After spending the weekend playing the Closed Network Test of Elden Ring, my impressions are pretty simple to boil down. As expected from Miyazaki and FromSoftware, if the small slice of gameplay we got to experience is representative of the final product, then Elden Ring is going to be something special. Challenging but welcoming to newcomers and experimentation, open but not without direction, and familiar but not predictable, the Closed Network Test squeezed so many encounters, enmies and secrets into the relatively limited area of Limgrave, that I’m not sure how the full Elden Ring is going to keep the momentum going.
Yes, at first glance the gameplay of Elden Ring in many ways is a more open-world version of Dark Souls. The UI is the same, you still have flasks to regenerate health and mana that can be refilled at bonfires – sorry, I mean ‘Sites of Grace’ – which act as checkpoints where you can also level up with soul- I mean, runes. Many of the classes resemble those in Dark Souls, like Melee builds, Magic builds and those in between like the Enchanted Knight. If you’re familiar with how combat and magic works in that series, that you’ll be right at home here, with the series of attacks, blocking and dodge rolling. The foundation is very Souls.
But, it is just a foundation. You soon find out that jumping is a lot more powerful in Elden Ring, because traversal is more important than ever. The world of the Lands Between is vast, with large open areas filled with both standard enemies and surprising encounters, standing between you and more traditional dungeon experiences – caves, mines, catacombs. After resting at three Sites of Grace, you form a partnership with a finger maiden and gain the ability to call on a spectral steed named Torrent, who can be summoned at any time to not only rush across the landscape but engage in horseback combat.
While there are a lot more opportunities for cool emergent moments, the open world also provides FromSoftware a greater canvas to add more cute scripted surprises as well. Your best laid plans can get disrupted by formerly dormant giant golems coming to life, or a giant dragon suddenly roasting that camp of soldiers you were sneaking up on, which now you have to deal with. There’s patrols of giants carting carriages of rewards, if you’re game enough to try your luck, or you could be invaded by a scripted phantom encounters, only to be rescued at the last minute by a wandering ronin. If you get lost, or just want to follow the main path, Sites of Grace will emit golden light that lead you to the next site, illuminating the path of the main narrative. But, it’s always up to you where you want to go, what you want to do, or how you want to tackle the next problem. There’s certainly an air of Breath of the Wild about Elden Ring.
Ashes of War are a vitally interesting addition to the formula, that have the potential to change things up considerably. Throughout the CNT, the traditional stockpiles of runes to level up were relatively absent, with rewards for killing bosses mostly taking the form of Ashes of War – special abilities that can be applied to weapons and equipment. For instance, even a melee build can have a shield equipped that grants a magic ability to create giant rings of healing. Or, a magic build can summon giant spectral swords to help deal physical damage. Even with the limited rewards in the CNT, and with most players seeming to steer towards the pure physical melee class (Bloody Wolf), there was a pretty huge variation in the different ability sets they displayed.
Online gameplay remains similar to other Souls titles, but with several improvements to make things even easier. You can activate or leave markers to summon co-op partners or open yourself for summoning respectively, or choose to invade others’ games in PvP combat. Summoned co-op partners disappear after helping you with an area’s boss, but in the open world you can traverse a great distance together to explore get to any one of the bosses or camps littering the landscape, making the partnership much longer-lasting and meaningful. Password protection on the multiplayer feature also lets you filter out unwanted friends, and just invite players who you know personally.
Speaking of the bosses themselves, the CNT was crammed with them, 13 in total. I was able to beat all of them apart from the aforementioned damage sponge dragon, although pleasingly from social media it appears players have already figured out a way to cheese that particular boss with little hassle, in true Dark Souls fashion. Despite FromSoftware’s reputation for challenging bosses, most of them were fair with workable patterns that most should be able to dispatch after no more than a couple of attempts. Apart from the dragon, Margit the Fell, ostensibly the area’s final boss, provided the most complex patterns and harshest repercussions for misjudging them, but it’s also a lot of fun learning his moves in and out and learning how to counter them. Co-op helps as well, especially as having two players to take turns luring a boss generally makes for an effective strategy. It will be interesting to see if these boss types repeat throughout the final game, as even within the limited area of Limgrave, it feels like there’s an awful lot to run into. I have to believe that they’re going to spread these guys out more in the final product, otherwise there’s potentially an insane amount of densely packed content in the Lands Between.
With the Closed Network Test now over, in my mind Elden Ring has cemented itself as one of the most exciting games of 2022. The test showed that FromSoftware have smartly evolved their Souls formula into something that feels astonishingly fresh with possibilities, in a way that we probably haven’t seen since the original Demon’s Souls. The world of the Lands Between is riddled with mysteries, secrets and opportunities to customise your hero in a huge number of ways, even just within Limgrave and a giant fog test wall preventing players from exploring half of it. It has to be hard for FromSoftware to keep up the standard of what they’ve crammed into this initial area, but if those cheeky magnificent bastards do it, Elden Ring could set a new standard for the genre.