The new game by FromSoftware, Elden Ring, is a relaxing jaunt, set in a weather-warmed and prosperous kingdom, and you play a gentle sort, with a circle of good friends, a passion for horticulture, and… Oh, hang on. No, sorry. Let me try again: The new game by FromSoftware, Elden Ring, is a depressing and brutal action-R.P.G., set in a kingdom that has cracked and sloped into decrepitude, and you play a solitary figure, referred to as Tarnished, who is schooled in the ways of endless pain. There. That’s more like it.
Elden Ring is the fruit of a collaboration between FromSoftware, led by director Hidetaka Miyazaki, and George R. R. Martin. Miyazaki is known for his scornful relationship to traditional narrative, preferring instead to bestrew his games with half-broken clues, and leave us to piece the events together and come to our own conclusions. Martin, meanwhile, is known for his scornful relationship to publishing. His most famous work is A Song of Ice and Fire, a series of fantasy books (from which sprang Game of Thrones) whose last two volumes have yet to thaw. There are long nights, I’m sure, on which Martin wishes he could do a Miyazaki: forget finishing the plot, get it out there in shards—a shipwrecked sentence here, a crumbling paragraph there—through which your reader can sift and sort. It’s not surprising the partnership appealed to him. But what’s in it for Miyazaki, whose games are hardly short of thrones, both vacant and vilely filled, and whose command of mythology—of its wearying weight, along with its capacity, when wielded properly, to prick us into awe—isn’t exactly in need of heavyweight help?
Well, a name, for one, and with it a legion of fans who may not be familiar with the studio’s wintry corpus. Good news for them: Elden Ring may be the friendliest of FromSoftware’s catalogue to those who play less for the challenge, and more to bask in the tightly calibrated bleakness that only this studio is capable of producing. One reason for this is its lack of linearity. It’s an open world, and you have a horse. Rather, you have a “spectral steed,” called Torrent, which manifests in an ectoplasmic shimmer, and is upholstered with a dark hide, a silver mane, and horns. Think Seabiscuit, back from the dead after having been seriously bad.
Naturally, being equipped with a horse, in a place like this, behooves you to explore; and when you do, taking in the landscape at a bracing lick, a number of other games thunder into view. There is Shadow of the Colossus, in which another rider, bent to a similarly fell ambition, hurtled across dun fields, between fists of wind-battered rock. Then, there is The Legend of Zelda, on which Elden Ring gleefully feasts. The environmental detail here, laid with Kubrick-like care, tells of past calamities and the rusted mechanisms of war, but so, too, does it provide the basis of a story. A golden force, scattered in pieces; a royal woman, sylphlike and powerful; a bestial foe; and, enchained to all three, a lowly hero, graced with purpose. Link should call his lawyer.
Not that there is much chance of confusing Elden Ring with The Legend of Zelda. One look at FromSoftware’s setting, with its globs of pelting rain and its sunlight, breaking through clayey skies, and you could be looking at the work of no other developer. But where the influence of Nintendo’s series—specifically, the game that started it all, in 1986—is most potent is in the way it strops, and honours, your curiosity. No quarter of the map is bereft of secrets. Some of them, indeed, are devilish to spot. At one point, I read a note left near a wall by a fellow-player (the online functionality, as in Dark Souls and Bloodborne, allows you to sow other peoples’ worlds with passive hints and teases) that said, “Try attacking.” Sure enough, at the clang of a sword the wall melted away, divulging a hidden passage. Moments like this have occurred in games past, but only here, rooted in the soil of an open-world fantasy did it put me in mind of those strategies, polluted with half-truths, that were passed around the playground.
Of course, there is nothing in the main quest of Elden Ring—no solutions so opaque—that would warrant a peeved call to the Nintendo Power Line. Progress lies in all directions, it’s your own to make, and, what’s more, it isn’t codified—no mission-tracking menus, no objective markers, and, unlike Assassin’s Creed, no G.P.S.-assisted auto-gallop. In short, nothing to leech the feeling of free-range, organic adventure. No thrill is potted, except for one, but that came from a talking pot, who told me about a festival of combat in a far-off place—“I’d heard whispers of such festivities”—and gave me nothing but the name of a castle; he concluded our encounter by saying, “Doesn’t the notion set your breast aflutter!” and it felt as if FromSoftware were nudging us into the realisation that it will always be the whisper, not the waypoint, that stirs our wonder.
The location in which our struggles unfurl is called The Lands Between, a suitably purgatorial title—and a nod to the creative partnership that wrought them. Readers of Martin should keep their ears tuned to the names: Limgrave, Liurnia of the Lakes, Raya Lucaria, and Caelid. That last one is like a smoker’s lung: stuck in a permanent smoulder, with cliffs as red as clotted blood, and formations of stone that resemble ashen capillaries. It brings to mind the Hunter’s Nightmare, from Bloodborne, in which familiar streets were given an ossified makeover. But note, as well, the wall demarcating its border, and the fiery glow that wells between the stones, as though Hadrian had to contend with dragons; that image is purest Martin, in its melding of history and make-believe.
And so to the other side of the game’s forging: the combat, to which FromSoftware fans are endlessly drawn. The clashes in Elden Ring are best compared to those of Dark Souls: swords, shields, parries, or, if it sets your breast aflutter, sorcery builds instead. Unlike the breathless Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, we are back with a stamina meter, in need of constant tending, and the difficulty, while comparatively low as you roam the wilds, spikes considerably for the game’s boss fights. These are a fun-loving bunch, headed up by a group of demigods, the first of which is a fellow known as Godrick The Grafted, due to his hobby of Shelleyan body augmentation—personally, I think he interpreted the phrase “take up arms” a little too literally. On the whole, this is not the most patience-fraying of FromSoftware’s games, but the studio’s helplessly devoted (I count myself in their sorry ranks) will find their appetites sated.
What an odd relationship between developer and audience, one of cruelty and pleasure, steeped in the slow trickle of progress. There are no other dynamics quite like it in games; they acquaint us with an array of miseries and charge us money for the privilege. It will be keenly understood, however, by readers of George R. R. Martin, who are well versed in cruelty, violence, and the agony of the long wait. In Elden Ring, FromSoftware offers us an open world with a rich and heady history, yours for the exhuming. Or not. Whether you’re a lore junky or you simply crave a fight, this is a game with such a potently present tense that hours stream by without your noticing—so fast is the seal of its mood. “I never knew the guidance bestowed upon us Tarnished had such fantastic roots,” one character says. “Although, it’s all a bit much for me, in truth. I’m still looking for my own purpose.” Start looking now.
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: February 25, 2022
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