STAFF REVIEW of Elden Ring (Xbox One)

Friday, March 25, 2022.
by Josh Morgan

Elden Ring Box art I am not a veteran “souls” guy. I played about 5 hours tops of Dark Souls 3 and never went back. Not because I disliked the game, but with a more than full time job, 2 kids in sports and a backlog of games that is well over 100 games deep, I usually tend to move on from a game if it doesn’t grab my attention, or more often than that, a new game comes out that does. I really hesitated to take this review because of my limited experience with Souls games. But our head editor has a way with words, and he convinced me to take it on, and boy oh boy am I happy I did. Because without being “forced” to play this game, I would have missed out on one of the best games I’ve ever played in my 30+ years of gaming.

Now that I’ve got my limited history with From Software games off my chest, I need to admit another thing. I have not, and probably will not ever beat this game completely. It’s not that I can’t because of the difficulty, or because I moved on to something else and I’ll never go back, but because I refuse to look up any information about what to do and where to go, and I refuse to take any shortcuts that will ruin the experience of the game for me. This isn’t a game to rush or main line, this is a game you are supposed to slow sip and savor because it’s a once in a generation experience. So, after a month of playing a few hours each night (again, 50+ hour a week job and 2 kids in sports) I have put over 100 hours into Elden Ring and I am nowhere near the end. I have not explored the entire map, and I have not killed every boss. Not even close, and I am not even the littlest bit sorry.

You start off as a lowly tarnished. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but as a tarnished you are able travel the Lands Between freely as you so desire. But since you are a Tarnished that is “touched by grace” this means you are guided by the golden rays of the Sites of Grace to your destiny. What is your destiny you ask? Well, it’s to re-forge the shards of the Elden Ring, become the Elden Lord, and to restore the Golden Order of course. The Elden ring is the source of all life in the Lands Between, and The Golden Order is the group that watches over it. Kind of like Infinity Watch, the group of superheroes that each took an Infinity Gem from the gauntlet after they defeated Thanos in the comics. You see, a while back there was an event called the shattering where the Elden Ring was destroyed, and it broke into a bunch of pieces. Some of the lords got a hold of those pieces and became Shard Bearers and were given great powers. Godrick the Grafted is the first Shard Bearer that you meet and after you defeat him you are given his shard. The Golden Order is there to protect the Elden Ring once it’s forged again, and make sure the shattering never happens again.

The first thing you do is choose your starter class and the look of your character. It’s important to pick a class that you like to play as here obviously, but do know that you can eventually re-spec your character to match whatever style you naturally transform into. I started with a bandit class because I tend to play more rogue style characters (I like to hit it from the back, hey-yo!) and no matter how many times I’ve restarted Skyrim, I always end up playing as a stealth archer. So why not just give in and start it off here. After many many hours I still use backstab a lot, but my combat is more roll in close, slash multiple times, then roll back out before the enemy attacks. So, I started to focus my stat points on dexterity, endurance and strength to help my attacks land heavy, but still gives me the agility to roll away from blows. This build has made me pretty squishy. I deal a hell of a lot of damage, but I tend to take a lot too, so I’ve had to learn to anticipate attacks to give myself enough time to roll away safely. That is one of the best aspects of Elden Ring, is that you can mold the game to fit any playstyle you desire, and if you don’t like a certain build you don’t have to roll a new character, just re-spec once you’ve unlocked it in the story.

As you first step out into Limgrave you are greeted with a beautiful sight of the open world you are about to explore. Just stop and look at it for a second and take in the beautifully crafted world developers created. It really is a perfect example of game world design as this scene alone tells you everything you need to know about the path ahead of you. Your first steps outside into the HUGE open world and you see your immediate destination, the warm glow of a Site of Grace (Elden Rings version of Bonfires). Beyond that you see a small church down the path a little bit and this is obviously your second destination after the safety of the bonfire, and here you will be able to spend and sell items for runs and upgrade your weapons. You’ll meet Melina who is your maiden. She’s tasked with helping you on your journey by showing you how to use runes to upgrade your stats at bonfires and by giving you a horse called Torrent. Further off in the distance you’ll see a large castle on a rocky cliff, and this is going to be your first major stop in the story. All of this is seen from the first two steps into the world, and it’s a very small fraction of the world you are about to set out upon.

