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Why ‘Elden Ring’ will (or won’t) get you into ‘Souls’ games

Why ‘Elden Ring’ will (or won’t) get you into ‘Souls’ games

Let’s talk about Elden Ring. Your social feeds and group chats probably won’t shut up about it, but you’re not sure if you want to pay up for something you might hate. Perfectly reasonable.

But FOMO is powerful and it might have you on the fence about the latest From Software joint that’s part of a loosely connected bunch of games people collectively call the “Souls” series. It encompasses Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy, Bloodborne, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and now this new open world adventure with some story assistance by George R.R. Martin. 

Souls games are known primarily for brutal difficulty, which is both entirely fair and overly simplistic. They each have nuanced combat, worlds full of vomit-inducing monstrosities that want you dead, and the risk of losing all your money each time you die. All of that is technically true about Elden Ring, too, but it’s also much friendlier up front and could be the one to finally draw you into From’s legendary house of horrors. 

It could also repel you just as much as the others have. Instead of debating about difficulty settings and worrying about what this game should be, let’s be honest about what it is: A game that is indeed more approachable than its predecessors, but not at the expense of its challenging vision.

How Elden Ring is better for newcomers…

The main distinction between Elden Ring and its older siblings is its massive open world, available to explore in its entirety pretty much right after the tutorial is over. Aside from providing a much-needed twist on the formula, it also gave From plenty of room to rethink how welcoming these games can be to new players. Here are a few key ways Elden Ring could win skeptics or even haters over.

More ways to win

Souls games have always been unique in that even the most basic tutorial enemy (usually some doofus skeleton) can ruin your day if you let it. The scales are usually tipped so far in the player’s favor in other mainstream action games that it can be a little jarring for the weakest enemies to still present a challenge. That’s also true in Elden Ring, but now, you’ve got way more options. This is going to sound crazy, but seriously: You actually have an upper hand in many situations.

Lots of enemy groups just sort of hang around with their backs conspicuously vulnerable to attack. Not what I would do, but hey, they don’t listen to me. It’s great because in Elden Ring, you can actually use stealth. Press the left stick to crouch and walk around silently, go up behind an unsuspecting enemy, and stick your blade through them for a crunchy, satisfying critical hit. You can even get an accessory that turns these critical hits into health. It’s great.

If you do have to fight the honest way, Elden Ring has a new way to counter enemy attacks and open them up for huge damage that’s super easy to pull off. Simply put on a shield (newcomers should definitely use shields) and tap the heavy attack button right after blocking a strike. You’ll quickly strike back with a beefy counterattack that can, in some circumstances, stagger enemies. If that happens, you can pull off a frontal version of the backstab, effectively one-shotting some enemies. 

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This is by far the most straightforward counter system in any of these games, and after 40 hours, it’s still effective for me even in high-level areas. Finishers also look cool as hell and have some nasty sound effects to go along with them. I love it.

Like in other Souls games, you can summon other players for co-op if you’re having a tough time with a boss. Past that, though, is a new system that lets players collect and summon spectral familiars over the course of the game. If you see a white icon that looks like a gravestone or a gate on the left side of the screen, that means you can use your summons. It just so happens that almost every boss room allows this. You can do one summon per boss attempt, and even if the summon dies or doesn’t do much damage, they might steal your target’s attention for a few seconds, long enough to get in a bunch of hits. 

Fewer ways to lose

Giving the player more roads to victory is nice, but removing some of the pitfalls that used to plague these games is equally effective. 

In Dark Souls, weapons and equipment would break after too much use. You could repair them, but not if you were far from a checkpoint and didn’t have the right item. I’m happy to report that gear durability of any kind is gone from Elden Ring. Swing that sword against walls all you want, it won’t break. Beautiful, isn’t it?

All the other Souls games (minus Sekiro) made almost all of your actions cost stamina. If you recklessly swung your weapon too many times, you wouldn’t be able to do that (or sprint or dodge) anymore until the meter filled back up. That’s…still the case in Elden Ring, but the good news is they turned it off when you’re out exploring in the open world. Stamina only comes into play when fighting dudes. Gotta love it.

Oh, and fall damage has been turned down a ton, too. There are still pretty hard limits to how far you can fall, but you can at least jump down from the first floor of a building without dying in this game. 

The death of inconvenience

These are Sites of Grace. Pursue them at every opportunity.
Credit: From Software/Steam

All those changes in the moment-to-moment action account for a lot of Elden Ring’s newfound approachability, but the biggest factor by far is that From has stopped punishing players with inconvenience. Dying during major fights against the strongest and scariest enemies in a previous Souls game usually meant engaging in what players call “boss runs,” where you had to fight or dodge your way through at least a few enemies before getting back to the boss arena and trying again. 

