The primary misunderstanding that people have when looking at these games is a failure to realize they are fundamentally puzzle games. The stats, weapons, magic, enemies, bosses, and level layout are all pieces of a puzzle. The story itself is a puzzle you need to put together. The attack patterns, the weaknesses, the timing, and the tools you acquire are the pieces of the puzzle the player must realize and understand to overcome and unlock new areas.
The less a player is interested in understanding how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, the more frustrated they become by the experience. Imagine a 1,000 piece puzzle and you attempt to fit two pieces together, but they simple do not fit. However, this is unacceptable to you, so you keep smashing them together in hopes it’ll work out. And shit, you succeed, but since those pieces weren’t intended to fit together that way, by the time you complete this puzzle it won’t reflect a beautiful picture. It’ll be scarred all over by the experience and reflect something altogether unenjoyable.
You’ll take a picture of it, send it to your friends, and talk about how shitty it is. That, or maybe, you’re more clever and start cutting your puzzle piece to make them fit. You breeze through the puzzle with ease and wonder why so many people had such a hard time. You complete it, it looks decent, but you’re basically just were painting by numbers anyways.
The point of this thought experiment isn’t to dictate how to play Elden Ring or gatekeep the way people have fun with it. What you want to do with a 1,000 piece puzzle is up to you. You could glue the pieces all over your body and become feared as the puzzler. You could make sexy puzzle bras or put them all over your ass to a point someone could say, ‘Damn, I wanna a piece of that ass.” and really mean it.
The point is there tends to be an intended game design element to how you can enjoy the experience of the game and if a person is working against that design, it isn’t exactly fair to talk about the product as being shit. A banana is not a great scissors, but that isn’t the bananas fault and stop putting it on your top worst scissors list. If you freeze it, it can be an okay hammer!
Anyways, it is much more productive to understand the intent of the designers and critique if the game lived up to what they were hoping to communicate and allow the player to experience. However, if the intended way to play the game is obtuse or if understanding the rules the creators has in mind is difficult, that shifts blame back onto the designers for not guiding the players better.
When looking at game design, “good” or “bad” become much less relevant word descriptors than things like effective or compelling. Saying a game is a masterpiece is so weird, because what does that word even mean? Does it mean perfect? Genre defining? The best way to implement certain design elements? The most fun? The longest lasting or memorable experience? The best experience? It’s such an empty word that stands in as just default global praise that really defeats a nuanced conversation that can be had about the many ways Elden Ring is effective in design and places where it simply it is not. So, let’s look at this.
Elden Ring World/Level Design
I’ve never really heard anyone talk in length about how level design in Elden Ring or the Souls series really works to encourage exploration. I’m not unique in talking about this or mentioning it, but just in big reviews of the game it tends to be glossed over in a few sentences. I think this is a mistake, because I think this element is what the game by far does the best with the context of being a puzzle that can be solved.
The Souls games are known for intricate level design, where you have amazing experiences of going through an entire complicated dungeon area only to emerge back into some place familiar and unexpected. And while if this happened once or twice, you may not think much about it, it can happen multiple times within a central hub. Demon Souls level 1–1 defining this experience where you find out the final boss of the level is right at the beginning and Dark Souls taking you back to the central hub in half a dozen different ways.
While this is built into the very physical structure of the game, the way you as a player are lead into exploring branching paths is extremely interesting and Elden Ring does this from the micro to the macro. Every new place you get to serves as a beautiful painting to highlight the new places you have yet to go. Let’s take a look at the very first thing your character really sees in this game:
Immediately the player can see Storm Veil castle in the distance as a meaningful landmark. You also see a church very close by and a heavily armored knight riding a horse. In the very first seconds of the game you get so much information about places you can go that can dictate your behavior. While you’re free to do a 180 and go explore the swamp to your east or the Weeping Peninsula to the south or the Rotlands to the far east, the player is being subtly guided to the castle in the north.
That boss who is riding a horse so close to the starting area is designed around teaching you that you’re not going to be able to defeat everything you fight right away. It’s a warning that things will be stronger than you and you should explore and grow stronger if you can’t beat them now.
When you eventually beat Storm Veil castle, you can make your way out the back off the castle and emerged to this breathtaking sight.
You immediately see the next important feature of the land, the Academy of Raya Lucaria. There are not often NPCs around to give you quest logs or tell you where to go or define what is important as exposition to you the player. Instead, you can organically understand the importance the places of the world through the way the geometry funnels you into them. A picture being worth a thousand words is the way in which Elden Ring tells you everything it needs to with simply the visuals of the game.
Here is a picture making fun of what Elden Ring would look like designed by other triple AAA publishers:
And while every zone of the world has its own legacy style dungeon and meaningful boss fights that you’re cleverly funneled into exploring, from a thematic and gameplay representation the Erdtree is always visible.
At the very start of the game your given goal is to get to the Erdtree and through the game you always know where you are in relation to this massive central towering figure. This makes it feel like you’re never completely lost, you’re never forgetting your main quest, you’re never forgetting the goals of this game because it is visually always within the background of everything you do. This is such a cool and effective means of always having the intent and purpose of the game on your mind, without having a quest log about it. You don’t need one, because the world is telling you every second you’re exploring it that you have a job to do. It’s also thematically telling you the enormous influence this tree has had on the Lands Inbetween.
I could write thousands of words about this particular aspect of game design, because I feel like in this regard, Elden Ring is honestly completely unmatched. I marveled at each time a new area opened up to me, just how much information, the scope, and understanding you could get about the world and obstacles you have to overcome. It is much easier to appreciate and understand something if you have a full picture of what you’re getting into and what you’re working to achieve. When we know where we’re going with something, we can follow the logic of how we get there.
But this doesn’t relate just to the macro elements of game design and world building, it applies to the micro interactions within each of these major dungeons in meaningful ways. Take this picture below from a late game dungeon Crumbling Farum Azula.
