Now here is a very interesting game and one I have a lot of complex feelings about, which I will do my best to discuss at length, and probably without coming to any conclusions, but I feel I have to get them out.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!
THIS GAME IS STRANGELY PACED, OVERALL
First of all, like many of Fromsoft's games, the first two-thirds is the better half. To start, you are gifted a vast and densely populated world filled with interesting NPCs and limitless possibility, and immediately provided 2-3 beautiful kingdoms to explore, with a handful of REAL FUCKING dungeons to accompany. Finally -- an open world game with REAL dungeons -- who would have thought??? Anyway --
And the open world environments that we are provided are really very nice. The landscapes are strange, beautiful, broken, concealing monsters, mini-dungeons, ruins, merchants, NPCs. It's exceedingly thoughtfully paced -- you're drawn through the broken plains of Limgrave, the Weeping Peninsula, and Liurnia of the Lakes, and everywhere you look is some new secret. It's easy to see landmarks and enemies from a distance, and you're allowed to attack them or not from whatever direction you choose. Liurnia is my personal favorite, the framing of the Academy of Raya Lucaria rising above the waters in the distance between two tall castles and knowing that it's possible to reach all three, just chefs kiss.
However, there is a sense in the back half of the game of a severe narrowing of scope. After completing Leyndell, a lengthy dungeon with two challenging end bosses, you're sent into the final open areas of the game, Mountaintop of the Giants and (if you're lucky) Consecrated Snowfields, which feel less like a culmination and more of an afterthought. They're much smaller than the first areas, and less dense, and fairly soon you're sent into the endgame dungeons. They're very good dungeons but I'm left with a kind of questioning of like, what happened to the open world design in the beginning, what was the result of the promise of the beginning of the game?
THIS GAME IS FUN AND THE DUNGEONS ARE GREAT
Okay but before anything else I need to say that this game is really fun. Being able to log in and do whatever you want is so nice. You don't have to suffer through any cutscenes or track any quests. It's just point yourself in a direction and explore. There is so much to do in this game that even if you backtrack you'll probably find something new. On my third playthrough I'm still finding new caves, evergaols, dungeons, and secret areas.
And it looks magnificent. I came to hate the Erdtree during my first playthrough, as a central image, I felt that the tree left something to be desired. I've come around. It's an eerie thing, it's clearly a ghost, illusion, or memory of its former self, and it is a stunning vision. The cliffs, mountaintops, oceans, stars, the fields of stars in the underground areas, the golden capital, the attention to detail in art and architecture, the magic, the weaponry and armor, the art in this game really surpasses anything else.
And playing the game is fun, the combat is fun. Fromsoft has done away with the kind of very methodically paced fighting of Dark Souls and Demon Souls. To be clear, I find that kind of combat fun. However, the direction Fromsoft has gone here, with all the different character powers, weapons, spells, skills, and miracles, with combinations of hybrid classes available, with dynamic and fast movement, jumping, countering, dashing, even flying sometimes, is really neat and empowering.
A UNIQUELY UNCANNY EXPERIENCE
But with all that, my main feeling coming away from Elden Ring is feeling kind of disturbed by it. It has a hollow center, not in a bad way really, but more as if there is a great lacuna we circle. The central events of the game and our characters' reasons for pursuing the quest are never discussed directly. What is the Elden Ring? What is the Greater Will? Who is Melina, and why does she burn? What is the Erdtree? Why are Radagon and the Elden Beast opposing our efforts to repair the Elden Ring?
In fact, most of these questions are impossible to answer, even by poring through the game text. My best guess is that the Greater Will is the creator deity of the Lands Between, and the Elden Ring is the kind of like, source code that keeps it running. Maybe. Melina is (probably) a daughter of Queen Marika, and she may in fact have burned down the Erdtree once already. The Erdtree is (probably?) but one recent sprout of a Great Tree that formed long ago when the Elden Ring was planted in the earth, and it has the power to grant rebirth to those who live under it, except that it's (probably) dead, and what we see glowing on the horizon is an illusion (I think). This is actually all more or less conjecture, and certainly when playing the game through the first time, it's next to impossible to divine, so that the events that transpire have the feeling of a dream, something happening that's important somehow to someone, though it's hard to tell how, exactly.
