As soon as I heard the spectral sound of my skeletal companions turning to dust, I knew I was in trouble. They were designed to distract the large dragon looming before me while I sent ranged attacks from a distance—but with my spirit allies felled, the dragon turned his attention to me. A quick dodge saved me from getting crushed by his giant feet, and I knew I had mere moments to cast a few damage spells in his direction. I saw the dragon draw a giant breath, and I knew what was coming. But in my greedy state, I lobbed one more spell in his direction before attempting to escape. He rewarded my hubris with a lake of fire that killed me where I stood.
That was the 16th time I died fighting that dragon, and it would take quite a few more deaths before I finally found my victory. It took me two days, and I loved every minute of it.
FromSoftware's games have always intimidated me due to the level of skill, focus, and patience they require. I've understood the appeal, while also assuming that most Dark Souls-like games would frustrate me in their punishing difficulty. But Elden Ring's old-school open world spin on this punishing franchise attracted me, and on a whim, I bought a game I didn't expect to finish. 30 hours later, I'm completely hooked—and I know I'll be exploring The Lands Between for months to come.
While open world games are more popular than ever, few have truly captured the essence of older titles like Morrowind that encouraged me to explore but refused to ever hold my hand. Elden Ring offers no quest markers on the HUD, no quest log with step-by-step instructions, and no clear path forward. Well, there is a path, but it immediately leads to ruin if you don't level up first.
So that left me, my wits, and a notebook to keep track of my goal. I mounted my horse, started riding around, and looked for the lowest-level trouble I could find, honing my weapons and my skills in tandem. Though I'll admit, I got a few tips here and there that made the early game a much easier battle as I learned the ropes.
And in a way, that's one of the things that drew me to Elden Ring. It's incredibly open-ended, hand-holding-be-damned nature reminded me of my younger days in gaming, where kids would come to the playground ready to share the latest piece of gear they found, or the trick for defeating that one boss. Then you'd head home, using all the tips you learned to progress just a little bit further, opening up a brand new world of discovery.
But while I came for the open world exploration, I stayed for the now-infamous boss fights. Every time I find a new dungeon or a creaky door leading into a castle, I find myself hoping for a deadly boss on the other side. Each new foe is majestic, terrifying, or grotesque in ways my imagination could have never conjured, and learning the patterns and movesets of each one is exciting, challenging, and rewarding. I expected to be throwing my controller at the wall in frustration with every death, but instead, I find myself laughing every time I meet an untimely doom, ready to take another crack. (Except for that Crucible Knight, whom I hate with every fiber of my being.)
FromSoftware has done something incredible with Elden Ring. In many ways, they've stayed true to the Dark Souls formula: the dreary-but-intriguing ambiance, the story buried under layers of hidden quests, the punishing-but-addictive combat. Unlike previous games, though, Elden Ring's open-ended nature allows beginners to spend more time practicing, leveling up, and hunting down powerful gear early on. The ability to summon spirits or other online players to aid in battle prevents me from hitting a wall, while the variety of classes and playstyles offer everyone the ability to choose their own level of challenge.
In response to the long-standing debate of "Should FromSoftware games have an easy mode," the development team has done the seemingly impossible: they made their game more accessible without compromising the DNA that makes the Souls games what they are.
So every night I spend hours attempting to fell the next monstrosity, and every morning I log on excited to tell my friends and coworkers about what I found the day before. The playground may have changed, but Elden Ring captures the feeling of old-school open worlds like nothing has in years. After 30 hours of gameplay, I'm just starting to scratch the surface of what this game has to offer. If you've shied away from Souls-like games in the past but you're intrigued by Elden Ring's open world, give it a shot. You might be surprised to find your new favorite genre.