Elden Ring (PlayStation 4) review
"A magical journey through a beautiful land where nearly everyone and everything wants to kill you repeatedly."
If there's one thing I know about 2022, it's that, for me, it has been the Year of Elden Ring. It's been a long time since one game dominated my leisure time to the degree it has — probably since my two runs through Skyrim, roughly taking place in 2011 and 2014 — even if the two experiences weren't the same.
After all, a FROM Software game is designed to be legitimately tough, with consistent advancement not a given. It's easy to run into a grueling level or brutal boss and find my progress halted until I can devise a way through that problem. On the other hand, Skyrim was much easier to traverse. All I had to do was be remotely skilled at building my character and it was a pretty stress-free experience to travel its beautiful world that was so full of life and quests and places to visit.
Since Elden Ring is made by FROM, "full of life" is not an accurate way to describe its world — unless your definition of "life" extends to hordes of monsters and undead whose only purpose is to brutally kill would-be adventurers. The world is in ruins, a bunch of demigods have been at war to claim a great power and you're trying to make things right. Or just pull the plug on everything. You'll travel through several locations in a massive continent, slaying those demigods to claim their power in a bid to reach the Erdtree and claim the mantle of Elden Lord.
The game provides the sort of thing I expect from FROM — only in an open world environment. The land is loaded with dungeons, caves, villages and castles, so there will be no shortage of places to explore. It also will be packed with all sorts of hostile life. Unlike Skyrim, when you walk into a village, instead of shopkeepers and friendly residents, you'll just get stabbed in the face by crazy dancing women or blasted by magic spells cast by near-invisible wizards.
Early on, I found that discretion was by far the best part of valor. Exit the tutorial dungeon and immediately get crushed into the ground by a boss-level foe who just happens to be casually strolling back and forth in plain sight. Carefully avoiding that guy and following the plot markers on the map led to me getting run off by a massive and powerful giant backed up by a few human archers. There's a peninsula to the south, but I'd have to summon my trusty steed and sprint through ballista fire on a long bridge to reach it. Or travel to the east and find a forest loaded with bears — a few of which are gigantic forces of nature that could tear me to shreds almost as soon as they noticed me. Besides, travel too far in that direction and I'd risk stumbling out of the early-game Limgrave region into Caelid, and the less said about that vile hellhole and its million-and-one lethal obstacles, the better.
The going may have been slow at this point, but that's where the open-world setting worked in my favor. By carefully exploring the more easily-accessible parts of Limgrave, I could find a few caves, dungeons and other challenges. By advancing through them, I could find useful tools for my journey. New weapons and the materials to enhance them, magic spells, two types of ashes that either allowed me to summon allies for both boss fights and certain enemy-congested areas or granted my weaponry a variety of skills, crafting goods and recipes to turn them into items and ammo for bows. I also got the ability to turn the runes gained from defeating foes into levels and the character-improving stat points they provide. I was able to access a hub area containing a blacksmith and friendly NPCs, many of whom served as merchants. I was gifted a horse and also unlocked a slew of fast travel locations, so if I wanted to be somewhere, I could get there quickly and without risk.
From there, Elden Ring turned into a comfortable mix of exploration and note-taking. Every time I found a challenge stern enough to rebuff me, I'd write it down and go somewhere else. There were no instances of getting stuck on something like Dark Souls' Capra Demon, knowing things had screeched to a halt and would remain that way until I could beat that powerful foe. If something kicked my teeth in, I'd travel around, kill some other stuff, build up my character and his equipment with the spoils gained by those fights and return a more seasoned adventurer, ready to take my revenge.
And this game is VERY lenient with how much leeway you have in doing what you want when you want. Right from the beginning of the game, you'll be directed towards Stormveil Castle — a massive structure comparable to the larger levels of one of FROM's older games. One minor issue: That place contains a pair of really tough early-game bosses, with the first of them intent on making sure you can't even enter the damn place. Pay attention to the landscape, though, and you'll find a path allowing you to completely skip Stormveil and cross the border between Limgrave and Liurnia of the Lakes. If you're playing a mage, this could be a great option, as this region is loaded with spells and spellcaster-friendly equipment.
Man, I loved the freedom in this game. To reach the Altus Plateau and the land's capital city, you have to collect two halves of a medallion, with one of them hidden deep in very hostile territory. Or you can travel through a system of caves and, as long as you can overcome a pretty tough boss, get there via an alternate path. The Volcano Manor, like Stormveil, is a long and challenging dungeon culminating in one of the game's major bosses. But if you complete a series of assassination contracts for the Manor's residents, you can bypass the dungeon and go straight to the boss. Entire regions of the game are well-hidden, either requiring diligent searching or the assistance of an NPC to even access.
Playing on a system that may not have been powerful enough to maximize the experience barely had any effect on my enjoyment. Maybe the graphics weren't quite as sharp, maybe a few textures needed a moment to load in and the load times for things like fast travel and coming back to life were definitely noticeable, but it was pretty obvious to me that FROM put in the work to make sure Elden Ring's PlayStation 4 port ran as well as possible — at least for those of us who bought the Pro version of that system.
Really, playing this game made me think a bit about the criteria I've used in the past to rate some of these epic games. Take Skyrim as an example. When it came time to attach a number to it, I landed on 4.5 instead of 5, citing a number of minor glitches and occasional crashes, as well as how a certain bit of magic faded from that title after 100 or so hours, causing me to stop walking its world's roads and start fast traveling with regularity. By now, I've played the base game twice and its DLC once — taking over 500 hours to do so and having a blast nearly every time I sat down with it. That I gave it anything lower than the best-possible score feels like a mistake.
I'm not doing that again. Elden Ring isn't a perfect game. If anything, it's a bit long for the amount of content in its world. By the time you get to its final regions, everything you fight outside of a few bosses will be a repeat of something you tussled with earlier. Many bosses are used repeatedly. Their attacks will be altered somewhat or they might gain a few allies in future confrontations, but if you battle something in a climactic confrontation, odds are that unless they're an important plot boss (and occasionally, even then), they'll be making a few more appearances. It is a bit of a shame that a few "could have been awesome" late-game locations were marred a bit due to how I'd previously seen and battled nearly every bit of opposition those places could provide.
And yet I persevered, hacking my way through those places, toppling their bosses and claiming their loot. It doesn't happen often, but every great once in a while, I have that feeling I'm playing something special and enjoying an experience that will be tough to duplicate. Elden Ring provided that with consistency. The moment I stepped out of the tutorial dungeon into Limgrave. The utter majesty of the capital city — possibly the most fun I've ever had exploring a FROM dungeon. The otherworldly beauty of a pair of underground cities and the otherworldly…something of a humongous, poisonous blood-red lake. I saw them all and will not forget them. Now, the only thing I want to know is just how long it will take for DLC to start getting released because it won't be long until I need my fix of all this stuff again!
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (November 15, 2022)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
If you enjoyed this Elden Ring review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!