I have not written anything since February because of Elden Ring. So here we go.
Elden Ring is the new game from FromSoft. But you don’t need me to tell you that. Elden Ring is everywhere. Even my brother tried it. They have sold millions and millions of copies, resulting in millions and millions of twitch streams, youtube videos, tiktoks and no doubt instagram stories (or whatever) about all the strange FromSofty things in Elden Ring that various people are running into for the first time.
But, I have some thoughts, so I will write them down. As always, this overview will tell you things that you could have already learned from other places on the Internet weeks or months ago. And there will be spoilers. Even the title is a spoiler.
So, is it good?
The Big Picture
Yes, it’s good. It’s probably the best game in the “Souls” framework (i.e. not Bloodborne or Sekiro) since Dark Souls. The love is back baby.
Where to start. Let me explain. No wait. There is too much. Let me sum up.
New names for souls and bonfires, which people will just call souls and bonfires: check.
Giant castles: check.
Giant swamps filled with poison: check.
Villages of the damned? Check.
NPCs and vendors who disappear for no reason, thus locking you out from seeing entire storylines or buying supplies later in the game? Check.
Crazy weapons with crazy move sets? Check.
Andre the Blacksmith? Check (pretty much).
Burn the world down in order to restore order to a fallen society? Check.
Mediocre Dragon fights. Check.
Bow Cheese! Check.
A giant maze of under-city sewer tunnels that all look the same and are populated with terrible giant curse frogs but the actual path through the maze is actually three steps long: check.
Of course, the new game adds a few new things to the mix:
Vertical navigation! I never thought I’d live to see a video game that embodied that relatively unique driving in Pittsburgh feeling of seeing the place you want to be 200 feet below you and having no idea how to get there.
Crafting! Mostly useless. But kinda cool. I am of course famously against crafting.
So many dragon fights.
Giant underground space cities.
And, as usual, FromSoft have also streamlined and softened various aspects of their trademark difficulty engine:
There are almost no long boss runs except in some of the optional dungeons. And even when there are there is a secondary checkpoint system that allows you to avoid them if you want in most cases.
Weapon upgrades are a lot simpler, though still too complicated. There are only two kinds of upgrade stones. There are a ton of them. And, the game now completely separates weapon upgrades from things like elemental (fire, lightning, holy, magic, bleed) damage affinity. The Ashes of War system lets you mix and match weapons with damage types as much as you want with no penalties for switching back and forth. I’ll have more to say about this later because it is by far one of the best things about the new game.
The spirit summoning mechanic is great for people who don’t want to play online, but also want a little help taking the edge off the intense aggression that modern FromSoft bosses tend to have. The spirits are often better than summoning other live players who don’t know the fights yet. They don’t increase the health of the boss and all that. And, if managed correctly they can basically beat the game for you if you want.
The “open world” aspect of the game allows you to distract yourself from the boss you can’t beat by running around and collecting flowers, pots, rocks and clearing mini-dungeons and mini-bosses until you feel like beating your head against the brick wall again. This ability to change the pace of the game is nice.
I had played the game for maybe 50 or 60 hours before realizing you can warp from anywhere you might be standing, and not just from checkpoint locations. The Stockholm syndrome is real.
As a whole I think this video game takes everything that the fans loved about the first Dark Souls and brings it up to a somewhat higher level of refinement and execution. I have more detailed thoughts about what they did particularly well below.
As far as overall PVE gameplay goes I think melee characters with utility casting are still probably the most straightforward and strongest for the whole game. Dex/Faith/Bleed in particular seems to be the OP build of choice. That said, you can play the whole game as a caster and have that nice secure caster feeling through the whole game if you do the set up right. This is a welcome change from the later Souls games where it seemed almost impossible to get enough power behind a magic run early in the game. But maybe I was just bad at it.
I have not dabbled in PVP yet, except for one quest-line that required it. I might have more thoughts on that later. Maybe.
OK. Now on to some more specific details.