This dungeon serves as a soft-maze. It can be really difficult to navigate exactly where you’re suppose to go here or how to get to specific areas. I remember getting lost in this dungeon for an hour. The reason for this is because in this imagine I’m sharing above, you see what is called a Crucible Knight. They can be considered mini-bosses and have far more health and represent far more danger than your average enemy.
There is a high chance they could kill you and you’d have to start from the beginning. So, I attempted to avoid this fight and just kept exploring. However, it turns out that the right path exists just to the right of where this monster is standing. I could not go forward in this map, until I faced this monster. I didn’t have to win the fight, I didn’t have to beat him, I but I did have to confront him. And think about how interesting that is from the mindset of a player, the game design, and the intention of that design. There is an item that is visible from this picture. It’s hard to see, but it exists on the floating ledge just behind that knight. Let me show you what the screen looks like when you’re standing there.
Look at how much information I gain by being here. I see the next grace site and how to get there. Since I can see this item from where I started out, I have incentive to come to this place. Once I get this item, it reveals more information about more places I can go. This game has dozens of situations exactly like this. Where the answer is incredibly obvious, it is telegraphed visually, but because I was afraid to fight that Crucible Knight, I couldn’t figure this out. I kept running away from exploring further and trapped myself into a what felt like a maze and that’s exactly what the developers wanted. They didn’t put up that wall, I did, but that’s because they successfully tricked me. They intimated me as a player with nothing except for how they presented the visual information on the screen. They didn’t need to put up warning signs or have an npc tell me something was scary, they just made me scared. That is such an immersive and cool experience to have.
And while in this circumstance, the situation created a illusion of deterrence, many times item placement is there to dictate places you can explore. If you see a corpse on ledge or cliff that you can’t find access to immediately, you do know somehow you can find a way there. There was a tiny ledge on the west coast of Caelid that I died over and over again trying to jump to. I didn’t get it at all. I could see the item, it seemed almost like I could get up there with horse or with jumping from another ledge, but after thirty minutes of frustration I gave up.
A hundred hours later and in a different game, I found a cave that emerged into that area. A cave that you couldn’t see from the areas around the ledge from the opposite side. And while I felt so frustrated that I couldn’t find a way to get there in my first game, I emotionally and logically thought it was bad design. I thought it was bad, because I couldn’t immediately figure it out. And when I finally stumbled onto it later on, I realized I was at fault. Nothing I was trying felt good or could reasonably reach that area, but for some reason I felt like if I just got lucky maybe I could find some glitchy way there. I never stopped to think about what my effort or failure meant. I never stopped to think that there must be another way or consider there could’ve been a cave, when the rest of the game basically told me otherwise. If I had just calmed down, I would’ve had all the answers I needed to solve that particular puzzle.
One of my favorite streamers of these kind of games is SquidKilla. I’ve spoke about this before and I have no idea what stream you can find it in, but he does the no-hit challenge runs for multiple of these games in a row. He was asked by players why he doesn’t rage out when he gets tagged a few hours and games into a run and he says its because you only get upset when you feel like you deserve an outcome.
And I think this is an incredible important perspective to keep in mind for why people will say these games are difficult or poorly designed. I’m not saying some cliché like a player simply doesn’t understand the game so they don’t like it to deflect criticism, but rather that I think players fundamentally are not looking at the game correctly. I think if you’re getting upset when you die, rather than laughing or treating that death as a learning experience, maybe you do need to walk away for a bit.
As I read reviews of this game, I would often find comments about how a difficult boss took players six to seven tries. I was completely blown away that a person considers something difficult to be something that took so few tries. It made me think about what does fairness even look like in regard to how we treat difficulty, then take that in regard to how many tries a challenge takes. I feel that many players expect to overcome challenges in five or less tries, if not just one or two. I think many games are designed to not effectively or fully challenge a player, such that they are able to win fights with minimal effort.
The reason for this is in many games the bosses are not puzzles. Many games keep you on rails to the point your level, equipment, and ability to do and mitigate damage are such the intent of the fight is simply to be fun. Do your big attacks, survive their big attacks, and win. They may have one or two different attacks that you’ll have to respond to in meaningful ways, but these attacks are typically designed to be very easy to deal with after being exposed to it once. Fights in traditional games are designed to challenge you, not defeat you. A puzzle isn’t fun because you completed it, it is fun because you figured it out.
I wish I could find the video, but a long time ago I recall seeing a breakdown of a specific fight scene. It was speaking on fight choreography and the psychology of fights within old martial art action films. The fights that are well done take an ebb and flow approach, where throughout the fight the fighters try different attacks out. The new approach by a fighter is often effective at first, until their opponent can find a way to deal with or mitigate the attack. Their response to this, creates a new opening, that the original fighter must now respond to. Each exchange becomes a series of developing new styles and responding to those styles, until ultimately one of the fighters won’t have a meaningful way to respond and at that point they lose. I think FromSoft absolutely excels at recreating this fight psychology within its games and now let’s spend forever taking about that!
Elden Ring: Fight Design/Psychology
I spoke about this game being a puzzle and how the map and world building help to funnel the players into understanding the ways they can explore the world in meaningful ways. The environments serve as their own puzzles, but so do the fights. This may be hard to understand if you think of a puzzle as matching two images or understanding how Shakespeare literature enough to put books back into the right order, but easier to understand in terms of physical mechanical puzzles that require specific physical movements.
I used to have a mechanical puzzle that was two gender symbols interlocked. It required a very specific way to move them around to get them to disconnect. It was so frustrating to interact with this puzzle, because I couldn’t understand exactly get the ways you needed to maneuver it to get it to unlock. I felt like if I only forced it as hard as I could, maybe I could get it, but maybe I’d break it too? I knew that if I was doing it correctly, it wouldn’t require any force, but I so meticulously tried to apply slight pressure in so many ways, that I felt like I should’ve forced the solution by accident at some point.
