Elden Ring is the Best Open World Game in Over 15 Years
I’ve been chasing a dragon for a decade and a half. My first experience with a role playing video game was Bethesda’s Oblivion, the fourth entry in The Elder Scrolls series. After the character creation, main story set-up and tutorial are done the player character will step out of the Imperial City sewers and see Elven Ruins just across the river shining high and bright in the noonday sun. Behind them rests the soaring battlements and gables of the Imperial City. All around them is the nation of Tamriel, seat of an empire and ripe for exploring. It was the first game I played where the world felt truly open from the get go. No game, not even Oblivion’s sequel Skyrim, managed to get me as high as those first few tentative steps in Oblivion did. Not until the release of FromSoftware’s Elden Ring would I feel that way again.
An open world is a lie. Player freedom is a lie. But what matters is that a game feels like it’s world is open, that players feel like they have an endless amount of freedom. Elden Ring’s trick to circumventing these falsehoods is simple but also something a lot of other open world games have trouble with. SURPRISE!!! Sorry, but the element of surprise is a vastly underused tool in open world games. After a certain point a lot of open world games become check list simulators. Harvest these plants. Find and kill these eight mini bosses. Climb these towers to reveal more of the map so you can harvest more plants and kill more mini bosses. You know what these games are and so do I. Shhh, no names. In Elden Ring there are towers to climb, plants to harvest and mini bosses to kill. None of these are marked on your topographical map though.
The Lands Between – Elden Ring’s wide open setting – only ever reveals itself to you if you embrace what the term open world means. I saw a lot of players stumbling out into the opening area, shielding their eyes against the sun-like Erdtree and then getting smashed into the dirt by the golden knight known as the Tree Sentinel. Here is Elden Ring’s first warning. Elden Ring is very much a FromSoftware game in the Dark Souls mode, in gameplay terms at least. The Tree Sentinel with his truck-sized horse, enormous shield and far-reaching halberd is what many would qualify as a mid-game boss were he to pop up in any of the Dark Souls games. In Elden Ring he’s the first boss you meet in the Lands Between proper.
I consider myself a relatively experienced Souls player but I’m no diehard. Still, I knew enough that the Tree Sentinel would be no cake walk and even after I had a few bosses under my belt he still proved a significant challenge. This is where the open world aspect of Elden Ring comes in. It’s fine to give the Tree Sentinel a wide berth and explore around and far away from his rather limited field of movement. I found much more manageable enemies, more tools to aid me in my travels and a treasure chest that transported me to hell. If players can break the habit of ‘I must kill the first thing I see’ and then go and explore then Elden Ring opens like a blooming flower.
Elden Ring’s open world is not the largest there is in gaming but it is detailed and scaled in a consistently enervating way. Not every dungeon or hard fought battle will reward you the way you want but being constantly surprised by what I found in a cave or discovered off the beaten path was worth the risk more often than not. Unlike in previous FromSoftware games like Dark Souls or Bloodborne there is the option to walk away from a story or side boss and try again later. Of course the option to bash your head against a wall until it crumbles is there too but that’s not the way I chose to play.
I follow the philosophy that a win is a win. No matter how hard fought or ill gotten a victory is it tastes just as sweet to me. With Elden Ring’s myriad ways to fight the chance to secure a cheesier-than-average win is easier than ever. Spirit summons enable you to bring in ghostly minotaurs, dogs or even a jellyfish. (All hail the jellyfish!) Magic has been made a viable option from the jump with death rays of blue energy, floating swords and enormous great bows available to anyone willing to put their hard-earned runes into a Faith build. And while mounted combat atop Torrent, your trusty goat-horse, is never as tactical as it is on foot it still feels frenetic and tense.
I’m 69 – hehe – hours in and I’m not bored. That’s an incredible achievement. The more the game opened up the more excited I became. New enemies meant new challenges and new areas like Liurnia of the Lakes, the Royal Capital Leyndell and Volcano Manor mean new bosses and more rewards for beating them. It also means new NPCs to find. Some like the warrior jar Iron Fist Alexander, the wolfman Blaidd and, of course, the Loathsome Dungeater offer questlines that often require a notepad to track or even a glance at the budding wiki through your fingers. Some might find the fact that you can’t track quests in a log irksome. Let them be irked I say. A game that isn’t constantly shouting at me about what I need to do or where I need to go is a breath of fresh air. I don’t need to hear my character’s every thought. In fact most of the time I don’t want to.
Elden Ring is not the biggest game. It’s not the best looking game. It’s story is enigmatic and occasionally impenetrable. It will not hold your hand through its poison swamps or against its mountainous bosses. It is occasionally a cruel game but it is never unfair. Where Dark Souls at most gave you the choice between two paths of equal difficulty Elden Ring gives you the whole world with a few roadblocks and says “See that fucked up tree-man? You can fight him, if you want”. It can be easy for a game genre to fall into a rut but Elden Ring shatters the mold, melts it down and makes something new, open and fun out of the pieces.