Add to this the game's way of building expectations and then suddenly pivoting. For instance, in Limgrave, Liurnia, and Weeping Peninsula, your target is the giant castle in the distance. When you get there, it's a dungeon with a boss at the end. You expect that probably, Caelid will do the same thing. Except when I got to the giant castle in Caelid, I was suddenly teleported to the end of it, and told to kill the giant boss with very little build up or suspense.
This pattern kind of repeats throughout the game. After you defeat your two shardbearers, the Two Fingers tell you to trek to Leyndell. Alright, so you walk up to the front gate, but it doesn't open, in fact the gate leads to no where. Or, in Mt. Gelmir, you're told to find VOLCANO MANOR, a vast castle, but when you do, it's just a small little manor with a few rooms, and you don't have to do a dungeon to face the boss, just a handful of quests (of course there is a secret dungeon, but on my first playthrough, the experience was deeply uncanny)
And the teleporting, oh the teleporting, I came to dread the sending gates. How sometimes they would send you short distances. Or how they would send you directly to the doorstep of your goal. How the four belfry sending gates send you to the far ends of the earth, but for some reason there's very little to find there. It came to feel like a dreamlike and terrifying bending of reality, I think they literally gave me bad dreams.
Not to mention the way the story kind of dissolves over time. At first it's clear -- we are repairing the Elden Ring. But then, we are told we must burn the Erdtree. And then when we burn the Erdtree, we are sent (in a dream?) to a floating mausoleum (locked outside of time?) in order to Release Destined Death, but, for what purpose exactly? One by one, almost every NPC we meet dies. Why do we only need two shards of the Elden Ring to repair it? One gets the feeling that the true story of the game is deeply submerged. This is almost certainly true.
And then of course, the game simply ends. We repair the Elden Ring, which is for some reason a petrified person with a sigil in their chest (how on earth did the demigods get their hands on the shards of such a thing, if Marika was locked inside the erdtree as their punishment?), and that's that, with minor variations depending on if we aid certain NPCs.
SKIMMING ACROSS A VAST WELL OF TIME
Elden Ring gives a feeling of timelessness and presence. It's clear that vast ages of time has transpired in this land, but it's very difficult to tell how long has passed since the Elden Ring was shattered. Everything feels somehow simultaneous and incredibly old. Vastly ancient ruins are juxtaposed with much newer ones. The landscape itself is undergirded with massive support beams and arches, and implausibly huge giant skeletons are exposed to the air. We ride an elevator deep underground through layers of strata into what appears to be the a hollow layer of earth, how did these ruins get down here? Who built this, how, and when? Why is there a huge waterfall in the middle of the entire ocean?
George RR Martin has said in interviews that the events prior to the game occurred some five thousand years ago -- truly, the Elden Ring was shattered five thousand years ago? I can actually see it, though. If nothing dies under the Erdtree, then the agelessness and vastly ancient presence of the landscape makes sense. The demigods we disturb have been locked away for thousands of years, save probably for Godrick the Grafted, who is descended through the generations from those same demigods.
But in playing the game, this ancient/agelessness takes on a unique clarity, as if we're skimming over the top a great ocean of time. It's the combined weight of all the detailed visual art, strange dialogue, and mute item descriptions that make this work. It's a remarkable achievement.
THE TRUE STORY IS OF COURSE VERY INTERESTING
Diving into the secret lore and theories about the game nearly a year later has been very interested. I think my favorite creator on this subject is Tarnished Archaeologist, his attention to detail and ability to point out the obvious and link it all together has been very clarifying. For instance, the "tears" we encounter throughout the game is literally tree sap. The perfumers likely had a role in using the erdtree sap in creating their perfume. The Forge of the Giants was likely a mobile forge, used by the colossal giants we see throughout the world. The city underground at the base of Leyndell was very likely part of Leyndell itself, before it was banished underground. Miquella was probably in his cocoon inside the goddess-womb of the Haligtree transforming into an adult when he was kidnapped by Mohg -- that's why his arm is so big, despite always being referred to as an eternal child. And so on. All stuff that's very strange and confusing on first encounter, but in true Fromsoft fashion, had some intent behind it.
