The Souls noob's guide to Elden Ring
FromSoftware's magnum opus, made with input from George R R Martin, invites new and veteran players alike
The RPG Greetings, traveler, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. You'll forgive the lateness of this edition because there was really only one game that mattered in March – perhaps the entirety of 2022 – and that game's name is Elden Ring.
I've never gelled well with FromSoftware titles, but that doesn't mean I know nothing about them. The studio first caught my attention through various forums about a game called Demon's Souls around 2009.
On the face of things, it didn't look like anything special. A Japanese take on Western fantasy RPG tropes, the gallant knight fighting oversized foes in a bleak medieval setting. Big whoop.
But what players seemed fixated on was the perceived difficulty of the game. This, combined with its bland outward appearance and exclusivity to the PlayStation 3, meant I would never have to bother.
But then a couple of years later came Dark Souls, the "spiritual successor" to Demon's Souls, and people would not shut up about it. Discussion was unavoidable, no matter which internet gamer holes you haunted. I don't recall exactly what inspired me to give it a go – perhaps the ravings of friends and acquaintances – but I ended up having a brief dalliance with the "Prepare to Die" edition, an incredibly poor PC port of what is often cited as one of the greatest video games ever made.
I'm not kidding when I say brief. Steam says little more than 8.5 hours played. The port was locked to 30fps, graphics were under par, and thanks to the plodding gameplay of the opening hours I never once felt excited to boot up the game. I never saw in it what other people did, or never gave myself the chance.
But my outsider's fascination with what I held as a curiosity never waned, spiking when my partner downloaded Bloodborne, another FromSoft game released between Dark Souls II and III in 2015, for free on PlayStation 4. I warned her about the inaccessibility of FromSoft titles, but watched amazed as she gradually prevailed over the Lovecraftian world's terrifying monsters.
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From here, I immersed myself in FromSoft's unique approach to storytelling and game design. I watched someone complete Bloodborne, in its entirety, all the while explaining the intricacies of the world's lore, from the safety of YouTube, then watched them do the same for Dark Souls. I fell in love with the whole approach – albeit from afar.
Now in 2022, I suddenly find that the next FromSoft game is upon us – Elden Ring – one that has been insanely hyped but almost passed me by. What else is an "occasional games writer" to do but buckle up and immerse themselves in the "Souls-like"?
To be clear, few developers can lay claim to inventing a subgenre, but FromSoft can. Though the Souls-likes are presented as "action-RPGs," similarities to, say, CDProjekt Red's Witcher series are fleeting. Let's try to define it here briefly.
You start off as a pathetic weakling. Enemies can destroy you in a few hits, but defeating them awards you a currency – "souls" (Dark Souls), "blood echoes" (Bloodborne), "runes" (Elden Ring) – and you can use these to increase your skill in a number of disciplines at designated checkpoints. The idea is that the game hopefully teaches you how to progress and react to certain situations through multiple deaths (hence the "Prepare to Die" subtitle on the Dark Souls port).
You respawn at the last checkpoint you activated, all enemies alive again, all currency lost, though you have one chance to pick them up from where you fell. If you die trying to do that, they're gone and you've missed your chance to grow more powerful for the moment. You will have to gather them again.
You gain armor, weapons, and other useful items from felled enemies and bosses or simply find them as you explore, each suiting a certain playstyle and stat distribution. Weapons can be made stronger through other collectible currencies. Slowly and steadily, you find yourself more skilled, more capable to take on the world's incredibly challenging foes. The base mechanics are a light attack, a heavy attack, a backstep, a dodge roll, and the ability to block or parry and riposte incoming attacks with a weapon or shield. You can also combine attacks with a jump or opt for a magic-using class that rains hell down on enemies from a distance.
There are a few more aspects that make a FromSoftian Souls-like – huge bosses, environmental storytelling, intricate dungeon design, vast areas that you can walk past if you don't pay attention, piecemeal information from non-player characters (NPCs), and absolutely no hand-holding like quest markers or objectives. You see the ghosts of other players moving through the same areas as you, and blood marks on the floor reveal how they died.
