Probably the most talked about game this year is Elden Ring, a dark fantasy role-playing game developed by FromSoftware, whose claim to fame includes Sekiro and the Dark Souls series.
Dark Souls became a genre of its own, with games being described as “Souls-like” when they feature unforgiving gameplay, punishing bosses, frequent deaths and loss of accumulated rewards upon death.
This might not sound like a lot of fun, and I must admit, starting out on Elden RIng was very tough and disheartening. I didn’t have a good relationship with the Dark Souls series and had rage-quit on the first Dark Souls game about ten years ago when I could not beat one of the bosses.
Hence, I have some trepidation when games are described as “Souls-like”. But with lore that was written by George R. R. Martin, the promise of a truly open-world game and the beautiful dark gothic world, I was intrigued.
And since Elden Ring was being described as being more forgiving than other Souls games, I decided to face my demons and immersed myself in Elden Ring on the Xbox Series X.
Nightmares and dreamscapes
You play a character known as the Tarnished, who had lost the grace of the Erdtree and was banished from The Lands Between, but is brought back to mend the Elden Ring.
The Elden RIng is shattered, with the pieces being held by demigods who are fighting to gain the title of the Elden Lord. Guess what? These are the bosses you need to kill in order to mend the ring and become the Elden Lord.
Elden Ring isn’t exactly a story driven game since there isn’t a fixed sequence of playing it. You encounter Non-Player Characters (NPCs) that give you quests and continue along their quest lines as you progress.
By talking to NPCs, merchants and reading the descriptions from items, you get some idea of the lore, but it is a rather fragmented way of telling the story.
The Lands Between feels like some form of Purgatory where one is made to suffer pain over and over again. Elden Ring’s creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki, backs that up by saying that the hardship is what gives meaning to the experience.
Since there is no difficulty selection in Elden Ring, the persistent Tarnished will just have to grit their teeth, die a lot and beat the challenging bosses.
What I really enjoy is the exploration in The Lands Between. I love the dark, gloomy and twisted landscape filled with despair and doom, and the fascinating beings that populate it.
However, exploring The Lands Between can be a rather lonesome affair. You encounter occasional NPCs whom you can trade with or who give you quests, as well as ghostly apparitions who tend to be reticent or say something obscure that leaves one scratching their head.
Most encounters are hostile, although there is some wildlife that are neutral and won’t attack you unless provoked, such as birds, turtles, crabs and goats.
That said, even the goats act strangely in The Lands Between – instead of skipping away from danger like normal goats, they fold in their legs and roll away. Yes, roll away. It was a very strange and surreal experience when I saw it for the first time.
Of course, there are loads of creatively designed enemies to fight. From humanoids like slow-moving lurching zombies, soldiers who patrol like they are sleepwalking, undead beings like skeletons, massive giants and trolls, to dangerous wildlife like poison spewing land squirts, gigantic octopuses, wolves, giant bats, grotesque centipedes and feral dogs, Elden Ring has a great variety of interesting foes for the Tarnished to hone their skills on.
There are also invasions by NPCs that will occur at certain locations even with multiplayer turned off, which tend to end poorly for characters who have not levelled up enough.
With so much death, it’s not surprising that most of the enemies seem quite unfazed even when they see the dead bodies of their compatriots, which is great for sneaky kills. I stealth killed an entire camp of soldiers and got zero reaction from another soldier patrolling on horseback when he entered the camp. He simply rode away.
The Lands Between is a huge area that spans a variety of landscapes, from forests, swamps, and volcanos, to massive, multi-level towns, ruins and castles. What continues to surprise me about The Lands Between is that there are so many places to explore, and some are not very obvious and are not seen on the map, so there is a constant sense of wonder and discovery.
This is followed quickly by fear and trepidation of whether to explore further and risk getting killed! Once, I thought I had already discovered most of the overland areas of The Lands Between but then stumbled into a whole massive underground city.
Thankfully, the Tarnished can freely fast-travel to any Sites of Grace that have been discovered, except while inside dungeons. Early in the game, you will have access to a spectral steed named Torrent, a horned horse that can gallop quickly and even jump to unbelievable heights at Spirit Spring locations.
However, riding Torrent is not possible in dungeons, so I am especially wary of stepping into unknown dungeons as getting out will likely be challenging.
It’s always a relief to find a Site of Grace where the game can be saved, the Tarnished can spend runes to level up, reallocate flasks for potions, place items in stash and other administrative tasks.
The downside is that all enemies except bosses will respawn. This forces a cost-versus-benefit consideration for any decision to save the game or fight through an area again.
Ashes, tears and severed fingers
To match the dark gothic visuals, even the names of items in Elden Ring are beautifully and darkly named.
For instance, Ashes of War are used to enhance weapon abilities, Spirit Ashes are used to summon ghostly companions to help you fight, Tears are potions that can restore health and Focus Points, and Fingers are used to summon other players in multiplayer games.
