Ahead of the upcoming Closed Beta Test, FromSoftware has allowed us access to their next game. Let's take a look at what we found in The Lands Between.
In 2016 Dark Souls III introduced larger areas to FromSoftware's established action RPG series and players had to traverse them to find the next big Soul to consume. With Elden Ring this concept evolved further since interesting objectives and challenges are now a part of a sprawling world in which we move around freely. I was able to explore a chunk of these lands for the first time when taking part in a Closed Beta Test that was held a couple of days ago. Let's talk about how the new formula works and what else might have changed along with it.
A Souls-game at heart: Small enhancements to the gameplay core
Superficially, little has changed in the series' standout combat system. The crude and somewhat ponderous exchange of blows is still the very core of Elden Ring, and everything else revolves around it. While strong attacks are announced early on, so that the opponent can react to them, it is easy to use the wrong tool to defend yourself, which is punished as severely as ever. Special abilities are no longer tied to specific weapons, but can be exchanged among each other at the campfire, which is now called a "site of grace". In this demo, five premade character classes were available to choose from, and they recommend an overall play style. These templates serve as a mere guidance for new players, so you can still develop your hero in every direction over the course of the game and adapt your items as you wish.
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In addition to the weapon skills, which can now be customised more freely, it is noticeable that FromSoftware has expanded the area of spells and magic. You can usually charge such skills (or activate them repeatedly) like you would do with strong attacks to achieve bigger effects. Magic still seems very powerful, as you can trick the AI in some sorts. When I first started the game, there was no getting past the big boss at the end of the demo for my melee fighter, so I resorted to summoning AI spirits who helped take down that foe. As a mage, the very same duel was infinitely simpler and straight-up unsatisfying, because the AI did honestly fail. Hopefully that will change by launch, but that this form of ranged combat is very powerful is well known within the community.
FromSoftware would like to refresh its online area in Elden Ring, and this starts with explaining the relevant mechanics in a dedicated submenu. You still need to collect items in the game world before you are ready to enter the online realm, but now they are clearly worded and the instructions actually explain how the system works. In co-op play, you will need to help the allied player defeat the next enemy boss in clearly defined, restricted areas. If you want to engage in PvP duels or kill innocent players, because you had a bad day and want to let others know, there are also many restrictions in place you have to deal with. Unfortunately, I can't say much more about how well or badly this formula works in regard to the open game world.
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The tools of a ninja: FromSoft's approach to Open World Design
An obvious innovation of the open world formula is natural resources that you collect in "The Lands Between". You pick flowers, fruits and berries in open fields, catch butterflies and hunt wild animals for feathers and bones. These can be used to make consumable items like bombs, arrows or different potions that you may not necessarily be able to buy at the nearest merchant. There is a compass at the top of the screen, on which you can clearly see the position of your corpse, for example. Using a map, you can fast travel to sites of grace you've already activated, and mark interesting places if you want to investigate a certain location again later on. I even discovered a telescope that allows you to examine the surroundings more closely from a bird's eye view. This helps when you wish to scout interesting places that are not located near the main road.
Since you can now engage with enemy camps or big enemies in a number of different ways, Elden Ring makes use of a stealth system that was introduced with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and lets us crouch via clicking the left stick. Tall grass provides us visual cover and with the enhanced toolset you may have seen in previous gameplay scenes, you can clear out camps without raising the alarm and turning the entire camp against you as soon as you enter the area. The sneaking mechanic is a far cry from something like Assassin's Creed, but it brings the gameplay systems that are already in place in line with the developers' desire to highlight player options. Much of the gameplay choices were established beforehand, but Elden Ring smooths it all out quite a bit.
Another new feature of Elden Ring are classic checkpoints - "Stakes of Marika" -, which you can find throughout your entire journey. Because these little statues are easily missed, I often didn't really know where the game was about to revive me but they are usually close to your last position. You can't rest (and access any features that come with it) at these places to refresh your life, but there are a couple of game mechanics in place to help you refresh your healing flasks while exploring. For example, if you defeat a group of enemies, these bottles will fill up a bit.
