Elden Ring Review: A masterclass in brutality and satisfaction

The release of Elden Ring had me personally excited. Not just because it was another FromSoftware game, (that’s a given) but because it truly felt like the next step forward for the SoulsBorne series, a transcendent outing into a new frontier. After spending more time than I’d like to admit with Elden Ring over the past week, one thing is clear; this is an absolute powerhouse of an experience. Sure, you’ll die, try and die again, but with solid mechanics, a gorgeous and detailed open world, and a nuanced leveling and skill system, you would be hard-pressed to find anything else like this in the gaming landscape. Elden Ring is a true masterclass within its genre and everyone should take a leaf from its lengthy, well-written book.

The Lands Between

Much like other FromSoftware titles, the story here takes a backseat for the majority of the experience, presenting itself through lore and brief conversations with strangers laid about the open world. You play as a “Tarnished” being, a warrior prompted with the task of journeying through The Lands Between, in a bid to become the Elden Lord. What that means initially, is anyone’s guess, and understandably so. What are we doing here? Where will we end up? Why is there a big, golden, glowing tree in the distance? That’s for you to find out. There’s an underlying perception that you’re meant to save this land from something and that your work here is not yet finished. That being said, as the world unfolds around you and characters add context to your purpose and story, you begin to unravel the pieces in a way that feels truly organic. Everything around you encourages you to move forward while trekking off the beaten path for both depth and understanding. The story feels somewhat similar in presentation to previous FromSoftware games, but it is in the depth and breadth of the open world around you that feels like a larger story can be uncovered, should you wish to search for it.

The Lands Between serves as the open world, in which you’ll be spending most of your time. You’ll immediately notice that The Lands Between feels both wide and expansive, and this isn’t due to trickery or illusion. Those impressive draw distances promise new and accessible locations, should you wish to head there. Along the way, you’ll face multiple foes, from dangerous wildlife to surrounding soldier camps, positioned along your path. You’ll stop at various Sites of Lost Grace along the way, serving as your checkpoints between areas. These Sites will point you vaguely in the right direction, but the ambition to go that way, or another, is totally up to you. Elden Ring’s open-ended nature encourages exploration, be it to add context to the narrative, discover cool new gear, or simply take in the sights. The impressive vistas of The Lands Between ensure that no matter where you are, there’s something to look at, something to find, someone to talk to, or something to fight.

Going wherever you want, however, can yield both negative and positive results. You may come across unbeatable bosses and unreachable areas, that will swiftly put you on your behind, should you wish to pursue them. However, the main path itself does much of the same. While traversing Limgrave, one of The Lands Between’s earlier areas, you’ll come across Margit the Fell Omen, one of Elden Ring’s many bosses and protector of the first Castle, or Legacy Dungeon. Without referring to expletives, Margit beat me down so hard, I felt like I had no choice but to flee with my tail between my legs, in a bid to improve both my abilities and weaponry. It was in these moments that I truly understood Elden Ring. While not intentional by any means, these moments of expanded exploration wrapped up a healthy amount of the game’s main pillars. I fought multiple enemies along my path, improved my skills, traveled to new areas I may have skipped on my way, discovered new gear, and gathered enough Runes on my way to level up my character. The entire package had revealed itself to me so organically, that it was a true pleasure to simply do more along my next journey. When I had returned to Margit, I was ready. The gameplay loop itself rarely gives you an excuse to quit; with so many open-ended avenues for progression, frustration rarely set in, given I could work a way back to the same point with a balanced mindset and improved skillset.

Dodge, Duck, Dip, Dive and Dodge

Combat itself feels familiar, yet refined. A true culmination of all the previous FromSoftware games that had come before. Much like any of the Souls games, you’ll have left and right-hand equipment, from swords, shields, spears, and other heavier weaponry, in addition to spells and specific combat abilities. Elden Ring also controls as you would expect, with shoulder buttons allowing you to deal light and heavy attacks, block, and parry. You’ll always need to manage your gear, stamina bar, and health, with a HUD that will feel incredibly familiar to those who had played Dark Souls 3. However, Ashes of War are introduced to give your weapons an added boost. This system combines two pre-existing aspects of previous Souls games in weapon affinities and weapon skills. You’ll get the chance to add both physical and magical abilities to weapons, which allow you to utilise new moves and increase the effectiveness of certain weapons in combat. Applying these Ashes of War abilities to weapons is easy enough, but should you choose to chop and change weapons and playstyles, it’s simply nice to see that these interchangeable traits never have to leave your side. You’ll want to mix up your approaches and tactics with new weapons and abilities, but given each of these Ashes of War are useful for both certain enemies and situations, adds a layer of accessibility to each battle, while simplifying and refining pre-existing systems that worked in previous games.

Play it Your Way

Leveling up, in general, is a safe bet in Elden Ring, with runes replacing souls. You’ll gather runes out in the wild, using them to boost your various attributes. Resting at Lost Sites of Grace, you’ll then be able to spend those points and recuperate, allowing you to progress further into The Lands Between. You’ll also lose runes when you die, in which you’ll be able to head back to that same area to reclaim your hard-earned rewards. Be careful, however, as if you die again on your way, you’ll lose all your runes entirely. The formula here remains familiar, but thanks to the diverse open world, there’s simply so much to do and encounter that runes will naturally and gradually fall into your lap through general gameplay. Risk encourages greater rewards, but venture too far out between Lost Sites of Grace, and you’ll find yourself fighting an uphill battle. Thankfully, traversal isn’t too much of a chore. Early on, you’ll gain access to your trusty Spirit Steed, Torrent, which can be summoned on command. Torrent is easy enough to control, even if combat on horseback can prove a little clunky at times, particularly in busy situations.

Along with leveling up, your initial approach will greatly determine how you spend your time in The Lands Between. With 10 classes to choose from, including an all-new Samurai, which presents players with a balanced mix of melee and ranged combat. Beyond this, a range of the remaining 9 classes allows you to emphasize a mix of magical, stealth-based, or combat-heavy abilities with varying results and playstyles. However, between detailed player progression and choice, you’re never really locked into a certain playstyle, given the Ashes of War add another layer of choice to your weapons and overall encounters.

Final Thoughts

Elden Ring is quite simply the best the Souls series has ever been. With solid combat and progression, I can’t help but feel the decision to open the series up to a massive, diverse, and detailed open world works in its favour. No venture ever feels unrewarded, or a waste of time. You’ll uncover so much about your purpose, The Lands Between, and progress your playstyle through uncovered gear and rewards that you’ll simply want to venture out into the distance for more. Elden Ring is indeed difficult and rooted in its storytelling formula. But it has also been expanded to an impressive degree, making this a true masterclass in brutality and satisfaction, and incredibly hard to put down.


Highlights: Incredible open-world; Functional combat; Organically unfolding narrative
Lowlights: Incredible difficulty may scare some off; Combat on horseback can feel a little clunky
Developer: FromSoftware Inc.
Publisher: From Software Inc., Namco Bandai Games America Inc., Bandai Namco
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: 25 February

Review conducted on PlayStation 5 with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.

Matthew Arcari

Matthew Arcari is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. You can find him on Twitter at @sirchunkee, or at the Dagobah System, chilling with Luke and Yoda.