The only currency in Elden Ring are runes, which can be obtained by killing enemies, selling items to merchants or picked up from golden runes hidden in glowing skulls littered around The Lands Between. Dying will cause all runes in your possession to be dropped, and if your character dies again before being able to pick them up, they will be lost forever!
Character building in Elden Ring comprises eight attributes which are levelled up using runes. These attributes include Vigor for Health, Mind for Focus Points needed for spell casting and summoning, and Dexterity for wielding certain weapons.
Levelling up on these attributes will determine how your character survives in The Lands Between, and whether you want to focus on spell casting, melee or a mix of both. At the start of the game, you can pick one of 10 character classes to play with some preset attributes, such as a Samurai with high Dexterity or an Astrologer with high Mind.
Weapons in Elden Ring are a lot of fun to experiment with, each with a different way of dealing damage as well as unique moves. These weapons range from swords, spears, halberds, bows, axes, staffs and flails, and can be wielded on one hand in combination with a shield, or double handed for extra damage.
Smithing Stones are needed to upgrade weapons at a blacksmith’s anvil, and special abilities, known as Ashes of War, can also be applied to weapons for additional moves.
But most of the really good weapons need your character’s attributes to be levelled up sufficiently before being able to wield them, hence grinding for runes is required. I particularly enjoy using the double-ended twin blade like Darth Maul, which can keep enemy swarms at bay and land blows on them quickly.
Apart from weapons and spells, there is a huge plethora of useful items that can be crafted to give you an edge in battles. Some merchants sell cookbooks that contain recipes for the Tarnished to craft a great variety of consumable items, including arrows, bolts, throwable munitions, as well as boluses that prevent damaging statuses like bleeding, sleep or poison.
Inventory management in Elden Ring is quite painless, as your character can carry loads of items, and can drop unwanted items into a stash at the Sites of Grace, so you can happily forage and loot everything in sight, and sell the extras for runes by trading with merchants.
Try, die, try again
Elden Ring requires heavy time investment and quite a lot of grinding for runes in order to level up and get better gear. The best way to enjoy the game isn’t to rush through all the quests but to focus more on exploration.
Tracking down unique items that can help make levelling up and battling enemies easier brings about a great sense of accomplishment, but takes a very long time and conscientious effort to leave no stone unturned.
I only felt more confident in properly exploring and fending off enemies when my character was over level 20 and armed with upgraded gear – before that, I was regularly being beaten by lowly creatures like rats and imps and dying way too frequently.
I do enjoy the exploration and discovery aspects of the game, but the fear and dread of getting killed and possibly losing runes, still holds me back from boldly going to where I haven’t been before. Instead, I skulk and crouch around groups of enemies, trying to stealth kill and pick them off quietly.
Yes, the game is hard and brutal, but it does make victory sweeter when a tough enemy is felled. It’s not really a game I will want to unwind and chill with at the end of a long tiring day but it’s a fascinating world to be immersed and invested in if you are willing to put in the effort. Also, the nightmarish landscape and jump scares are not too conducive for playing right before bed.
Elden Ring is definitely not a game for those new to gaming as it throws you in the deep end and offers little guidance on what to do next, with no quest log to guide you.
The user interface also leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a lack of clear instructions on how to organise items in the quick access pouch and no clues on what to do in certain places to proceed.
After spending well over 50 hours in The Lands Between with tears in my eyes, ashes in my mouth and pain in my fingers, I still feel like there is a long way to go and loads more to discover.
Elden Ring is a game that shouldn’t be rushed for maximum enjoyment, and one should just go along with it rather than dashing about and trying to complete a checklist of quests.
Since the maximum level for the character in Elden Ring is 713, at which all eight attributes will be maxed out on, you can imagine the long grind one has to go through to get there.
Dealing with difficult bosses
The main highlight of Elden Ring is the magnificent bosses. I applaud the twisted and ingenious minds that create very disturbing bosses who have a huge repertoire of attacks and cruel ways of dealing hurt.
Like most Souls-like games, boss battles in Elden Ring can have multiple stages where the boss can introduce a new attack later in the fight, so being prepared. Pacing oneself is a must.
One such boss, Godrick the Grafted, is the stuff of nightmares. By severing and grafting the limbs of his followers to himself, he is a tough boss to look at and even tougher to beat.
Elden Ring is a very cruel game with so many ways of dying that it can break one’s morale. Apart from getting killed by enemies and monsters, falling from height, bleeding to death, and choking on poisonous gases, the most frustrating way to die is by the multitude of twisted and cruel attacks inflicted during boss battles.
The developers must find some pleasure in designing the amazingly varied and creative attacks of bosses, who can swing oversized weapons, stomp, explode, emit poison, perform 360-degree spinning attacks, cast spells, grab and throw you, and even consume you.
