Elden Ring Is Awesome

I’ll level with you, dear reader, I am not a Soulslike fan. I’m not even a Soulslike player. I’ve been close. I’ve got a few hours clocked on Hyperlight Drifter and some more on Hades (with God Mode enabled). I’m much more a button-masher than the kind of meticulous, patient and precise gamer these games demand. I found Eddie Gordo’s elaborate capoeira combos by pure blind luck. I am thoroughly awful at sim racers and I will always, always try to over-level an RPG character so I get an easy ride. I don’t really play for a challenge, I play for the sheer joy of doing things I can’t do otherwise.

If this describes you- read on. If you’re a Souls vet looking to find out if Elden Ring is a worthy challenge for your gaming skills… uh… I’m probably the worst person to tell you. This is my first Souls game – outside of watching a friend play Dark Souls – and I’m buried under a landslide of new stuff to learn and understand.

I didn’t know what to expect from Elden Ring. At first I had no idea it was a Soulslike game. It just looked and sounded intriguing. I wasn’t exactly thrilled when I found out what sort of a ride I’d be in for. In fact I loudly proclaimed that Elden Ring and I were “fundamentally incompatible.” This isn’t far from the truth, there are many challenges considered core to the experience that I doubt I’ll ever surmount. But somehow this expansive, enthralling game has absolutely captivated me and I’m constantly finding stuff to do in its vast, hand-crafted world.

The TLDR? Elden Ring’s enormous, enigmatic and eminently explorable environment invokes feelings I haven’t felt since first venturing into World of Warcraft. A sense of awe and wonder, underpinned by a fear that keeps my progress slow and methodical at times, and brash and bold at others. It’s a captivating game that threw at me some of the toughest challenges I’ve faced, along with the tools to make them as easy or as difficult as I’d prefer.

Playing on Linux/Proton

I started playing Elden Ring on Windows and it was not a happy experience. The choppy, stuttery mess caused by From Software’s apparent lack of shader caching made fighting against anything even slightly challenging a miserable nightmare. But then I heard about the Steam Deck and Proton somehow patching its way around this problem.

And wow. Was that a surprise. In a few short years I have gone from keeping a Windows machine around for gaming, to having to switch to Linux in order to play a new game that *ran better* through a compatibility layer. What?

Indeed, switching from Windows 10 to Pop! OS and running Elden Ring through Proton vanished the stutter issues immediately and made for a smooth and stable gameplay experience. I’ve now clocked tens of hours playing Elden Ring under Linux and this was the final straw to flatten one of the SSDs in my last Windows-only holdout and dual boot Pop! OS there too.

Launching Elden Ring under Linux isn’t without its problems, though. The anticheat functionality can be finickity and renaming “eldenring.exe” to “start_protected_game.exe” while totally forgoing online play was needed to get the game launching consistently (most of the time, anyway). As such I have no comment on the online features of Elden Ring and between the message spam and invading players using cheats (despite the anticheat) I’m not really concerned with missing out.

The Open World

You’ve no doubt heard that Elden Ring bucks the tired old trends of modern open world games. I don’t entirely agree. Elden Ring isn’t anything fundamentally new, but is nonetheless an impressive return to RPG form, the likes of which an Elder Scrolls player would find familiar and comforting. These days “open world” typically means “some arbitrary action gameplay mechanic copied and pasted a bunch of times over a very large and very threadbare map.” It’s become a lazy trope with such gravity that even Breath of the Wild abandoned the traditional dungeon-exploring Zelda format for copy and paste drudgery. Don’t get me wrong, I *enjoyed* Breath of the Wild but I was very much left wanting for the vast and varied vibrance of the overworld to carry through into its uncharacteristically bland dungeons.

This desperation for an “open world” to keep toe-to-toe with competition infests games with a rot that destroys any and all chance they have at differentiating them from that same competition. Everything might look different, you might have a gun, a sword or a bow and arrow, but fundamentally it’s the same game with superficial changes.

Elden Ring’s designers From Software said: “Nope. We’re having none of this nonsense.” The fusion of the deliberately obtuse Soulslike formula with an open world has delivered a new twist to two established tropes. The whole is most emphatically better than the sum of its parts. Sure Elden Ring has a pace, a formula. You go to a place, do a thing, carry on. What differs is that every single place you go feels both unique, and fundamentally connected to both the world and the narrative threads that hold it together. And there’s little to no attempt to explain the world, or give you any guidance to unravel its mysteries.