Players can also leave messages to help or troll others, and invade their worlds to duel if they wish. Now imagine these motifs blown up to an open-world scale, and you have Elden Ring.
Development was again led by Dark Souls auteur Hidetaka Miyazaki, who also directed Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, but with input from George R R Martin – yes, he of A Song of Ice and Fire or Game of Thrones fame – who is said to have devised the setting and its mythology.
As much as I admire Martin for his epic fantasy series of novels, his involvement seems little more than incidental because, although Elden Ring is a departure somewhat from previous Souls games, Miyazaki's fingerprints are more obvious.
Much like other FromSoft Souls-likes before it, Elden Ring takes place following a catastrophe, referred to here as The Shattering. The reigning goddess of The Lands Between, Marika, smashes the Elden Ring – which seems to represent the laws of the physical world – and goes AWOL. Her son, Godwyn the Golden, is then murdered by dark forces and Marika's other demigod offspring claim shards of the ring, starting a war that ravages the continent. As a result, the "Greater Will," some sort of divinity, abandons the world.
It's awesome stuff, like discovering the legends of some long-lost civilization. The player takes the role of a Tarnished "of no renown… whom grace would again bless." The Tarnished are described as "ye dead who yet live," exiled from The Lands Between because "grace" left them. But you have been called back to claim the throne of the Elden Lord.
All this is told through the opening cinematic once you have chosen your class (hero, bandit, astrologer, warrior, prisoner, confessor, wretch, vagabond, prophet or samurai), after which you are unceremoniously dropped into The Lands Between with little more than a pat on the bum and an "off you go." I went with a vagabond, an archetypal knight-like character. The choice should reflect your hoped-for playstyle (in this case, heavily armored, sword-and-board melee), but it's not too important as there will be opportunities to repec as you progress – for example, if you can't make your build work well in a particular scenario.
Elden Ring doesn't hold back. You stroll through a ruined chapel into a courtyard where a multi-limbed, sword-wielding "Grafted Scion" leaps out, your first "boss encounter" within minutes. Now, highly skilled Souls veterans may be able to handle this. Everyone else will be trounced in a matter of seconds. But that's OK, it's quite typical of a Souls game to have a kind of "pretend" boss fight early on, and you will be able to return to this area and redeem yourself further down the line.
You reawaken on the floor of a dank tomb with stairs on the left leading up to a doorway. But there's more to this area if patiently explored. Jumping down a crevasse to the right will lead the player through a tutorial, which explains most of the game's mechanics, culminating in a simple boss fight that leads back to the doorway. Completely novice players are in for a rude awakening if they run past the tutorial. This may seem punishing, but Elden Ring is simply teaching (in a cold, disinterested way) how the game works. Explore, probe, be brave and curious. Don't wait for a pop-up to tell what to do because that simply isn't happening.
Upon exiting the tomb, Elden Ring is already on lesson number two: you don't have to fight every enemy you see. Patrolling the road up to the Church of Elleh in the distance is a gigantic mounted knight clad in golden armor.
Taking them on right now is tantamount to suicide, but you may as well have a go once you've touched your first Site of Grace (Elden Ring's checkpoint and fast travel system) and spoken to White-Faced Varre, an NPC who explains "grace" and how the game gives you hints on where to go – via a golden beam pointing in a certain direction. You can, however, sneak around the knight and get to the church, where you'll find your first merchant selling a variety of useful items.
The Lands Between are deceptively epic. The first part of the map you have unlocked is big in itself, but once you've figured out how to uncover more, there's this sinking feeling with the dawning realization of how vast Elden Ring has the potential to be. It is totally overwhelming and so, instead of attempting to "review" such an enormous and brilliant game, I figured I'd jot down a few pointers that may help if you decide to make the leap. Which you should, but I'll get to why later.
Explore, probe, be brave and curious
To reiterate what I said before, because it didn't emphasize enough how important exploration is to Elden Ring. The benefits of simply picking a direction and running – not necessarily where the grace is pointing – are untold. It also means that every player's experience will be totally different.
If you find a cave, catacomb or tomb entrance, go inside! Not only will the enemies you defeat along the way award runes for growing in strength, but you may find a useful item, weapon, character or boss fight, which will have its own reward. If the boss proves too difficult, mark the location on your map and come back when you're more powerful.
