Elden Ring guide (opens in new tab): Conquer the Lands Between
Elden Ring bosses (opens in new tab): How to beat them
Elden Ring dungeons (opens in new tab): How to defeat them
Elden Ring paintings (opens in new tab): Solutions and locations
Elden Ring map fragments (opens in new tab): Reveal the world
You'd be hard-pressed to tell I was enjoying myself if you watched me play Dark Souls. With my expression lurching between steely determination and utter dismay, the sweaty handprints on the controller and the prolific swearing, it probably looks like I'm having an awful time. But that constant feeling that I'm teetering on the edge of a heart attack is one of the reasons I keep coming back. It's a helluva rush.
Every time I jump in, I'm transported back to the weekend where, in a blind panic, I decided that three days of caffeine pills, Red Bull, Slayer and no sleep would help me ace a university exam for a class I had been to maybe five times. I felt like I was being chased, I could hear my heart pounding in my chest like a jackhammer and I started laughing for no reason at all. But I also felt like I could do anything. I hadn't slept for three days and I was still
standing leaning. I was unstoppable! I did not ace the exam.
The exhilaration that came from putting my mind and body through Hell and the possibility, however slim, that I was going to overcome the odds was like electricity coursing through my veins, which in hindsight suggests that it was trying to tell me to stop. Only a year or two later, Demon's Souls came out, getting me back to that state without risking my mental and physical health. Well, not as much.
FromSoftware games exist at the intersection between death and victory. One of those two things is waiting for you, and you just have to push forward and hope it's the latter. But even if it is, you don't get to rest. You have to go back out there and sweat and swear and almost certainly die again and again. Maybe you'll take a trip back to an easier place and farm some less threatening monsters, but that workmanlike grind is hardly relaxing.
I never considered there could be another way. Sure, there have been plenty of discussions and arguments over accessibility and difficulty when it comes to these famously punishing games, but nearly everyone agrees that, whatever changes would be welcome, they are still meant to be challenging and even occasionally cruel.
But while being put through the wringer is an undeniable part of the appeal, I've also come to appreciate so much of what Dark Souls does. The moody beauty, the delicate narrative, the great big pile of secrets—they all drew me back, too, but more and more I've found myself wanting to experience these brilliant things without the spectre of death hovering over me the entire time.
Elden Ring (opens in new tab) has all of this, but its chunky open world also leaves a huge amount of room for more relaxing adventures. With other FromSoftware games, finishing up an especially nasty boss usually means I'm going to need a break. Maybe a wee lie down. But in Elden Ring, I hop on Torrent and go searching for paintings, or maybe just a nice vista to screenshot. I might take a trip to the Roundtable to catch up with my buds, or just explore part of the map I haven't visited yet. It's the first FromSoftware game I've really struggled to put down, because it's always beckoning me with new directions and diversions.
Choose your poison
Inside dungeons, getting from A to B is fraught with peril, but outside you get to decide what you want to do and where you want to go. And that might be towards a boss or a huge pack of enemies or a distant tower that's definitely full of shit that will mess you up. If the thought of even a few minutes where you're not at risk of an unexpected demise sounds awful, you can still rush headfirst into danger.
So it's not just that there's room for relaxation—there's an abundance of options. You've usually got a few choices when you hit a wall in Dark Souls, but there are so many of them in Elden Ring, and so many of them enticing, that I actually quite like finding I've bitten off more than I can chew. It's an excuse to skip off in another direction and sample something new. These aren't walls; they're excuses to explore more of a world that delights in hiding secrets and treasures everywhere.
This all leads to an adventure with more texture and an undulating pace, with ups and downs that are smoother, and with more going on in between the peaks and valleys. And this actually accentuates the moments when all the game really wants to do is grind your bones down to dust. The juxtaposition between unexpectedly serene gallops across some of the most stunning vistas you'll have ever encountered and some multi-limbed monstrosity gleefully one-hitting you makes those terrifying battles all the more surprising and stressful.
When I do end up dancing with a boss, I'm more excited about the prospect because I've had some downtime. I'm refreshed and all fired up. Brimming with confidence. And then, naturally, Elden Ring brings me back down to earth by kicking the shit out of me. I love it.
It suits me better, I reckon, but I don't necessarily think it's an improvement over Dark Souls. It's meaningful that this isn't called Dark Souls 4: they have a vast amount in common, but the open world really changes the experience so much that it's clear Elden Ring is offering something different, if adjacent.
There's a gulf between the labyrinthine mega-dungeons of Dark Souls and Elden Ring's open world littered with dungeons, and it's within that gulf where Elden Ring's novelties lie. And philosophical differences, too, emphasised by things like the more generous fast travel system, letting you teleport to any site of grace from nearly anywhere on the map. While this arguably makes Elden Ring a tad easier, and certainly more accessible, it also speaks to its desire to push you out into the world, to make you feel like a freewheeling explorer and not just a tragic walking corpse.
Of course, it's still pretty gloomy at times, and that Dark Souls-style oppressive atmosphere looms over everything, but it's not got that aggressive, relentless, punishing vibe oozing out of every pore. In Dark Souls everything is shit, it all sucks, and you should probably just sit down and have a wee cry. In Elden Ring you can watch your horse shoot off into the sky via a magical updraft and make friends with a sentient pot. And there's so much more chatting! Sure, everyone is still pretty depressed, but it's a far livelier world, which feels right here in a way that wouldn't make sense in the other games.
Elden Ring isn't the future of Dark Souls, then, but rather something that offers a Dark Souls-like experience, and then a whole bunch of other things. It's broad, but not in a way that sacrifices too much of what makes FromSoftware games distinct. And I can easily see it seducing new players and inspiring them to take the previous games for a spin. Indeed, once I'm done with Elden Ring, I'm thinking of firing up Sekiro, the only soulsborne romp I've hardly touched, because it's reminded me that, while I do like to relax, I still want to feel like my heart's a ticking time bomb.