Why I’m Excited for Elden Ring and Its Open World
With Elden Ring set to be released in January 2022, From Software fans everywhere are finally letting themselves get more and more excited about it. That release will set us free from doing hitless + Demon Bell + no Charm + no hands + no Prosthetic Tools + no audio + USB steering wheel controller controlled with elbows + blindfolded final boss fights in Sekiro, or whatever other nonsense we’ve turned to get another dose of dopamine from the developer’s great combat.
Sekiro has hands-down the best combat in a single-player title that I’ve ever played. Dark Souls felt almost turn-based, with long startup and ending lag on just about every attack, and you were 100% committed to whatever button you just pressed. Sekiro took the From Software formula a step further and became a rhythm-based action game, with frantic fights featuring an emphasis on parrying over dodging. I’m not saying that Dark Souls is “clunky,” but Sekiro is just so smooth, satisfying, and endlessly engaging. Which end of that spectrum Elden Ring will end up on is anyone’s guess. The trailers have remained relatively cryptic on the gameplay front, but I assume that it will be more fluid than Dark Souls and less so than Sekiro. Either way, a contrived story element will be put in place to explain why our character cannot permanently die, as usual, if perhaps less contrived this time, thanks to the influence of George R.R. Martin on the game’s underlying mythos.
We also know for a fact that the combat will be top-notch. That’s as safe a bet as putting equal amounts of money on red and black at the roulette table. It’s still exciting in general, but what I’m here for is Elden Ring’s open world. I miss the unbridled freedom of exploration of the first Dark Souls, where just every direction you headed in could be considered correct. But such an effect is hard to nail. It’s easy for players to feel a stagnant difficulty “curve,” or like there’s some secret order that you should do things in, or for missions (for example, those of most Rockstar games) to be abrupt and abrasive halts to the freedom of the open world. From Software have a thin tightrope to walk with Elden Ring, but I have faith in them.
A Genre Perhaps Overdone, but One That Can Be Fun
Open world games are in a similar place to the survival games of a few years back. They were everywhere until people got a bit sick of them. Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed, Horizon Zero Dawn… the list of open-world games in recent memory goes on and on and on. Elements of both have crept into other genres. Survival games lent their crafting and collectibles to (far too) many triple A titles. Open world games lent… well, their open worlds, or at least open level designs. Take Metal Gear Solid V, for example, with multiple sprawling sandboxes, often literally filled with sand.
I’ve always enjoyed open-world games, at least in general, more than the survival genre – giving the player the tools to have fun strikes me as more fun than making the player make tools to “live.” It seems that many agree with me because open worlds have remained more so in the cultural zeitgeist than their survival-focused counterparts. Subnautica is the only title in the latter category I’ve played in recent memory that I’ve found worth a hoot or a holler. Cyberpunk 2077 was the biggest ticket open-world title in a while and a bit of a disappointment. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, in stark contrast, knocked the open-world ball out of the park back in 2017. The Switch’s main console seller for a while has left anyone following in those footsteps a pair of huge shoes to fill.
“Go anywhere and do anything” seemed to be the underlying principle of everything that went into Breath of the Wild. Unlike (far too) many other open-world titles, with their “Ubisoft Towers” cluttering players’ maps with 10 quintillion icons, Breath of the Wild features landmarks that we can scout out and go to organically, with the map taking a much-needed backseat. This iteration of Hyrule has several open spaces with not much in them, but I don’t consider this a flaw. Rather, it makes the world feel even more immersive and its most memorable locales all the sweeter. And generally, every screen has at least one interesting landmark, even if way off in the distance. This design of generally placing at least one cool thing in the player’s view gives Breath of the Wild its immense sense of wanderlust. The title’s imaginative gameplay matches this, with players able to cook food on the side of volcanoes, hit watery Chu Jelly to stay cool in said volcano biome and do pretty much anything else they think might work in Nintendo’s excellent engine.
However, there are some issues with Zelda’s open-world masterpiece that Elden Ring should aim to avoid. Namely, all 120 shrines had the same outer structure and internal architectural style – the same blue LED lighting, the same Sheikah runes, the same platforms, most of the same assets in general. And the game’s equivalent of bigger dungeons – the Divine Beasts – also had a shared set of art assets, colors, and general feelings, all of them being controlled from the player’s magical iPad. Though many memorable locations exist outside in Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule, the memorable dungeons from games past, from the 3D puzzle box of Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple to Link’s triumphant retaking of the Forsaken Fortress in The Wind Waker to Ganondorf’s sprawling and foreboding castle in Twilight Princess… these were all replaced by mechanical animals and small shrines.
