Announced in 2019, Elden Ring perhaps is one of the most anticipated titles over roughly the last two years. FromSoftware created a reputation for itself as a prime developer of harsh, interactive experiences while simultaneously offering players emotional stories told through environmental storytelling. With the initial announcement, it’s no surprise that avid fans of the company’s previous work could be drawn into this new world created alongside novelist George R.R. Martin. With a bombastic score and visuals that appear to tease an original mythos players will no doubt pick apart, expectations for Elden Ring are high. As the network test provided the first ever hands-on for those lucky enough to be selected, players got a taste of what they can expect from the upcoming title. However, things seem rather similar to things that came before it.
I can’t deny that the announcement trailer enticed me,. I loved what was shown. I appreciated the slight deviation in the music that played over striking visuals while a faceless narrator provided exposition regarding what we could potentially expect in terms of worldbuilding and lore. I deeply enjoy the games FromSoftware created, even more obscure titles like Kuon and Eternal Ring. I dabbled in Dark Souls, but felt at home with Bloodborne and its sense of cosmic horror coupled with fast-paced combat. Sekiro was an absolute delight, and I absolutely adored its incorporation of Japanese history and myths. With Elden Ring, my hopes remain high based on the prospect of this new property adding a greater sense of depth to FromSoftware’s now signature action-adventure style of games.
However, in the initial test Elden Ring simply felt like more of the same. The difference for this early experience amounted to a few more bells and whistles. Which isn’t an issue for those who already enjoy this type of game. The Dark Souls formula has succeeded several times over, and this does seem to build upon this foundation with several new concepts. But mechanically, this initial trial didn’t offer enough support to suggest it will be refreshing. It seems like there will be a greater potential regarding character builds. Especially as magic builds largely reigned supreme during the network test. Also, perhaps the implementation of the “armament” system could make a difference.
In FromSoftware games, specifically the Dark Souls series and by extension Bloodborne, players can use a heavy attack when wielding a weapon. This is usually in the form of a special attack, which varies depending on the weapon you are using and in some cases its form. However, the armament system allows for players to effectively rewrite that skill with an armament they have required. Armaments come in the form of unique skills which will allow players to sometimes channel magic through their weapons, even if they aren’t building towards the use of magic in the way FromSoftware games usually require.
I started with the Bloody Wolf preset character, which was one of five players could choose from during the network test. This started me off with a sword that had a specific lightning armament. The armament allowed for me to effectively summon down bolts of lightning in quick succession upon targeted enemies within my range. I cannot state how strong this particular skill is, or how valuable armaments are as a whole. I was able to completely take down two bosses just spamming this lightning skill from afar, taking minimal damage while keeping my distance.
It left me excited at the possibilities armaments will allow. Especially since I received an armament that felt as though it was entirely designed around helping players after beating one of the early mini-bosses in the network test. This armament in particular not only regenerated health, but also provided a shield for my allies. I absolutely love the idea of being able to create a character with the sole intention of provide support during boss fights.
That said, while there were potentially many ways for players to build, magic remained king in the Elden Ring network test. Wandering through a twisting cave beneath the shallows just outside of the starting area led me to a secluded island. There I found the remains of what appeared to be a dragon, fire still burning within its gaping jaws. Locating this area and exploring it thoroughly rewarded me with several fire spells that I was able to utilize to easily take down two mini-bosses and a more challenging enemy that awaited me within Stormveil Castle. By spamming a spell that created waves of fire from a conjured dragon head, I mowed through enemies with ease even with my magic stat, which is distributed into Faith and Arcane, leveled up to the absolute bare minimum to allow use of the spells. I imagine FromSoftware might patch this through the course of Elden Ring’s lifespan.
