Proclaimed game of the year before the year well and truly started, it's maybe a bit redundant to write… well, anything about Elden Ring. Doubly so as I didn't have the stomach to gorge myself through a well over 150 hour epic, just to be able to say anything during the first week.
Now we're a good three months further and yes, I did complete Elden Ring. Is there anything I can add to the conversation? Not much. But I do have a few remarks that I didn't see much talk about.
When the game came out, one of the things that just about everybody was claiming, was how large and unique the world is. It isn't. That is, it's large. But by the time you hit Liurnia, you should have a pretty good idea of what's going on.
It's here that the recycling of the various parts that make up the Elden Ring construction set, becomes more apparent. Seeing the shame shack and it miniature staircase of planks repeated over and over makes it clear. Same with the catacombs and soldier camps.
It's not bad, but the 'uniqueness' of Elden Ring's content has been grossly overstated. Instead what we get is a master class of asset recycling. Because really, that one shack is so grating because it's probably one of the few assets that doesn't get some kind of lighting or composition tweak applied.
Often you can just look at a new area and marvel at how it's actually the same stuff you encountered hours ago, yet it still feels entirely fresh. The game also manages to "upcycle" several areas as you progress and it's similarly effective.
An overlooked side-effect is that this makes the entire game feel magically coherent. Everything fits together in the same style, mostly because it is the same style. The deviations it manages to display within that style just enhance the experience.
It's nothing new — games have used asset recycling since the beginning — but it's mesmerising to see From Software go to town with it here. And although it doesn't diminish the grandeur of the game, I do feel that calling all the content unique is maybe a bit of overkill.
Is there a balance at all?
Another aspect that has been discussed to death before, during, and after the game's launch, are its difficulty and accessibility levels. Souls-games have traditionally been very strict in its combat setup despite its minimal options within a tightly controlled environment, leading to very unforgiving but also exploitative combat situations. The "git gud" conversation is not so much about displaying skill, as it is about knowing where and how to abuse the game's combat mechanics.
Elden Ring is no different, though both environment and combat options have been expanded upon. Greatly. The result is that for the first time in the Soul-series it feels like grinding for levels is actually a viable option. Both in time invested and the power gained through it.
The beginning of the game is still the usual Souls-fare of being maybe a bit too hard with a couple of gotcha-moments sprinkled in, but once you gain the ability to level up and travel by spectral steed, the world is your oyster.
You can go anywhere and because the game world is no longer a set of corridors pushing you constantly onwards, it becomes far less stressful. Also, running away is a viable option. The result is that every venture is likely to net you something: whether it's runes for a level up, a new piece of equipment, or access to a new grace or location.
Another benefit of this, is that because you have so many options, and there's always somewhere else to go instead, the player subconsciously follows a path of least resistance. This and this alone is why the game feels more accessible, and yes to some, even easier than other Souls-games.
The possibility to grind, whether deliberate or accidental, gives players a foothold. Once you bump into something difficult, you've got a plethora of options to tackle it. Summon an NPC. Summon a PC. Equip a new load out. Use different buffs. A combination of everything.
It's only near the end of the game when it becomes clear there aren't many more options to unlock, that the game shows some of the bite it had in previous games. Malenia is a not a test of brute force, but rather an exam to see if you can put together a character that can make short work of her. As if you were creating a tournament level deck for a collectible card game from your decade old collection.
Cheesing, finding exploits, and calling in help is just the name of the game here. I feel like the game didn't require much difficulty balancing directly. As long as the player had enough access to other things to do, the difficulty would sort itself out as the player would find that path of least resistance.
I also see this as an absolute win. The actual skilful players will always continue to amaze with no-hit runs and insane tales of derring-do, while the others can just play it in their own pace without feeling too frustrated.
That said, yeah there might have been a few graces too many in the game, but on the other hand, that's only because veteran players were missing the induced stress and subsequent relief of finally finding one like in older Souls-games.
The English language
This is more of a hunch really, but the story of Elden Ring is pretty easy to follow. It's not necessarily less opaque, but the sentences, the actual conversations in the game are far easier to follow than in previous games with most things spelled out deliberately.
That's a rather novel concept for a game series in which every sentence uttered could mean multiple things. In Elden Ring, it feels like everyone is just telling you about things as they are. Now this could be the effect of upping the localisation quality (either by beginning sooner, having more context, or switching from a previous localization agency), but I think this might be George R.R. Martin's influence on the project.
English is Martin's native language and while Japanese isn't a worse or better language, it's one wrought with more subtext. A kanji can have a pronunciation alluding to a different kanji, encompassing a set of concepts rather than just one. Not to say this it is impossible to translate, but you'll most likely have to cut some meaning when translating to English. Starting from English may have eliminated this potential issue. It may not.
I don't think Martin wrote the entire story by the way. It's far more likely he connected loose ideas from Miyazaki into a coherent whole. Rennala begin angry and a master of magic is pretty basic and typical Miyazaki in that it focuses on her activities within the world, but the broken family angle of her backstory is something that feels right at home in one of Martin's stories.
In starting from an English background story, the resulting context and translation may have simply been better to understand for all parties involved in being able to add subtleties, instead of having to convert into English from Japanese and losing subtleties to start with.
It's pretty hard to point at perfect examples here, but the feeling I had throughout the game is that it flowed better in its conversations. Fia probably being the closest to a 'traditional' Souls NPC in terms of obtuseness.
I don't think these points add to or subtract from the experience. They are merely tweaks and experiments in a long-running series. Maybe they aren't those at all and I finally noticed some things that were there in the series all along.
Regardless, I can't recall a previous action oriented game that kept my attention for so long. Where other games start to outlive their welcome around the 20 hour mark, Elden Ring breezed past 100 hours without looking back. Even now, having completed it, there is an urge to just keep playing. Be it in a new game+ or simply from scratch.
It's a very comfortable and inviting Souls-game and that is truly special indeed.