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Elden Ring hands-on review: Breathtaking but worrisome

Seven hours later, The Lands Between is as majestic as it is underwhelming

Elden Ring
(Image: © FromSoftware)

Our Verdict

After seven hours with Elden Ring, I'm wowed by the game's stupendeous sense of scale, enhanced mechanical variety and hard-as-nails boss fights. But FromSoftware has not convinced me that an open world is the appropriate evolution for Soulsborne.

For

  • Imbued with stunning spectacle
  • Plenty of challenging encounters
  • Better defensive capabilities
  • Legacy Dungeons are great
  • Familiar but tight controls

Against

  • A disappointing open world
  • Overly familiar mini-dungeons
  • Ruins are a cause for concern

Laptop Mag Verdict

After seven hours with Elden Ring, I'm wowed by the game's stupendeous sense of scale, enhanced mechanical variety and hard-as-nails boss fights. But FromSoftware has not convinced me that an open world is the appropriate evolution for Soulsborne.

Pros

  • + Imbued with stunning spectacle
  • + Plenty of challenging encounters
  • + Better defensive capabilities
  • + Legacy Dungeons are great
  • + Familiar but tight controls

Cons

  • - A disappointing open world
  • - Overly familiar mini-dungeons
  • - Ruins are a cause for concern

Within the vast expanse of dark matter and emptiness that is space, two worlds co-exist. They’ve clashed for years, but finally, there has been a great transition. The former world is the one that sprung into existence when Elden Ring was announced at E3 2019, and it continued thriving until last weekend, when I launched Elden Ring’s Closed Network Test on my PS5. The latter, which is now engulfed in chaos, is the world that formed after I experienced seven full hours of FromSoftware’s upcoming open-world RPG. After this monumental shift, nothing is the same… at least for the next three months.

Elden Ring’s Closed Network Test went live between November 12 and 14 with five separate three-hour time slots. It required three sessions over the course of seven hours for me to get through most of what the test had to offer, and after each session, I could feel my body itching for more. But even then, I came away from Elden Ring with less excitement than when I entered.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved what I played, but FromSoftware has set the bar for excellence after Bloodborne and Dark Souls. Simply loving Elden Ring is a lukewarm response in contrast to the intensity I feel for the developer’s best works. Part of me is hoping that this demonstration is merely the stepping stone into FromSoftware’s next masterpiece, but regardless, devout fans of the franchise need to set expectations. If you think Elden Ring could be one of the greatest games ever, you might end up disappointed.

This Closed Network Test has shown that FromSoftware still needs to prove itself. Even when six of the developer’s games are among some of the best I’ve ever played, this team has to justify its Soulsborne formula’s transition into an open-world.

If you don’t want spoilers for the contents of the Elden Ring Closed Network Test (about half of the game’s first area), turn away now.

FromSoftware takes a leap 

Soulsborne is hailed as one of the most influential game series of the last decade, with Dark Souls in particular cited as inspiration for many developers throughout the 2010s. Outside of iterative titles like Nioh, The Surge, Code Vein, Lords of the Fallen, Remnant: From the Ashes and Mortal Shell, games such as Destiny, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Assassin’s Creed: Origin boast elements of Souls within their foundation. Even Netflix’s Stranger Things was inspired by Dark Souls’ despondent atmosphere. 

This hardcore formula, which started with Demon’s Souls in 2009, has resulted in a series of five critically acclaimed games. And afterward, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice proved that FromSoftware could tackle a different genre while still hitting a high caliber of quality.

Now, Elden Ring is stepping back to what the developer is known for, with Director Hidetaka Miyazaki claiming the game is “a more natural evolution of Dark Souls.” For the first time in this series, we will see a hopeless, brutal and claustrophobic foundation matched with one of the most oversaturated designs in the medium: an open world.

Since Elden Ring’s 2019 reveal, I’ve been convinced that FromSoftware would revolutionize what an open-world game could accomplish. However, after seven hours with its Closed Network Test, I’m starting to suspect that the shift from thoughtfully constructed and cleverly interwoven areas to an expansive open-world might be its undoing.

Open-world fears 

Elden Ring evokes a sense of aimlessness, which was remedied by the occasional flicker of breathtaking spectacle. At one moment, you’re trudging through a shallow lake occupied by poisonous spores when a gargantuan dragon descends onto a group of enemies who had set up camp for the day. When a health bar appears at the bottom of the screen, every part of your body will shiver with fear. 

Elden Ring

(Image credit: FromSoftware)

At another moment, you’re travelling uphill to the peak of a mountain as currents of wind encircle your character, creating a sense of dread for what’s to come. Within this same zone, a curiously placed collection of rocks erupts into a glowing stone giant that stumbles closer to the player with a murderous conviction.