And the stuff with the gods and demigods is compelling. I'm never very interested in divine or angelic imagery in my games, but killing a god is good honest fun, and the demigod characters we meet are great. Radagon is my personal favorite -- he's so stark, so unexpected, so ruthless, and he represents a core secret to the game, revealed almost entirely through his strange opening cutscene.
OF COURSE I HAVE SOME QUIBBLES
I personally did not love the mini-dungeons. In concept, they are very cool. I like that we are encouraged to do certain minidungeons to find certain items (mines of smithing stones, catacombs for summon upgrades, etc), and I like that they are never repeated. Nevertheless, the way they are all variations on a theme, and never feature unique bosses, means there is always going to be something lacking, for me.
I found many of the late game summons too powerful. At first, I felt that summons were a nice touch, something to distract a boss for a moment while you catch your breath and get some hits in. Then the Mimic Tear and Black Knife Tiche and all the others came along, and the game ended. I found that I no longer had to learn the late game bosses, and that the difficulty was drastically reduced in such a way that reduced my feeling of contact with the game itself. There was much less of that sense of really having to learn a boss, and more of a feeling of "this is impossible, I suppose I should use XYZ summon" and suddenly the boss was too easy. Ditto for Blood Loss and Frostbite -- taking a percentage chunk of an enemy's hitpoints is really powerful, why are we allowed to do that?
Aesthetically, overall, I prefer the griminess, darkness, and tightness of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. I love the feeling of navigating a vast interconnected labyrinth.
I wish that the late game areas were something else. It's not that I don't like snow, or that I don't like those levels, but they kind of feel like, the game designers weren't really sure what they were going for. We are climbing up and up to the top of the world to get the fire to burn the Erdtree, but there's not really a sense of coming to the center of things, it feels as if we are spiraling outward. I can see that Farum Azula represents the earliest contact of civilization with the Elden Ring, and the Haligtree represents an attempt to transcend the Erdtree, but in terms of open world areas, it just feels like it's missing something.
At the end of the game, looking at everything and trying to figure out where to go, somehow the world actually feels a little bit small.
Oh and, not to mention, the reusing of enemy assets. Listen, I know they had their hands full in making this game, but this is a thing open world games always fucking do. It's the same enemies at the end of the game as at the beginning. We get to the top of the mountain, and what do we find? Fucking t-rex dogs, caelid crows, and reskinned trolls from Limgrave. There must be some lore reason the caelid enemies are there (ok, but what is it?), but nevertheless, it is always less interesting to encounter the same enemies over and over than to meet new ones. The sheer variety of enemies in Dark Souls and Bloodborne points to the possibilities here -- we do not absolutely have to meet the same reskinned private, shield-soldier, and knight at every camp in perpetuity.
And, finally, the ways in which a player is able to interact with the game world is very limited, just based on what kind of game it is. What it comes down to is that the player runs into enemies and hits R1/R2 until they're dead. If you want to have fun and use some items and do some summons, that's fine, but essentially the way you interact with the world is through fighting enemies. Contrast this a little bit with Breath of the Wild, where the world itself is a puzzle that you have to contend with -- the physics, the wind, the elements, climbing, and so on. There is a richness of experience in Breath of the Wild that Elden Ring can't quite muster, despite the superior writing and worldbuilding in Elden Ring.
SO I HAVE SOME COMPLEX FEELINGS ABOUT THIS GAME
There is a lot more to say about this game. It has so much stuff, so many dungeons, areas, secrets, items, characters, quests, and it's executed at such a high quality that it puts everything else simply to shame.
I still think I liked Breath of the Wild more though.