FromSoftware's previous works succeeded in combining a challenging combat system with the exciting feeling of exploration, and thus, achieving something much more substantial, than being 'difficult games'. In visceral combat scenarios, every mistake makes the difference between life and death, which is why emerging victorious in Soulslikes sometimes feels like you've done the impossible. This motivation is driven by the urge to explore, which, in combination with the surprise one feels when discovering a mystical world (and its dangers), creates the very engaging feeling many people fell for.
For the team's next game, Elden Ring, FromSoftware built upon these two central aspects. The incisive combat mechanics known from Dark Souls and Bloodborne are enhanced with tactical options so that players can overcome dangers in many different ways. According to the developers the player's experience will be significantly influenced by their own play-style and to make this possible, the team ventured into unknown territory. FromSoftware created a framework story and an open world to shift the focus of their familiar formula in the direction of a role-playing game. At Gamescom we were able to take a closer look at how this change might work out.
As you would expect from a Souls game, the plot is open for interpretation: The faded light of Lost Grace guides the Tarnished One (that's us) through the so-called Lands Between. There we find the ancient demigods responsible for the destruction of the Elden Ring. If we succeed in overcoming them, we might become an Elden Lord ourselves. At least that is the promise with which we were lured to this place from "beyond the fog".
The basis of this "complex, multi-layered narrative" arises from the pen of George R.R. Martin, who left the mythological basis of Elden Ring to Miyazaki and his team a couple of years ago. According to PR spokesman Yasuhiro Kitao, FromSoftware did not come across any restrictions when interpreting the material, so they were able to create their own game world from Martin's preparatory work freely.
Kitao confirmed to us that the fate of the NPCs in the latest Souls instalment will be communicated more clearly than in the past. At the same time, the developer apparently wanted to create a loose framework that players can freely interpret. What that means is that, depending on your own experience with the minimum 30-hour long adventure, you should be able to draw different conclusions about the overarching story.
Elden Ring is said to be many times bigger than the developer's past games. So that we don't get lost in the Lands Between, the studio is introducing navigation methods for the first time. At the top of the screen we could see a compass and you have access to a precise map of the whole area. We need special map fragments to uncover unknown regions, but as soon as you have found them, you can mark dangerous monster nests, important resources or treasures, similar to in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
From a distance we could spot a poorly guarded convoy that was accompanied by a few simple soldiers. However, as soon as our character decided to approach the cart, suddenly - certainly not entirely by chance - a dragon rushes down from the sky and eliminates the guards for us. It's up to us whether we pull back to live another day or if we try snatching the flying lizard's newly captured dragon treasure right in front of its eyes.
We travel the Lands Between on the back of our trusted "Spirit Steed", which we can summon at any time (except for dungeons and during multiplayer sessions). With your four-legged horse companion you are able to quickly travel the vast game world. The animal will also carry you to towering plateaus in no time at all and you don't even need to worry about fall damage - since it doesn't exist in this game. We'll be able to fight from the horse back, even against other mounted enemies.
We haven't seen much of the game's world yet, but it is clear that the Lands Between will be made up of different areas. We could see glimpses of snow-capped peaks, differently coloured forests, vast prairies and a mist-shrouded swamp lined with large mushrooms. The primary task of this region is to lead us to the various "Legacy Dungeons": These areas will feel like the levels we know from Dark Souls and co., also because each one of them is heavily guarded by a mighty Elder Lord. Stormvale Castle - which you can see in the E3-2021 trailer - will be one of these more traditional challenges.
In this level we can decide whether we want to take the direct route and let ourselves be shot down by ballistae (while fighting off opponents), or whether we prefer to choose a secret path on the edge of the castle. According to FromSoftware, these areas are reminiscent of the complex and multi-layered level design that the studio is known for. However, this formula has been expanded in Elden Ring with a new movement option, as we can now jump freely, just like Wolf in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It's a small thing but it changes a lot, because the areas are designed with that ability in mind, Kitao explained.
The variety of tactical options is what distinguishes Elden Ring from other Souls games. Just like in the previous titles of the developer, you will be able to design your character to develop a melee warrior, a wizard or an archer, for example. In this game, however, we are encouraged to consider all gameplay possibilities available at our disposal. You can see this, for example, in the Weapon Arts, which no longer are tied to a fixed weapon, but instead can be equipped and swapped at a checkpoint. The choice of spells, weapons, and abilities is designed to make Elden Ring feel like a "good old RPG" and that has a big impact on how you approach the challenges of this adventure.
To make things clearer, FromSoftware showed us the infiltration of a small camp. Before we headed inside, we scouted the situation with binoculars in order to find a suitable route towards the heavily guarded treasure. Our character sneaked through the tall grass, anaesthetized a guard with a sleeping arrow and eliminated him with a single attack (whether it is a deathblow or a backstab, I couldn't determine). A little later the fight broke out as the alarm went off, whereupon the developers summoned a small group of ghosts, which kept the remaining soldiers busy, buying us time. We already know many of these elements from the series, but it was previously unthinkable in a Soulsborne game to tie all those tools together.
With the help of stealth you can delay the direct confrontation, but the series' methodical gameplay cannot be completely bypassed. If you notice that you are stuck, you shouldn't be afraid to get yourself some help, either in form of NPC companions or by other human players. On stone monuments you can specify the type of summoning you want to perform (if you have the necessary stats for it) but you will still have to think about it, since the NPC summoning is limited to one use per rest.
If you still get stuck, your last chance might be asking for help in co-op game. Up to two allies can join your team to conquer the Lands Between with you, to search underground dungeons for hidden treasure or to assist you in the next boss fight. Just like in the developer's other games, the boss opponent gets more hitpoints with the more players who join your game. According to FromSoftware, the restrictions for online play have been drastically reduced so that players can now try this option out much easier. In the past you had to collect rare consumables in order to connect to online mode, but in Elden Ring it should be far less strenuous. Asynchronous online items will of course also be included.
In some ways, Elden Ring's Gamescom presentation was an eye-opener, but I'm not completely convinced yet. The developers want to create an open-world RPG that combines their iconic combat system with the diverse character development that has long been part of the series. The so-called legacy dungeons will likely meet the expectations of many players, but what about the rest? Exploring clearly pegged indoor and outdoor areas is a very different task than to move through an open world. Whether FromSoftware succeeds in awakening an urge to discover in us once more, will likely be a very important detail that determines how much we can enjoy the game once the players get their hands on Elden Ring on January 21.