Elden Ring will likely be competing with Breath of the Wild’s sequel in 2022, and I’m sure both games will be enjoyable to play. Both have certainly been cryptic in the runup to their releases. I hope that both will use their open worlds to deliver that critical balance of sprawling expanses and memorable locales. The little footage we’ve seen of Elden Ring looks promising on that front, with tons of variance in architecture and atmosphere from area to area.
A Return to Form for From Software
To make one last Zelda comparison, most Zelda games have an “open-world” in the sense that Link can go anywhere… but only the original NES title and Breath of the Wild offered true freedom. Every other title in the series pretty much has a set linear path to follow.
In a similar vein, Sekiro and Dark Souls III offer linear paths with some optional objectives, “missions,” or whatever you want to call them. Dark Souls II has more freedom in terms of the order of areas you can explore. However, each area is usually more linear than looping, and the player often warps back to the starting town after defeating each biome’s big boss.
Finishing Dark Souls I for the first time sent me scrambling to my blog to set down my thoughts on the game’s freeing “Metroidvania” style of world design. Especially in the first half of Dark Souls, the pieces of the world all seemed to fit together in organic, interlinking ways. In Sekiro, I felt more like I was some twisted evolution of Mario going from left to right and stomping “Goombas” along the way before slitting their throats with his katana. I certainly did not feel like Samus exploring and backtracking through interlinking areas in feudal Japan. There were some secret areas to find in Sekiro, albeit with no warp pipes or hidden super bombs – just Headless abominations or other such horrors. Dark Souls I, in stark contrast, made me feel like an insignificant little speck trying to hack out some meaningful existence in a twisted, twisting, sprawling, dying world. Even comparing the optional Hirata Estate to the Painted World of Ariamis, the former is more of a straight line to Lady Butterfly. The latter is a sprawling maze that loops back on itself multiple times. For me, dark Souls I’s level design provided a much more organic feeling, one elicited through masterfully interconnected areas.
Granted, I haven’t played every From Software game. Bloodborne and Demon’s Souls remain unexplored in my mind. But I have it on good authority that only their levels are sprawling or mazelike. Demon’s Souls lets you pick which areas to explore in order, but Dark Souls II quality of each area is relatively linear. Nowhere else in From Software’s canon can I think of a moment like that first elevator ride back to Firelink Shrine, which says to the player, “See? You’re in an organically connected world.”
And, yes, there are linear moments in Dark Souls I too. The unfinished Lost Izalith and the beautiful Crystal Cave serve as good examples of that. After the Lordvessel is obtained, we essentially warp into the hub castle of Demon’s Souls. Still, that initial phase of exploration, discovery, and internal map-making has yet to be replicated for me by any other title, by From Software or otherwise. Fast travel has become a bit of a crutch, allowing developers to make levels in straight lines that feel connected with the game’s other straight lines without putting in the work required to make a truly organic world.
That brings us to the title of this article: why I’m so excited for Elden Ring to be an open-world game. It’s risky but a bet which could pay off huge for the developer. With go-anywhere, fight-anything gameplay, the Tarnished, and their horse could bring us back to a time where From Software dared us to find our paths through their dying worlds as undying warriors.
We also return to created characters, as Miyazaki Hidetaka said to IGN at E3 2019. Freedom seems to be a keystone of both Elden Ring’s gameplay and its open world. From that interview, we can also learn that the game will include no traditional towns or villages. Rather, “Villages will be the dark dungeon-like ruins that you have come to expect from us,” said the chuckling director. Minus the friendly NPCs (though I doubt that everything we meet will want us dead), we will have the same kind of freedom of traversal in Elden Ring that we have come to expect from other games with open worlds.
Miyazaki has also told that outlet that there will be six main areas to The Lands Between and a “hub,” which will serve a similar function to that of Firelink Shrine. With their main dungeons and demigod bosses, my biggest hope for these areas is that they organically loop back on themselves. I hope that they to the main hub without lazy fast travel being the only option. Miyazaki also said there would be an easily discernable intended order to complete the areas in, but they can be completed out of this order. The biggest obstacle to overcome for From Software there will be scaling the challenge up throughout the player’s journey to prevent a flatlined difficulty curve, as happened after obtaining the Lordvessel in Dark Souls I.
