Six hours into my hands-on Elden Ring demo, I was miserable.
I’ve simply never understood the appeal of Dark Souls and other FromSoftware games and, at first, it seemed like Elden Ring wasn’t going to change that. As enamored as I was with its gorgeous open world, parts of it still felt like torture. Fights required superhuman patience, swordplay was arduous, and I often felt like I was fighting the camera more than the giant boss in front of me. I was once again preparing to feel like a contrarian outcast as I anticipated a wave of previews declaring it the next Ocarina of Time.
Then I stopped playing it like a Dark Souls game. After that moment, I was in total awe.
Elden Ring makes a lot of tweaks to the standard Dark Souls formula, but the most obvious change is its pivot to open-world gameplay. The game seems to take cues from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, starting from its opening moment. I begin in a dark, dank room. As I walk through it, searching for an exit, I assume I’m going to be jumped by some low-level monsters. Instead, I safely emerge into a sprawling plain that triggers a sublime sensation. It’s the opening of Breath of the Wild, beat for beat.
The game’s approach to world design is quite different than other Souls games in ways that might prove a little polarizing to longtime fans. Rather than winding through tight corridors, I’m largely traveling through the wide-open plains of Limgrave. As I explore, I begin to find little caves tucked away. The ones I find during my demo are fairly linear micro areas. I’m not exploring large chasms and finding a bunch of secrets and shortcuts. In one area, I walk until I find a locked boss door. I then take the only other path available until I find a level that unlocks that door, and then head back.
It’s another moment where Breath of the Wild’s DNA is most felt. These little zones feel a bit like Zelda’s shrines. They’re short, optional challenges usually centered around a boss fight. I get the sense that those areas could become larger and more complex as the game progresses, especially as the demo cuts off right at the heart of the huge Stormveil Castle that can be breached in two different ways. Still, it seems like the emphasis is more on open space than shortcut-filled corridors.
This also happens to be the first moment where I start to embrace the game over some of its spiritual predecessors. When I’ve tried Souls games in the past, it always felt like I needed to smash my head against a wall to progress. In Bloodborne, I feel like there’s not much I can do if Father Gascoigne is giving me trouble except try again immediately. There’s some exploration I can do before that, but I’ll have to grit my teeth and take him down sooner rather than later. Mercifully, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Elden Ring. If I meet a tough boss in a cave, there are dozens of other fights I can pick first — and fast traveling makes it easy to come back when I’m ready. I don’t just have to grind out runes to level up.
There are likely limits to that, but I spent a good six hours taking down optional bosses before stepping foot in Stormveil Castle, which is where I needed to end up eventually to fight the demo’s Great Foe (the only boss you actually need to beat to progress). Usually, when you get heated during a Dark Souls game, you have no choice but to get up and take a walk to cool down. Elden Ring lets you take that stroll within the game instead.
You’ve waited long enough; let’s talk about difficulty. Yes, Elden Ring is hard. Early on, bosses routinely chewed me up and spit me out within two hits. At one point, I got a text from my neighbor asking if I was OK because he’d heard me shouting F-bombs through the wall.
The very first enemy I encounter is a giant knight on an armored horse that comes sprinting out across the field. It kills me so fast, I assume I’m not even supposed to beat him yet and continue past him. It’s as if the first enemy you met in Breath of the Wild was a Lynel.
Instead, my first boss fight happens in a cave north of that monster. I enter a square room and a dog-faced statue starts hopping toward me with a giant sword in hand. My first reaction is to marvel at the wildly creative design, something FromSoftware continues to excel at. My second thought is “dammit” as it squashes me dead. It’s a frustrating encounter, and not always for the right reasons. While I slowly learn to dodge its sword swings and roll around its fire breath attack, I struggle as it starts to jump in the air and slam down. If I’m targeting it while it ascends, the camera dips to an unnatural angle and I’m left scrambling. I can only consistently avoid the attack if I take off targeting entirely and freely roll away.
