Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories. But of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Elden Ring is out this weekend, presenting players with a huge, beautiful, mysterious world to get lost in, and then die. As my (largely glowing) review of the game notes, much of the wonder and joy of From Software’s latest adventure is in the mysteries it hides within its various dungeons, caves, and war-torn landscapes.
That being said, starting out in Elden Ring can be a daunting prospect, and not just because there’s a bastard riding around right outside the tutorial dungeon with a spear twice the size of your player character. (Free bonus tip: Go around that guy! You’re welcome.)
To help alleviate that early stress, I’ve jotted down a few things I would have been happy to know when I was first starting my 50-hours-and-counting with the game. With the exception of number 4, which is a bit specific, these are all fairly spoiler free—although if you want a purely fresh experience when you boot up the game, by all means, skip down to the conversation in the comments, instead.
(And, yes, I know we ran one of these last week for Horizon Forbidden West. Don’t blame us; blame the video-game-industrial-complex that produced two of these massive, obtuse open world games within the span of like a week.)
1. Find the maps
It can be bewildering, when first embarking in The Lands Between, to know where the hell you’re supposed to go. Sure, that Site of Grace is pointing you towards its next glowing cousin, but there’s often a horde of skeletons or wolves or those goddamn bat things lurking in the way, if not an actual, no-fooling mountain obstructing your path.
Luckily, the game provides players with maps of each region—provided you can find them, which should probably be your first priority when entering a new region. (They’re generally in distinctive obelisks situated on the main byways of an area.) The maps of Elden Ring are things of beauty, both in the literal sense—giving the appearance of gorgeous hand-drawn art—and in their sparsity. Rather than filling themselves with the wreckage of a million picked-over icons, the game’s maps demand your attention in order to discern the locations of useful ruins or likely sites for treasure. (Don’t forget to drop a marker on the map, too, if you find something particularly interesting; Elden Ring puts most of the burden of note-taking on the player.)
2. Go with gods
The gods and demigods of The Lands Between may be dead, insane, assholes, or some grim combination of all three, but houses of worship are still worth seeking out for the fledgling Tarnished. If you find yourself lost in a new area, it’s never a bad idea to pull up your shiny new map (see point 1), look for the church-est thing you can find, and then point your ghost-horse godward.
There’s a few reasons for this. First, churches in Elden Ring tend to be handy hubs for non-player characters; it’s not uncommon to stumble onto a new friend, quest participant, or potential future murderer lurking among the eaves. Second, most churches tend to have a Sacred Tear on their altar—the item that increases the healing power of that Flask Of Crimson Tears you’ve been gulping down to keep yourself alive all game.
Church: It’s where it’s at! (“It” in the previous sentence meaning items, plot tidbits, and occasionally these really gnarly bug wizards who’ll try to kill you dead.)
3. Follow the Stones
It can be extremely difficult, even with the above guidance, to know where the hell you’re supposed to go, and especially what order you’re supposed to go there, when first getting your footing in Elden Ring. The general rule of thumb is “Go anywhere you don’t immediately die for poking your head into”—one of the game’s many pleasures is in racing your magic horse deep into dangerous territory, watching the environment get sicker and sicker with every step, and then, oh shit, is that a dragon that just came crashing down from that mountain? And why is everything bleeding?
But if you need a quick, cheap rule for progression, one thing you can do is look to the Smithing Stones. These are the items you use to upgrade your weaponry at a blacksmith—by the way, pick a weapon and upgrade it whenever you can, later swords won’t be better, just different, and you’ll get a lot of your damage output from a properly upgraded main weapon—and they follow a very simple naming convention, starting with Smithing Stone  and ascending from there. As a rule, you’re in roughly the right area, power-wise, if the stones you’re finding in the environment are the ones you can actually use to buff your best weapon; if you’re getting a bunch of s when you need s, you’re probably over-powered for the level, and if you keep getting s when you’re still working to upgrade your staff to a , you might be just seconds from getting one-shotted by a measly undead soldier working with a late-game power boost.
4. Rats drop Rune Arcs
Most of the tips in this little primer are meant to be general guidelines, applicable to anyone starting out in The Lands Between. This one is a little different, both because it’s very specific, and because it won’t mean anything to Elden Ring players for their first 10 or so hours with the game—that is, until they’ve acquired, and then empowered, their first Great Rune.
The Great Runes, befitting their role in the game’s cosmology, are genuinely, immensely powerful; the first one you’re likely to get raises all of your stats by 5, the equivalent to dumping 40 free levels into a build. But you can only reap these benefits through the use of a Rune Arc, a rare and pricey item whose buff expires any time you die. (And unlike the runes that similarly get lost when you beef it, there’s no recovering an Arc after death.) That can make them feel too precious to use, especially when you’re doing the kinds of exploratory pushes where a burst of power might serve you best.
Hence this one semi-spoiler, intended to allow you to spend more time having fun with these big, shiny toys: Rats drop Rune Arcs. Puny, regular rats. With fairly generous frequency, to boot.
Now, is it fun to find a rat spawning nest and grind it a few times in order to build up a supply? Not especially. But it’s massively preferable to hoarding your precious Rune Arcs in your inventory where they can’t do any good, just because the shop skeletons only sell 3 of the damn things, total, and they all cost 5,000 runes a pop. Hunt the rats; they’re the new raccoons.
5. There’s no wrong way to fight
One of the things that makes answering a key question about Elden Ring hard—i.e., is the game just too damn difficult?—is that it’s a largely self-directed experience. If an area is too tough for you at the moment, you’re right by default; give or take some classic From Software fan bloodymindedness (something that I am, personally, regrettably prone to—y’all should have seen some of my Sekiro death spirals), there’s almost nothing stopping you from backing away from a nasty situation and heading somewhere else to push at some other edge of the map.
One thing that’s not immediately obvious about Elden Ring, or the Souls games it derives from, is that there’s very rarely a “right” way to play them. That’s true at the macro, where you can design your character to focus on slow and heavy melee attacks, or quick bleed-inducing strikes, or a whole array of magical abilities. But it’s also true in the micro, with the focus on the customizability of the combat experience, something Elden Ring has doubled down on with its new summoning mechanics. If you don’t want to fight that cheap bastard Margit The Fell Omen alone, you really don’t have to. (Seriously: I have a whole, ranting screed prepared on the combos that guy pulls out of his malformed ass once you get his life down by half; happily, he’s the worst offender I’ve encountered in my time with the game, by far.)
The point is that there are no cheap shots in a Souls game, because survival is never cheap. If that means running away, you run; if that means finding a shortcut through a level, you take it; if that means beating a demigod down with ghost jellyfish, then fire up the jelly guns, Aurelia. The first step to learning to love Souls combat is in adjusting yourself to its methodical pace. The second is in breaking it to pieces to suit your own comfort and needs, whatever that might mean.