Tuesday, February 27, 2024
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A sparkling version of the old Souls formula

Christopher Byrd

THE WASHINGTON POST – I thought I was over the Souls formula but Elden Ring has me reconsidering.

Since the release of Demon’s Souls in 2009 From Software has risen to the top of the video game industry and, with rare exception, critical acclaim followed each subsequent title. It became hard not to bump into some variation of the assessment that the games were cruel yet beautiful, punishing but fair, disheartening yet enthralling.

The company had radically altered my conception of what an action RPG could be (i.e., purposefully opaque and impishly sadistic). But by the time I got around to playing the Japanese developer’s last game Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, these adjectives had begun to ring hollow.

I found little ennobling about a struggle to overcome enemies that demands a sort of rote perfectionism. After dispatching one of the mini-bosses – a knight who recalled one of the enemies in the Dark Souls series – I walked away and never looked back.

So, it was with a bad taste in my mouth that I spent barely a couple of hours with the Elden Ring beta back in November before I bounced off, dismissing it as just another Souls game dressed up in new finery.

Over the past week my opinion shifted radically and I found myself funneling nearly every available moment into Elden Ring. Sure, the new From Software title still operates like a typical Souls game insofar as it thrusts you into a mysterious world filled with beguiling monstrosities to kill. But enough tweaks have been made to create an experience that is, dare I say it, somewhat comforting.

A scene from ‘Elden Ring’. PHOTO: BANDAI NAMCO

By “comforting” I mean that after putting upward of 700 hours into the Souls series, I’m intimately familiar with the general ebb and flow of the combat and I’m soothed by NPC’s elliptical conversations. Farming runes (acquired through kills) to level up my Vagabond (a starting class with high strength and dexterity attributes) is like falling back into an old practice that reliably generates a state of flow.

As for the tweaks, during my brief time with the beta I’d failed to note that Elden Ring pushes the idea of cooperative play more than any other game in the Souls catalogue. ‘Summoning pools’ – designated areas where it’s easy to find other players – generously dot the environment and can usually be found right in front of the lairs where bosses reside. In the original Demon’s Souls there was only the occasional area where you could drop a summons sign to invite other players to your world.

This, to my way of thinking at the time, made soliciting help feel almost like a cheat, as if I was availing myself of a concession on the part of the developers.

By contrast, Elden Ring encourages you to tackle the game’s stiffest challenges with a group.

It makes the game feel less like a lonely endeavour and more like a communal exercise and also takes a bit of the sting out of losing to a boss, making it feel less like a personal failing.

Another aspect of Elden Ring’ that I missed in the beta is its incorporation of a player-controlled horse, a first for a Souls game. In spatial terms, Elden Ring is more expansive than any of the previous titles and traveling about on a horse is a joy.

As a friend and fellow writer texted me, “This game is horrendously addictive – they’ve managed to combine the Dark Souls ‘I’m gonna kill this guy if it takes all day sentiment’ with the Grand Theft Auto/Red Dead Redemption just ride around and look at the pretty sights vibe.”

The added breadth of Elden Ring allows for more down time and intensifies the thrill of setting out into the unknown.

I can hear the murmurous, gently swelling music of Rotview Balcony, a place of crimson skies and arid landscape, playing from the other room where the game is idling as I type this sentence. Elden Ring’s score is a glorious counterpoint to the occasional jankiness of texture clipping and frame-rate fluctuations.

And while I suspect the latter part of Elden Ring may exasperate my patience – I hear that a gauntlet of bosses picks up where the notoriously difficult Dark Souls III: The Ringed City DLC left off – right now, I can’t wait to get back to it.