And I bring this up, because the frustration I see from so many players seems to mirror all of this so perfectly. The ways in which people describe fights as unfair or poorly designed often boils down them not understanding the fight, forcing the fight to get a solution, and treating the fight as something to win, rather than learn. To repeat: a puzzle isn’t fun because you completed it, it is fun because you figured it out.
I’m not removed from this feeling either. I wrote up a few thousand words on Malenia during the first week the game. I complained about how the fight felt extremely RNG and how you’d have to effective play incredibly defensively to avoid her ultimate attack. Joseph Anderson has a comprehensive review of this game out that I think is very well done and fair with its criticism of this game, especially as it relates to the others in the series.
I’ve recently beat the game at rune level 1, including all the important side bosses. I did this because it allows you to fully understand the intended solution to these fights. The fact that you can beat these fights without getting hit or at level one is proof that they aren’t on paper unfair or impossible if you understand the fight perfectly. This, however, does not mean they are necessarily well designed or fun. Saying the fights of this game are unfair is objectively false and not meaningful criticism. Saying the game developers didn’t adequately communicate to you solutions to these fights is more accurate and more important from a game design perspective. Some games certainly can be unfair or ask more than a player can overcome, I’m simply saying that isn’t the case in this game.
I am confident in saying that I’m both a casual player and also someone who can beat every boss fight 100 out of the 100 fights, so long as I’m reasonably leveled to do so. There is no actual RNG in these fights that results in an unwinnable situation and I’m confident saying this after beating every boss at level 1. However, even being a very competent player, with hundred hours of experience — after 12 hours of playing against Malenia in my initial run, I decided the fight was simply too unfair to be respected.
I gave up trying to solo her, used a summon, and called it a day. This is because the Waterfowl: Omni Slash Bugaloo was just that punishing and intimidating. It completely dominated the way I needed to respond to the entire fight, made it incredibly not fun and felt extremely unfair. It took me about thirty hours of fighting this boss to realize how to mitigate that attack effectively, to realize how important posture breaking was in the fight, and understand the fight is actually about. Then I went back and wrote another thousand words on how this fight is intended (most people are still doing it wrong and I’ll die mad about it). So, while I would argue the fight is fair, to understand the fight is so obtuse, difficult, and asks so much of your time, average players don’t have a high chance of winning without looking up information or feeling good about their victory. The fight invites people to try to effectively abuse mechanics to win — whether that is over leveling, summoning, tear/blood stacking, etc. In this regard, they made the fight very inaccessible for people.
The really curious thing about my level 1 game was how easy the fights became once I stopped trying to force them.
This picture above is from a boss fight with Commander Neill and the gimmick is he summons adds for the fight and buffs them. The fight feels absolutely overwhelming at first, because it’s very easy to die very quickly in this fight. It feels overwhelming, it feels impossible, but much like with that Crucible Knight I talked about earlier on — so much is revealed once you start trying to figure it out.
That knight with two swords is extremely aggressive and runs at you, the knight with the shield often walks at you, and the commander often strafes away from you keeping a distance. You’re able to kill the knight with two swords first, than the shield knight, then fight the commander in what is effectively 3 1v1 fights. The commander has a very limited and exploitable move set. They don’t have a single attack that feels unfair or overwhelming, but the attacks look very big and explosive. They don’t actually do significant damage and even my level 1 guy was surviving the blunt of things.
Once I realized how manageable this fight was, I overcame it very quickly. Before this, I was attempting to charm one of the knights and basically just get lucky. I was making the fight more of an RNG thing, because I was going against understanding the flow and design of the fight. And so many fights at level 1 felt like this. It felt like the moment I really understood the fight, the moment I stopped feeling overwhelmed and intimidated by them, they just became easier. Basically, when I stopped trying to force a win, the fight became manageable.
The place where this game frustrates a lot of players, especially veteran souls players is how much the game is intentionally designed around punishing a poor understanding of the game mechanics. People associate dodging or blocking as mitigative abilities to stop damage. What players do is get scared and dodge or hold block. You start to panic roll sometimes, like just dodge roll away from an enemy until you can get safe, and this will largely not work against most enemies or bosses. And there is one enemy in particular who defies the genre expectation and punishes you severely for it.
Margit and later on Morgott are basically the Dancer (Dark Souls 3) of this game. This is a boss that punishes panic rolling, because its attack tempo is design to make you roll prematurely. In later fights he has a number of what look like traditional boss openings, that if you get close he’ll respond to you very quickly with holy dagger sword attacks. Some of his attacks he holds for so long, you both roll away, then roll back, just to get hit. This boss, like no other boss, makes you really examine what he is doing. The spear throw attack he has can be dodged effectively if you pay attention not to the spear, but to when his foot touches the ground just before he hurdles it.
This boss effectively and actively punishes you for attempting to use the solutions you have been using on boss after boss on him. And the reason players get so upset about this is because they feel like they’ve figured out the game and the solutions they have should work. Leading to this mentality, “I’ve beat every game completely naked, with a big sword, so I SHOULD BE ABLE TO BEAT THIS GAME THE SAME WAY OR ITS A BAD GAME!!!” So many comments that were vague complaining about bosses/enemies who did this were clearly talking about Margit/Morgott specifically, because most enemies don’t do this. Most enemies still have traditional tells in the game.
Morgott actually has no great openings in his fight pattern. There are times to get in damage, there are ways to make the fight consistent, you can do a no-hit, but unlike any other boss in the game, nothing in this bosses arsenal stands out as “the safe time” to attack in a casual play setting. The most effective way to fight this boss is with ranged attacks and the way he moves towards you, actually puts his head in the perfect position for this.
