Elden Ring
by on Nov 20, 2021

Elden Ring has a welcome dash of Tolkien

The first thing to know about Elden Ring, the new game by FromSoftware, is that it’s all about the Elden Ring. But what is the Elden Ring? It sounds like a medical condition that might trouble men of a certain age. But it is, apparently, an object of desire—sought and coveted by committees of purgatorial souls. “Come to the Lands Between for the Elden Ring, hmm?” says one gentleman, a passive-aggressive N.P.C. whom I encountered during the recent closed-network test. He then informed me that I was “plumb out of luck,” before concluding our encounter with a bitter and breezy rebuff: “Feel free to go off and die in a ditch somewhere.” More useful—not to mention friendly—was the advice of my fellow players, strewn about the environment in the form of notes: “Good luck,” “Something incredible ahead,” the more ominous “Be wary of liar,” and the mystifying “Be wary of rump.” Perhaps it is a medical condition, after all.

For the uninitiated, Elden Ring is an action role-playing game co-written by George R.R. Martin, who is most famous for A Song of Ice and Fire, an unfinished series of books that was reforged into Game of Thrones. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the head of FromSoftware, has credited Martin with writing the “overarching mythos,” which, for all we know, could cover the pale pastures of a single cocktail napkin or fill a vast, table-straining tome. Martin is famous for his unhurried relationship to publishing, and his readers bide their time eagerly in the barren lands between his books. Whether they will play Elden Ring and feel the chilly embrace of the Martinian is hard to say, but if his involvement remains opaque, it may suit the game. No other studio has enjoyed as fruitful a relation to the opaque as FromSoftware.

The developer’s last game was Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which was set in Japan, during the Sengoku period; only, it had a dose of venomous fantasy in its bloodstream—Snakes as large and hissing as locomotives, centipedes that liked to lodge themselves in bodies for no good reason. Now, we are somewhere less rooted in the recognisable. True, there are castles, campfires, and green fields, and the entire place resounds dutifully to the clang of swords and the rustling clink of chain mail. (My chosen hero even wore it over his face, with no seeming use for his eyes.) But the result doesn’t feel like the Dark Ages—if for no other reason than the presence of such ethereal light. There are a number of glowing trees in the Lands Between—or rather the remains of trees, standing tall, gold, and translucent, like the ghosts of a botched attempt at growing money.

Elden Ring

Whatever is going on here, the key word is “going”—the tense refreshingly present. Dark Souls always felt as though life were being clung to, like a campfire, in the lengthening shadow of catastrophe; Elden Ring feels as if that catastrophe may be just around the bend. Not that the past doesn’t gust against the present like an odour. In a castle, I spotted a tattered banner, of green and gold thread, depicting a proud beast on its hind legs (a very Martin touch) and signalling, possibly, the decline of a great house. And I’m sure there is a rich and dungy history behind one of the bosses in the test: a fellow named Margit the Fell Omen, who is robed in a sack of scratchy brown burlap, and whose face and head are covered in sprouts, leaving us with the impression that we were just accosted by an extremely pissed-off potato.

For those who are more interested in the lunge and stab of combat, what might be of greater intrigue is the more recent, no less rich history that has annealed the mettle of Elden Ring. “Didn’t expect jumping,” read one note. True enough, we have not only the ability to leap but the chance for stealth—both of which have crept over from Sekiro. That game, along with its predecessor Bloodborne, proved how amenable the rituals of FromSoftware’s games are to tweaking—how they can be sped up, their armour stripped away, and still deliver the catechisms most beloved by the faithful. What is the chief end of man? Usually, the claws or jaws of something foul, slightly too far from the last save point. What is thy only comfort in life and death? That I with body and soul remembered to reclaim my lost XP just before biting the dust.

More exciting still is that FromSoftware has peered over the parapets of its own walls and looked farther afield, to other games. In the open vales of its setting, there is more than a hint of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (another series encastled behind a high tradition). There are enemy encampments, through which you are free to sleuth or brawl. Plus, you can wander in any direction you please. Better yet, you can gallop there. You have the power to summon a wraithlike horse, as casually as if it were a black cab, and fare to and fro. What’s more, the creature, naturally equipped with optional extras, bears a definite hint of billy goat; it is crowned with curving horns, and its hind legs have been supercharged, allowing it the use of a nifty double jump. You can even swipe at enemies from your saddle. I happened to play Elden Ring after spending a few hours with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas; thus, I was relieved to find FromSoftware, though earthed in medieval fantasy, had kept alive the art of the drive-by.

Elden Ring

The combat, meanwhile, has the feel of a faster Dark Souls. We play a lone figure, who is referred to as “Tarnished.” At the beginning, we get a choice of character class, and, heeding the call of the wild, I went for the Blood Wolf. Aside from granting me a hank of silver-grey hair, this meant I could parry enemies, with a backhanded whip of my shield, and pounce in with a ravening counter. It made short work of the potato, who, before peeling off his mortal coil, accused me of “Smould’ring with thy meagre flame” and finished with a promise of revenge: “The hands of the Fell Omen shall brook thee no quarter.”

I almost laughed at those parting words—only, they reminded me of something. Their magniloquence, coupled with the antique creak of the syntax, reminded me of Tolkien, who favoured a similar high style—with the irony ironed out—for The Lord of the Rings. Martin has cited Middle-earth as an influence in his creation of this world, and, while FromSoftware has armed its characters with similarly archaic tongues, it has never had a truly Tolkienesque landscape in which to plant them. This is what thrills me most about Elden Ring: the chance for a really good Lord of the Rings game. This is not to knock Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor or its sequel; I relished them both. But I always found that their combat—which was cribbed from the Batman: Arkham series—felt too turbo-boosted for Tolkien. And, courtesy of the much-vaunted Nemesis system, battling the armies of Mordor had the air of a slightly orcward WrestleMania, replete with ring entrances for your celebrated foes. If FromSoftware, with George R.R. Martin’s help, can restore a little of the mud, the fear, and the dark to that vision—while brooking no quarter for the cheesy or the overblown—then count me in. Something incredible ahead.

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Elden Ring

on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Release Date:

31 December 2020