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  • Writer's pictureStu

Lost in The Lands Between... and loving it.

I wasn't going to pick up Elden Ring at launch. I've been clearing games off my pile of shame fairly quickly in the last couple of months - but it's still huge with both Death Stranding and Dark Souls 3 sat near the top of it. For once though, the hype train didn't leave me standing in the station. As the time for the whistle to blow grew closer and closer, I found myself getting more and more tempted by the idea of ordering it before it had even launched - and eventually the pressure was just too much. Elden Ring became the first game I've pre-ordered since... probably the Destiny 2: Shadowkeep expansion. It's been a while.

I'm glad I did it. Elden Ring is the first From Software game that I've played at launch - usually I'm years late to the party, and experiencing that sense of discovery at the same time as every one else is... almost overwhelming.

I was expecting it to scratch that special itch that only a Dark Souls game can scratch. Elden Ring is definitely scratching an itch - but it's not the one I was expecting.

Dark Souls games occupy quite a strange position in my home. After finishing the first one a couple of years ago, it's become a game that I play to relax. It's a bizarre contradiction; playing a game so notoriously difficult in order to relax - but the simple truth is that the game prompts a state of mindfulness that I enjoy. I can't play Dark Souls and do something else at the same time - it demands ALL of my attention, meaning that it gives me a break from all the other crap that may be floating around inside my brain at any given moment. Like many of us, I have a head that is usually... busy, to put it politely. It's safe to say that from time to time, I can thank Dark Souls and Tetris for my continued sanity. The other person in my house who has a relationship with Dark Souls is my son. He's 11, and he's been playing it on and off for the last 18 months or so. He's doing it mainly, I think, because he's fascinated by something that captivated his Dad like that game did. Recently, he's started to make some proper progress through it - he's currently fighting his way through Sen's Fortress and seems to be enjoying it.

Elden Ring, if anything, is a game that's about discovery and exploration. It literally challenges you to step outside a comfort zone and see what's around the next corner. My main concern, going into it, was that the world wouldn't reflect one of the things I love most about the design of Dark Souls - and that's the way the world circles around itself, filled with loops and shortcuts that allow an experienced player to move from one end of the world to another with surprising speed once the territory between two points has been traversed a couple of times and understood. From Software have somehow managed to take that sense of wonder and accomplishment and transpose it into an absolutely enormous open world - filled with secrets, countless enemies, environmental storytelling and areas that you can (and probably will) miss entirely if you don't spend the time looking into every nook and cranny that the Lands Between contain.

It's this move to an open world design that makes the game feel a lot less stifling than its predecessors. In Dark Souls and Bloodborne in particular, once you were stuck at a boss... you were stuck at a boss. You couldn't really go in many other directions to explore until you got past it - Ornstein and Smough acted as a massive progress blocker for me in the first Dark Souls, while Vicar Amelia took the wind out of my sails for a while in Yharnam. So far in Elden Ring, I'm yet to experience that feeling - partly because I can wander off and explore in another direction, needling out a path of least resistance (or at least, less resistance...) and partly because the game throws up a few new tricks for dealing with things. Not least of these is the ability to summon various ghostly assistants, who can be invaluable in fights. I tend to call in a pack of ghostly wolves, who I refer to lovingly as my MURDER PUPPIES - and together we can usually get a job done far more effectively than my vagabond can by standing alone.

The presence of these mechanics is the cause of some debate online - with some hardened Soulsborne players claiming that they make the game "too easy," while the reliance of some players on a magic-based class called The Astrologer is "like playing the game on easy mode." I'd disagree, personally. As far as I'm concerned, FromSoft include EVERYTHING in their games for a reason - if it's in there, and you can do it, then it's a valid strategy. Any fight you walk away from is a win; regardless of the tactics you employ to do so. To argue otherwise seems to me disingenuous at best, at pretty blatant gatekeeping at worst. What can you do, though? We live in the internet age, and gAmErZ will gAmEr. I say let them get on with it. While I'm not running a magical character, I am calling in my ashen buddies regularly - and I'm having fun doing so. I'd encourage anyone - especially if they're new to these kinds of games - to do whatever they feel is necessary to progress.

And that, I think, is the crux of Elden Ring's appeal. It feels like it's just a lot less off-putting to new players. It's not easy, but it's not as brutally punishing straight out of the gate as some FromSoft games before it. Even the atmosphere and design of the world is, at least at the start, less oppressive than what has come before. Where Dark Souls is all dark corridors and prison chains, and Bloodborne is all alleyways and filth, Elden Ring is a wonderful expanse to behold with a massive golden tree glowing above it all. The world is still riddled with mystery, and the game still explains very little... but the atmosphere in those opening hours is very different.

So, From Software appear to have pulled it off. A game that's been anticipated as long as this one has been often runs the risk of crash landing - and Elden Ring hasn't. So far, it's everything I hoped it would be. I'd say that if you're one of those people out there who have been side-eyeing these games for a while, this is your best jumping in point. Try to avoid all the YouTube videos, go in with your eyes, ears, and heart open. Take it easy. Don't rush. This is one to immerse yourself in.

Are you playing Elden Ring? Follow my tweet thread of my experience playing through the game for the first time here!


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