15 Nov 2021 5:50 PM +00:00 UTC

Elden Ring Preview - Grim, Grand, and Surprisingly Empty

When I started Elden Ring's closed network test, I expected surprises. Grimly beautiful vistas, powerful enemies, an intriguing story — the usual things seen in FromSoftware games. What I got was a gigantic mechanical stone dog with a tail of flame, flying through the air and murdering me with a stone sword.

The other stuff was there too, of course, with no shortage of visually stunning moments and instances of quiet beauty. Elden Ring is still visibly and mechanically a Dark Souls experience, but my dominant impression from the closed test is that FromSoftware's using the open world setting in clever and fascinating ways, even if it sometimes fell slightly short of expectations.

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Three Tarnished fight a large boss on Elden Ring's open plains
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Step Into The Light

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The Elden Ring test started similarly to any Dark Souls entry. After choosing your class and particulars, you’re dropped in a dark, deadly space with little direction and only brief tutorials to help keep you alive. Things get interesting once you master the basics and leave the cave, though, in more ways than one.

Elden Ring will inevitably invite comparisons to Breath of the Wild, which is often warranted. It’s FromSoftware’s first crack at open world design, but more than that, it’s surprisingly reminiscent of Nintendo’s Switch odyssey in several ways. The opening segment is one good example. After learning the controls, you step into the light, and an almost overwhelmingly vast world unfolds in front of you.

The first NPC you meet is an old man as well, but this one insults you and tries to kill you. There’s even a ruined temple nearby, though a hellishly powerful fiend blocks your way — unless you’re stealthy enough to bypass it altogether.

Empty Soul

That suite of choices is where Elden Ring can hopefully build its identity and also where I presently have the most reservations. This explorable area was big enough to get lost in, but there's significant empty space. The eastern side had few enemies aside from some wolves and nothing to discover. West had some intriguing looking ruins on a small island, though the journey involved navigating a rocky hillside and avoiding some incredibly tedious slug enemies on the beach — nothing more.

It's disappointing to see yet another world that’s big just for the sake of being big, though I suspect there's something much more interesting beyond the test area’s confines. The empty eastern plane had a spot of grace — Elden Ring’s version of Dark Souls’ bonfires — right near the edge of the fog that marked the play area’s boundary.

I couldn’t access the sea island yet because the ocean is a bottomless death pit, apparently, which makes me think the finished Elden Ring has additional traversal mechanics aside from the haunted hopping horse that Melina, the Finger Maiden, gives you.

The Tarnished looks out across the tutorial area in Elden Ring
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The Choice Is Yours

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That said, FromSoftware’s hands-off approach to storytelling works exceptionally well in an open-world setting. There’s a higher chance of missing important context or interesting events, of course, but a heavier emphasis on environmental storytelling. Reaching a new location is less about finding that important key after a boss fight and more about the journey you took to get there.

After my tragic death at sea, I explored only the area directly in front of me. The first boss, a tree sentinel, was far too intimidating, so I snuck around it and found refuge in a ruined church and a new site of grace. That was my base for exploring the northern reaches of the test area, prodding cautiously at the empty places on my map in case some other horror appeared out of nowhere. Eventually, I found a small dungeon, where the exceptionally bizarre watchdog boss ruled, and earned dozens of runes — Elden Ring’s souls — and a new skill in the process.

The end goal was Elden Ring’s first proper dungeon atop a stormy hill, but my route to it differed from everyone else’s I spoke with. Some didn’t even know that mini-dungeon existed, tucked away as it was in the cliff face behind a group of undead who were busily digging at, or perhaps devouring, something. I didn’t care to look too closely in case it were the latter, although I did notice a hint of hierarchy, where one undead was supervising the rest and directing their efforts.

I’m not sure if there was anything there to actually find, but I hope this level of interactivity and cooperation among enemies — not to mention the thrill of stumbling on surprises such as this and creating your own journey — is something we see more of in the full game.

The first Elden Ring dungeon, a massive and imposing castle, looms ahead of the Tarnished
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To Arms!

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Since I avoided the swamp, I missed meeting the dragon. I also skipped around what would, in a normal Souls game, be an unavoidable boss on my way to meet the first proper obstacle, Morvit the demi-god. That might have been a terrible idea, since it meant passing over a mountain of runes I could have used to level up before the next big fight. Whatever the case, I appreciated the flexibility in how you approach encounters, if only because the best option is sometimes to flee until you’re stronger.

Combat in Elden Ring is mostly the same as other Souls games, though the larger setting means FromSoftware can, and did, get more creative in designing encounters. The path to Morvit was lined with archers providing cover for brutally fast swordsmen and shield-wielding soldiers. In theory, you can down them all from horseback, but practice is rather different. You’ll have to take advantage of the environment to plan your strategy.

These moments were exhilarating, but my favorite was the unexpected surprises in the open world, such as when a sentinel I thought I’d evaded actually followed me unawares, much further across the map than I expected. The only downside was, again, that these surprising, standout moments in the world happened far less frequently than I’d have hoped.

Still, this was just a small fraction of what looks like a massive map. I didn’t even get a chance to explore the first dungeon properly, which others have told me stands out for how the experience alters based on your choices. Whatever misgivings I have about swathes of empty plains, I can’t wait to see how the Tarnished’s grave and mysterious journey unfolds next year.

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