There is something to be said that the best part by far in my over 30 hours of Elden Ring has been rummaging through a large castle. Why the area is significantly more fun is plainly apparent – level design. Reminiscent of the amazing Boletarian Palace from Demon’s Souls, this demigod’s castle is quasi-linear. Complex webs of horizontal and vertical paths cross, interlock, and overlap in one of From’s most satisfying stages. This area also highlights what I think is wrong with Elden Ring (or maybe all open world games).
The nature of an open world is to be large and expansive. Core strengths of the Souls games are level design and atmosphere. This style of game is at odds with From’s compelling design tenets. Wandering around to find points of interest (the damning-with-faint-praise term people use to discuss open world games) like the giant archer from Dark Souls, the fire breathing dragon from all Souls games, the mining guys from Demon’s Souls, the poison swamp from all Souls, the rot swamp that’s entirely distinct from the poison swamp, the giants pulling some treasure, the resurrecting skeletons from Dark Souls, five giants hanging out on a plateau, another dragon, etc. doesn’t come close to satisfying my appetite for another entry in the series.
The vast majority of structures and underground lairs in Elden Ring are reminiscent of Bloodborne’s Chalice Dungeons in their complexity. Perfunctory tunnels lead to a boss or, more often, a lever that opens a door to a boss 12 feet from a bonfire….archstone…lamp…grace thing. I was happy to find a second, smaller castle featuring significant level design to the south but have to say it was kind of similar to the first. A game made of 5 or so distinct levels of Stormveil Castle length and quality would be an excellent game indeed. Unfortunately, if placed in a large open world, you would need to spend a dozen hours collecting berries between each.
Miyazaki has said he particularly enjoys making the larger levels of the Souls games. This is arguably just my personal taste, but the wide-open areas in the series are often among the weakest so there is some irony in his stated preferences. The tight first stage of the Valley of Defilement is better than the sprawling second portion, and the expansive areas of the Demon Ruins and the Nightmare Frontier are some of the weakest in the entire quasi-series. Unfortunately, Elden Ring is composed almost entirely of Demon Ruins.
Some other quick complaints:
- Battle feels designed to combat your tactics as someone who has played the series. Frequent bosses who know when you are healing, have multiple multi-path 5-10 hit combos that are difficult to learn, endless stamina bad guys who can rotate 1080 degrees while winding up for an attack, and so on.
- Atmosphere is somewhat lacking. The Nexus, Firelink, Majula, or the Hunter’s Dream that first church is not.
- Originality has been tough for this team since Dark Souls half-remade Demon’s Souls, including cribbing the main mechanics and gameplay loop and Elden Ring fares no better.
And some compliments in a pretend gesture towards objectivity:
- The game displays a great variety of enemies, which begin repeating because they need to fill out a giant million hour plus game.
- There is a lot of mostly meaningless crap to find that is still infinitely better than Zelda seeds.
- I find it compelling despite stretches of boredom.