And that world. Oh my. That world.

To put it simply, Elden Ring imbues in me a sense of awe and wonder that I haven’t felt in an “open world” since Freelancer, Dungeon Siege (okay this one’s somewhat linear, but you can go backwards and the alternate map was less so), Guildwars or World of Warcraft. That’s a nearly twenty year hiatus on a game really, truly feeling like a game is taking me somewhere.

Exploring the Academy of Raya Lucaria, for example, was deeply evocative of the wonder I felt when I was first chaperoned through Karazhan in World of Warcraft. In WoW there was a deep sense of danger, and great care was required as your party moved forward through areas. This sense of danger is manifest in the unforgiving nature of Elden Ring and it grounds the world in a palpable sense of dread, making it feel somehow more real.

This realism will sometimes reveal itself as a sense of dread. The bleak reality of the ruined and neglected Lands Between sometimes weighed heavily upon me. This game absorbed me. I had to take breaks to appreciate that the bleakness (at least somewhat) ended at the edges of my screen. But in that bleakness, the vast and varied world has many changes of pace and of atmosphere to stay fresh. And beneath the staple eldritch horror of the Soulslike franchise there’s a very certain beauty.

And, good grief. The world is truly vast. Sure Skyrim was impressive, and it trotted out the same “burst into daylight to see this glorious, great, green world” trope that Oblivion did before it as you emerge from closed caverns into the open world. But Elden Ring does it better. Oh so much better. And it doesn’t stop doing it. It doesn’t miss an opportunity to put you somewhere that rams home the awe inspiring scale and dizzying verticality of its landscapes. Even as you explore forts and towers, or complete practice loops picking off mobs around a ruined village, the enormity of Elden Ring’s world hangs around you, and plays upon your curiosity.

Elden Ring is an enigmatic and immense game in a similar fashion to Shadow of the Colossus. But its world isn’t quite so sparse. Sure there are open plains and empty areas that give you some respite, but otherwise things are richly detailed and wonderfully varied. You’ll run across ruined churches, which typically provide a safe haven, but no two of them will feel alike. You’ll find “Lost Grace” sites dotted around the world- a destination for fast travel and a place to level up, but some will serve just to checkpoint your progress before a boss, while others grant access to vendors or locations you might need to frequent. Elden Ring eschews the box ticking efficiency of modern Open World games and gives you something a little bit new everywhere you look. Though more fool the adventurer who sees the same enemy type and expects the same behaviour. Granted there are certain larger enemies who could have suffered a little variety, but there’s only so much scope for variety in a game of this scale and From Software have definitely pushed the envelope.

The game is not without its nods to the tried and true mechanics of the Open World. The slow, measured reveal of the map – via means of map fragments found within the world itself – echoes the radio tower of Far Cry, or the Sheikah Tower of Breath of the Wild. There’s crafting, you’ll collect materials from mobs and from the environment, and there are plenty of secrets to uncover.

But these map fragments don’t reveal dozens upon dozens of points of interest, collectables and other busywork. No. Revealing more of the map in Elden Ring mostly just reveals more of the map. You’re given a very high level overview of the world with some hints at what might be a ruin, a fort, a shack or otherwise- but it’s up to you to decide what’s worth visiting and when. While exploring you’re never pulled out of the flow of the game, and the camera is never wrenched from your control to show you The Next Thing To Do. Elden Ring simply tugs at the threads of your curiosity, incessantly and firmly, until your fear of the unknown is overcome by a need to know- “What’s that, over there?”

Fear Of The Unknown

Once the knowledge that Elden Ring is a Soulslike game had gripped me, I began to feel a distinct and nagging sense of dread. “I’m not a good player, I’ll get stomped into the ground, I better proceed with caution” I thought. But also… “If I’m fresh faced and runeless, what do I have to lose?” These two thoughts- the dread and fear that keeps me progressing slowly and cautiously, and the nothing-to-lose bravado- pulled me in different directions, at different times, and created a natural pace to the game. I’d gather runes until I had too many to lose, and the fear gripped me, and my pulse pounded, and I fought just that little bit harder to keep hold of them. Or I’d get a taste for adventure and bravado, spend them all, and go charging off into the unknown. In Elden Ring, just how much you have to lose depends entirely on you and your appetite for perseverance.