These incredible scenes, which have always been a part of what makes Dark Souls so special, prove FromSoftware has not lost its understanding of scale and atmosphere. But the open-world lacks excitement elsewhere.

My engagement with the world relied on waiting for the next epic thing to happen. Where Dark Souls keeps the player engaged with its creative level design, there’s a notable lack of uniqueness within the expansive fields of Elden Ring’s first zone. 

When taking in the area from afar, it possesses the quality of a fantastical painting. As the player overlooks the glowing yellow trees towering over them and the castle hanging on the edge of a cliff, it elicits that same ethereal sensation other FromSoftware games do. But as I mounted up and rode through these plains, I felt underwhelmed by the simplicity of everything in my vicinity. And because Elden Ring tries to capture the qualities of a dead world with few NPCs, and every enemy moves like a mindless husk, it’s jarring that the environments are colorful and full of life. There’s a less tangible cohesion between each monster and its location in the world. Where every element of Dark Souls works together to present an idea in its utmost glory, Elden Ring occasionally echoes the vacantness seen in other open-world titles.

Cooking and Crafting 

Elden Ring introduces new mechanics, including the ability to slay harmless animals for meat and bones, and harvesting foliage to collect plants and berries. Players can then open the crafting menu to get their hands on unique items. Arrows, throwing knives, explosive pots, and the Furlcalling Finger Remedy — to see summon signs and initiate cooperative play — are just a few examples of what I could craft so far. Players can find more recipe books in the open world, so there should be more variety throughout the rest of the game.

Elden Ring

(Image credit: FromSoftware)

However, gathering and hunting isn't fun on its own; there needs to be a reason for the player to take their time crafting and cooking. The foundation of Soulsborne relies on the player’s skill in timing their dodges and attacks, so it’s hard to imagine how throwing knives or explosive pots would be optimal during battle.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild encourages players to get lost in the game’s cooking system, as it can provide extra health, stamina and resistances for a short time. Cooking was also fun because it was a mini-game where you select up to five ingredients and experiment to achieve optimal results. I always took the time to make sure my inventory was packed with meals to assist me in the journey to come. I can only hope Elden Ring introduces crafting and cooking with greater purpose than to reimplement the filler items I never use.

Boosting resistances, increasing damage done from different types of weapons, curing ailments like poison or curse, or even providing special one-time use abilities are some of the ways crafting could provide purpose. For example, in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the Headless can only be fought with the Divine Confetti item. I would love if creating certain types of items have implications on the enemies, bosses or areas you can tackle.

Greater defensive complexity 

Much of the hardship in Soulsborne comes from learning to dodge at the right time, though that may be an oversimplification of the series’ difficulty. Sekiro introduced more layers to this by encouraging the player to parry, jump and counter. 

Elden Ring

(Image credit: FromSoftware)

Elden Ring has done something similar by bringing jumping, mounted combat, and crouching to the formula. Certain enemies possess attacks that erupt a shockwave across a wide area, and instead of rolling through these attacks, it’s safer to jump over them. While in the open world, players can mount up at any time, even when in the middle of a fight. However, this consumes a Flask of Crimson Tears, which is essentially the game’s equivalent of an Estus Flask. And players can crouch at any time, allowing them to hide in bushes and sneak up behind unsuspecting enemies for a devastating backstab. While something as simple as the addition of a jump button might seem like a silly thing to get excited about, it shifts the tides of battle, forcing the player to be conscious of more than just dodging at the right time.

Beyond that, Elden Ring kicked my ass. I fought five bosses in the Closed Network Test, with two of them taking more than ten tries. The other, which is the giant dragon I mentioned earlier, was too hard for me to beat within the allotted beta time. I can’t wait to see how these gameplay additions force me to adapt to a whole new difficulty curve.

Repetition can be tiresome 

Open-world games often rely on specific elements becoming an expected occurrence, even when travelling to new areas. This could be true with the Elden Ring as well. The most worrisome are the Ruins, a small collection of completely destroyed buildings inhabited by humanoid enemies (and sometimes dogs). Within the confines of the Closed Network Test, I found two of these identically built areas, with each ending in a downward staircase that leads to a treasure chest. If Elden Ring repurposes this concept in each domain then I hope the full game convinces me that Ruins can exist with a similar breadth of environmental and enemy diversity the series is known for.