The video I shared above explains this in great detail, by explaining the importance of posture breaking in the game and by extension the importance of guard counters in the game. The longer video critique I shared called a “Shattered Masterpiece” talks about how jumping was great for exploring, but there was no consistent clues for when jumping should be used in combat, but I disagree. The Godfrey boss fight significantly benefits from jump attacks as a dodge and counter effect. The Elden Beast, Radagon, and Rykard had attacks that can be jumped over for huge damage output. The point being that jumping wasn’t simply an offensive measure for colossal weapons or a defensive measure to avoid attacks, but was in many places both. I will concede these moments are not made especially clear and a tutorial enemy that was very weak to this thing in particular could’ve fleshed out the mechanic into more people’s tool boxes.
One thing I do want to talk about before I get into anything else is that the reputation these games have for being torturously difficult are very misplaced and were never intended nor designed to be what the “git gud” community tries to pretend they are. These games can be difficult and punishing. I will not say that these games are easy or that literally anyone who plays them can win. However, I think anyone who has a mind to play them and a desire to beat them, will. The tools you get throughout the game allow you to overcome many of the challenges, without having a perfect understanding of the game design.
Godfrey/Hoarah Loux is a boss that took me about 8 hours to beat at level 1, but a boss I beat on my first try in my first game. Commander Neill took me a few hours in my first game and only an hour in my level 1 game. Many of the mechanics in this game can become trivial depending on your level and your specific build in comparison to the boss. But if the game was truly as difficult as the culture has suggested, it would not be that popular. If bosses were truly so hard that only one out of 100 players could beat it, that would not be engaging or interesting. I also believe that an average person, would likely get similar results to people like Lobos Jr if they put in the same amount of time investment. That isn’t to trivialize these players or their accomplishments, because not everyone can dedicate themselves that fully, but rather just to illustrate no-hit runs or level 1 runs aren’t beyond the casual player either. And I don’t think you could just invest 1000 hours into speed running these games and expect to be the best player or even close to where Lobos is right now, but I don’t think you’ll be as far behind as you think either. I wrote an entire essay on this basically.
More importantly, even games like Mario Marker 2 are significantly harder than any of the bosses in any of the Souls Games. Yes, this game. Nightmare fuel.
Beating Malenia at level 1 took me approximately 20 hours. There are levels that LilKirbs plays in Mario Maker that have single digit completions and hundreds of thousands of attempts. These are levels that I legitimately know that I could either never win or it would take me an actual few hundred hours of grinding for three minutes of perfect play. That level of execution is dozens of times more intense and more difficult than any single thing in Elden Ring.
So, when someone says a boss took them a few tries and was therefor hard, I know that their perspective of difficulty isn’t exactly anchored around some of the hardest games that exist. It isn’t invalid for them to say so, it isn’t invalid for them to have that perspective that’s anchored on their current experience or what they want out of a game, but to suggest Elden Ring isn’t approachable, beatable, or will designed around difficulty is a mistake.
Elden Ring gives you so many opportunities to power up outside of either skill or knowledge. They do fundamentally require you play the game, explore the world, and figure things out. The game requires that you do listen, that you do pay attention, and don’t just passively run through it and expect to hack and slash a win before moving onto the next thing you consume. In this regard, the game demands your agency. You cannot be a passive participate effectively playing a movie with button prompts, like many other games. It’s okay if that is what you like, but Elden Ring isn’t designed like nor can be comparable to that experience.
And since the difficulty is fundamental to the puzzles of this game, when you remove that difficulty, you also remove the puzzle or what you need to figure out. People often ask for more accessibility in Elden Ring or an easy mode, but again that fundamentally misunderstands the intended game design. A puzzle can be that you put two half-discs together and that unlocks a gate. That isn’t really interesting or compelling game design.
Let’s say the puzzle is three pieces that have to be put in the right order? Still not super difficult. So, let’s say the puzzle is 4 orbs that you need to put on the right pedestals, with no indication of success or failure. You can brute force that while ignoring the puzzle if you wanted to without much work. However, let’s say that each time you failed, you had to spend five minutes collecting the pieces again. This means through random chance it could take you an hour or so to test the solutions. Now, let’s say the pedestals are designed to represent elements and the orbs correspond to those elements. Listening to what the puzzle is telling you will result in completing it faster than brute force and make you feel better about it. But what if the relationship between these orbs and the pedestals was made more obtuse. Maybe you had to decipher symbols or read a poem or something of that nature. Making this puzzle easy can mean making it just combining two disks, making it hard can mean adding more orbs or more obscure hints. The satisfaction from completing the puzzle is going to be related to how well they design its hints and communicated them to you and how much thought you had to put into solving it.
You cannot make Elden Ring an easier game, you can only make it a different game. And I personally believe in accessibility, however the game is already very accessible. Leveling up, inviting friends, using summons, or exploring the world allows you to brute force the puzzles in this game. And when we think about enemies we can think of them in terms of puzzles.
Oblivion had a lockpicking system. Each tumbler needed to be hit in a specific way, with specific timing. If you messed up, you could break your lockpick and have to start over. The difficulty of the chest was such that you either had between one to five tumblers to correctly hit. Think of all combat in Elden Ring in this same way. The random enemies you fight typically only have one or two attacks patterns or combos. They are easy to understand and can be defeated in a few hits. Tougher enemies can take many more hits and have more advanced attack patterns. Bosses tend to have the most variation to attacks you need to be aware of and respond to accordingly. Every time you fail on your timing, you’re hit, you take damage, and there is a chance to die — in the same way there is a chance for your lockpick to break. So, yes, Elden Ring is just a very advanced version of Oblivion lock picking, kind of really obvious now that you think about it? Hope they don’t get sued.
At the end of the day, every fight boils down to this. You’re figuring out the puzzle of the fight by what is safe, where it is safe to attack, and when it isn’t. The more tumblers you figure out, the more likely you’re going to randomly be able to push forward without totally understanding the entirety of the fight. The higher level you are the more you are like an unbreakable lockpick and you can just keep doing whatever until you brute force it.