You may also stumble upon subplots unique to that area which are more suited to your level than attempting to follow the main story – like Weeping Peninsula to the south.
If, for example, you reach Margit the Fell Omen, Elden Ring's first non-optional boss, and you're underleveled, you're going to have a bad time. Margit has acquired a reputation of being an especially difficult skill-check boss compared to other Souls games, so try to make sure you have smashed some points into "vigor" (health) and other disciplines relevant to your playstyle before you take him on.
On that note, if you find yourself banging your head against a wall trying to defeat a certain boss or pass through a challenging area, go somewhere else and come back another time. The non-linear nature of Elden Ring is a blessing compared to the corridor-room-corridor-room loop of Dark Souls.
Though summons have been a fixture of Souls games from the beginning, Spirit Ashes are a new feature that allows you to summon a spirit into battle at will – but they are easy to miss. Once you unlock Torrent, Elden Ring's magical goat-donkey mount, head back to the Church of Elleh to meet the two-faced, four-armed witch Renna, one of the more important characters in the game. She will give you the Spirit Bell needed to summon and a spectral pack of wolves to call upon. If you miss this encounter, the items can be bought from a merchant at Roundtable Hold, the hub area for the Tarnished.
Other, more powerful Spirit Ashes of varying utility can be found across the world – remember to explore! – and it is suggested that new players make the most of the tools at their disposal, but their use is not always allowed. Nor are they strictly necessary. Many veterans have already beaten the game without summoning or are making a point of trying.
Weapon Arts and Ashes of War
Another new feature, these are abilities specific to weapons that can be activated in battle. Experiment with them. Ashes of War are non-consumable and can be applied to different weapons again and again as long as you have found the necessary item. Some special weapons, however, cannot have their art changed.
Though experienced Souls fans may wish to play Elden Ring blind, it is a huge ask for anyone new to FromSoft's work. As already touched upon, there is no hand-holding, and the world's grim, cold, and unforgiving atmosphere is simply part and parcel of the experience. But I believe that completing these games is a community effort. If you need help, there is no shame in seeking it online or asking others in the community.
That said, the Souls community does have a somewhat toxic and egotistical reputation. The stock response to any inquiry being "git gud" (get good at the game) has become a meme – ignore this, and ignore anyone saying you're doing it wrong if you're making full use of tools provided in game. If something really isn't working, you may be missing a piece of the puzzle and there are plentiful resources online to get you back on track.
Some might argue that it's poor design – that so much metagaming can sometimes be required – but really it's just old school. The immense challenge and bewilderment all hark back to when games simply didn't have quest markers, explanations for everything, or difficulty sliders. It's a rebellion against the stagnancy of modern gaming, and that's why so many people like it. Old hands want new players to be able to enjoy the game, too. They want to see you succeed, no matter how tricky you might find it, and I think Miyazaki also wants the community to help each other – this is why players can leave gold signs in front of boss gates, so that they can be summoned to assist with the encounter.
Bosses you meet in the overworld, like Erdtree Avatars and dragons, are large, highly mobile creatures. Fighting them on horseback – or whatever it is Torrent is supposed to be – can provide speed and agility to match them in battle. Of course, it is always a choice whether to mount up. Torrent also has a double-jump, which can help you get to otherwise unreachable places.
Prepare to die
Death in Elden Ring is a lesson, not a failure. You are going to die a lot and must come to terms with that quickly. Not just because a certain enemy or boss is challenging, but because the game will try to kill you too, like an unjust dungeon master, by hiding a foe behind a corner or setting up an ambush.
Don't sweat the runes
You will lose huge stacks of runes, but don't worry about it too much. There are diminishing returns as each level costs more. By the time it takes over 10,000 runes to gain a level, you should be dying a lot less and able to hold onto more for longer. As you progress, you will probably notice areas where enemies can be dispatched easily and yet award unusually large amounts of runes per kill. Return to these places and farm them until all the enemies are dead, then reset the area at a Site of Grace. Rinse and repeat.