Utilizing armaments and magic allowed for me to clear through all of the available bosses and mini-bosses either upon my first attempt or several tries. I leveled up roughly six times through the Elden Ring network test, with a large chunk of stats dedicated to allowing the use of magic or enhancing the strength of my lightning armament. Other notable adjustments and additions to the formula included the option to jump and attack simultaneously and to crouch by enemies to more easily perform backstabs. Due to the way I play Souls games, I didn’t really utilize either of these features during my time with the network test. However, the stealth function effectively does allow you to bypass most enemies unnoticed so long as their backs are turned to you. It makes navigating some areas easier if you want to forego any unnecessary combat encounters.
Despite all of these additions, however, sometimes it felt as though I was playing and controlling a character out of Dark Souls III. However in this build of Elden Ring, some enemies seemed to exist without these constraints. There is specifically one encounter in Stormveil Castle that isn’t impossible by any stretch of the imagination. Yet with the fluid animation of the enemy and its flurry of attacks, it felt almost unfair that it had such a wide range of movement by comparison. The difficulty felt artificial and not something fair.
One of the most interesting new features that will appear in Elden Ring is having a mount. The portion of the map players could explore in the network test still felt expansive enough that having a mount made a considerable difference in exploration. There are several jumping puzzles that I was able to complete with the help of it. This involved timing the double jump while riding with near perfect precision to avoid dying to fall damage. Rushing through open fields and watching the natural wildlife scatter at my oncoming presence while on my mount made the map felt oddly organic, even if the exact same enemies and creatures respawned at their exact locations after sitting at a Site of Grace.
Sites of Grace are checkpoint-like locations that players can rest at to restore their health, distribute their healing and mana restoration flasks, memorize spells, or use for teleportation points. They’re effectively the bonfires or lanterns used in Dark Souls and Bloodborne. While I was initially resistant to the idea of an immediate teleportation mechanic, the Points of Grace felt necessary in this build. Sites of Grace can also show players the general direction they will need to travel in order to progress the story.
Due to the open-world nature of Elden Ring I feel like the inclusion of these mechanics could be integral to the overall experience of the game. Partially as it may help from an accessibility standpoint. Players can also place a marker on the map, which will appear as a pillar of blue light on the map. The light will always remain visible, even through weather effects like rain.
Those little changes in the weather felt welcome. This was largely due to the area that I was able to explore in the Elden Ring network test feeling somewhat uninteresting. There were a plethora of things to explore, ranging from a dreary, grey swamp to the massive fortress that is Stormveil Castle. None of these areas were particularly interesting and engaging in this build, outside of the destroyed temple that paid homage to the dragons that perhaps once populated the land.
Items didn’t feel as though they are placed with any sort of intent, and are more or less things just to collect for the sake of collecting in this build. There wasn’t that same level of environmental storytelling found in other FromSoftware titles, which has me worried for the full release. With Elden Ring being the most ambitious and largest FromSoftware title yet, I wonder how the developer will compensate for the sheer amount of space and how it will meld with its usual style of storytelling. What I did discover more or less felt like a rehash of what I experienced in previous Souls games, even with Martin’s involvement to craft an entirely new scenario. This included the player needing to commune with a maiden, which the game emphasizes and stresses to a large degree, in order to realize my ambition (and level up).
I also experienced some performance issues on the PlayStation 5. There were occasional slowdowns and frame rate drops during the network test. I am unsure if this was potentially due to server connectivity. It ended up becoming a problem in areas like Stormveil Castle, even with the performance mode turned on. Hopefully this will be resolved in the full release.
Elden Ring holds so much promise and, while it doesn’t stray too much from FromSoftware’s usual approach to action games, I think it could be a lot of fun. But after the network test, I’m quite skeptical as to how the storytelling will be approached. Those who understand and enjoy the systems of Dark Souls and Bloodborne may enjoy what it will potentially have to offer. During the network test, it provided a middle ground between both games in terms of stat allocation and playstyle. While I walked away from this build feeling just all right about what I experienced, I’m still interested in what the full release will potentially offer.
Elden Ring will release for the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC on February 25, 2022.