With the freedom of an open world also comes restrictions. You have two choices here, either go left towards the castle, or go right into open lands. If you chose right, then you chose wrong because you are greeted by a knight on horseback called the Tree Sentinel. He’s the first real boss that the game throws at you, so he’s probably a pushover, right? I’m sure there is some sort of tutorial about how to approach these boss fights since they aren’t just going to throw you into an impossible fight right out of the cave right? I ran up to him like the knights in Monty Python running to the castle. Sword out and raised high, kicking up mud, shield at the ready, battle cry coming from my mouth and my spirits were at an all-time high cause I was confident the game developers wouldn’t be so evil. He instantly one-shot killed me and gave me my first of many YOU ARE DEAD screens across my TV. Befuddled, I respawn at the Site of Grace, and I look up and I notice something I didn’t see before, someone nailed to a cross nearly 10 feet above the bonfire and it was then I started to realize this place isn’t as welcoming as it looks.

I made my way to the left this time and towards the safety of the trees ahead. As I am walking towards the tree line, I notice something rolling on the ground towards me. It’s small and round and a dark brown color. I assumed it was some sort of animal at first and after my extreme failure during the battle with the Tree Sentinel I wasn’t going to take any chances; this could be another trap. I approach slowly, it stops, and I confirm that it wasn’t moving on its own. It was just a human skull randomly rolling down the pathway I was going. Nothing else was around, no enemies that could have kicked it by accident and it was definitely not a scripted event. I took it as a sign of things to come; this was a bad omen. In my mind, the beautiful world around me started to turn into a deadly hellscape of which dangers could come out from every corner. This feeling has not gone away after nearly 100 hours. The first time I come across a new cave, a cliffside, a beach, a meadow, it just gives me an uneasy feeling that something bad is about to happen, and in fairness it usually does, but it’s a true testament to the games design that it’s still happening this far into my journey.

When I mentioned restrictions above, I didn’t mean that the game restricts you in any way. You are absolutely free to be able to go anywhere in the map you want from the moment you exit that cave. What I mean is that the game is designed to guide you on a certain path by placing hard enemies to scare you into looking elsewhere to explore. When I got to the castle on the rocky ledge and met Margit the Fell Omen, and he wrecked me. So hard in fact that I was convinced that I was missing something, like a weapon, or an ability, or a companion to help me beat this insanely hard boss. Because again, I’m naive and I thought there was no way that they would throw someone this difficult at me if I couldn’t beat it at this level. So, I set off to find this missing item that would for sure help me kill this menace in a castle. What I found was the true purpose of this game, exploration. I am so used to other open world games holding your hand with tutorials, or heavily loading your map with quest marks or points of interest, that when none of that was present in Elden Ring, I really didn’t know what to do or where to go. There was no big green arrow on my map saying to check out this cave, there was no NPC outside of Margits keep that told me I needed to acquire the “Sword of Doom” to defeat him. I had nothing to go off of, and I had to progress in the game to work on this review.

So, I just started exploring. I found a dark cave near a bonfire, so I went inside and it was dark. I don’t know what I was expecting, it’s right there in my description, but I didn’t go in very far and I remembered that the vendor near the church bonfire sold torches. So, I spent some of my hard-earned Runes (currency you get from defeating enemies) on a torch so I could explore this expertly described dark cave. In it I found a few packs of wolves and eventually a yellow wall of mist that looked a lot like the mist wall that I crossed to fight Margit. So, “this is another boss fight” I thought to myself, and I traversed the mist to see what was waiting for me on the other side. It was a lower-level boss called Beastman of Farum Azula and I’m not going to lie, I still died a few times, but I noticed I was doing more damage to him than I was to Margit, so I kept at the fight. After multiple attempts I beat him and reaped the rewards from his corpse and the chest in his cave. I decided at this point I wasn’t going to follow the main path because I wasn’t ready for what was at the end, and instead I was going to focus on just looking at the areas I could reach around the starting area. I slowly started to explore every nook and cranny of the area, all while killing enemies and hoarding their runes to trade for stat points at the Sites of Grace slowly making my character strong enough to take on Margit.

