I’m what you’d describe as a casual Souls player in that I finished Bloodborne. While I’ve started the Demon’s Souls remake, I haven’t gone back to it since being distracted by Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart. So while I’m by no means a Souls fanatic, I get it.
I get the challenge, I get the calculated risks required to earn the drip fed rewards that FromSoftware titles feature in all of their games and I get that embracing failure is what these games are built on. To the surprise of nobody, based on the hours I’ve spent playing the Elden Ring network test all of these elements are present once again. Oh, and horses — it has horses.
Prior to my hands-on time it was recommended by the developer to start in the Cave of Knowledge, a tutorial area where the basics of combat and overall gameplay are given. While I wasn’t shocked to find that getting into the cave is impossible without taking a significant hit of fall damage, the very presence of the tutorial surprised me entirely. While the cave is optional, the fact that Elden Ring wanted to teach me something is very out of the ordinary compared to previous FromSoftware outings (Sekiro excluded). What was also surprising is that the tutorial wasn’t difficult to complete with only a few grunts to fight that offered little challenge and a boss that wasn’t really a boss.
I completed the tutorial — for research purposes only, of course — and then came upon some double doors which I of course promptly opened. In front of me were the Lands Between, a vast and striking open-world area that was a sight to behold. While there was no sudden heavenly choir singing in the game as those doors opened up, there was definitely one going off in my head.
Within minutes I stumbled upon my first boss without having seen a single grunt type enemy in the game proper. A large knight mounted on a horse patrolled a small track ahead. His horses gigantic hooves thumping in the dirt could be heard from a distance away. Having completed the tutorial with ease I confidently approached at which point he proceeded to charge towards me and promptly relieve me of my life within seconds. Oh yeah, this is a Souls game. I almost forgot.
I won’t provide a blow by blow account of the many, many deaths that followed at the blade of this knight because it went on for longer than I’m proud to admit with each death causing repeated expletives to echo throughout my home. Instead I’ll reveal how I managed to disperse with him after a simple strategy change as this points towards what many Soul’s players might not necessarily love about Elden Ring when it launches.
Just beyond the knight’s patrolled area there’s the ruins of a church. Inside is a Site of Grace (aka a bonfire to Souls alumni). These act as checkpoints, places where you can advance the time of day, and spend runes (read souls) on character upgrades. Though at this Site of Grace in particular you meet Melena. She provides the ability to summon Torrent, a spectral steed that you can ride into battle as needed.
Atop Torrent, the boost in mobility made me a much better match against the giant knight and he was eradicated after just a few more attempts. Savouring my victory and moving on, I found several smaller groups of grunts ranging from armoured soldiers — some more powerful than others — and a handful of zombies. While on foot, the typical Souls strategy of attempting to isolate and fight one enemy at a time remains an absolute necessity; while mounted, killing low level baddies is as simple as charging past them and timing the swings of your weapon, then coming back for another pass to finish them off. Similarly mounted enemies offer a little more challenge, but they’re not likely get your palms sweating. While charging against small groups of enemies on your horse is thrilling and very satisfying, it’s not very challenging and Souls veterans may simply opt to utilise Torrent more as a means of transport and less as a tool in battle to maintain the gameplay style they love.
Though at the same time, there are instances where Torrent is an absolute necessity such as that first boss, as an example. In another area, I approached a small group of soldiers walking down a road — they were easy fodder for my blade and my equine phantom, or so I thought. Once engaging with them, one blew a horn and a small army emerged from the bushes; if not for my trusty steed, I wouldn’t have survived the encounter. I did survive it, and on the first attempt… though it should be noted that there are a number of locations where Torrent cannot be summoned, including catacombs, caves and castles so your horse isn’t always going to be able to help you overpower your foes.
On the other hand, bosses felt much more like your traditional Souls experience (the above mentioned knight aside). In this build I’ve so far found and defeated several but I know there’s more. Fast moving, difficult if not impossible to anticipate, and overpowered enough able to take your life with only a few hits making victories glorious and satisfying as it has always been though doing so absolutely requires the use of all the tools at your disposal.
While full character customization is coming in the final release, in this build a selection of pre-set classes is available. My main chosen character is classed as a Bloody Wolf which is essentially a knight with little to no arcane/magic who wields swords and shields which he uses with brute strength. Though as I progressed through the preview I was able to unlock an ability which produced three wolf spirits that attack and distract enemies. This ability was especially useful against one of the main bosses as I was able to half his health bar with my own heavy attacks while he ignored me and instead flailed wildly at my three little ghost dogs.
Prior to adopting this strategy I attempted to utilise Elden Ring’s multiplayer functionality which, like other FromSoftware titles offers chances to call for help from other players, answer their calls for help or invade them. Regretfully, despite many attempts not once was I able to successfully engage in multiplayer of any kind. This is likely due to the small number of people playing in the world during this early access period so hopefully opportunities increase with a larger player base.
The main thing I’ve taken from my eight or so hours with the Elden Ring preview is that it appears FromSoftware is attempting to make things more accessible without angering its fanbase. Sites of Grace in the open world space are numerous, meaning checkpoints are much more forgiving than in other games in the genre. Further to this, Stakes of Marika offer alternative spawn points between long stints where Sites of Grace haven’t been used.
However once you enter a castle, Sites of Grace are few and far between, thus returning Elden Ring to the Souls formula that purists will definitely appreciate. In essence, one might consider the open-world area of the build a training ground that is not only fun to explore and beautiful to look at, but also one where you can grind a few character levels without too much of a hassle. Based on my limited time with this incomplete build, Elden Ring appears to be an excellent entry point into the Souls genre in that it should give the fans what they want, while potentially attracting a wider audience that wont throw in the towel within the first 20 minutes. While there’s absolutely an abundance of similarities to Souls and Bloodborne in mechanics, appearance, this should be viewed as a different game entirely.
What’s really impressive about the build is that it’s so massive — I feel like I’ve experienced so much of it I could almost write a complete review. In most cases a network test or preview builds offer maybe an hour or three of content; a small snippet of the full experience. If the Elden Ring closed network test is just a snapshot, the full game is going to be incredible in scale. While seasoned Souls fans could take issue with some elements of what’s on offer so far, I’m chomping at the bit to get into the final version.
You’ll be able to see if for yourself if you’ve been lucky enough to gain access to the Elden Ring closed network test which starts on 13 November.
Elden Ring heads to Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S & X, PS4 and PS5 from 25 February 2022.
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