Looking back, I don’t know why I agreed to do this, why I submitted to the masochism of video games. I don’t know why I thought my first experience with a FromSoftware game would be like all other video game reviews: 30 hours past, game over, review written, thank you, and good evening.
And yet – 30 hours later Ring of Elden, I barely made a dent. I hadn’t realized until now that I could have so much fun making myself so miserable.
beauty and brutality
Ring of Elden is forbidding, majestic and sick in every sense of the word. Its overarching story about a fallen kingdom is deliberately obtuse – an undetermined amount was written by game of thrones author George RR Martin, the rest by dark souls brain Hidetaka Miyazaki. Its setting, the Lands Between, is full of countless little delights, like stray sheep that roll around like an armadillo when you get too close. But they’re also home to countless nightmares, like giant dragonflies harassing you as you’re threatened by roving bands of parched peasants, hulking knights, or flame-breathing dragons. These expansive landscapes largely replace the dense, layered levels that dark souls was famous for. In Ring of Eldenhowever, the ability to roam various terrains – whether it’s a noxious swamp or a gusty grassland – produces an injection of gaming dopamine (and genuine fear, too).
It’s made even better by your trusty steed, Torrent – a beautiful elk-like creature. Hiss and it will materialize beneath you, ready to roll. While inaccessible in the game’s many dungeons, Torrent also gives you an offensive advantage, as you can cut down hordes from high in the saddle better than you could on foot. His best feature, however, is his double jump. Yes, it’s true – breath of the wild the horses have nothing on him! Use Torrent to jump off cliffs or jump into ravines to mitigate fall damage that would normally kill you. But beware; while Torrent can make you feel invincible, great heights or particularly surly opponents can still defeat you.
Yet despite these innovations in design and world traversal, FromSoftware stays true to its traditional boss formula, often throwing you – a relatively puny warrior – into a dimly lit colosseum to do battle with a horribly powerful moron. But when that horribly powerful moron’s health bar is ultimately reduced to zero, after literally 43 tries (yes, I counted for the first boss), that’s where the celebration ensues. It looks like this: A 24-year-old with sweaty palms and a rapid heartbeat jumps off his couch and yells, “F*** YES! FINALLY!” and quickly sends the news to his roommate.
A sparse and dark world
Elden Ring’s the aesthetic also deserves credit, even if it doesn’t match the glamor or realism of rival open-world games. Instead, he goes out of his way to make you feel small. The Erdtree – gargantuan and golden – looms across the map, its ethereal, linen leaves falling slowly to the deadly ground below. It’s a shining beacon in an otherwise dark medieval world, seemingly always out of reach. While the terrain can be sparse, filled with interchangeable ruins, I often find myself stepping back from the endless onslaught to take a screenshot of my surroundings. The broken turrets of Stormveil Castle or the murky waters of Liurnia of the Lakes provide a mystifying backdrop as you are slowly poisoned, bloodied or torn to shreds.
It is during these moments of pain and suffering, however, that Ring of Elden paradoxically shines the most. In other titles, death may seem cheap. Nintendo games, for example, are not this difficult, so combat can feel arbitrary; after internalizing an enemy’s simple attack pattern, more experienced players will win after a few tries.
Ring of Elden, on the other hand, refuses to hold your hand. An enemy takes three massive hits, and before you can escape, a final anticipatory strike takes away the rest of your precious health bar. The game constantly backs you into a corner, forcing you to make quick decisions. You will prematurely dodge an opponent’s axe. You will only rush to misjudge the distance and find yourself exposed. In a desperate retreat, you will find yourself impaled on the blade of an invisible enemy. But practice eventually makes perfect. Defeating a boss is a wave of pure relief and satisfaction, unlike anything I’ve felt in other video games.
A little help from friends
Fortunately, you are not alone in the fight. Ring of Elden follows before souls games by allowing you to summon other characters or players to help you. But it also innovates with a system that is reminiscent Pokemon. You can collect Spirit Ashes from enemies, allowing you to occasionally summon versions of them as allies. While Ghost Dogs, Skeletons, or Jellyfish aren’t great at dealing damage, they do distract enemies long enough to help even the odds.
What surprised me the most Ring of Elden, however, that’s how much I really laughed out loud while playing. It’s surprisingly difficult, but rather than mumbling and moaning, I was reassured to know that other players will experience the exact same trials and tribulations. At a time when a lot of people, myself included, are anxious, I wasn’t sure I wanted to play something so punishing. It’s easy to take my basic Nintendo Switch games and turn off my brain. But after realizing how exciting it was to conquer my fears, explore the middle lands, and die again and again, Ring of Elden became a joy, especially as my roommate watched and laughed at my inevitable destruction.
Keller Gordon is a columnist for Join the game. Find him on Twitter: @kelbot_
James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this review.