The enemies you encounter in Elden Ring don’t scale with you as you level up. Enemies that you might find tough in the beginning or during your first trek into a new area, become easier like common enemies as you level up. It’s nice to go back and dish out some revenge on enemies that killed you a few times and it's a great reminder of your progress and how far you've come. As I said before, the enemies you slay drop runes that immediately go into your inventory by a gold swirl of light. The number of runes you receive depends on the difficulty of the enemy you are facing, and that amount never changes even as you level up. Meaning, kill a little pygmy guy in the north part of Caelid and you’ll receive 1000 runes if you are level 5 or 50. When you die, you drop the runes on the ground where your body fades away, and as you respawn at the nearest bonfire, you must make it back to where you died to reclaim the runes or they will be gone forever upon another death. This is where the level grind comes in, and talking with some veteran Souls guys this is a huge part of previous souls style games. If you can’t beat an area or a boss, spend some time killing a group of enemies and then rest at the bonfire to respawn them.

Resting at the bonfire serves multiple purposes. You can level up, sort your chest, mix elixirs, and you can rest to refill your health, but it comes at a cost. Any common enemy in the game that you have beaten will respawn. This doesn’t count for named enemies or bosses, so feel confident that once you are strong enough to take down that Tree Sentinel in the beginning, he won’t be coming back to haunt you. Grinding like this is a key mechanic in Souls style games and it’s extremely helpful to gain runes, but it’s also really helpful to practice your combat on weaker enemies and that helps in the long run against tougher foes and bosses. There are many different types of enemies that you will encounter in The Lands Between and they all have different fighting styles, so taking them on is almost like a puzzle each time. You need to watch their patterns and moves to know when the best time to strike is, and if you are wrong, they make sure you pay for it. Some of the enemies are far too aggressive with their attacks. I’m not talking about a dog or a rat constantly biting you, which is frustrating, but the mages in the Academy of Raya Lucaria are a better example that they just constantly fire spells at you even after you leave the room. You can hear them firing off shots at the wall you are behind, and they will not let up until you come out and deal with them. They’ll never give up firing spells at you or give you a clear opening to take a swipe at them without taking some damage of your own. This almost always resulted in death for me, and it’s a frustrating way to lose runes.

During combat you can press in the right analog stick to lock onto an enemy, then flick the right stick in any direction to cycle across the multiple enemies on your screen. Locking onto an enemy can be frustrating when you are managing multiple enemies because it doesn’t always lock on to the nearest enemy after you kill your target. Multiple times I was dodging in a panic (again, I’m squishy) only to either dodge off a cliff, or right into another cluster of enemies because my lock switched to an unintentional target, or no target at all and it changed the trajectory of my roll. Also, sometimes locking on to flying enemies or larger enemies is a bad idea because the camera follows the enemy too closely and you cannot see your surroundings. I’ve fallen off roofs and been killed by other enemies so many times because I am swatting at a bird and never hitting it. Sometimes it's better to fight those enemies without using the lock system at all. Enemies can attack from any angle at any time in this open world, and just riding on horseback can trigger an attack from a normal enemy, boss or countless other scarier things. If you are in a cave, a skeleton can jump from around any corner. If you are in a swamp, a large crab or lobster can pop out from the water and deal a huge amount of initial damage. Even if you are in a field picking flowers, and can see 360 degrees around you, that doesn't mean a dragon can’t swoop down at any second and torch you with fire. You always have to watch your back, and that feeling never goes away.

Everyone always says Souls games are about stamina management and timing your attacks with rolls and dodges, but with me playing a bandit build I have almost unlimited stamina. I can jump, dodge, and roll around enemies like a spider monkey and I’ll never see half of my stamina bar depleted. But that doesn't come without a price. I have to wear light armor, and my defense stats are pretty low by default. I’ve built some of those stats up by leveling but it pretty much means that bosses can drain one quarter to half my health with one heavy hit alone, so I have to rely on timing my dodges right. You can also parry the blow and respond with a Guard Counter where the enemy will be stunned long enough for you to land a critical blow to deal huge damage. The window for this Guard Counter is pretty small, but after some practice you’ll be repeating them with very little trouble and the hit is always satisfying.

