Elden Ring will be the new gateway drug for Souls games

Dark Souls 2 art
(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

Like every RPG FromSoftware has made in the last decade, Elden Ring opens with a cinematic that introduces the decaying world, the once-great warriors and demons who fought for it. But something about it is just a little different. As the bombastic orchestra peaks, Elden Ring implies you're not just some pathetic, cursed undead nobody as you were in Dark Souls. You're more special than that. You might even be the chosen one.

The opening communicates that this may be a world of giants and legends, but Elden Ring is your story, not theirs. It's a subtle tonal shift, but a key one: it's the first clue that Elden Ring will likely be FromSoftware's most successful game ever by leaps and bounds.

In a way it seems silly to talk about this game being a "breakout hit" when the Dark Souls trilogy has already sold some 30 million copies. Dark Souls is big. But then again, The Witcher 3 has sold that many copies all by itself. Elden Ring has a real chance to be that kind of big.

In the tone of its intro alone Elden Ring is welcoming in new players who love Skyrim and Dragon Age and The Witcher but never dared to give Dark Souls a try (or died to a dogpile of skeletons in that first graveyard and said nah, not for me). For just a moment, Elden Ring builds you up and inspires you before it tears you down.

FromSoftware's DNA is still all over Elden Ring. There's still a boss meant to destroy you on a first encounter. There are still aloof NPCs who laugh and tell you to go die in a ditch. There are still the kinds of castles that D&D dungeon masters imagine in their wildest dreams. But where Dark Souls hides its majesty many hours deep in a labyrinthine world that requires immense patience to navigate your first time through, Elden Ring doesn't make you work so hard to see its wonders. It hands you the reins to your spectral steed almost immediately and sets you free.

In a six hour preview session I rode from one end of the map to another, gawking at the sights and noping out more than once when I got too close to some truly freaky shit. That immediate freedom will be a familiar experience for anyone who's started up an Elder Scrolls or Fallout and immediately ignored the story to wander the map looking for random quests.

I do still have some reservations about the open world and what it gives up compared to the density of Dark Souls' design, but Elden Ring does already feel different than the first time I played the Network Test—where artificial walls hemmed me into just a portion of the starting area. In Dark Souls, I've always felt like a desperate survivor first and an adventurer second. 

In Elden Ring, I think it might be the other way around.

Elden Ring

(Image credit: FromSoftware)

Elden Ring is friendlier in many ways that bridge the void between Dark Souls and friendlier RPGs, without ultimately changing the moment-to-moment feel of playing a Souls game very much. Elden Ring's world is still hostile and brutal, but you can outrun most enemies on horseback and find Sites of Grace (this game's version of a safe bonfire) deep in unfamiliar territory. The monsters there may be too strong to kill, but each Site of Grace is a fast travel point, making it easy to go on bold scouting missions without committing to hours of battle you're not prepared for.

Most of the Souls games force you to make a difficult choice between playing in "human" form with increased health and the option to summon co-op allies, but also the possibility of being invaded and attacked by other players, or playing in "hollow" form with no help and a smaller health bar. Elden Ring ditches this mechanic, making death and multiplayer far more forgiving.

Elden Ring is still mostly a combat game without Zelda-style puzzles or traditional RPG quests or dialogue trees, but I was pleasantly surprised to run into several more NPCs than I did in the Network Test, one of whom marked on my map where I could find another character. Those sorts of encounters will go a long way towards hooking RPG players who need narrative threads to give them a tug of direction. Again, this isn't a new thing in FromSoftware's games, but my hunch is the NPC stories here will be a bit easier to follow than they were in the Souls series.

Combat is still hard, but Elden Ring hands you powerful tools right from the start, including the ability to upgrade your own weapons and a dead easy counterattack while you're using a shield. This move makes the defensive style most new players will gravitate towards easier and much more active. It's great, and will help ease players into learning to use the much riskier but more powerful parry move.

Small additions like that are all Elden Ring needs to help new players experience the things FromSoftware does better than any other RPG developer today: 

  • Deeply customizable combat that encourages you to mix magic and melee and dive deep into the minutia of attack animations unique to every weapon
  • Fantasy worlds that are simultaneously stunning and mysterious and horrifying and even funny
  • Multiplayer with its own mischievous delights and entire subcultures

The Souls games have never been easy, but they really require patience more than fast reflexes. Once you learn their rules they're far easier than a game like Super Meat Boy, where every button press has to be millisecond-perfect. But that's tough to believe until you discover it yourself, and the first impression the Souls games make—ice cold death at the hands of an overwhelming boss—just reinforces their reputation for difficulty. 

Elden Ring will likely throw faster, more challenging enemies at us than Dark Souls. It'll definitely have more poison swamps. But the promise of a world with fewer roadblocks and small changes like that rousing intro will be enough to help millions of players withstand the scary first impression and stick with Elden Ring long enough to vibe with FromSoftware's style. I'm excited for everyone who gets to experience that realization with Elden Ring, because it means a whole new wave of people who finally get to enjoy Dark Souls for the first time, too. 

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).