And while this isn’t a revolutionary take, really understanding this in terms of a puzzle is important for understanding defeat and victory. I’m not suggesting there is a right way to play, but rather insisting that people may have a lot more fun if they shift their perspective over to this understanding. I probably got the most upset in my first playthrough and the least upset in my level 1 run playthrough, because the more I understood and listened to the bosses, the less upset I got at the mistakes I knew were my fault.
A final thing I want to talk about in terms of gameplay is the agency a player has in it. How many meaningful choices can you make every second you’re playing the game? Because I think this is ultimately where this game really shines. The choice you have between attacking of light attack, strong attack, jump attack, run attack, block, dodge, heal, or spell offer a ton of different approaches in any second of a fight.
Given all enemies have a posture break in this game, the complexity of the design is built around breaking enemy posture by making meaningful choices of using lengthier attacks with bigger impact. Big attacks require more time investment and stamina investment, are more likely to get you punished, but allow a degree of complexity for risk/reward when fighting.
However, breaking posture of an enemy becomes a double edge sword, because without any real indicator of a posture bar or enemy stamina bar, you can’t be convinced your next attack will break it. When you over extend in hopes it will, then it doesn’t, it feels bad and you can be killed for taking the risk. Some fights it feels like you must’ve been close to the threshold a dozen times, but never get there. Some times it feels like you’re knocking them down left and right. And it never feels extremely consistent. We don’t know how much or how quickly an enemy recovers posture, so it feels weird to land four max charged strong attacks on them, but have to play defensively for half a minute, and see three more maxed charge attacks doesn’t get them there. Often charge attacks are less damage than what you could’ve done with many light attacks in a row. So, if you commit to trying to break posture, but can’t, you’re handicapping yourself in a fight.
These mechanics around posture break, shield guard counter, and jump attack flow into the unique things we’re seeing in Elden Ring as opposed to previous games in the series. And you can see the level of complexity they intended to add and do add in a few of the fights. This IS what Elden Ring brings to the table to make itself unique from other Dark Souls games on the basis of fighting mechanics and honestly it isn’t great. One of the reasons I really cringe at people calling this game a masterpiece is that the elements that make it truly unique for gameplay still feel in development.
This isn’t mentioning horse combat, because I think that is the worst design piece of this. The horse is difficult to use in a fight in meaningful ways. The lack of the iframes on it lead to frustrating experiences of being chain attacked to death. Even if an attack didn’t kill you, but staggered you and knocked you off your horse, you’re so prone that you’ll probably be finished off. Since you don’t have that great of maneuverability on the horse, compared to dodge rolling off of it, it’s so easy to be caught in attacks. The amount of times a dragons breath attack just barely made contact with me, but lead into an instant death situation, was extremely frustrating.
These additions to combat from Dark Souls 3 aren’t bad, they just don’t feel polished or integrated in a way that feels entirely thought out. It feels experimental. It feels like they could now design a game with these elements in mind and really create something meaningful and rewarding out of them, but this game doesn’t get there. Malenia, Radagon, Elden Beast, and Godfrey all show us ways these mechanics can be essential to the design of the boss fight, but they should’ve been a stronger requirement from casual and boss enemies through it. Jumping should’ve been the right answer to dodging an attack in many more fights than we see it used. There should’ve been enemies with giant spiked shields on their side and back, that are very vulnerable to guard counters and nothing else. The giants should’ve favored low sword/arm sweeps or stomp attacks that benefited from jumping to avoid, jump attacks to punish, and huge rewards on critical hits when you take them down.
The truth is that everything I talked about here in terms of the unique designs Elden Ring brings to the table, can be completely ignored. You can play this game as though it is Dark Souls 3. Hell you can just load a DS3 character into this game and still win every fight with no jumping, no posture break, no horse, or guard counter. And that really shows how…inconsequential the design ultimately is. The best parts of this game rely on the solid and masterful execution of Dark Souls 3.
I’m not saying boo urns to that either. It just becomes a thing where I see how incredible it can feel to jump over Rykard’s sword sweep attack and slam my spear into his face and ultimately wish that feeling was more present in every fight.
So, while I could talk about how great it is to make so many meaningful choices every second of gameplay or combat, it is no more special than Dark Souls III. And I don’t really feel like giving it that credit. I think Dark Souls III was a master piece. It was a vastly smaller game, but it did everything so perfectly and used every part of it’s design to full benefit. I can’t think of a single thing to make Dark Souls III better. And that’s why it’s a master piece to me. It doesn’t mean the game is perfect, it means the game as perfect at what it does. And Ultimately, Elden Ring isn’t. It isn’t perfect at what it does and it only really hints at everything it IS capable of doing. So, let’s talk about the fucking story.
Elden Ring: The Fucking Story is a Puzzle Too
If we treat figuring out the story as a single boss encounter, this challenge took me longer than fighting Malenia at level 1. It took me about fifty hours of research and cross referencing items within the game, environments on the map, where items drop, and what characters say to get a feel for the story.
I wrote down a timeline and posted it on reddit, to fairly positive reviews. One difficult thing about this is a lot of people were theory crafting the story based on limited knowledge. Culturally people get the impression Melina and Ranni were the same person because of a video produced early on that super imposed the spirit face. This turned out to not be correct, but it had done the damage of instilling that idea and it had a lot of staying power. Another thing was the belief that Radagon and Marika were always the same person, which isn’t supported by in game knowledge and lore. There is a story video that says Radagon is a great rune manifest that a lot of people believe, but its completely conjecture and better in game lore explanations exist. There are mysteries to who Melina even really is or what the motivations of some of the characters would be. There are mysteries to what the Elden Ring really is or the Greater Will or the Three fingers. There is cut content that answers some of these questions, but not really.
And you can certainly beat that entire game without understanding a single one of these things. So many players joke that they wait until VaatiVidya’s video to understand the game they just put 100 hours into and who just released an introduction video on the story here. I was no different with previous games, I wouldn’t understand a thing of Dark Souls III if not for Vaati. Elden Ring was the first time I tried to understand the story with the various obtuse items left in the world and it was honestly a really fun experience.
