This isn’t going to go the way you think. The Elden Ring network test started like every other Dark Souls game: in a dingy, narrow dungeon with mini-tutorials sprinkled throughout. The formulaic design by developer FromSoftware acclimates the player to a difficult gaming experience. But what happens next in Elden Ring already feels like gaming’s best moment of 2022, before the year has even begun.
After navigating the brief opening section, you ride an elevator to the surface of Limgrave and open a set of groaning doors. You can’t help but expect another dark hallway, but the door opens to a massive, beautiful world of greenery. There’s a sky-high tree made of golden light, a looming castle, and other dilapidated structures in the distance.
Elden Ring lures you in with the predictable and familiar and then subverts your expectations by thrusting you into its open world. If you’ve seen preview footage of the game, you know it’s coming, but you don’t know when.
Then it hits you. Right away, you can go wherever you want, and do — or at least try to do — whatever you want. A nearby NPC tells you to head to the castle in the distance. But what if you decided to clear out every inch of the map first? For that to even be an option is mind-boggling.
Elden Ring’s vastness feels like an evolutionary leap forward for a studio that doesn’t experiment much with its approach to game design.
The Souls formula at large emulates Metroidvanias in that you’re free to explore everything but can only progress in certain areas after you’ve acquired an upgrade or item. Beyond that backtracking gameplay loop, they both offer mostly linear experiences. Elden Ring mechanically and artistically functions just like every Souls game. The overall interface, art direction, character progression, and multiplayer systems feel just like Bloodborne or Dark Souls III. But it presents a meaningful widening of that Soulslike/Metroidvania gameplay loop: Explore until you hit a dead-end, and then pick a new direction.
Open-world games tend are often overstuffed with fetch quests and collectibles to increase playtime and engagement. This makes games feel artificially huge and intimidating, with few incentives to make progress. But Elden Ring avoids those pitfalls.
Elden Ring makes Rage 2 feel empty and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla seem bloated. Even classic open-world pioneers like GTA feel far more linear than the adventurous meandering presented here. Instead, Elden Ring evokes the atmosphere Breath of the Wild, and it will probably generate the same kinds of unique, water-cooler discussion moments when it’s fully released next year.
The core Souls formula also invites a lot of experimentation with different routes, builds, and strategies. But the open-ended nature of Elden Ring elevates and expands that same basic approach in meaningful ways, and the confidence with which the game delivers that very first introduction to the openness of its world is nothing short of revelatory.
Dark Souls diehards will find enough new ideas in Elden Ring to keep them enthralled, and the newcomers will find something more accessible than your typical FromSoftware title.
The possibilities in Elden Ring are practically endless, and if the open network test is any indication, then this is exactly the change that the genre so desperately needed.
Elden Ring launches for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC on February 25, 2022.