Unlike other hack-and-slash games, I find the combat in FromSoftware games very different. Timing of attacks, using the right weapons and learning the moves of your opponents is critical.
Also, it takes time to execute a hit, so button mashing doesn’t work. It can take a lot of time just to land a couple of good hits before needing to run away from the boss and avoiding attacks.
Dodging and parrying at the right time is more critical than delivering slow and heavy blows as most bosses can deal out very high damage with a single hit. What matters in terms of movement speed is the weight of only equipped items, so it makes sense to unequip heavy weapons ahead of time when fighting a boss.
Also, all actions require stamina, which means there is only so much one can do before needing time to recover. Swinging weapons, parrying, rolling and jumping all require stamina. Running out of stamina while desperately needing to dodge a killer blow is often a fatal mistake!
I have learnt there is no shame in running away from certain encounters, and having a steed like Torrent really helps in making a quick getaway from hostile hordes and bosses. Torrent has saved my character’s life countless times during boss fights where you can ride circles around the boss to evade hits.
Elden Ring is a game that tests one’s endurance and patience. After spending hours trying to beat a boss, I need to take constant breaks in order to muster up enough courage and willpower to try again.
Being stubborn doesn’t pay off, since trying to take on a super powerful boss while your character is at a low level or not having the right strategy will just lead to frequent deaths, disappointment and frustration.
What makes the game tough also is that opening the map or inventory doesn’t stop enemies from attacking you, and you cannot save or load games unlike in some other games where you can restore and recover quickly from mistakes.
Elden Ring’s punishment for death is losing all your runes if you die again before picking them up, and sending you back either to a Site of Grace or Stake of Marika spawn point while reviving all the enemies you had previously killed.
Eerily beautiful, hauntingly quiet
There’s no doubt that the art and design of Elden Ring are hauntingly beautiful, with unique scenes from nightmares or strange dreams with amazing depth of detail.
I have stood in awe watching a procession of trolls and twisted undead pulling a carriage, a mausoleum walking on four legs and a statue of a fire breathing head rolling along on wheels. The strangeness of it all makes the entire experience very unnerving yet unforgettable.
The graphics of The Lands Between on the Xbox Series X look really amazing, with day and night cycles. I especially like the darkness of the night illuminated by the glowing Erdtrees and creepy dark dungeons where hostiles hide in the shadows waiting to ambush you.
With a huge map and the openness of the world, you can see far away and identify places that might be worth exploring – so far, I managed to reach most of the places that I can see without being closed off by invisible walls.
As with other Souls games, the combat animations look very detailed and polished, especially the exaggerated and occasionally over-the-top attack moves by bosses. I can attest to it since I spent so much time watching and learning my opponents’ combat moves in my attempt to beat them!
Elden Ring’s soundstage is filled with menacing sounds such as the moaning and growling of creatures, the deep and slow knell of a mausoleum bell, and the ungodly grunting of undead. There isn’t much variety in the ambient music, which is suitably tense and somber, but it does change as the Tarnished move to the different areas on the map.
The multiplayer element for Elden Ring allows you to view messages left at various locations by other players, as well as leave messages yourself. However, there are lots of trolling and meme messages, like the infamous “try finger but hole”, or messages left in places that obstruct ladders, which spoils the gameplay for me.
The multiplayer mode also shows white shadowy apparitions that show temporarily how other players move in that location, and also blood stains that indicate where other players died which you can activate them to see their last actions for a hint.
The worst part about the multiplayer mode are frequent invasions by other players that interrupt exploration, which is really annoying. After some time, I found all the multiplayer aspects too distracting so I turned it off.
Unfortunately, even though PvP invasions are stopped by turning off multiplayer, there are still programmed NPC invasions in certain areas which can be difficult to beat.
Elden Ring is not a game I would recommend to everyone, definitely not casual gamers and those who play games to relax. If you want to chill and have a good time, there are loads of other less punishing open world games. Its lack of guidance, quest logs and clear instructions can make it frustrating for new gamers.
But if you like a challenge, have a masochistic streak, don’t mind facing many deaths, and look forward to obsessively immersing yourself in a disturbing and dark fantasy world, Elden Ring offers a unique gameplay experience.
With plenty of tactics and items to experiment in combat and challenging bosses to beat, Elden Ring is extremely satisfying when a rare item is found and when a boss is finally beaten.
Be prepared for a fair amount of grinding before becoming proficient enough to survive the cruel world of The Lands Between.
Even though some have described Elden Rings as a dumbed down Souls game to please the masses, I still feel that it is a really difficult game to jump into and play competently without going through some long grinding sessions to level up the character and gear. With its dark theme and loads of death, blood and gore, this is not a game for the young.
Elden Ring is available for PC on Steam, Xbox and PlayStation (same edition for PS4 and PS5) at S$79.90.