After fifty hours, I can see definitively that for certain things you can only come up with a strong and reasonable assertion of events. One thing that Vaati has potentially wrong in his video is the suggestion Radagon and Marika’s relationship is up for interpretation. Radagon was clearly a fire giant starting out. He also suggests the greater will is an outer god, which isn’t a supported statement and likely contradicted by in game lore. However, I can’t definitively say this. What I’m instead doing is suggesting a stronger narrative conclusion exists than the one he made. Given we don’t have the answer nor will get the answer unless DLC comes out, many arguments, even if weaker, can be right.
I’ve never been very interested in the story of the game and it wasn’t until I was writing this essay that I ever stopped to ask myself if the story as good. My only concern in researching the story was understanding what the story even was. It was uncovering the story. The task was figuring out the narrative puzzles left within the world and using logic to connect them in the most meaningful ways possible. And if Elden Ring was a book I read, the story is completely whatever. The story in many ways is more about uncovering a history of a land and the meaningful actions of the rulers of that land when they ruled. It’s about understanding power dynamics and motivations, but nothing really captivating.
Even knowing the story, your fight against the characters to me doesn’t feel especially enhanced. Knowing Radahn is an insane god of power that went mad with rot and was a renowned hero who must be put down like a dog is pretty big feels, but that one is one of the very very few story pieces we get exposition into. Understanding Malenia is just as injured and has been sleeping until her brother can figure out a solution to this world, but not knowing her brother has been captured and cacooned by Mogh doesn’t really add a lot to your fight with her or your fight with Mogh. You largely don’t have investment with either character. It’s like a cool detail, but whatever?
This one is very much on subjective taste though, because the emotional impact you’ll have from this knowledge could be way different. I’m just saying that even someone like me, who has an comprehensive knowledge of story and relationships, didn’t find any of the fights hit specially harder for knowing the context. And I think this could have been done better. I think the story could have been more definitive and more narrative, while still being obtuse enough that you do have to put in work.
We never really fully understand Melina as a character. We have a few strong theories on what’s going on, but her choice to ultimately sacrifice herself really doesn’t have a lot of narrative weight beyond her dudebro waifo status for some. The biggest feel people have in the game tend to be from Radahn using gravity magic to not have to leave behind his horse and putting all of his energy into stopping his horse from being impacted by the rot he had.
I don’t think they needed to spit exposition at us to make this happen, but making the story events slightly less obtuse, make the character motivations slightly more definitive, and give some real reason to find attachment to the stakes. Here is how you can feel connected to and get a big bummer from a boss fight:
Elden Ring: The Illusions
Everything in this game is a puzzle by design — the world, the combat, and the story. I think the world is a very interesting, complex, and convincing landscape that fully immerses in the experience. It is at times awe-inspiring, it can be breathtaking beautiful, it can be ugly and terrifying in all the right ways and if nothing else in this game is great, the ways they constructed this world are masterclass.
However, these are experiences that you really only can enjoy the first time.
I don’t think it’s worth talking about this too much, because it’s a fairly common understanding and view of the game. The hard part is understanding if this is a flaw or not. This game is drenched in the appeal to explore. The fact it had that magic, that you want to explore everything, that you want to find everything is meaningful and powerful. And it feels unfair to complain that running into the underwater/rot lake the second or third time feels more of a chore than not.
The world feels absolutely massive at first and there are so many ways they intentionally design this. There are treasure chests that teleport you further into the map than you’d normally be. You are intentionally thrown around the world as a means to make you feel small in the face of it. As you explore, you cover more ground, you take longer, and by extension places you feel absolutely massive. It can take people twenty to thirty hours to clear the first legacy dungeon in the game, because they were so busy exploring everything else. But when you start that game over, you can ride your horse to the castle, storm through it, and kill the boss in less than ten minutes. That thirty hours of gameplay became this illusion that made you think the world was ten times bigger than it really was.
And if we’re flipping a coin here to determine if this is a bad or good thing, we have to cheer for heads. Everyone could use a little bit of head. And if I think about games like Stanley’s Parable and trying to recapture that experience, but ultimately failing to have any other run live up to my first time playing, I can’t fault Elden Ring for not be strictly amazing when you play it again.
However, given that these games are built with replayability in mind, it does owe the player something meaningful for the pursuit. I don’t mean just 100% completion or harder enemies, but something to make up for the lack of wanderlust from subsequent play throughs. And the problem is that your second playthrough, which is encouraged by the game, only makes the game feel kind of worse. It only sullies some of those amazing experiences, in the same way watching your favorite movie over and over makes it hit less each time.
If they had tied starting the game over to being a power you get when you brandish the Elden Ring, this could’ve been built into the world and story in such a way the best ending would’ve only been achievable after a few play throughs. It could’ve been built in such a way that if you have new story information or items, it could change how npc’s respond to you. It could’ve changed events or outcomes that led to restoring the shardbearers or allying with them or something of that nature. What if you could get to the consecrated snowfield within two hours, you could find Mogh heading to the Hilagtree? What if that set up a new fight, where you fought them in the snow fields? What if you beat Margit on your first attempt, he’d have different dialogue and it would trigger more defenses around Lendyll, harder enemies, and a harder fight later on?
When I talk about this you should be getting the feeling that you actually don’t really have any impact on the story. How you do things or what order you do them in doesn’t strictly matter that much. You can miss out on things, you can miss out on endings, you can pursue the madness flame to some consequence, but for the most part the things you get to choose just effect the 2 minutes after you complete the game.
What I’m suggesting would’ve meant redesigning and adding a lot of content into the game, but I’m trying to illustrate the limitations the game currently has. Why can you even replay it? What is even the purpose? If you’ve 100%’d the game effectively on your first play through, you’d only really play it again for harder bosses or new endings and if that is the case you’re typically rushing the content. And when you do that all that interesting travel across the land and exploration turns to tedium and can leave a bad taste in your mind.
