Elden Ring is a new game from FromSoftware. They are famous for their ‘Souls’ games that established a whole genre of their own: games with gigantic boss enemies and unforgiving combat. Basically, these games were the origin of the ‘git gud’ meme.
Elden Ring is that “Souls-like’ concept writ large. I have proven once again that I don’t like this style of gaming: but once again it taught me some things about why. It isn’t because I’m ‘not good’ or don’t know how to play. I’ve been playing computer games for over 40 years and, although I’m not claiming any great skill, I can work out the basics. Elden Ring just appeals to a very specific player which isn’t me.
Over-the-top critical reception
Elden Ring is currently tracking for a 95%+ positive critical reception and a user score of about 8 out of 10. Elden Ring sold over 12 million copies in the first month after shipping. That’s very positive, and so I felt somewhat obligated to check it out.
Elden Ring is fundamentally a Souls-like game with all that entails. Souls-like games are hard, but fair. The monsters are consistent: they don’t ‘cheat’ by responding to every player action flawlessly or rely on excessive random number generator shenanigans. Instead, each monster type or boss follows predictable patterns that can be learned. Death is fast to recover from: the main thing you lose is unspent levelling / progress ‘tokens’ and your own time.
I previously played Dark Souls III and gained some self-knowledge. I learned that yes, I could beat the bosses. It takes time and patience, and a zen-like approach to dying. I am not ‘great’ at this, but I see how the gears and wheels of the game turn and can understand the process.
I also learned how Souls-like games manage ‘adjustable’ difficulty. They have no built-in difficulty slider. Instead, Elden Ring and its siblings rely on players learning that certain classes, skills, weapons, and items can be combined to make the game ‘easy’. Also, because the monsters do not ‘scale’ with the player’s level, there is always the option of ‘over-levelling’ for an area. These ‘easy’ modes require two things: hidden knowledge (i.e.: community/internet wiki research) and grinding (i.e.: repetitive play to improve character stats and level up).
Souls-like games are also not narrative in any ‘in game’ way. The non-combat encounters are few and far between, and extremely shallow. Players have built up huge backstories for the NPCs, but these stories really don’t exist in the game itself. The quests are not really ‘quests’ at all. There is no sense of completing a story, and most of the ‘plot’ is utter nonsense; riddles couched in enigmas wrapped in paper-thin text with minimal tangible outcome. It is all about ‘mood’, not substance.
The visuals in a Souls-like game from FromSoftware are stunning and mysterious, the animations are often beautiful, and there is a sense of distilled ‘otherness’ that is unique. Souls-like games are focussed on the combat experience, and in that sense are meticulously refined. Every combat animation is informative and clearly learnable; the vast majority of the moves are highly predictable and, with practice, avoidable or counterable.
Elden Ring is no different. None of this is ‘wrong’: the game is perfectly internally consistent, and extremely well-crafted. But the result is a concoction that just doesn’t lead to enjoyment for me. Elden Ring is a perfect game for people who want to play Elden Ring. It is more Souls-like content for the people who love this kind of game. That’s fine. But it isn’t a game I want to spend any more time with.
I’ve read a number of articles that talk about how ‘transformative’ the gameplay is, and essentially ‘blame’ the player if they don’t enjoy it. This one from Polygon’s Ryan Gilliam is pretty typical. It is worth a read.
Stockholm Syndrome… or different strokes?
I’m not going to contradict an individual’s learned experience. I suspect some of these individuals are suffering from a sort of Stockholm syndrome / sunk cost fallacy mashup. The human mind has to justify all that effort after spending 60+ hours learning the unique but utterly untransferable skills of a Souls-like. And so the game becomes astounding or amazing, transformative, life-altering… because otherwise, the player would have to admit they just wasted all those hours.
I’m definitely experienced with getting deeply invested in a game. I would shudder to account for the thousands of hours I put into EverQuest or the Fallout series for example. At some point it becomes a love-hate relationship, at least in my experience. But the reasons I get invested in other games are different from the things Souls-like games delivers.
How we spend our hours gaming is a deeply personal thing. I respect that someone may love something I don’t, and spend huge amounts of time equal to my past investments on something they love. That love doesn’t make the game ‘great’ for everyone.
My own experience with Dark Souls III and now Elden Ring was not so much ‘transformative’ as educational, in the same way that any unpleasant experience can teach more than a hundred good events. I learned more about what I want and enjoy in a game through the process of playing Elden Ring for 30 hours as a contrary example.
A very large niche…
Elden Ring is a niche game that has become a mass-market sensation. However, it shouldn’t be approached as a narrative driven open world RPG. Measured on that scale, it is truly terrible:
- Narrative free: Elden Ring lacks any real narrative: there is virtually no story within the game. Everything is ‘mysterious’ and ‘strange’, but largely non-sensical
- Consequence free: choices that change the path of the story are also largely non-existent
- Shallow NPCs: NPCs are so shallow as to be rendered two dimensional- they say five words, and your rare dialogue choices come down to “accept quest” or “reject quest”
- All quests are side quests: Quests that drive the story are essentially non-existent. They don’t explain much of anything, branch or grow in complexity, or establish ‘relationships’
- A linear open world: Content is largely gated by boss monsters that must be defeated to progress beyond certain choke points
But if Elden Ring is measured within its particular unique ‘Souls-like’ category, it is truly a tour de force. Brilliantly engineered, it fits together flawlessly. I totally understand why some people love it.
Unfortunately, I like the opposite qualities. I enjoy games that are narrative-rich, choice-driven, deliver deep NPCs with story-driven quests in a non-linear open world. As the bullets above illustrate, Elden Ring is none of these things.
If you like Souls-type games, Elden Ring is a 10 out of 10: it can’t be missed. If you don’t like Souls-likes, it is 5 out of 10- not worth playing. I’m in the latter camp.
I might poke around the periphery of the game a bit more, but after over 30 hours of play I still don’t enjoy the combat-heavy ‘pattern and timing perfection’ process the game is so reliant on.