Fear the Old Blood: The dungeons of Yharnam
As you explore the map, you regularly come across highlighted locations that hold caves and dungeons or other optional areas. These challenges are reminiscent of the generic Chalice Dungeons from Bloodborne, and in Elden Ring, too, these side activities are rather straightforward: The level itself follows a certain theme (i.e. it could be a mine or a crypt), you are likely to encounter a small boss fight before the treasure and after fifteen minutes, you're usually out in the open, looking for another thing to do. In one of these areas I found a helpful potion, which grants specific effects that you can choose by yourself, using different ingredients you found in other places. In another level, there was an item called "Ashes of War" that gives a weapon type a handy, new ability.
If you don't feel ready to tackle the next story area, clearing these dungeons can help you collect useful items or get the runes (that's the new term for "souls", the in-game currency) needed to level up. These little mini-dungeons didn't feel all that interesting in the Closed Beta Test, but I can see where they are coming from. I hope they don't end up being filler content but we'll see that for ourselves once the final game releases in spring 2022.
Torrent, your most faithful companion
The fact that you can cover long distances with a horse is of course not a revolution in itself, but it changes quite a lot in the Soulsborne context. Our spectral steed "Torrent" is way more agile than our protagonist, although following Sekiro, we can finally jump using a dedicated button in the Souls series, too. On the back of a horse, you can overcome differences in height and chasms that would normally be impossible to pass. You don't necessarily have to take the obvious paths with Torrent, because your mount elegantly makes its way through The Lands Between with double jumps.
The horse's implementation is much better than expected, because it can be easily called and sent away in a second using a certain item. You don't have to dismount to pick up items from the ground and while riding, you can fight enemies, make use of your inventory and cast spells like you normally would. Torrent has its own life bar and if it dies you can resurrect it (which uses up one of your flasks). If you get too close to enemies, however, your mount may drop you and leave you behind. You don't want that to happen, so treat it with care, everyone.
Before you unlock the horse (and the possibility to invest received runes to level-up), in Elden Ring you have to get to a certain checkpoint on foot. By the time I found this place on my first playthrough, I'd already been walking around West Limgrave (the demo area) for over three hours, checking out different things. To avoid getting lost in the vast game world, you basically just have to rest at one of the many sites of grace and follow a trail of golden particles that will appear there. This golden shine seems to be connected in some way to the Tarnished people, as it is said to lead us to our destination. What the other characters in this world mean by giving us these cryptic hints, I cannot say for the time being.
Rays of light will guide us
Although this test version makes a very decent impression overall, especially since it comes with lots of content, I would like to talk about the technical side briefly. Elden Ring was supposed to be released in January, but according to current plans it will not be available until the end of February. I played for about ten hours on the PlayStation 5 and during that time kept encountering technical issues. The screen would freeze for a few frames during free exploration and, which is super annoying (since it is usually deadly), sometimes during combat, too. Take a look at the game's expected performance on the consoles of your choice in this news, but at the moment, this early in development build still needs a bit more time to shine. Of course, we should not forget that this game won't be available for another four months. In this time span it is quite realistic that the developers can provide various optimisations to improve the overall experience.
After the Closed Beta Test, I am much less sceptical about Elden Ring. The open world feature seems to be a natural evolution of the series, as FromSoftware has built it around their existing strengths. The basic combat system will be put to the test wherever you head in this deadly realm and you can expect plenty of challenges and interesting surprises that are waiting for us on the large map. The background story from the pen of George R.R. Martin has been cryptically cyphered by the developers and the remaining breadcrumbs were scattered all over the world. You will miss a lot of it while playing for the first time, but that has already been the case in the earlier games.
It wasn't until my third playthrough of the demo that I had a conversation with the maiden Melina, in which she told me more about herself and her task in this great adventure. The woman spoke about her "mother", who waits for her at the foot of the Erdtree, and of some purpose she lost a long time ago, which causes her grief. These vague hints may not be relevant to the actual progress of the game, but as I galloped through the vastness of The Lands Between looking for something new to catch my attention, some of these conversations echoed in my head for a while longer.