Where I clashed into an impassable challenge – that I didn’t have the skill, experience or just raw levels to overcome – I took the game’s invite to go exploring and usually found myself far too engrossed in just existing within Elden Ring’s world. While some might scoff at the need to grind to overcome some of the more difficult challenges in the game, I found something else in endless repetition: practice.

Indeed a very large slice of the unknown in Elden Ring is my familiarity – or lack thereof – with the gameplay mechanics, dodge timing, tracking and creeping up on bosses, landing hits, and so on and so on. By spending hours looping around the same camps I gradually came to terms with the game. I could suddenly take riskier moves and, in turn, I could learn to deal with more enemies at once in more difficult situations. Eventually I was so lost in the game that my level overshot that of the boss fight where I was stuck. In one extreme example I came back to the second boss – who had stomped me into the ground only a few hours prior – and obliterated them inside of a minute. Later game bosses aren’t quite so forgiving, and I (and perhaps you) will have to concede to the punishing nature of Elden Ring’s demand for precise timings, excellent situational awareness and rigorous trial and error.

It was only by practicing repeatedly on the same enemies – with whom I had become intimately familiar – that I could see improvements in my technique, and the differences that various weapon configurations made.

Accessibility

Elden Ring is difficult. There’s no two ways about it. The debate about whether this is a good or bad thing rages ever stronger with each new From Software release. It could benefit from accessibility options to offload some of the mental load of navigating the environment and knowing just what the game expects of you. But the difficulty feels- I must concede- rather pivotal to the mood and atmosphere of the game, and I don’t think I would personally pick an easy mode in hindsight. From a fresh start, having never experienced this game, yes I certainly would. But now? I understand where at least some players are coming from.

The difficulty, the obtuseness and outright stubborn refusal of Elden Ring to hold your hand are, in hindsight, a core part of the artistic vision. As someone who would certainly have picked easy mode (and indeed I used a cheesy way to beat the first boss) I see the appeal in difficulty as a means to create atmosphere.

Nonetheless, an “Easy Mode” takes nothing away, and opens up the game to those without the time or inclination to grind for levels or exploit unbalanced items. And those who claim “I would be too tempted to pick easy” are being disingenuous. You can’t choose to ignore that the game can be speedrun in less than 30 minutes (20 minutes now!). Are you overcome with temptation to do that, too? Surely nobody is playing the more difficult, post-endgame “New Game Plus”, because a regular new game is easier? Surely everyone’s rinsing through early bosses with cheese strategies and broken, unbalanced weapons? No. I didn’t think so.

Even as it stands, Elden Ring is as difficult or as easy – at least until the late-game bosses (ignoring bugs and glitches) – as you, the player, want it to be. It’s only a matter of how much time and energy you wish to exhaust finding creative ways around the challenge. As such the tired “we don’t need easy mode because you can just do X” argument holds very little water. Where X is anything from “grind for levels”, “run past mobs”, “use this broken, overpowered spell”, “skip the boss”, “parkour over the fog gate and kill the boss with no AI” and so on.

To their credit From Software have patched NPC locations into the map, but it’s all too easy to return to an NPC only to find them dead for reasons you can’t fathom.

Other common, but more advanced accessibility accommodations – that have less to do with difficulty and more to do with leveling the playing field for those with disabilities – are conspicuously missing from Elden Ring. You might say “go elsewhere” but the fact remains that accessibility is not only a right some of us rely upon, but a right that almost all of us will eventually rely upon. Stores or restaurants don’t turn customers away- they accommodate access requirements and dietary requirements. In much the same way Elden Ring should have been more accommodating. In my case I rely heavily on visual cues for directional audio in games where they are available- I have no directional hearing, so an on-screen indication showing the direction of an off-screen incoming enemy or projectile is a huge help to me. Elden Ring could have done so much better here, and as a title that by all estimates has opened a once – relatively – obscure franchise up to millions upon millions of new players they have a certain duty of care. Has this prevented me from enjoying the game? No. Could they do better? Absolutely yes.

Ultimately Elden Ring is no guided, cinematic adventure. It’s less of an open book, and more a tattered, ancient text written in a forgotten language that you’re forced to studiously and meticulously decrypt and infer the missing pages. If the thought of such a game entices you- as it has thoroughly enthralled me- then you should play it.

Cartwheeling toad men. That is all.