The problem with the open-world game is that it is not merely bad level design, it is the absence of level design. It is like a theme park of content. When you are a young gamer, or an adult new to games, the promise of a vast open-world with aesthetically pleasing and impressive vistas where “your choices impact the course of your story” (as the marketing invariably tells us) is enchanting. But then you get old and jaded. You watch the NPCs repeat their programmed routines which, far from contributing to a sense of a living breathing world, make it lifeless, mechanical, and soon to be dated. You finally grasp the gameplay loop: complete checklist-style radiant quests, gather upgrade materials, repeat mechanical tasks, to progress to the meaty, main story content – which often is padded out with cutscenes. I am far from the only one to raise these objections, and yet somehow, we are still getting these games. I found it particularly telling, reading the reviews on the Xbox UK store that even positive reviews of Elden Ring conceded that “great, but after a time becomes a chore to play”. And there’s the rub: the open world is not merely inferior to the meticulously designed, level-based game, but a poor substitute for reality. It becomes a list of chores that you must complete to have the “full” experience, or risk being underpowered, or worse, unable to progress at all.
Elden Ring is a cut above the standard Ubisoft and EA fare though. I will say now that I did thoroughly enjoy my Elden Ring for all its shortcomings, and I spent the first two weeks sharing anecdotes with my best friend who was also playing the game about things we discovered roaming the Lands Between. An NPC questline, some strange structure, some loot in a catacomb, some game mechanic, some weapon. Fromsoftware has by no means failed, they have genuinely captured the feeling of discovery that those of us who remember school playground, college buttery, or watercooler conversations - depending on how old you were at the time - about Skyrim. Of course, in those days nickels had pictures of bees on them. “Give me five bees for a quarter” you’d say. And I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time.
The problem, however, is that as players with hundreds of hours of experience in the other games will know, having a vast open world and dumping mobs of enemy NPCs in settlements, catacombs with relatively simple puzzles and mini-bosses, ruins with a downstairs and some treasure or trap, does not compare to the Zelda like locales of Dark Souls II, or the interconnected worlds of Dark Souls I and III. These worlds were smaller in scale but were full of secret pathways, semi-scripted events that you would encounter as you navigate them. These might be plot points in an NPC questline, a mob enemy that would ambush you, a group of mob enemies that would attack in a carefully orchestrated pattern, a summon NPC that would battle with you to the boss (I’m thinking of the paladin knight that aids you in Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin through No Man’s Wharf) some loot you would find, a shortcut that would make returning to the boss fight less painful, a key that would open an entirely new locale. And damnit you just can’t achieve these joys in a game world on an open-world scale. They exist only in the other Dark Souls games and in Quake Dungeons and Zelda Temples.
Then there’s gameplay. I encountered yet another review that suggested Elden Ring was merely Dark Souls 3.5. I wouldn’t go so far as claim Elden Ring has not innovated at all. The Ashes of War are far superior to Dark Souls III’s weapon arts. Though there is (I haven’t touched the game since Patch 1.03) a clear prodding towards bleed builds – at least for people who are playing melee. Virtually everything except the final boss is weak to it. Uchigatana, Nagakiba, and Rivers of Blood are particularly overpowered. If you have played an alternate build like a cleric or a sorcerer or a hybrid something or a quality build, then disregard this entire paragraph. But the emphasis on bleed builds, particularly katanas can only remind me of Sekiro, to Elden Ring’s great disadvantage. Because Sekiro had some of the greatest sword on sword combat in gaming to date – I can’t think of a game that has done it better. You had progression in the form of prayer beads and consuming memories for attack power, but you had to learn skills and learn how to apply them to prevail. Spamming with R2 in Elden Ring to do massive bleed damage, and not being able to clash swords in a boss fight like Malenia (which could have been something to rival Sword Sant Isshin), pales in comparison.
If all this sounds scathing, contrarian, and bitter, it is not meant to be. The choice to go open world is not without its advantages. Again, to invoke Skyrim, dragon fights are particularly spectacular in their presentation, in the sound design, music, and varied attack patterns – they never grow tedious. It’s also a decision that makes sense in terms of accessibility. I’ve recommended Sekiro to friends, only for them to get stuck and abandon the game at a certain early game point. In Elden Ring, you can roam the Lands Between, gather talismans, weapons, Ashes of War, learn the mechanics by encountering mini-bosses, sometimes repeated, and then return to the main quest when you’ve improved your build and your game sense. It also cannot be overstated how great it is that Elden Ring rewards exploration and seeking out every hidden secret in this way. All of Fromsoftware’s games have done this, but not to this extent.
And then there’s the Radahn boss fight. In previous games, we are living through a world in severe decline from some sort of malaise, and infer the past from item descriptions and clues in the environment. The festival at the castle in Caelid where all the tarnished are gathered to hunt Starscourge Radahn is a truly impressive, living, breathing, event, the likes of which we have not seen in the previous games. He feels like an insurmountable obstacle until you learn to do exactly as your NPC summons do and just charge them with reckless abandon.
No, Elden Ring is not without merit, and I’m definitely glad it exists. Sekiro remains the masterwork though.