Time is the greatest test for all art.
When Elden Ring was released in late February, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive and spoilers had no chance to derail the hype – story is a different beast when it comes to FromSoftware, and anyone trying to ruin secrets would struggle to have impact. From the exploration to the open map, to the styles of play and challenging enemies, the formula appeared to work for even the Soulsborne virgin who could take the time to power up and soak in the immersive world at chosen pace. With the sugar hit now over after three months of game time, is Elden Ring really a generational entry into the industry?
Yes. Here’s why.
Nostalgia is a beautiful thing. When gamers think of their first open world experience, they may highlight Ocarina of Time, or San Andreas, or Red Dead Redemption. These games rewarded exploration and felt authentic, even if their age makes it difficult to return. But as the industry noticed the appeal of the genre and more content could be crammed into a game, the open worlds became litter trays. It is now known as the Ubisoft effect – maps and worlds that are full of icons and repeat missions, but empty in soul due to the repetition. A checklist no different to a shopping list. The system makes the gamer feel like they must clear the map of content, and there is little story progression or sense of achievement in doing so (just a rage and fatiguing shift, like a workday after the actual workday).
Enter Elden Ring.
Rage and fatigue may be associated feelings, but it is not due to a checklist. From the moment the game starts, the gamer can do as they please. The only handholding mechanism is a thin beam of light from a site of grace – a save/rest point. The world is massive, and every corner has a discovery. It may be a cave that leads to an island of dragon remains, or an NPC offering a vague questline that takes detective work to solve, or a lift that delves underground to open up another map with a technicolour skyline. Discovery. Exploration. If you miss something, no loss – just part of the individual journey. It’s like the bear shitting in the woods – if you don’t see it, did it really happen? The map continues to open and open, leading to new biomes and castles and dungeons and bosses. Immersion.
While many RPGs offer the chance to pick a class, often it’s nothing more than looks and weapons. But this class carries until completion. For Elden Ring, your starting class can quickly transform. Choices dictate your build – be a sorcerer with a staff, a samurai with swords, a naked man with a bowl for a helmet. There are so many options that it can feel strange to avoid utilising magic or swordplay completely, but due to the level system you can’t do a bit of everything. Part of the fun is choosing what works, and this also encourages new playthroughs. Using magic and using weapons makes the game feel so different that it may as well be a separate title, and this longevity means it will comfortably stand the test of time well beyond three months.
In an interview with The New Yorker, the creator of Elden Ring said: “I’ve never been a very skilled player. I die a lot. So, in my work, I want to answer the question: If death is to be more than a mark of failure, how do I give it meaning? How do I make death enjoyable? I want as many players as possible to experience the joy that comes from overcoming hardship.”
This is the opposite view to other open world titles, which allow easy settings so that the checklist is achieved.
You cannot change difficulty in Elden Ring. All players face the same challenge. At first, this did collect criticism. But as a player, overcoming challenges is what the video game industry was built on. The games of the late eighties and early nineties were HARD. Trying to beat the boss at the end of a side scrolling level, failing, and being placed at the start of the side scrolling level again was infuriating. But beat the level, feel the accomplishment, high five your mates. That dies with difficulty settings – stuck? Lower the setting. Elden Ring wants you to lose. It wants you to go away, get better, learn, and then come back. Players are directed to Margit the Fell Omen if they follow the first sites of grace. Players will die. But players will overcome the challenge with time, experience and exploration. This is the essence of gaming.
Fighting the same enemy over and over again across different settings is tiresome. Open world games throw many enemies at you, but after fifteen hours there is barely any difference outside of appearance. Not here. Fifty hours into Elden Ring, even the easier enemies are new on progression. Giant men, giant prawns, giant hands, giant bears, giant crabs (why is everything so damn big?) to fire sorcerers, pesky monkey warriors…the list goes on and on. Each requires a different tactic and play style. Open world games often pack the map with human enemies to only delay progression for a few minutes, but here even the normal are deranged. It makes gameplay entertaining and never boring. Dragons, by the way – George R R Martin definitely had a hand in designing those.
This is a generational title that will spawn updates, sequels, re-releases and debates for years to come. Much like Skyrim, Elden Ring will see dozens of imitators and no successors for a decade. If you haven’t played the game yet due to being intimidated by difficulty or lack of time, know that there is no race here. Play at your pace, absorb the world, learn the secrets.
For you’ll be engaging with the Game of the Year 2022.
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