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The wait is finally over as Fromsoftware welcomes tarnished Soulslike fans to their first open world adventure. How did the collaboration with George R.R. Martin work out?
Thanks to Western games such as Assassin's Creed, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the term "open world" brings forth a certain expectation. Similar to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring is in some ways an antithesis to this model, because it's leaving behind modern gameplay habits to rekindle the players' sense of exploration and their adventure spirit. At the same time, the game is tight-lipped, leaving you to interpret its sporadic clues on your own.
For this next chapter, the developers at FromSoftware worked with the renowned author George R.R. Martin, the writer of Game of Thrones. According to his own statements, Martin only created the basic outlines of this universe, which brought a surprisingly political world to light. To put it blankly, there are different factions fighting over power after the fabled Elden Ring of the god-queen Marika was destroyed. Some parties want to exploit the resulting chaos for their own ends, and you can either support them by helping them to achieve their goals, or "put these foolish ambitions to rest", as an intriguing boss said.
Elden Ring is the first game from FromSoftware to be set in a completely open world. Taking the premise of their famous action RPGs, which have been copied to exhaustion by quite a few studios around the world over the past few years, and giving it this new form is an interesting and unusual step. To accommodate the transformed game structure, FromSoftware had to make some systematic changes to the familiar formula, and as a result this adventure is conveying a very different feeling. This is most evident in the updated player progression, which, just like the eponymous Elden Ring, has been shattered into many parts.
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In order to motivate players to spend as much time as possible in this massive game world - the Lands Between - and to accept challenges instead of shying away from them, enough high-quality rewards had to be made available. There is a wealth of different weapons and spells/miracles to choose from, but you won't drown in them. Instead, defeated bosses and treasure chests rewards you with items that help growing your character in a more subtle way. For example, these can be artefacts, which are required to improve the services of neutral NPCs or you might find something that can grant you access to a previously inaccessible area.
Two big additions to Elden Ring that are a direct consequence of this split are Ashes and Ashes of War. The latter is a special weapon attack that was firmly introduced in Dark Souls III. This ability is now widely customisable, giving you more leeway in combat. Use the spiritual ashes to summon allied spirits who fight alongside you for a short time. This system is separate from the common summons, that invite other online players or NPCs to assist you in a tough battle. Don't think you can run around with your own entourage all the time, though, as the feature is fairly limited and only available in certain areas.
The crafting system is another mechanic that is linked to the open-world design. In the vastness of the Lands Between, we find many materials, including plants and wild animals, which provide us with resources. From these you can make helpful consumable items such as arrows, bombs or antidotes, in case you don't have said item at hand. However, you also need the corresponding recipes or the diligent collection of raw materials will be of no use to you.
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Despite the Lands Between being a vast place to visit, you don't need to worry about missing out on anything, because the game will guide you to the most interesting places. For example, at many Sites of Grace you will notice a golden ray of light pointing you in the direction of your next destination. If you follow this path, you'll eventually end up in one of several Legacy dungeons, which are far more reminiscent of the more linear experiences we've seen from the developers in the past.
Stormveil Castle for example, one of the early legacy dungeons Elden Ring has to offer, is a great, intertwisted location that hides many secrets. By exploring you'll unlock shortcuts, find alternative routes through the interconnected sections, and at the end, you will face a magnificent boss enemy in a most memorable duel. The fact that you can now jump directly enables the developers to create platforming passages that the series has not seen in this form before. Admittedly, the implementation is very shaky and unpleasantly precise, but it fits in very well with the cautious exploration, which requires a lot of concentration.
If you do not yet feel up to the challenges of these dungeons, then you should look around the surrounding areas, to find new equipment, upgrade your stuff and prepare yourself. After all, nearby caves, crypts and mines are home to guards who hoard all sorts of useful items. Due to the high amount of additional dungeons, you will have to fight some mid-boss enemies several times over the course of your adventure, and those confrontations naturally lose their charm over time. However, I still like these chalice-dungeon-like mini-challenges because FromSoftware came up with some interesting puzzles. For example, in one area I had to balance myself on the blade of a guillotine to reach an elevated platform.
Technically, Elden Ring is a very solid experience. I played on the Xbox Series and was fortunately spared by any major problems. The levels load quickly on the current-gen console and there were almost no problems with the generation of the world. However, the loading times are still a little too long for my taste (20+ seconds after each death), and from a pure visual point of view we are not looking at a cutting edge title in the veins of Horizon Forbidden West. On the other hand, the game has some pretty panoramas and the overall design mix is incredibly creative.
Elden Ring is an interesting adventure that succeeds well in piquing curiosity. However, the fact that the game keeps itself so under wraps is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it pushes you to pay attention and think for yourself - which is extremely refreshing in a genre where you usually follow mission markers blindly and work yourself through checklists. On the other hand, it can also become enormously frustrating that scarce side stories and the exciting backgrounds require great effort before they eventually unfold.
The sheer volume of creatively designed areas and fearsome monsters was able to unleash an urge to explore in me that I haven't felt in a long time. However, in the wealth of available options you find in a vast open world like the Lands Between, it is no simple task to discover something that you might find worthwhile. I'm enjoying my time with the game, but I'm also not completely convinced that the series really needed this kind of open world. Although the Japanese developer put quite a lot of effort into the design of the Lands Between, this studio's greatest strength still lies within the level design of rather linear sections.
Gamereactor Czech Republic
8 / 10
Great combat system with a wide range of customisation options; huge game world with several creative challenges; storyline tackles interesting themes; solid performance, quality-of-live-improvements.
Game systems are cluttered and complicated; some people will feel lost in the Lands Between.