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

Let me climb the tree, Elden Ring

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My journey through the Elden Ring closed network preview started in a dark cave. Instead of following the obvious path out of the cave in front of me, I veered toward what looked to be a bottomless cliff on my right, just to see what I could see. It wasn’t bottomless; instead I could see flickering light at what was likely a fatal distance below. But before my logical brain could remind me, “There’s fall damage in Souls games, you know,” my curious squirrel brain propelled me over the cliff where I landed undamaged. I let out a surprised and delighted little squeak and was on my way. That was my main source of excitement from Elden Ring, after playing for 10-ish hours. The Lands Between are peppered with so many nooks and crannies begging to be discovered that it’s possible to have a radically different experience each time you play. I lent part of my playtime to my Souls-loving partner and our two playthroughs were so different, it was like we played two different games. 

Elden Ring looks like FromSoftware decided to ditch the unique conventions of Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice to return to the Dark Souls formula that made the studio famous. The UI is virtually indistinguishable from Dark Souls III. You’ve got quick items in four quadrants in the bottom left of your screen, the number of runes (Elden Ring’s level-up currency) in the  bottom right, and your health, stamina, and focus (mana) bars in the top left. When you beat a boss, the world darkens as golden letters appear letting you know, “Foe Defeated.” If you’re familiar with FromSoftware games, Elden Ring will look like the bones of a Dark Souls game in a much, much prettier skin suit. 

Elden Ring feels warmer than Dark Souls, the color palette reminding me of the last rays of sunlight right before a torrential rain. It’s not a sunny game although there are day and night cycles, but the bright yellows, shiny golds, and lush greens make it feel lighter and more hopeful than previous FromSoftware titles. You play a Tarnished, which sounds unsavory, but instead of feeling like the foul and corrupted damned as I did in Bloodborne, I am pretty damn confident about my chances of finding the shards of the titular Elden Ring.

Elden Ring adds a lot of quality-of-life improvements not typical to Souls games. The sites of grace that heal you also guide you where to go in case the open world gets too overwhelming. An expansive map system lets you mark important places like the location of merchants or roaming bosses to avoid. You can find or buy items that let you summon spirits that help you kill enemies or distract bosses. And when you die, you can choose to resurrect at the last site of grace you activated or a special statue you’ve passed, potentially saving you from an arduous re-tread through a difficult area. But for all these conveniences, Elden Ring isn’t an easier Souls-experience. You’re gonna get the crap kicked out of you — a lot. But the game seems to want to make your experience a little less frustrating when you inevitably do have the tar beaten out of you multiple times. 

You’re gonna get the crap kicked out of you — a lot

For my Elden Ring adventure, I chose the magic-focused prophet class. In addition to a healing spell and a weapon spell that grants you healing and armor while you’re within its range, you also start with the Beast Claw spell that pretty much one-shots everything not a boss but takes so long to wind up, you’ll die before it strikes. I’m sure I could have probably done more to enhance my survivability by wearing better armor or using better spells, but I was in love with the spell and determined to make it work despite its fatal weakness. That openness is what hooked me on Elden Ring. It plops you into a beautiful, open world giving you a blank canvas of a class and says, “Okay, make it work.” So I did, concocting an elaborate dodging and weaving strategy that would hopefully preserve my life while ensuring the spell hit home. I beat a couple of bosses that way, and those I couldn’t beat, I just found somewhere else to explore instead.

My favorite location was a dungeon composed of a network of catacombs. It was filled with fire traps that killed me unless I was at full health and quick little bastard enemies that clung to the walls unseen and fell on top of me, ripping me apart with unfathomably fast strikes. Misjudge the distance to a gout of flame? Death. Fail to check your corners like a soldier breaching a compound? Death. Yet, despite losing a dragon’s hoard of 1,300 runes and screaming so loud my dog thought I was dying, Elden Ring, with its freedom of exploration, made death feel like a puzzle to solve and not a punishment for carelessness.

At the first site of grace I found after beating the boss at the end of my not-bottomless-pit dungeon, I was greeted by a snickering shithead who told me I was better off dying in a ditch because I was “maidenless.” After leaving him and his condescension behind, I wandered The Lands Between, dodging a heavily armored mounted asshole and sucking up runes from tiny, woodland creatures and sheep who have the awesome ability to curl up and roll away a la Samus’ Morph Ball. I found a second site of grace and after activating it, a tattooed woman named Melina greeted me, offering an accord. She pledged to be my maiden, the level-up lady FromSoftware games are fond of, and gave me Torrent, a spirit horse, to help me navigate the vast Lands Between. After spending time with Torrent, gleefully mowing down enemies with my Beast Claw from horseback which I was surprised and delighted to find the game allowed me to do, I returned to the snickering shithead, no longer maidenless, and dueled him to death. Felt good, righteous even.

After spending several hours with Elden Ring, the thought my mind returns to, long after the closed network test session ended is, “Can I climb the golden tree?” I never got close to those trees. I survived a fall through a deadly chasm, rode a ghost horse into battle, and got some good old-fashioned revenge — but I never got close to those trees. They tower above the open, expansive landscape, glowing a pretty yellow gold and calling to me to scale their many branches like a beacon. This is Elden Ring, a FromSoftware game in which the appeal ostensibly lies in beating punishing enemies and boss fights. But, when presented with such a beautiful, melancholic open world and a trusty, double-jumping spirit horse to navigate it all, all I want to do is climb the tree.

Elden Ring launches on PlayStation and Xbox February 25th, 2022.