Boss runs sucked. Some of them were torturous, and obviously you always ran the risk of losing health or wasting a healing item before even starting the boss fight. Those have been almost totally eliminated from Elden Ring. Optional bosses hidden in secret catacombs around the world occasionally have a brisk and easy boss run through some weak enemies, but every main story boss I’ve seen has had a checkpoint right outside the door. It’s so simple and saves so many headaches.

Speaking of checkpoints, there’s a comically large number of them in the world. The main ones are these glowing spots called Sites of Grace, which replenish all your meters and your healing items, but also respawn non-boss enemies you’ve killed. You’ll find one Site of Grace, fight through like one somewhat difficult room in a dungeon, and there will be another one on the other side so you never have to do the annoying room again. You can freely fast travel between every Site of Grace from the start, too. Beyond that, little statues appear outside of most boss arenas to serve as respawn points if there isn’t a Site of Grace nearby. 

Now it’s time to reveal the biggest innovation of all: A map. Sure, every other video game gives you a map, but Souls games have always asked the player to remember how to get around labyrinthine, complex worlds without much assistance. That’s still the case with indoor areas, but the map at least helps you plot a course around the open world. If something is too hard, open the map and find empty space you haven’t explored yet. There’s always something out there that’ll be easier and net you sweet rewards.

Why Elden Ring might still not be the one for you

All of those quality-of-life changes make Elden Ring a substantially easier game to ease into than before. “Ease into” being the key words here. Merging onto a highway might be easy, but when it’s done, you’re still on a highway where lots of bad or unexpected things can happen. There are still plenty of reasons why Elden Ring might just not be your thing.

It’s still really hard

Elden Ring screenshot

Wormface is a huge jerk.
Credit: From Software/Steam

From Software made Elden Ring more friendly, but not easier. This is still a very challenging game. Longtime Souls fans love to say these games “aren’t that hard,” but they are the last people you should listen to on this topic. A racecar driver probably doesn’t think it’s that hard to drive at incredible speeds either.

These games are tough. Enemies can kill you in one or two hits if you aren’t careful. The other day I found a guy called “Wormface” who spat corrosive gas at me, filling up a status effect meter as I stood in it. When the meter filled up (which took about 10 seconds unless I left the gas), I instantly died. There are ways to mitigate things like that, be it with different gear or consumable items, but the fact is you’ll usually have to die a few times to get to the point of knowing that.

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You are going to die many, many times throughout the course of playing Elden Ring. A lot of those deaths will feel sudden and difficult to explain at first. That’s flatly not fun to a lot of people and I can’t blame them for that. It’s a different rhythm than what you might get out of other open world games, like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, where you’re playing as a historical superhero in a world full of dumb, weak guards.

Elden Ring is about being ready for anything while accepting that there are things you simply can’t be ready for around every corner. 

And there’s nothing you can do about it

In case you were wondering, no, there isn’t an “easy mode” in Elden Ring. Lots of games offer difficulty settings but this isn’t of them. Every player will experience the same game, in terms of how much health enemies have and how much damage they do. 

That said, there are often ways to make difficult things easy without changing a setting in the options menu. These games are all about creating as many small advantages for yourself as possible and nothing is off the table. If you notice an enemy getting stuck in a door or refusing to leave a room, use that as an opportunity to fight on your own terms. If a boss is annoying, use those summoning abilities to widen your margin of error.

And most importantly, remember that running away from or past challenging encounters is an option more often than not. If a named boss dragon swoops down into your path, jonesing for a tussle (this happens on occasion), just get on your horse and run by it. Every enemy gives up eventually. You’re not meant to fight everything the moment you first encounter it; escape is the only way to go sometimes, and the developers designed the game with that in mind.

Learning isn’t fun for everyone

Elden Ring screenshot

Don’t fight dragons if you don’t have to.
Credit: From Software/Steam

Ultimately, Elden Ring (like its ilk) is about learning. You can’t half-ass your way through anything here because even a boss that’s half your level can shave 90 percent of your health bar away with a couple of well-timed hits. You need to know how much range your weapon has, how many hits you can get in when a boss is vulnerable for two seconds after an attack, and even if a corridor is too narrow to accommodate your swinging sword. Deaths are not setbacks, but merely opportunities to learn. Even if you don’t kill a boss, you may have noticed something about its attack pattern that you can apply next time.

In other words, failure is an intrinsic part of the Souls experience.

But I can totally understand if failure isn’t exactly fun in your mind. Sometimes I just want to run around and mash buttons and feel like a demigod for a while, too. You won’t find that here. What you will find, if you’re willing to put the time in, is one of the most outstanding video game worlds in years, full of truly surprising discoveries, beautifully grotesque monster designs, and an unparalleled feeling of satisfaction when you finally kill a boss that’s given you trouble for days. 

I hope Elden Ring can at least make you appreciate the brilliance of the Souls formula, even if it deviates from that in some key ways. If it doesn’t, though, don’t worry about it. Nobody’s obligated to like anything, no matter how much your group chat is obsessed with it. Give them a few weeks and they’ll move onto the next thing.

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