Weapons and Combat
For me the juicy meat center of the Souls games has always been the combat system and the wide variety of weapons and move sets available in the system. No other game series has a combat system that combines relative simplicity (only two kinds of attacks) with the ability to chain various moves into satisfying combos without having to memorize particular sequences of button mashes. Also, the true joy of the games, and the core of their almost infinite replay-ability was always redoing stuff you’ve already done before, but with a different combat style and/or different weapons. In my thoughts on Dark Souls 3 I expressed a bit of disappointment in this area, having found no weapon more fun than the relatively lowly long sword with which to beat the game. So I went back and beat Bloodborne twice more.
You will find no such complaints from me with regard to Elden Ring. The magic is back … and the lightning, and the holy damage, and the bleed. My god the bleed.
I think this return to form comes from two main sources:
They have somehow figured out how to add some new twists to the already wide universe of move sets and weapon styles from the previous games (two words: bubble horn).
Ashes of War.
The Ash of War skills are a version 2.0 of the weapon arts mechanic from Dark Souls 3, something that I spent that entire game ignoring because I could find nothing interesting to do with it. In Elden Ring the Ashes of War serve two purposes. First, they add a “skill” or special attack to the weapon (on L2). Unlike the weapon arts from Dark Souls 3 there are moves here that are incredibly fun to spam over and over again and also coincidentally melt even the hardest in-game enemies, including some of the hardest bosses. So win-win.
But Ashes of War also allow you to adjust how the damage on the weapon scales. So, instead of having to choose between 15 different upgrade paths each with their own special upgrade stones you can move a weapon instantly from strength, to dex, to int (magic and cold), to faith (fire and lightning), to bleed and then back again whenever you want by resting at a checkpoint. This way if there are no (say) faith or magic weapons with a move set that you like, no problem! Just take a (say) Claymore and then put it on whatever track you want.
But wait! There is more! Some of the ashes are not really even related to doing damage with the weapon directly. The most obvious of these are the buffs, especially the buffs involving bleed (oh my god the bleed). There are skills that mimic various spells that you would normally only be able to cast if you had built a caster. There are skills that are there just to stun lock enemies. Finally, there are some skills that are just better dodge rolls and have nothing to do with damage at all.
Over all the Ashes of War are a brilliant refinement of a mechanic that I honestly never gave a shit about. But now I’ll actually run around the game for half an hour to find some obscure skill just to play around with it.
A few favorites:
Taker’s Flames on the Blasphemous Sword (a boss weapon no less!), which does huge fire damage and also heals you from the damage.
Whatever the crazy gravity move is on Radahn’s Sword (another boss weapon!)
Everyone’s favorite L2-spam boss melter: Corpse Piler from the Rivers of Blood katana. The related, but much weaker Bloody Slash is also fun.
The Artorias flippy flippy attack that’s on the Claymore (Lion’s Claw).
Golden Vow, a 20% damage buff. No faith needed.
Square Off, the default on the Long Sword, does ludicrous damage in the early game.
I’m told that Bloodhound’s step is great. I haven’t tried it … yet.
The first two items on this list remind me to cover one other aspect of the weapons in this game. The boss weapons are actually good! Well, at least three of them are (Rykard, Radahn, and Malenia). This is unheard of.
Finally, no discussion of the weapons is complete without cheering for the return of the giant pizza cutter wheel from Bloodborne. What a great meme weapon:
The video also shows one of the hilarious new status effects in the game: sleep. There is even a sword that deals “sleep damage” as its main thing. Usually sleep is just a softer stagger effect, but the asshole in the video actually goes to sleep and lets you murder him. I find this endlessly enjoyable because I am a child. You do the same thing later in the game when you have to fight both of these assholes at once:
I will never not love this.
Bow cheese gets its own section, because I love it. Any time there is a door that is too small for a large enemy, like fat ogres:
or a giant worm dragon:
or a giant dragon dragon:
Or anytime your foe walks slowly in straight lines:
Or is stuck somewhere and can’t path to you:
You are all set my friend. Just R1-R1-R1-R1 until they die. I will even circumnavigate a giant castle to bow cheese something:
Bows in this game are great. You can even get a move that apes the terrifying rain of arrows that one of the bosses uses against you. I do not make the best use of it in this video:
But with the right build, this move melts things.