What if instead of the deathbirds being these random overworld bosses, subsequent play throughs added an effective npc quest for killing all of them as part of a rite for another character as part of impacting the end of the game. It could’ve tied them more meaningfully into the circumstances, given you reason to kill them all, and assuming you even found one during your first play through, it could’ve made the world feel bigger and more important.
As it stands the world feels extremely arbitrary and random. Even from someone who understands completely the lore of the game, seeing random magma wyrm bosses is weird. They’re suppose to be the consequence of people who pursued dragon hearts/power, until they were cursed and transformed by it. They’re all just kind of around though. The godskin nobles, associated with the black flame and gloam queen, are just kind of around. Astel is chilling in a random cave and it’s not clear why. Demihumans have like half of the legendary weapons and sometimes just in random caves? The Black Knives are just kind of around.
And again, this is where the game falls part. When you stop being amazed at the beautiful scenery and masterful use of angles and perspective, it’s a lot of empty space. It’s a lot of space that seems to just exist for the sake of existing. And those special enemies that you start to learn more lore on, only become more confusing because they’re not really used in tandem with it. The ringleader of the Death Knives being jailed near Ranni makes sense. The one near Marika’s bed chamber makes sense. Two of them defending the Haligtree? I don’t know. One of them in a random mausoleum? One of them inside a necromancer dungeon? One of them hurt in another mausoleum? One can only guess why.
The entire area to the northeast of the capital feels so empty relatively speaking. There aren’t really new enemies by the time you reach the halfway point of the game and for the size and diversity of the world, that feels so small. Not even just repeated bosses like the tree avatars, but even the enemies the populate the land.
While this isn’t something you feel as much on your first playthrough, I think it’s something you’re going to feel. Going up north into the mysterious new land, the grave of the giants, and you are met with the vulgar militia. You then have those walking stone giants you’ve seen a dozen times. You get snow crab and snow lobster and snow dragon, which means we’re kinda at ff1 for enemy diversity here. There is no my knowledge no unique non-boss enemy in that region. There is nothing that really makes it stand out. Yeah the giant has fur like a yeti, but there are monster crows like you’ve seen before. Giant hands like you’ve seen before. Dogs, bears, soldiers that shoot arrows, so on. I guess the Zamor could count, but they’re there for a single breathe and then gone.
I do think the reason this game reviewed so well and was so acclaimed was because of the power of this illusion. That first playthrough mesmerizes you, because the highs of it are so high. And the people doing reviews, have to get it out there as soon as possible to be relevant. This means these people who are doing the reviews, don’t have any time to really look at these short-comings. My initial essay about this game talked about how you can’t understand a masterpiece in just a week or two. I didn’t want to write something like I’m writing now until I had at least a month of understanding and playing it to see how it really felt. To test it out in every way I could think about. Because if we are going to call it a masterpiece or the game of the year, we do have to think about how it holds up or will hold up. So many people are calling the game genre defining and there are so many ways this game falls short that I can’t believe this. Fantastic game, yes. Interesting game, yes. Compelling and and fun time, absolutely. Room for improvement? Holy fuck, yes.
Elden Ring: PVP
One thing I didn’t experience much in this game was the PVP elements. I couldn’t easily experience them, because I play solo. That’s my preference in most games and no judgment those who like playing with friends. I could use a specific item to make myself a target of pvp, but it really just felt like I was intentionally having to use it and interrupt my own play with it. I really wanted it to feel like Dark Souls PVP, where it’d happen with surprise, be somewhat infrequent, and represent a possibility of an unexpected challenge.
From a design play aspect this is a really interesting thing that really isn’t in other games. The dynamic ways in which another player can influence your single player game allows for unique experiences. When you run through Dark Souls III for the tenth time, you could get some random invader that does something so incredible or funny that it was worth that experience. I once had two invaders do a mini-play with their characters, instead of fighting me. And while it is often used to grief people, it could also be used to help them. It really was just something you had no idea what to expect and that really kept you on your toes.
I talked to some friends who did more multiplayer in the game to ask them their experiences. It seemed like it really was a fun and easy way to play with other folks and I wondered if by requiring two people to be invaded, if that was there to reduce the amount of those cheap janks players experienced. It seemed like pvp was kind of the same in that you’d still get destroyed by a motivated player, that interesting experiences could still happen, but it still feels rough to me that they’ve effectively been made obtuse from players who want to be more solo.
The item I mentioned that lets you pvp as a solo player doesn’t really do that. It just completely opens up your pvp ability, meaning you can get invaded by two invaders at once. So, really, again, I feel like either I’m dedicating myself to pvp or I’m trying to explore the world and these elements now clash with each other. In previous, more linear games, that didn’t matter as much. PVP offered an interesting and effective wall from what you were trying to accomplish.
What I suggested in my previous essay on this and what I’ll repeat is I think it’s important to add solo pvp back. And to limit it to specific areas. There is a pvp style boss in Dark Souls III like this. Where you can be summoned to be the boss fight for the player. I think it’d be really effective if players could have a badge on to be that player and then have pvp tied to specific areas in the map that served as important landmarks. I suggested the churches with the sacred tear, because a lot of npc encounters happen there anyways, but maybe even around those golden trees. All other ways pvp works could be kept in, this would just be a way to expose solo players to it as well
Elden Ring: The Kinda Bad Stuff
When I was fighting Godskin Duo on my level one character, I was using sleep arrows. I had found out they’re very weak to sleep and by using them, I was able to effectively just fight one of them at a time. I wasn’t getting very far into the fight, but it seemed like a viable way to win. Until, and this is important, I ran out of sleep arrows and the supplies to make them. It was at this point I found out the item was finite. And that is such bad game design, I can’t even begin to understand how this happened.
