And yet — 30 hours into Elden Ring, I've barely made a dent. I didn't realize until now that I could have so much fun making myself so miserable.

Beauty and brutality

Elden Ring is forbidding, majestic, and sick in every sense of the word. Its overarching story about a fallen kingdom is deliberately obtuse — an unspecified amount was written by Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, the rest by Dark Souls mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki. Its setting, the Lands Between, is filled with countless little delights, like the roaming sheep that roll away armadillo style when you get too close. But they're also home to countless nightmares, like giant dragonflies that harass you while you're menaced by roving bands of desiccated peasants, towering knights, or flame-breathing dragons. These vast landscapes largely replace the dense, layered levels that Dark Souls was famous for. In Elden Ring, though, the opportunity to survey diverse terrain — whether a noxious swampland or gusty prairie — produces an injection of gaming dopamine (and some genuine fear, too).

Our hero squares off against a roving mounted adversary.
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FromSoftware

It's made all the better by your trusty steed, Torrent — a beautiful creature resembling an elk. Whistle and he'll materialize beneath you, ready to ride. While he's inaccessible in the game's many dungeons, Torrent also gives you an offensive edge, as you can cut down hordes from atop the saddle better than you could on foot. His best feature, however, is his double-jump. Yes, that's right — Breath of the Wild horses have nothing on him! Use Torrent to hop up cliffs or leap down ravines to mitigate fall damage that would normally kill you. But take care; while Torrent can make you feel invincible, great heights or particularly surly adversaries can still defeat you.

Yet despite these innovations in world design and traversal, FromSoftware remains true to their traditional boss formula, often throwing you — a comparatively puny warrior — into a dimly-lit colosseum to brawl with some gruesomely powerful cretin. But when this gruesomely powerful cretin's health bar is finally sliced down to zero, after quite literally 43 tries (yes, I counted for the first boss), that's when the celebration ensues. It looks like this: a 24-year old with sweaty palms and a sprinting heart rate jumps off his couch and screams, "F*** YES! FINALLY!" and hurriedly texts his roommate the news.

An early boss, Godrick the Grafted.
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FromSoftware

A sparse, grim world

Elden Ring's aesthetic also deserves recognition, even if it doesn't match the glamor or realism of rival open world games. Instead, it goes out of its way to make you feel small. The Erdtree – gargantuan and golden – looms over the entire map, its flaxen, ethereal leaves falling slowly to the deathly ground beneath it. It's a shining beacon in an otherwise dark, medieval world, seemingly always out of reach. While the terrain can be sparse, replete with interchangeable ruins, I find myself often retreating from the endless onslaught to take a screenshot of my surroundings. Stormveil Castle's busted turrets or the murky waters of Liurnia of the Lakes provide a mystifying backdrop while you're slowly poisoned, bloodied or ripped to shreds.

It's during these moments of pain and suffering, however, where Elden Ring paradoxically shines brightest. In other titles, death can feel cheap. Nintendo games, for instance, aren't that challenging, so combat can feel arbitrary; after internalizing an enemy's simple attack pattern, most experienced gamers will win after a few tries.

Elden Ring, by contrast, refuses to hold your hand. An enemy takes three massive swings, and before you can evade, a final anticipatory strike takes out the rest of your precious health bar. The game constantly backs you into a corner, forcing you to make snap decisions. You'll dodge prematurely into an opponent's ax. You'll lunge only to misjudge the distance and end up exposed. In a desperate retreat, you'll find yourself impaled on an unseen enemy's blade. But practice does eventually make perfect. Besting a boss is a wave of pure relief and satisfaction unlike any I've felt in other video games.

Surveying the Lands Between.
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FromSoftware

A little help from friends

Thankfully, you're not alone in the fight. Elden Ring follows prior Souls games in allowing you to summon other characters or players to help. But it also innovates with a system not unlike Pokemon. You can collect Spirit Ashes of enemies, allowing you to occasionally beckon versions of them as allies. Even if the ghostly dogs, skeletons, or jellyfish aren't great for dishing damage, they distract foes for long enough to help even the odds.

What surprised me most about Elden Ring, though, is how much I genuinely laughed out loud while playing. It's astonishingly hard, but rather than mutter and groan, I was reassured to know that other players will experience the exact same trials and tribulations. At a time where lots of people, including myself, are anxious, I wasn't sure I'd want to play something so punishing. It's easy to pick up my staple games for Nintendo Switch and shut off my brain. But after realizing how exciting it was to conquer my fears, explore the Lands Between, and die over and over, Elden Ring became a joy, especially as my roommate watched on and laughed at my inevitable destruction.


Keller Gordon is a columnist for Join The Game. Find him on Twitter: @kelbot_

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this review.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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