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Like a giant, leaping, land-based octopus, gnawing on one of its own severed tentacles, I’ve been chewing on the Elden Ring Closed Network Test for a while now.
Spread, somewhat haphazardly, across a single weekend in early November, the Closed Network Test was the first chance I’d gotten to play Elden Ring. Bandai Namco’s new game has built hype for itself by stressing its connection with author George R.R. Martin (who helped write it). But it fascinates me (and large chunks of the gaming community) because it’s the latest iteration on the decade-defining success of From Software’s Dark Souls games, and its latest attempt to make a game that is not just another damn Dark Souls game.
From Software has been striving to bust out of its own self-built cage since roughly the day that Dark Souls became an international best-seller, usually annoying its fervent fanbase in the process. (The studio’s latest effort, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, barely even qualifies as a “Soulslike,” abandoning many of the key principles of the nascent genre; it was, to say the least, a controversial attempt.)
Elden Ring, from first impressions, might be the furthest afield the studio has gone yet, both literally and figuratively. The logline for the game is almost ridiculously simple, and obvious: Slam together a Souls game—meticulous, thoughtful combat; a steep but scalable difficulty curve; 8 million pounds of apocalyptic gloom—and that other inescapable 21st-century gaming innovation, the open-world genre. (And specifically, the unguided, horse-heavy exploration of Nintendo’s The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild.)
The result (or, as much of the result as I could cram into a handful of three-hour sessions with the beta) is big, intimidating, and undeniably ambitious. After clearing the tutorial cave, I opened a door onto a vast landscape and swiftly felt suitably overwhelmed. I went poking around by the seaside, and was murdered. I walked over to a guy riding a horse near a tree, and got murdered. I approached the distant castle gates (now with my own horse, the spectral steed Torrent, beneath me), and both Torrent and I were murdered.
Elden Ring is undeniably a Souls game.
It’s worth noting it’s also a significantly more guided experience than the original Dark Souls, which famously plunked players down at a crossroads in its opening moments, then expected them to throw their corpse at various paths until they found the one that wasn’t staffed by unkillable ghosts or giant screw-you skeletons. Elden Ring at least has the good sense to gift you a compass, a map, and easy fast travel, even ripping off Ghost Of Tsushima’s wonderful “guiding wind” mechanic to help point you in the right direction toward progress.
And yet, the one thing that continually struck me while playing the Closed Network Test was this: That the one element that unifies every other Souls game—an exquisite sense of place, of moving through environments brimming with intent both intrinsic and extrinsic—was seemingly absent here. It’s bizarre to cross space in one of these games and to realize it has no purpose other than to be space—no cunning ambush, no nested bit of lore, no memorable encounter. It’s a probably necessary evil induced by the game’s open-world nature, which requires, by definition, lots of open, neutral space to ride and run through. But that also means that Elden Ring is the first major From release where large parts of its world can feel like filler, selling off some of that precision-curated world-building that’s defined so much of the series’ landmark success in the process.
The things Elden Ring acquires in this sale are obvious, noteworthy, sometimes breathtaking. Things like fighting through a cave full of goblin-ish warriors, only to emerge from the other end on an island I’d been eyeing curiously from the first time I’d gazed out over the landscape. Or cresting a hill on the back of Torrent (an excellent boy), only to look out over a valley through which a small army of giants was dutifully trudging. Or wandering through one of From’s beloved swamps, only to come a little too close to a set of ruins, and suddenly find myself in a terrifying, overwhelming boss encounter. The sense of being in a living (dying) world, of having escaped the endless corridors of haunted churches and slime-caked caves at last, is palpable, and exhilarating.
But it’s impossible to deny that the lack of focus is felt too, a notable demerit for a series that’s been defined by demanding said focus from both developers and players alike, at laser beam levels. Maybe chalk it up to the nature of the beta, but some of the boss battles in the Network Test were not just loose but actually sloppy, punishing not in the wonderful Dark Souls way where you learn through the pain, but genuinely slipshod-feeling. Combine it with the occasional aimlessness of the open-world maps, and it was hard at times not to pine for a more limited but, well, designed design.
And yet, I have not stopped thinking about Elden Ring since the Closed Network Test, uh, closed. That’s the part that marks this as a true Souls successor for me, the way it repeats and spirals in the mind. There is so much beautiful strangeness in these games, usually lurking at the edges—and Elden Ring has so many more edges to explore. (God bless and keep the land octopi.) I’ll cop to being nervous about the game’s eventual release. Nervous about the latest round of the never-ending arguments about game difficulty it will spur. About the handful of boss fights I ran into that felt unrecognizably messy, from a studio that taught me a whole new way to think about video gaming combat. And yet: February, when the game releasees, still can’t come soon enough.