Elden Ring (Xbox Series X) Review
Five Gold Rings
- Huge in scale and scope
- Beautiful backdrop
- Great story, slowly told
- Constant drive of progression
- Everything is open from the off
- Can be slow progress...
- ... with not much direction...
- ... but they're both good in a way
From the developer that previously gave us the Dark Souls trilogy, along with other classics such as Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, there’s no doubting that fantasy RPG action-adventure Elden Ring comes into the market with no shortage of pedigree, or expectation. Throw in a storyline crafted by veteran creator Hidetaki Miyazaki in collaboration with A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin and you’ve got a rich recipe for success – and one that doesn’t fail to deliver.
Elden Ring follows more in the footsteps of the Dark Souls games (with some notable elements lifted from the others, such as Sekiro’s stealth), with a story that manages to be both epic and largely incidental, such is the vast nature of the game world that you can immerse yourself into. This means that everyone’s experience will be almost unique, save for a few major developments that shape your general path. Indeed, there is only one key mission: to recover the broken shards of the titular Elden Ring, become the Elden Lord and bring peace back to the land. Oh, but those shards are in the hands of demigods, each the size of a four-storey house and powerful enough to kill you from two miles away with just a stern look. Good luck!
A story that manages to be both epic and largely incidental, such is the vast nature of the game world that you can immerse yourself into
Where to Even Begin?
To start with a quick disclaimer, we hadn’t finished the game before we started writing this review. We didn’t even try, as to do so would be pointless given just how vast Elden Ring is and to even attempt to rush through things would be to miss out on nearly all that’s great about it. Indeed, our eagerness to explore all that the game has to offer was behind our soon-to-be-regretted decision to start out as the Level 1 Wretch (armed with only a club and some good intentions), when there are better starting characters with some nicely upgraded attributes already in place, such as the Level 10 Confessor, geared towards covert ops and adept with both a sword and magical incantations.
Whoever you choose to start with, you’ll walk out into an almost ridiculously large game world, which is all fully open from the very beginning. There are no missions, side-quests or waypoints, just that one over-arching goal and some general hints as to the direction you might want to try heading in. Of course, this being a FromSoftware game, those directions will almost certainly lead you into trouble that you’re massively under-equipped to deal with and so you’ll die. Repeatedly.
This is a common association with FromSoftware’s games, in that they can be brutally tough, and to a point that’s true with Elden Ring. However, what’s key with a game like Elden Ring is that it’s not that it’s actually overly-difficult or punishing; it’s more that it just doesn’t have a tolerance for stupidity, but does demand a degree of patience. From the very beginning it’s clear that you’re not even close to being the toughest guy in town, and if you take a knife into swordfight with someone ten times your size, it’s rarely going to end well. Instead, it’s about knowing your limitations, so that you pick the fights you can win and steer well clear of those you can’t… until you can come back and offer up more than a few seconds of resistance much later on.
It’s not that it’s actually overly-difficult or punishing; it’s more that it just doesn’t have a tolerance for stupidity
We should also point to those who see this supposed difficulty spike as a barrier to entry that Elden Ring is probably one of the most generous games in the developer’s portfolio. You’re faster than most enemies, making running away from (or past) them a perfectly good outcome, and you’ll get access to a ghostly steed very early on, to help both in combat and for quicker navigation – with a Fast Travel system also being a huge help. You can fall a decent amount without taking damage and have an oddly effective jump button, while using basic stealth makes life a whole lot easier as enemies have a low and limited range of vision. It’s not that this doesn’t make every unexplored corner something to be feared, but you certainly have lots of ways to play Elden Ring that bit smarter – and that’s before you start to upgrade your arsenal.
That said, dying is still a part of the learning experience. We spent the best part of three days wandering around the first few major locations of the many you’ll see on the horizon as you start out. We knew great rewards lay inside, but every path we took, every tunnel or cave we explored, ultimately led to another gruesome and, we have to admit, frequently limp demise, with superior enemies wiping us out with as little as a single hit. Later, we spent two days roaming around with no real sense of direction, just scouring for new items with which to upgrade our largely inadequate kit. Elden Ring is not a hero fantasy; it’s more about the journey to merely being proficient. Being badass is a luxury that’s very well earned.
While this might sound annoying, and it frequently is, it is also where the game really comes into its own, as you explore the vast wilderness of the Lands Between at your own speed and on your own terms (or at least as best as you can). You’ll figure out who you can fight and what you need to avoid (Rule 1: Trust no-one), while exploring the landscape for anything and everything that will improve your weapons, magic and armour, or offer up crafting items and other goodies you can sell for the all-important runes that can be spent on levelling up your character.