Elden Ring

(Image credit: FromSoftware)

Another potentially repetitive component is the game’s Dungeons, where liftable doors are placed around the world as entrances to small underground areas. Similar to Bloodborne’s Chalice Dungeons, players run through small, tightly packed hallways littered with traps and enemies until they get to a boss. The first Dungeon I entered looked similar to the ones found in Bloodborne, possessing stone brick walls, dim white flames lighting the area, and thin tree branches growing along the floor. At the very least, the creepy stone golem enemies in this area were unique, with the boss possessing a haunting design that utilized a lack of animation to creep the player out.

The second Dungeon is a lot like Stonefang Tunnel from Demon’s Souls, boasting similar iconography of minecarts, wooden elevators, dug-up dirt walls, wooden pillars to support the structure of the area, and the dirty-looking enemy miners with high resilience to physical attacks. At the end of this overly familiar Dungeon lay a larger version of the Troll, an enemy I already faced at four other points in the open world. There’s already more aesthetic diversity between these two dungeons than there was in most of Bloodborne’s Chalice Dungeons, but if Elden Ring only harkens back to areas from previous games then it won’t be as exciting to explore.

Character and weapon animations are mostly taken from Dark Souls 3, which creates a disconnect between the environments and how the game feels to control. When introducing a new world to players, it’s important that the tactile sensations from dodging, running and attacking are different enough to translate that shift. With what I played of Elden Ring thus far, it felt as if my Dark Souls 3 character was transported to this world… except now, they can jump. 

Legacy Dungeons are a return to form 

While Elden Ring’s expansive open world is a new endeavor for FromSoftware, Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team have not given up on their classic formula. Legacy Dungeons are Elden Ring’s way of informing the player that they’re in an area similar to what you might find in Dark Souls or Bloodborne.

The Elden Ring Closed Beta Test provided a small taste of what this would look like with Stormveil Castle. Upon entrance, players are greeted by a cloaked figure with tentacles protruding from the side of his head. His name is Margit the Fell Omen, and after he comments on how he’s intent on extinguishing the player’s flame, he begins his rush toward them. Battling a terrifying figure upon a worn bridge leading into a colossal castle as a flurry of clouds and wind encompass the arena is the level of splendor I expect out of FromSoftware. 

Elden Ring

(Image credit: FromSoftware)

Once the player makes their way into the castle, an NPC asks them to make a decision. This surprised me, as the series has not previously connected dialogue choices with which path they intend to go down. On one hand, I could travel the scaffolding on the side of the castle to sneak into a back entrance, or have the front gate opened and rush straight inside. I tried both; on my first attempt, I was greeted by the dimly lit interior of a castle wall that looked similar to Boletaria in Demon’s Souls. Tight corridors, explosive barrels and fire bombs awaited me, but what was most dangerous was a tiny wooden door. Upon entry, this door slammed shut behind me as I realized I had been locked in with a terrifying monster adorned with sharp glistening blades that could easily cut me up into little bits and pieces.

If the player decides to go through the front entrance, they'll be greeted by five or six enemies on ballistas firing a volley of bolts upon them in a courtyard. Although I could sprint past this terrifying blockade, I was mauled by a terrifying lion-like creature at the end of the sprint. I love that Stormveil Castle put two drastically different areas in the players path and let them decide how they wanted to proceed. I’m excited to see how other areas in Elden Ring incorporate decision making into level design.

Elden Ring encourages jolly cooperation 

Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Bloodborne have quiet, but striking sound design, terrifying enemies, a sparse use of music, and a world overwhelmed with death. As a result, I’ve never enjoyed hopping in a Discord call and grouping up with friends while knee-deep in a Soulsborne. Having someone by my side is antithetical to the feeling of loneliness that I yearn for when playing these games. And since areas are often claustrophobic, enemy encounters rarely feel appropriate in multiplayer.

Elden Ring

(Image credit: FromSoftware)

However, Elden Ring is heading in a different direction. The sound of metal boots clanking, the gusts of wind blowing through the grass, and the low crackling of fire is still the focus of the game’s sound design, but these great plains full of boars, rabbits and birds are imbued with life. Elden Ring is full of color and lush foliage in a way that Dark Souls never was, and as a result, exploring these vast plains feels appropriate with a friend. I’m still going to play Elden Ring alone on my first playthrough, but I firmly believe this will be the best Soulsborne to play with others.

Bottom Line 

Elden Ring’s Closed Network Test provided a small taste of what I’ve been missing for years. With its spectacular sense of scale, complex encounters and gorgeous art direction, FromSoftware is the master of atmosphere in the medium. 

On the other hand, the seven hours I’ve played have yet to convince me that the company can tackle an open-world with the level of brilliance I’ve been expecting. Repetitive objectives and less varied environments could hold Elden Ring back from being one of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s best. I hope the full game proves me wrong.