How To Build
Speaking of builds. The fairly open game world of Elden Ring makes it perhaps more straightforward than in the other From titles to run around the map picking up useful items and upgrade materials before getting on with the business of “progressing” the game. Of course, the main places to do this seem to also be the most hostile to low level characters (poisoned swamps, towns built on lava, that sort of thing) and as always some of these schemes involve dying on purpose. But, as long as you are good at running away, you can get yourself a pretty powerful setup fairly quickly.
The best things to go after, in order of easiness are:
The Radagon soreseal, which gives you +5 to health, endurance, strength and dex. The extra health and endurance are useful even for non-melee characters. And the strength and dex points will let you get to the minimum stats needed for most of the weapons usable early.
Somber smithing stones. It’s not too hard to sombers up to 9 if you are good at jumping, or up to 6 if you are not, without killing much of anything.
Various early golden seeds and sacred tears. For healing potions.
Regular smithing stones. You can get the stones up to 5s (and a few 6s) in various mines and tunnels. Just don’t fight the bosses until you really need to. Getting more 6s, and the 7s and 8s is harder. You get three normal weapon levels from each class of regular smithing stone, so +15/+18 normal is sort of like +5/+6 somber. But you need more regular stones to get there (12 for each set of 3 levels) … and in general it’s much more of a pain to get a regular weapon to high level than the somber weapons.
Lots of other buff items, mostly talismans, but also weapon skills and spells and such.
To get an idea of how to approach this watch some of the speed runs on youtube. Speed runners are the best at building powerful characters fairly quickly. Although sometimes the stuff they do to make this happen is impossible for mere humans to duplicate.
The one stat buff item aside, your main concern is leveling weapons. Weapon leveling is the key to getting powerful in FromSoft games, and Elden Ring is no different. Character leveling is mostly for health, and thus latitude for making mistakes. In general before the late game you can plan on getting enough stones to upgrade one or two somber and one or two regular weapons to close to max level. You can’t really do more than this, so keep this in mind before when budgeting upgrade materials.
As I mentioned above, one happy development in Elden Ring is that it’s not too hard to run a mostly casting magic person through the whole game, without needing to spend most of the early game playing melee while your casting sucks. You have to be a bit picky about which staff you use, and getting a good setup depends a lot on various buffing strategies. But overall it’s pretty viable and fun to just sit back and R1-spam little blue bolts of death (or large purple rocks) and not have to think about learning dodge timings.
My favorite spells right now are:
Great Glintstone Shard because it hits harder than Pebble. Pebble is a also dumb name for a thing that is supposed to deal death.
Night Comet because certain bosses don’t dodge it.
Rock Sling for the stagger.
The giant Comet spell is useful sometimes, but hard to set up.
I guess I should try the flurry of stars spells (Star Shower? Stars of Ruin?) but I didn’t follow the right NPC quests to get them.
I also tried doing a more casting oriented Faith build, but it doesn’t work out. Especially in the early/mid game I could not find an incantation that hit hard enough to use as a main thing. So I got the creepy fire sword from the snake guy instead.
Both Faith and Magic users seem to have a wide variety of small fast weapons (so many katanas) to choose from to supplement casting with melee. The variety of faith weapons seems more extensive and includes all the bleed stuff and all the light sabers.
The choice for casters who also want to use giant swords is a bit more limited. But you can do it. Especially if you use magic just go get the Radahn Sword (the Starscourge Greatsword). It’s hilarious.
Other Random Thoughts
I like the “New Chalice Dungeons” (Tunnels and Catacombs) because they feel more connected to the game and less random than the Chalice Dungeons from Bloodborne. The fact that they are not randomly generated is also a win. The “Evergaol” (“Everjail”) mini-boss fights are also fun.
There have been complaints about the balance of enemy difficulty vs. reward. And I will echo these complaints. It’s odd to have a certain class of super tanky respawning level enemy that can be harder to kill than many of the final bosses and gives you almost nothing in return. Not even a lot of souls (no wait … blood echoes … no wait … whatever).
There have been other complaints about recycled bosses. I am less sympathetic to this complaint. I need all the practice I can get learning these complicated boss move sets. So having multiple tries at it is a win for me.