Even though my bandit takes a beating I never once felt like Elden Ring cheated in any way. There have always been games with a steep difficulty, but they tend to use cheap tactics like huge health bars, or unlimited stamina to keep barraging you with heavy attacks. That is not the case with Elden Ring. Every death that I was dealt felt justified, that there was somewhere within that interaction that I screwed up and the game made me pay for it. Growing up with friends that played a lot of fighting games like Tony Hawk, SSX and other combo heavy games, we always used the phrase “I got greedy” when you’d try for one more move, or one more punch to end a combo, and then your opponent used that opportunity to thrash you or that last trick caused you to bail and lose the multiplier. I lost track of how many times I’ve died in Elden Ring and said out loud to myself “I got greedy” because I was trying to land one more hit with my katana and I should have known that the enemy was about to start his attacks. It’s perfect combat like this that just drives me nuts and wants me to better myself to stop making those mistakes, but I always do, and I always go back for more punishment.

As you kill enemies throughout The Lands Between you will loot many items off their corpses, and off the corpses scattered about from previous battles. Some of them are gold runes that you can sell for XP runes, and some of the items are spells, weapons and armor. Spells, armor, and weapons all scale up with your character as you add points into the various stat categories of your character, so there is no real need to heavily compare the stats of the items you find. If the base stats are better, then you should probably use the upgrade you find and sell the old item to a vendor. However, there are ways to upgrade the pieces to make them last longer if you like the way they feel, and all weapons truly feel different to swing. There are smithing stones you’ll find littered all over the land, and you can take them to the smithing bench near the church at the start of the game. Here you can upgrade your favorite weapons to +1 status all the way to +12. You can also add Ashes of War to standard weapons and that can add effects like blood loss, poison, lightning, holy and all sorts of other damage modifiers. You can equip and unequip Ashes of War at a bonfire at any time without penalty, so feel free to try any combination based on the enemies you are fighting by creating your own legendary weapons from common ones. It adds a lot of options to your combat style and adds a longer life to the weapons you start to feel comfortable with, meaning you can take the sword you start off with all the way to the end game and you won’t be limited by doing so.

From Software has crafted the best videogame worlds I have ever played in and there is no contest. I’ve played all the heavy hitters of open world RPGs and I have never seen a map this big with as many caves, castles, swamps, fields, forests, cliffs and beaches to explore. It’s staggering how big the map really is, and as you start to unlock more sections and the fog on the map dissipates, it starts to feel overwhelming. It’s best to just slow down, take a breath and digest the area you are in and try to uncover all of its secrets rather than rush forward and hunt down the next boss. While you are slowing down, make sure to take in the beautifully crafted castles and keeps that you can explore. As you walk Stormveil castle halls you see remnants of past battles. Holes in walls from ballistics or magic tell the story of a great battle that happened here a long time ago. Maybe after the shattering someone was trying to get the shard piece from Godrick. The game doesn’t tell you this, but that’s part of the mystique, and it really adds to the feeling of dread and uncertainty that is common throughout the whole experience.

Many games have used the phrase “if you see it, you can go there” in their marketing. I remember Zelda Breath of the Wild being one of the first games to actually deliver on that promise for me. Elden Ring is the perfect example of a game where if you see it on screen, you can go there and explore it. With its massive draw distance, you can see mountains and towering castles in the distance, and until you get really close, you have no clue how large they are. From the tallest castles to the deepest darkest caves of The Lands Between you’ll see the love and detail that the artists put into every location. You must just stop and look at all of the small details, and not just run past them on your way to the next enemy or chest. You will thank me if you do.

Elden Ring rewards your curiosity in many ways, be it items, runes or a pathway to another area, but mostly it’s a story to tell your friends when you are sharing tales around the bonfire. It does not force feed tutorials down your throat, but instead it leans far the opposite way by not telling you much at all and lets you explore and find things out on your own. There is no true quest log, no points of interest on a map or no arrows pointing you in the right direction, so there is a good chance you’ll miss some of the best caves and areas of the game. Because of all of this, Elden Ring is forcing me to find all of that out on my own and it is one of the most rewarding games I have ever played. I will continue to explore the Land Between for many hours to come. I’m just not in a hurry.

**Elden Ring was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 10.0 / 10
Gameplay: 10.0 / 10
Visuals: 10.0 / 10
Sound: 10.0 / 10


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