Elden Ring, two months in...
The impact time has on perception is sometimes a funny thing. It works to alter it in both possible directions, elevating something initially received as being mundane to a legendary status as it passes by - and sometimes having the opposite effect. One of the things that always interests me is how people's perception of a game - and my own - can change as time goes by. It's usually at its most obvious when the game sits on the extreme of either end of the quality spectrum - where the cognitive dissonance works its strongest magic. You see it in live service games all the time, where each new drop of content is pronounced as being "the greatest the game has ever seen," only for it to be "broken" or "unplayable" a mere few months (or sometimes even weeks) later.
Every so often though, a game comes along that does the impossible. It arrives to unilateral acclaim, exceeds expectations left and right... and then proceeds to actually become even more loved as time elapses. I'm two months into Elden Ring right now, a little over 80 hours played - and it's the first game I've played in a long LONG time that I actually don't want to end.
My relationship with Elden Ring has gone through several stages - starting off with awe at the sheer size and scale of it all. Stepping out into the Lands Between for the first time, and seeing the Tree Sentinel wandering around and the Erdtree spanning the horizon is a gaming moment that I'll never forget - it's up there with leaving the sewers in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, or the first steps out of Vault 101 in Fallout 3. It's a horizon that's brimming with the promise of adventure and excitement for as far as the eye can see. Eventually, the awe gave way to the dawning realisation that I was out of my depth - with my character ill-equipped to survive most of the enemies that were thrown at me.
That realisation gave way to the overwhelmed/underpowered stage of the game - where most of my time spent playing it seemed to be spent in the same way the early hours of Dark Souls were. I'd set out in one direction, seeing how far I could go before meeting serious resistance. Upon (inevitable) death, I'd set out in a different direction - all the time just scouting out a path of least resistance while dropping markers onto the map so I knew where I needed to return to when I was more powerful. It didn't take long for my map to be cluttered with markers, several of which have only been cleared 80 or so hours later. That stage of the game is one that hasn't fully gone away - wandering into some new areas still brings it storming back with a vengeance.
Lately though, I've hit the stage that most players of From Software games reach once they've beaten some bosses and picked up some decent gear - and that's the "quietly confident" stage. I'm still getting my ass handed to me regularly by the bigger bosses (Fire Giant, that means you...), but I can often kill smaller ones on my first attempt. I'm familiar with how these boss archetypes move, and how they attack - and where the windows of opportunity will be to do some silly damage. It's not a feeling of mastery - I don't think I'm a good enough player to ever master a From Software game, even having played through Dark Souls multiple times at this point - but it's definitely a sense of self-belief. I've seen enough of the game now to know that I can overcome whatever it throws at me. Some of those battles ahead will inevitably be tough - but that's fine. I can persevere, and I can grind levels, and I can seek help.
The way in which the game keeps on teaching you, constantly, is truly impressive. Like Dark Souls (and to a lesser extent Bloodborne) before it, death leads to repetition, which leads to learning. The level design and the boss fights are glorious - both aesthetically and functionally. Later bosses have taken me several runs at, with most of them capable of killing me so quickly that it's taken several failed attempts before I was even able to get a sense of their move sets and abilities - but once those things have been learned and tactics around when to avoid them and when to attack have been developed, the fights progress to the feeling of a carefully choreographed where one mis-step means death, but victory borders on ecstasy.
I'm not sure how much more of Elden Ring I have left to go. I've defeated the Fire Giant and set the Erdtree aflame, and I'm now wandering around an area called Farum Azula - a nightmare floating city filled with whirlwinds and dragons. It all gives the feeling of something that's winding up, after a little over 80 hours. I've seen a lot of the Lands Between, but looking at the achievement list alone tells me that there's still an awful lot that I've missed. This playthrough has been done almost entirely blind, a conscious decision I made in an attempt to replicate the experience I had with Dark Souls and Bloodborne even though I played those games years after they came out.
Honestly, seeing that I've missed so much pleases me at this point. It means that either there's still far more to come than I thought, or I have a reason to go back and carry on with it into NG+ once I've reached the end. Either way, I'm going to be exploring the Lands Between for a while to come yet, by the look of it.