Through the Desert on a Horse with Two Jumps
Now, here’s my analysis of the game’s recent gameplay trailer, the one which finally gave us a release date.
Forty-five seconds in, we can see The Tarnished summon a horse, Darksiders style, before riding said horse through some very Zelda-esque locales. I see Hyrule Field from Twilight Princess at 0:52, followed by the bit from the Breath of the Wild reveal, followed by an area that gives me Bridge of Eldin vibes. I adored Breath of the Wild’s horses on roads and in open fields, so I’m excited for the magical steed that Elden Ring will give us to explore its game world. Video game horses have come a long way.
Based on the two clips that follow the broken bridge, it also appears that we’ll likely encounter NPCs, bosses, or plain enemies as we travel. Horse-to-horse combat is in for sure, a necessity now that we’ve evolved past vanilla Skyrim as a community. Random encounters might give Elden Ring’s open-world more “spice,” especially when they’re organic rather than set apart by a little cutscene, as they are in most RPGs that feature them. I’m quite excited for such encounters, as they often lend games that “water cooler” quality of being able to swap stories that no one else in your friend group may have. These are likely to give us little nuggets of gameplay that make every player’s journey unique and make for some great clickbait YouTube titles.
Speaking of YouTube, hop to 1:44 in the gameplay trailer to see that the Souls’ series summoning mechanics have returned, this time using a magical cube item. I thought, at first, that these were the game’s equivalent of summons from Dark Souls, but it turns out the player can actually summon enemy types instead, and these Pokémon style monsters will level up with the player. PvP and co-op are both confirmed, albeit in certain areas only. We will also be able to explore The Lands Between in groups, seeing messages and so on from friends and / or acquaintances in what amounts to Elden Ring’s take on guilds.
Anyway, after that little fight featuring summons, we see my favorite moment of the trailer – the appearance of a lightning dragon. We didn’t learn much of the gameplay from Elden Ring’s “gameplay reveal,” but we can make a few assumptions about the open-world we’ll be exploring. The giant stone colossus with a bell hanging below it, and the dragon with fire and lightning powers which we see standing in a ruined courtyard of a sprawling castle, point to the fact that we’ll likely see bosses scattered throughout the game world. Both look awesome.
Look back at the later part of the trailer for the title of this section. As the dragon slams his Zeus-like lightning rod into the ground, our hero and their horse jump once and then jump again in midair, with satisfying visual and audial effects. There’s also a bit where the horse launches itself almost 90 degrees up a cliff, perhaps as an homage to Skyrim’s cliff-scaling horses, but more likely just an awesome means of traversal all its own. Freedom of movement is necessary for any fun open-world game, and Elden Ring seems poised to deliver on that front. I hope our hero has some verticality to them when on foot, as well. Sekiro’s grappling hook isn’t necessary, but something like it would certainly be welcome. A jump button that you can use without sprinting would also be nice.
Dungeon Crawling With Varied Weapons
As Miyazaki said to IGN, From Software has become infamous not just for its challenging combat or haunting worlds but for the masterful “dungeon” designs across their various titles. At 2:25 of the Elden Ring gameplay trailer, we get our best glimpse yet of how these will be scattered across the game’s open world. From Software has designed yet another cathedral, it seems, within which The Tarnished butchers some mask-wearing weirdos with a magical rod.
That little clip gives us a comparatively large amount of insight into gameplay, as well. Not only are the varied weapon styles of Dark Souls making a triumphant return, but so too are Sekiro’s stealth elements. Notice that The Tarnished does the Solid Snake duck walk before annihilating these cultists.
We can also assume from this clip that the temple/cathedral is far from the only room we’ll be exploring in that gigantic building we can see in the establishing shot at 2:25. So, it seems likely that we’ll see some of the sprawling, mazelike, turning-in-on-itself level design that From Software has brought us so many times in the past. This time, they’ll just be scattered throughout an open world that we’ll be able to traverse upon our trusty magical steed.
Elden Ring is set to deliver a From Software title for a new decade, a cutting-edge experience with tight combat, unbridled freedom of exploration, a detailed mythos from the mind of the most famous fantasy writer alive today, and a horse with a double jump. I can’t wait.