Fuck that tree level man. It’s so mean.
Another combat mechanic that comes from the earlier games that I am still trying to like but mostly just suck at is dual wielding. You can do some stupid damage this way, especially, of course, with bleed and cold. I remain too uncoordinated to make this work, especially as a I reflexively L1 to block and end up swinging instead. Maybe I’ll do a forced dual wield run.
I don’t like the new crystal lizards. Half of them drop nothing. Which stinks and is a waste of time. Do better FromSoft.
So many buffs. So many different kinds of buffs. I have not even talked about the Wonderous Physicks.
Oh. I can’t forget about the single most disturbing FromSoft enemy ever:
Luckily, burning them is hilarious:
OK. With all that out of the way let’s talk about Malenia.
Malenia is an optional boss at the end of the also completely optional “Haligtree” area of the game. This is one of the toughest areas of the game, even if you are at end game stats, so it is appropriate that Malenia is one of the toughest fights in any recent FromSoft game. On an overall difficulty scale she can be right up there with Ishin, the three phase final boss in Sekiro, and the Orphan of Kos from Bloodborne. The fight is mechanically rich, hard to learn and parse, and hard to control when you are in the middle of it. And yet, if you collect up enough help, luck, or memes it can also be on the trivial side. You can watch a youtube video of someone doing this fight and never actually duplicate their exact experience unless you know exactly what they were doing. It is this multiple nature that makes the fight so interesting.
The first time I beat this boss I did it with the mimic, brute force, and a lot of luck. That was fine, for the time, but I immediately felt sort of unsatisfied. So after I finished my first playthrough I immediately started two more, one with a caster and one a more mixed melee and faith character partly to get a first or second look at stuff I missed, and also to get back to this fight to learn it again.
My second time through the fight was with a caster, and I really wanted to do it without the summon. I was able to do this, though there are still parts of phase 2 that I can’t counter with 100% reliability. Phase 1 I mostly understand, and I am proud to say that I mostly learned to dodge her most famous move, the Waterfowl Dance multi-flurry attack. But I have to be far enough away from her to make it work. The trick is to run away from the first two bursts, and then dodge back into her and make her fly over you so she is too far away for the second two bursts to hit you. It’s like how you backstab the Orphan in the first part of that fight.
Getting through phase 2 without a friend is really tough because her aggression is pretty relentless, and some of the attacks in phase 2 come out looking really similar, so you do the counter for the wrong thing and then die.
Here is what it’s like when you lose control. This happens easily in Phase 2 but I’ve had plenty of this feeling in Phase 1 as well.
The next frontier is to do the fight solo and with mostly melee instead of mostly casting. I have not as yet successfully even done a solo fight melee oriented fight where I got to phase 2. Mostly I can’t keep from getting hit, and the way the fight is designed she ramps up her aggression on every hit she lands until finally the whole thing gets out of your control and you die.
The next next frontier will be do try and do the fight (and the rest of the game) at low level. I think this game lends itself to low level runs because even low level characters can use super powerful weapons. But, perfectly avoiding all damage will, of course, be really hard.
This fight will keep me interested for a long time to come, much like Manus in Dark Souls or the Orphan in Bloodborne. It has a lot of different layers to it, which makes it fun. And, it really rides an almost perfect satisfaction curve as it progresses from looking completely impossible (Waterfowl Dance!?!?!?), to randomly deadly, to sort of controllable as you understand it better and better. You will never be happier and sadder at the same time to finally beat a fight in a video game than when you beat first this one. I wonder whether they built this fight first, and then put the rest of the game around it. None of the other late bosses in Elden Ring are even half as interesting, so I like to think that this was the case. So of course in true FromSoft fashion they trolled us all by making it “optional”.
Here’s my one solo win. I’m stacking three or four different magic buffs to get that damage (the magic damage wondrous physick, a magic damage talisman, the charged attack talisman, the staff of the lost on the off hand that buffs night comet, the the magic resist debuff from the full moon spell). I’d describe it all in more detail but this post is already too long. So maybe next time.
In my opinion this is the fight that makes the game. I really like it. Playing the game without doing this fight is almost to have not played the game at all. The weapon you get from winning is also great.