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Elden Ring

This week I finished Elden Ring, and the moment I put the controller down I felt a void as if a good friend moved to another country and I wouldn’t see them for a long time. This was the best game I have played in years.

But why? On the surface it seems just like any other open-world ARPG, yet Elden Ring is bigger than the sum of its parts. This game is a master class in the omakase design approach and that’s what makes it so amazing.

The game makes two key decisions for you - the difficulty level and the story exposition.

There is no way to change the difficulty in this game. You find a boss difficult? Tough luck, you will have to get better. Everybody has to face the same challenging fights, enemies, quest and puzzles. This was the first Souls game by From Software I have played and this design decision felt hostile to me, sometimes I just want to relax with a game and enjoy the story.

But after I beat the first boss I felt a sense of accomplishment and then it clicked - the difficulty is what makes each win feel so rewarding. The combat is punishing, but it’s also fair. It’s like a dance to which you have to figure out the steps or get trampled (or get so overpowered that you can steamroll through it). There are a few bullshit attacks that are hard to dodge, but everything else is clearly telegraphed - if you make a mistake you know it was on you. The dance-like nature of the combat is also why getting attacked by more than one enemy at a time is infinitely more difficult - you have to keep track of two dance partners.

But the thing that makes the combat of Elden Ring so great is its open world. When I got stuck, bored or annoyed I could always just go somewhere else and have fun. There is no better example of this than the first mini-boss. I exited the tutorial level to find myself in a lush grassy field with a giant golden knight in the distance. As the naive spring chicken that I was, I walked up to the shiny knight only to see a large “YOU DIED” message a second later. Then I tried to fight the knight, and no matter what I did the knight would demolish me before I got him to half-health. At that moment I understood that the game was trying to teach me that if I’m not having fun that I should look elsewhere. Nothing was forcing me to fight that kings, I could just go around him and come back later.

There are a few traps in the game that take away your ability to travel and only then does it become obvious how crucial the open-world is to the combat experience of this game. I got eaten by the Abductor Virgin (Iron Maiden) in Raya Lucaria Academy and got teleported to a lava lake in Volcano Manor, under-geared and under-leveled, only to spend and hour in agony before I gave up and looked up how to cheese an escape.

The game does use its combat difficulty as a level-gate to steer you round the world. But because of this the world always feels challenging and keeps you on your feet. I was decimating archers and knight, fighting my way to a demigod boss only to emerge in another region of the world after the fight where a stray dog and a guy with a torch could mess my day up.

Strong Doge meme. The strong one tanks hits by demigods, the weaker one is bullied by two dogs and a guy with a torch
Strong Doge meme. The strong one tanks hits by demigods, the weaker one is bullied by two dogs and a guy with a torch

Exploration is not only important to get better gear and level up, but also for the story. The game doesn’t hold your hand when it comes to the main story, it expects that you will go out of your way to figure it out. This also seemed hostile at first.

There are a few expositions during key quest moments and demigod fights, but that’s not enough to figure out what is going on. The story through the cutscenes alone is a jumbled mess - you want to become Elden Lord, because that’s what one does, and there are demigods you have to kill to get shards of the Elden Ring, which shattered in the past, and only with those shards will you be able to become Elden Lord. What is this? Pokemon fan fiction? How many gym trainers do I have to beat to become a Pokemon master?

The details of the story are scattered in side-quests and item descriptions which can only be found by exploring. I was half-way through the game when I discovered that item descriptions contain the lore of the world. The other thing I discovered half-way through the game is that finishing side quests unlocks alternate endings. This made exploration more enjoyable and rewarding compared to other open-world ARPGs, I felt like Indiana Jones recovering parts of the Ark of the Covenant.

These two decisions - a single difficulty level for all and a vague story - complement each other in a way that makes the world feel like a sandbox where I can go explore and adventure. It doesn’t get old and it’s not a gimmick like in other ARPGs. It’s so good that this is the first game where, after beating it, I immediately started a second play-through to experience what I have missed.

This is only possible because of omakase. The team at From Software made a tailored experience, an experience that takes existing elements of ARPGs, sacrifices some quality-of-life features, but arranges what’s left in such a way that they become better than in all other ARPGs.


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