The Grand Lift of Dectus to Altus Plateau requires special items to activate – but there is another way round
Talk to characters and listen close
Although Elden Ring lacks a purpose-built quest and journal-type system, that doesn't mean there aren't quests. The notoriously cryptic NPCs speak in a way that assumes you know what they're going on about, but they will drop little hints about their motivations and what they'd like you to do. Take note of names and locations they might mention for when you come across them.
This is how progressing a quest in Elden Ring works, but you won't be rewarded with experience points or otherwise alerted to the fact. Instead you will be given further instruction when that person is found. The denizens of Roundtable Hold all have quest lines attached, as do characters across The Lands Between, notably Renna (Ranni).
Remember to exhaust their dialog until they say nothing new by repeatedly pressing the relevant button once they stop talking or you will miss out on crucial information.
Frustratingly, these characters move around the world as the story develops. In the first major patch, however, FromSoft capitulated from its hardline stance and added icons indicating an NPC's position once you have discovered them. This might help... a bit.
Why you should play it
Elden Ring is by far the most accessible FromSoft title yet. This does not mean it is easy, far from it, but the option to go out and explore and see what works and what doesn't means that you cannot get "stuck" per se – you just go off and grow in strength, "grind" a bit, and come back later. Sure, other Souls games weren't strictly linear either. You'd have choices of directions to go, but depending on what stage of the game you were at, one way would definitely be inadvisable.
This isn't really the case with Elden Ring. It is hard to get into an area you aren't leveled for anyway thanks to the subtle design. Think of it as "tricky Skyrim" – yes, everything can and will kill you if you don't keep your head, but it is also possible to just breathe in the incredible environments and enjoy the adventure.
But it's not all open world either. Many of Elden Ring's main bosses are hidden deep within labyrinthine castles, fortresses, and cities, which FromSoft refers to as "legacy dungeons" in that they closely resemble the dungeon-crawling gameplay style of Dark Souls and related games. These are where the most fun can be had as you figure out how to get from A to B, or even where you're supposed to be going, without dying so much that your grip on sanity starts to slip.
While the graphics aren't on the bleeding edge for 2022, they do everything they need to. The Lands Between are a sight to behold, but severely damaged by The Shattering. The starting area of Limgrave is a grassy zone dotted with forests and lakes, Liurnia to the north is mostly marsh, then to the east lie the diseased wastes of Caelid. Nearer to the capital of Leyndell the sky has an odd golden tinge, and then there's Volcano Manor, which, funnily enough, is inside a volcano. There are more regions that I am yet to uncover.
I was afraid of Elden Ring at first thanks to FromSoft's fearsome reputation, but the gameplay flows so naturally that I was slaying demigods much quicker than I had anticipated. At this point, some 70 hours in, I have defeated Margit, Godrick the Grafted, the Leonine Misbegotten, Starscourge Radahn, the Red Wolf of Radagon, Rennala, Queen of the Full Moon, Royal Knight Loretta, Magma Wyrm Makar, an Ancestor Spirit, a Regal Ancestor Spirit, the Mimic Tear, Dragonkin Soldier of Nokstella, Full-Grown Fallingstar Beast, and countless others. Many more mighty foes await me in the world beyond, but if this idiot can do it, you can too.
I hope it's coming across that Elden Ring is pretty much a perfect game, but the PC version at least isn't without flaws. At times there are huge stutters, particularly when entering a new area. Hopefully this performance issue can be addressed with a patch, but 99 percent of the game plays just fine. Frame rate is locked to 60fps, sadly, but it's also not a deal-breaker. This is about as much criticism as I can conjure.
People will be talking about Elden Ring for years to come. If this is what a current-gen FromSoft game looks like at release – a finished, fully functional product rather than a broken mess as is so common these days – the future bodes extremely well for whatever is next. ®
Rich has been playing Elden Ring on Twitch as ExcellentSword and intends to complete the game on stream. The boss fight clips linked above were included because he realized the combat is too difficult to take screenshots mid-fight (the screenshots he did take are of scenery). Chuck him a follow for more video game impressions as they happen! Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from around 8:30-9pm UK time (15:00 Eastern, 12:00 Pacific).