Looking back, I don't know why I agreed to do this, why I submitted myself to video game masochism. I don't know why I thought my first experience with a FromSoftware game would be like every other video game review: 30 hours gone, game finished, review written, thank you and goodnight.
And yet—30 hours into Elden Ring, I've barely made a dent. I didn't realize until now that I could have so much fun making myself so miserable.
Beauty and brutality
Elden Ring is forbidding, majestic, and sick in every sense of the word. Its overarching story about a fallen kingdom is deliberately obtuse—an unspecified amount was written by Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, the rest by Dark Souls mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki. Its setting, the Lands Between, is filled with countless little delights, like the roaming sheep that roll away armadillo style when you get too close. But they're also home to countless nightmares, like giant dragonflies that harass you while you're menaced by roving bands of desiccated peasants, towering knights, or flame-breathing dragons. These vast landscapes largely replace the dense, layered levels that Dark Souls was famous for. In Elden Ring, though, the opportunity to survey diverse terrain—whether a noxious swampland or gusty prairie—produces an injection of gaming dopamine (and some genuine fear, too).
It's made all the better by your trusty steed, Torrent—a beautiful creature resembling an elk. Whistle and he'll materialize beneath you, ready to ride. While he's inaccessible in the game's many dungeons, Torrent also gives you an offensive edge, as you can cut down hordes from atop the saddle better than you could on foot. His best feature, however, is his double-jump. Yes, that's right—Breath of the Wild horses have nothing on him! Use Torrent to hop up cliffs or leap down ravines to mitigate fall damage that would normally kill you. But take care; while Torrent can make you feel invincible, great heights or particularly surly adversaries can still defeat you.
Yet despite these innovations in world design and traversal, FromSoftware remains true to their traditional boss formula, often throwing you—a comparatively puny warrior—into a dimly-lit colosseum to brawl with some gruesomely powerful cretin. But when this gruesomely powerful cretin's health bar is finally sliced down to zero, after quite literally 43 tries (yes, I counted for the first boss), that's when the celebration ensues. It looks like this: a 24-year-old with sweaty palms and a sprinting heart rate jumps off his couch and screams, "F*** YES! FINALLY!" and hurriedly texts his roommate the news.
A sparse, grim world
Elden Ring's aesthetic also deserves recognition, even if it doesn't match the glamor or realism of rival open world games. Instead, it goes out of its way to make you feel small. The Erdtree—gargantuan and golden—looms over the entire map, its flaxen, ethereal leaves falling slowly to the deathly ground beneath it. It's a shining beacon in an otherwise dark, medieval world, seemingly always out of reach. While the terrain can be sparse, replete with interchangeable ruins, I find myself often retreating from the endless onslaught to take a screenshot of my surroundings. Stormveil Castle's busted turrets or the murky waters of Liurnia of the Lakes provide a mystifying backdrop while you're slowly poisoned, bloodied or ripped to shreds.