Growing into the Game
It can be a slow process, especially in the early stages with your limited stats also impacting upon the availability of some of the weapons and assorted trickery at your disposal, but each small step forward gives you that extra ounce of courage on a seemingly endless climb towards some of the top-tier boss battles that lie in wait. There’s also a further tactical element, with Sites of Grace (the equivalent to Dark Souls’ bonfires) offering a safe haven to refill your health and other consumables – but at the cost of respawning every enemy you’ve killed beforehand, so there’s a risk-reward factor in not using them if you know you’ll need to backtrack on yourself in the near future.
Elden Ring is not a hero fantasy; it’s more about the journey to merely being proficient. Being badass is a luxury that’s very well earned
Your progression is also tied into the many complexities and inventory/combat layers neatly woven into the game. Nothing is every particularly well explained, which is where some experience of FromSoftware’s back catalogue could come in useful, but it’s not overly complicated either. For example, you’ll need a Spirit Calling Bell (that’s easily miss-able early on) to be able to use the new ability to summon the spirits of fallen enemies to act as temporary AI allies, and there are similar items in place to help enhance your weapons, or add new spells and powers to your combat options that you’ll need to figure out as you go.
It can be a bit of a juggling act, and a rather overwhelming one if you’re a newcomer, but it also helps to drive the uniqueness of your Elden Ring experience. Such are the multitude of ways you can shape your character, and so vast and open the landscape, that you’ll be finding new items in an almost completely random order to any other playthrough – which in turn will dictate how you’re playing or what different tools you have.
We should also point out that there is a multiplayer element to Elden Ring. On a friendly level, you can hook up with two others for some co-op gameplay as long as you’re in the roughly the same location. Those of a more competitive nature can turn Invader and drop into a fellow online game with the aim of killing the host – with a second ‘Rescue’ mode that sends Hunters into the same game to kill the Invader first. The competitive elements seem like more of a late-stage diversion for seasoned players (and there are some annoying NPC invaders even if you play offline, but they have a short spawn area and will drop out as soon as you run a reasonable distance away) – and certainly the co-op option could prove very useful for putting together a hunting party for some of the tougher bosses or densely populated areas.
Graphics & Audio
It’s telling about the visual quality of the game that typically we’d find three or four moments in most other titles where we’d think, ‘hey, this vista would make a really good-looking screenshot’. In Elden Ring that was pretty much a constant from our very first introduction to the game world. The only thing more impressive than the view or the near-flawless draw distance is that every castle, every tower, every oddly entrancing luminescent tree is ready to be explored from the off – although, as mentioned, that doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea.
Graphically excellent, Elden Ring is also a technically impressive game, with the Xbox Series X boasting both HDR and ray-tracing to really help bring the landscape to life – from those sumptuous vistas to the darker dungeons and every other disturbingly beautiful corner of this wonderfully crafted world. You do get the choice of prioritising smooth gameplay that ‘targets’ 60fps or focus on a fixed 4K performance – dropping to 2650 x 1440p on the Xbox Series S, with HDR still in place but no ray-tracing. You might have seen reports that consoles aren’t exactly hitting that 60fsp target quite so often, with the 45-60fps window more accurate, but that didn’t detract from our experience with Elden Ring, to the point where we’d barely notice any discrepancies unless we actively looked for them.
The audio is far more understated but no less impressive. Again, that initial introduction sets a welcome standard, with howling winds blowing a breeze across your living room, before the distant sounds of passing bad guys transforms your surround speakers into an ever-useful early warning system. All of this is supported by a beautifully seamless orchestral score that rises and falls in line with the action or your surroundings, to the point where are times you’ll barely notice it, and then moments later you’ll catch a sudden escalation that will have you spinning around in fear to see just what triggered it.
The distant sounds of passing bad guys transforms your surround speakers into an ever-useful early warning system
Elden Ring (Xbox Series X) Review
Elden Ring a vast, rich and rewarding experience that’s hard to compare outside of FromSoftware’s own back catalogue. If you’re a fan of the Elder Scrolls games, then think Skyrim, only the dragons turn up in scene one and are generally regarded as low-level grunts. Not that Elden Ring is unfairly tough, it’s just that success needs to be earned and impatience or stupidity will likely lead to yet another ‘You Died’ screen – but every death, every new item found, every spell unlocked and more is all part of an endlessly immersive experience.
It won't be a game for everyone, but if you're even remotely curious and have a fair bit of time on your hands, it's definitely worth giving it a look. Perhaps best of all, such is the freedom and sheer scale of the game world, that everyone who does play Elden Ring will likely have their own unique story to tell. Sure, there’ll be a few familiarities to share around the campfire, but the path you take and the person you become in order to take home the title of Elden Lord will very much be yours alone. It will be hard-earned and it will be bloody, but it will absolutely be worth every single moment.
The games console used in this review was kindly supplied by our gaming partner Smyths Toys Gaming, the No.1 choice for next-gen Gaming