I began my search for the Elden ring by running away from a knight on horseback that was five times my size. He was radiant in golden armor, and I had the feeling that my wooden club, cloths, and the wagon wheel around my neck would not measure up to the man-sized halberd he was swinging in the air. So I ran, picked up a few berries from bushes along the way and kept walking until I found some enemies that were more my size. Within an hour, I had gone underground in a small dungeon, killed my first boss, and got a spectral horse that could tear across the fields of the open world of the Elden Ring at a mighty pace.
The spectral horse is important, because the impression I got from a weekend of early access to the Elden Ring Network Test is that I’m going to do a lot of tearing over empty squares in the last game. Elden Ring’s open world is rich in prey and mini dungeons to be found, but after a decade of exploring FromSoftware’s tightly designed kingdoms, it’s a shock to see how scattered everything is in Elden Ring.
The network test did not convince me that it was a worthy trade.
There is a tension in the heart of the Elden Ring that FromSoftware has never had to deal with before. As I wrote about in depth in my article on what I liked and disliked in The Fire Ring, it turns out to be the most free and flexible RPG From ever made. Right from the start, you can go in the direction you want, which feels far more liberating than choosing one of the two or three available routes from Firelink Shrine when Dark Souls begins. With the horse, you can easily avoid enemies that are too strong for you while you set out in search of treasures. If you are the type of RPG player who loves to come up with creative builds and optimize a new race around getting the perfect gear as fast as possible, Elden Ring promises a lot for you.
But I’m concerned that freedom means we get to see much less of FromSoftware’s traditionally great-looking level design, and that the open world takes up more space than a new playground.
When I think about what makes me compelled to explore open world games, a few things come to mind. One is able to interact with or influence the world in meaningful ways. There will be hundreds of articles pitting Elden Ring against The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, so I will not dwell on the comparison – the important thing is that Breath of the Wild was absorbing because the tools it provided you, associated with systems such as gravity and temperature; Stumbling across something mysterious was more often a free-form puzzle to solve than an enemy to fight. FromSoft’s games are primarily about combat, and they have always done excellently, but that means that there is inevitably very little to interact with in the open world. You arrive at the top of a hill, spend a moment appreciating the view and then look to see what a good kill needs.
Quests also push me to explore open worlds. In The Witcher 3, I loved seeing where a new bit of history would take me, and how a quest for a tragic werewolf chasing a village, or a ghost haunting a mansion, would enrich my understanding of the game world. Again, Elden Ring deliberately does not have those things. Its open world is connective tissue, and only engaging when it contains unique things to discover that make it worth slowing down for a moment.
I found some of them in the opening area of the Elden Ring, like a huge chariot pulled by two giants, chained spears piercing their torso. A procession of knights and undead dragged after it, killing them all rewarded me with the chariot of the chariot: a set of heavy armor. There was the mechanical golem that came alive as I rode past it, and the dragon that tumbled down from the sky as I entered the swamp, embarking on a battle that was clearly designed to be fought from horseback.
Cool discoveries, but all could have worked just as well in more traditional Souls levels. The small dungeons that mark the open world are mostly corridors with a few enemies and then a boss. Aside from the bosses, they seem to be forgotten, which I would not say about many soul areas – even the bad ones are usually memorable.
What is impossible to say from the limited space available in the network test is how well Elden Ring’s “Legacy Dungeons” will complement the spread of the open world. These are intended to be dense areas that bring back the intertwined passages and catacombs. FromSoftware has always done well. Only part of one, Stormveil Castle, can be explored in the network test; it looked impressive from the outside, but disconnected me too soon to know if it’s filled with the same satisfying shortcuts and side paths as Fromm’s best locations.
Given how massive the open world of the Elden Ring seems to be – I may have only played something along the lines of 5% of the world map – how many Legacy Dungeons can there be? Enough to feel like really big chunks of the world, or will they just be pitstops along the way?
Perhaps the Fire Ring is the rare game where the destination means more than the journey. In the network test, I could freely afford to explore in any direction I chose, but before too long I had bumped into a fog wall that stuck me – FromSoftware’s way of holding the full experience back to next February. Within the corner of the open world I could explore, the Elden Ring never evoked the feeling of traveling, crossing vast distances, and looking back in awe at how far I had traveled. I circled back to the Golden Knight a few hours later and killed him with half a dozen magic attacks, after collecting points into my trust stats and finding a much better shield. But it was a short trip and an easy victory, not an achievement for dozens of hours along the way.
Without riddles or quests, perhaps the sheer scale and variety and condemned majesty of FromSoftware’s dilapidated fantasy aesthetics will be enough to make its open world as memorable as Lordran or Yharnam. Maybe there are several small dungeons out there with surprising depth that are not found in this first area. FromSoftware rarely likes to show off its best material ahead of time – I hope the key that gives it its open world purpose is out there behind the fog wall somewhere waiting to be discovered.