After being announced in 2019, Elden Ring is finally available in its Closed Network Test ahead of its full launch in February 2022. Simply looking at the vast skies and fields of the Lands Between is enough to instill a sense of exploratory desire. The art direction, graphical fidelity, enemy and environmental design, and overall lore are nothing short of breathtaking, thanks to the conjoined minds of Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R.R. Martin.
There are 5 classes to choose from in the Closed Network Test, with 5 more to come in the full release. The Warrior class dual-wields two scimitars and comes with the Storm blade Ash of War that sends out projectiles. The Enchanted Knight class is a tanky sorcerer that can launch magical beams out while delivering enchanted stabs with its spear. The Prophet class replaces the Faith class from previous games, primarily focusing on incantations, such as self-healing. The Champion class looks like a barbarian and can cast incantations, including a dragon’s head that breathes fire in a line. Finally, the Bloody Wolf class is your typical melee strength build, with no magic but instead focuses on equipping heavy armor and greatswords.
Weapon arts are back, this time named Ashes of War. Every weapon, when two-handed, has a special move that costs FP, the same resource that spells cost. Ashes of War are unique collectibles that don’t get consumed and are interchangeable at any Sites of Grace and replace a particular weapon’s weapon art. These range from shooting lightning down on your enemies to a majestic spinning attack that deals AOE damage. Due to weapon types and restrictions, not every Ash of War can be used with every weapon, but there are plenty for you to experiment with. Ashes of War also replace previous games’ weapon infusement system, such as making a weapon imbued with fire or changing the scaling to Dexterity.
Sites of Grace are the new bonfires. At these sites, you can spend your souls leveling up and restoring your health and flasks. Spectral lights emitted from Graces guide you in the general direction of the narrative, but you are free to explore to your heart’s content. Not long after your journey into the Lands Between, you meet Melina, a maiden who aids you. She even grants you a loyal steed called Torrent. Jumping is now possible, both on foot and on your spirit steed, providing more verticality than ever before. Because of this, platforming is now a mechanic that ultimately revamps the level design of classic Soulsborne games.
Elden Ring feels like a culmination of all of From Software’s previous games. Stance breaking, stealth, and the previously mentioned jump mechanic have made their way into the game from Sekiro. Every enemy, including yourself, has a hidden stance meter. Filling that meter and breaking an enemy’s stance gives you the chance to land a devastating visceral attack. Jump attacks are also possible now, offering more variety to your combat kit while filling up the stance bar considerably. Stealth is made available via crouching and attacking an enemy in stealth lands you a guaranteed critical hit.
Perhaps the most significant combat mechanic introduced is the guard break system, allowing you to counter-attack after successfully blocking. It makes defensive play styles more viable and active while also giving newcomers to the series a more accessible mechanic to utilize than the parry.
As usual, From Software does not disappoint when it comes to boss design in terms of visuals, audio, and combat movesets. A choir accompanied by orchestral instruments creates grand and exhilarating tracks. There are 11 bosses and 2 minibosses in the Closed Network Test, which is estimated to be representative of roughly 1/12 of the entire game. The scale of Elden Ring is vast, and it fills me up with nothing but excitement and anticipation.
Bosses now can directly interact with the immediate environment. For example, the Tree Sentinel can destroy the nearby Church should you choose to hide in it, and Flying Dragon Agheel burns down trees with its fire should you decide to dodge behind them. Although this is a small detail, it goes a long way in making fights feel more dynamic and immersive. In addition, bosses now attack or defend accordingly based on what you do. The difficulty of From Software games is still here, with boss moves that hit like a truck and require you to learn their movesets and weaknesses.
Crafting is now possible, with a system that encourages you to collect various shrubbery and fruit out in the open world, as well as savaging dead animal remains. Crafting Kits can be bought and allow you to create arrows, throwing knives, bombs, and consumable buffs on the fly. They’re not essential to use but provide an extra gameplay mechanic and a nice touch to the overall open-world design.
Speaking of open-world design, From Software took a risky approach when deciding to make their upcoming title open-world. A major drawback of any open-world game is its empty open space that feels dead and empty. Another pitfall is the reuse of assets, including environments, enemies, and missions. These include taking out enemy camps that more or less result in the same meaningless outcome. Thankfully, Elden Ring falls into neither of those traps, as its world is not massively huge but just big enough to tuck handcrafted secrets away into every corner. Legacy dungeons are often found slipped between various corners of the map, either at the bottom of a ditch or on the edge of a cliff, each containing meaningful encounters in the form of rare loot and challenging bosses.
Much of the criticism against games created by From Software revolves around the extremely high difficulty curve. For those new to the series, I’m happy to say that Elden Ring is the most accessible and approachable entry any Soulsborne game has ever been, with a slew of quality of life changes. First and foremost, cooperative play is back and the most seamless it has ever been. Solo players can no longer be invaded by other players by default. Multiplayer partners can now accompany you to most places in the overworld without any interruptions or fog walls blocking you off.
Additionally, there have been some changes to PVP, making it easier to be summoned as an invader, should you choose to do so. Finally, aside from the multiplayer aspect, offline summons has made a return, this time with the ability to summon various enemy types encountered in the game. In addition, summons lends a helping hand during boss encounters because they take the aggro away from you, giving you ample time to heal up or land an attack.
Fast travel is available at any time and anywhere, given that you aren’t in combat or a dungeon. Sprinting doesn’t consume stamina if you are out of combat as well. New respawn locations called Stakes of Marika is conveniently placed near boss lairs and are now available for you to respawn at instead of the last Grace you rested at. This saves you the time and frustration of running back to a boss’s location after dying. Clearing entire enemy camps rewards you by filling up your potion flasks again. In addition to all the aforementioned newly added combat mechanics, this truly is a game that allows you to approach it however you want to. The raw challenge is still there, but there are many resources to mitigate it.
Much of Elden Ring feels nostalgically familiar and refreshingly new, with hidden secrets and snippets of lore folded away into every bend of the Lands Between. Even though this was just a tiny portion of what the entire game has to offer, I can already confidently say that if From Software keeps up to pace with what the Network Test contains, Elden Ring will be the next game of the year. I’ve never experienced such a magnificent feat of game design, and February can’t come soon enough.
Elden Ring is coming to PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC on February 25, 2022.
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