That boss takes me a good hour or so of attempts, but it’s nothing compared to the wandering knight. After pumping up to level 15, getting a new double-edged sword, and upgrading it twice, I figure I’d stand more of a chance against the hulking boss. I’m wrong. Two hits and I’m dead. An hour goes by with no progress. Two hours go by and I feel like I’ve learned nothing. By hour three, I’m ready to call it quits. The camera continues to be my main adversary in the fight. If I stay close to the horse’s body and try to roll under it as it rears, the camera closes in too tight and my enemy goes transparent to accommodate. I lose sight of him and get hit as a result. Other times, it gets hung up in an awkward position before doing a fast 180 that messes up my orientation. If you had hoped that open spaces would fix FromSoftware’s camera problems, keep dreaming.
Naturally, I can’t blame my failure on the game. I simply run out of patience in this fight as I always do in these games. After hours of struggling, I just want to be done with it and always inevitably get greedy with a series of hits. Or I’ll convince myself I have enough time to take a drink from my flask, turning my healing button into a suicide button. My breaking point finally comes when I decide to make more of an effort to parry using my shield. I confront the knight again and raise my shield … only to be flattened.
This is the moment where Elden Ring turns around for me. In sheer frustration, I shout: “What’s the point of even using this!?” and unequip it entirely. Instead, I toss a dagger in my other hand. That turns my parry button into an MP-consuming spin attack that happens to dish out tons of damage. Within my next three attempts (of what feels like 100), I’ve slain my nemesis with little effort.
My strategy starts to bust open even more when I add a spell to my attack rotation. At the start of every boss fight, I summon three wolf spirits who start attacking and distracting my enemy. That allows me to pop in from its blind side and use the rest of my MP to execute spin attacks. The knight is the last boss that gives me trouble. From that point on, bosses only take me a few tries to complete — including the demo’s climatic Great Foe in Stormveil Castle. The last optional boss fight I find on the map only takes me one try. I don’t even think I used my healing flask once. Dare I say, my last few hours with the demo were easy?
For a decade, I’ve been taught to believe that success in Souls games is tied to slow, careful fights. I would need to block and parry if I wanted to win. At the very least, I would need to roll around to evade and only stop to land one or two careful hits. Forget that. Once I dropped that mentality entirely, I felt like I could finally enjoy the game. My high damage build meant I could finally play aggressively and speed through fights. It felt like I had switched places with the bosses; I imagine they would probably be thinking how much of a pain fighting me was.
The irony here is that there are probably die-hard Souls fans who are reading this and feeling a pang of disappointment. The idea of a hater vanquishing Elden Ring’s first big boss in a few tries might sound sacrilegious. Those who kick and scream every time somebody suggests these games should have an easy mode might lament that the series has buckled to complaints and gone soft.
I don’t think everybody can win when it comes to Soulslikes. If I’m having fun instead of feeling miserable, someone else is probably feeling bored and unchallenged. Then again, nothing is stopping the die-hards from avoiding my seemingly overpowered build and sticking to the basics. There’s a tremendous number of options when it comes to combat, even in this small demo snippet. I spent nine hours just experimenting with one character class and a few tools. I’m sure I could have put another 20 hours in and had radically different results.
After playing a bit of Elden Ring, I no longer feel like an outsider; I’ll be cheering right alongside players when the closed network test opens. I hope as many Souls haters as possible have the same experience as me, too. I want to hear about all the wild builds that allowed less experienced players to tear their way through Stormveil Castle. I want the conversation surrounding this game to be less about its challenge and more about its beautiful world, creative enemy designs, and mystifying story.
Elden Ring didn’t push me to “get good,” as so many similar games have over the years. It asked me to “get comfortable,” and that’s much better advice.
A closed network test for Elden Ring begins on Friday, November 12. The full game is scheduled to launch on February 25, 2022, for PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.