There are several items required for crafting that do not respawn on the world map. These items are largely responsible for creating things related to either rot or sleep. These items can be farmed off of enemies, but the chances of getting the from the enemies tends to be approximately 5% with the highest magic find stat. The reason for this is presumably so people can’t abuse them in PVP. Why else? Why make this resource finite? So, your two big options here are to just never use things like sleep/rot arrows, save scum to not waste them, or cheat to have as many as you want without grinding.
People who do pvp often use merchant engines, which effectively allow you to set your stats and any item you have. They are not flagged by cheat engines, because they don’t change your character in a way that would be considered cheating. The cheat engine is concerned with you manipulating game data like “don’t take damage” or “do way more damage” or have funny hats on. They don’t care if you’re level 100 with every item. This means this design helps literally nobody out. It actually just makes dedicated pvp players have more power than players who don’t cheat or save scum in some way. And it’s really frustrating, because it can be very easy to waste 20 arrows or more on an attempt at a boss. It can take hours to farm enough to give yourself a few hundred arrows to last you just a few hours of play. And that fucking sucks. that’s not fun for anyone.
And so many of the single use items in the game feel that lackluster. They give such marginal benefits, take so long to farm, and give those benefits for such a short amount of time why even bother? When you’re in an active fight, you typically need any safe moment to heal. You don’t have time to make your attack slightly higher or defense slightly higher. So this game has this entire crafting systems within in that you kind of never have to use and isn’t really that important. And that’s weird? I guess games like this are expected to have a crafting system and that justifies items around the world and generates little points of interest on your adventure, but I basically beat my entire first game without crafting once.
When I played follow up games, I intentionally tried to craft more to see how valuable it could be, but it just kept being a pointless chore and waste of time. I know some items can be especially powerful in certain circumstances, but they’re all just icing on the cake. Even my level 1 rune character never benefited from a single use of these items. I used Kukri sometimes, but they never really felt like the difference in a fight. I would’ve loved to have access to rot, that wasn’t attached to specific swords, but because of the game design it never felt reasonable to do.
I feel like enough people have already complained about the scaling and I’ll just add that I agree. It feels like you never really can become a tank in the game and doing a level one run, honestly didn’t feel that different than a level 120 run. Little attacks don’t do much damage, big attacks will kill you or chain hit you until you’re dead, same if you’re vigor is 10 or 60. It’s kind of weird, because there are several instances where blocking an attack will get you killed because of breaking your posture and taking the hit will let you live because it knocks you away.
The general repetition of caves and mausoleums still felt bad on the first playthrough. Effort is definitely done to switch them up, some of them are way cooler than others, and I can’t complain too much about this, but it really starts to feel like filler.
Some of the npc quests are extremely unfair for expecting to know what to do in them. They added npc makers to potentially help with this, but it can still be incredibly obtuse and allow you to miss a lot of content. I know previous games were not different in this regard, but this game is massively bigger than previous games and makes finding what you need to do a needle in a haystack inside of a whale. Which is unfortunate, because the npc quests are actually pretty cool and involved. I mentioned the story being blah or not having much investment within it for the main enemies you fight, but the questlines themselves were pretty cool. Still simple, but very cool.
I think the tree sentinel boss at the very beginning is kind of mean. I think more indication should’ve been put into going south and explore Weeping Peninsula. I went through so much of the game with no flask upgrade, because I just didn’t happen to go all the way south. When I finally went there, I destroyed everything. It made the rest of my game harder and that part easier, to give me two bad experiences for the price of one.
I spent a long time talking about this game as a puzzle from top to bottom. But I also talked about the ways you could overcome or mitigate the puzzle elements by simply being too strong. Like the puzzle to unlock a gate doesn’t matter if you can simply break the gate open with your big beefy, hopefully lady, muscles. And because this game isn’t effectively on rails, the open world nature of it sets itself up in such a way that you can trivialize the game design elements you’re suppose to experience. And it becomes this weird situation where you don’t want to get to powerful or the game becomes boring and easy. So you’re force to try to dictate your own balance in it. I was honestly surprised at how many mechanics in the game I could actively ignore in my first attempt.
Hoarah Loux as I mentioned before is a boss I defeated on my first try, because I did so much damage, he never was able to do anything too scary that I couldn’t heal through. That same fight was so fucking hard at level one, when I really had to understand it. If I only had my first impression of the fight, I would’ve thought he was too easy and honestly not very memorable.
So, I don’t think this game is better than Dark Souls III. It’s at best an interesting Dark Souls III DLC that adds new mechanics. But this game isn’t a Dark Souls, so that isn’t fair. It’s an open world game in a way no other game of theirs has been. And I think it’s a pretty fun open world game. I don’t think it defines open world gaming, nor should define it. I think Breath of the Wild does open world gaming better, already. I think the reason people say this needs to be open world gaming going forward is simply due to the masterful use of world building level design and how well each area frames the next one. That is by far the best contribution this game makes and if that defines open world gaming going forward, that is a good thing.
However, if we want a masterpiece, an actual masterpiece of open world game design, we can’t have meaningless filler. We can’t forgive these games for having repetition that doesn’t add much and just fills out the world and pads out your time. If you do create an open world, you do need to fill it in in meaningful ways. And I don’t mean everything needs to have the level of detail of a legacy dungeon by any means, but things have to feel different. They have to represent different challenges. Places have to have meaningfully different denizens that help to define the experiences you have there. It has to feel like the world truly breathes, instead of a model holding their breath to fit a corset and looking pretty for a picture.
We’re not there yet. Elden Ring isn’t there yet. It’s a great game, its experimental with some things, was incredible with others, but still lacked in some areas in significant ways. Honestly, I just kind of wish I could play it more, but there isn’t anything more for me to do that I’d be interested in. And now we can get to the real problem with this game and it’s how they didn’t scale unarmed fist strikes with strength!! They’ve effectively ended fist-only runs with this bonehead move! So, I give the game 0/10, get rekted.