Elden Ring feels like a true Dark Souls successor

It might be open-world, but Elden Ring bears all the hallmarks of FromSoft's brilliant Dark Souls trilogy

Sitting at a Site of Grace in Elden Ring

I’ll admit I was worried when Hidetaka Miyazaki, director of FromSoftware, revealed that Dark Souls III would be the final game in the series back in 2017. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice proved Bloodborne wasn’t a fluke, and that the developer could branch out from the ingenious formula of its core series and still create something special, but it isn’t Dark Souls. It wasn’t until after I played Elden Ring for six straight hours that I could finally move on from the beloved trilogy. The king is dead; long live the king.

FromSoft has left Dark Souls behind, but it has taken the series’ strengths and bolstered them with new tricks to create something that could be even better in Elden Ring.

After three games, the hallmarks of Dark Souls are well established. There are the obvious furnishings, like bonfires, esoteric progression paths, and brutal boss battles, but the real heart of the series is the relationship between death, exploration, and progression. It’s a beautiful, messy love triangle that keeps you struggling through each location until every poisonous pool and foetid corridor is burned into your mind.

This hard-won knowledge of shortcuts, carnivorous treasure chests, and enemy ambushes is essential to progress. Occasionally, you’ll take a wrong turn and enter a corner of the world you’re not ready for, and Dark Souls will offer some course correction in the form of a beatdown so one-sided that you know not to even bother heading back for your dropped souls. And so, while there are many ways you can approach the labyrinthine worlds of Lordran, Drangleic, or Lothric, most players follow a relatively linear path during their first playthrough.

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Elden Ring’s a little different. Your journey begins in Limgrave, a beautiful open-world region characterised by golden trees, lush meadows, and ancient ruins. Unlike Dark Souls, in which your path through Undead Burg is fairly linear once you’ve arrived, the wide-open starting point doesn’t force you into any particular groove. You’re free to create your own ‘starting out’ stories here, and they’ll differ from mine.

Surveying the world map in Elden Ring

To help you explore, FromSoft departs from the Souls structure by giving you a map, which you can use to mark bonfires (or Sites of Grace in Elden Ring nomenclature), NPCs you want to visit, and other areas of interest. This gives players an opportunity to explore different regions, working out the power level of each zone before deciding on an approach. It’s so refreshingly non-committal – even when Dark Souls’ path does branch in an equally viable way, you typically feel like you have to see each path through to its conclusion or risk having to repeat the zone.

The perfect example of this is waiting to smack you over the head just beyond Limgrave’s first Site of Grace: a towering, heavily armoured knight on horseback called the Tree Sentinel. One look is enough to suspect what a foolhardy attack will prove, which is that it’s clearly too difficult to fight at the beginning of the game. The Sentinel’s purpose isn’t to serve as your first boss to slay, but to be ignored.

This is reinforced by the fact that it’s wandering in the open, unobscured by a fog wall, with a Site of Grace nearby – if you die to it, you can just grab your souls (sorry, Runes) and hightail it out of there. Even though the Sentinel interrupts the critical path – which exists in the game as a literal beam of golden light to put you back on course – FromSoft doesn’t want you to worry about this knight just yet.

One of the many beautiful vistas you can enjoy in Elden Ring

That golden light is the Guidance of Grace, a calming trail of golden flecks that appears in the air whenever you get close to a Site of Grace and points you towards the next. Exploring an open world can be off-putting to some, as you can easily stumble into places you shouldn’t be. Like the phantasmal passage of other players struggling in other worlds, or the messages they leave, the Guidance of Grace is another of FromSoft’s tender mercies, perfectly calibrated to the new challenges Elden Ring presents.

One of the most exciting things about Elden Ring’s early game is that everyone playing this RPG game is going to have a different experience. While I decided to head towards Sorceress Sellen before travelling to Caelid, someone else might be drawn to Limgrave’s Dragon-Burnt Ruins. Elden Ring’s map is littered with unique environments, and because you can go anywhere you want at any time, there’s no such thing as a wrong turn.

Following the Guidance of Grace leads me to numerous soldiers lurking in a nearby forest. These enemies are no match for my Astrologer’s deadly Glintstone Pebbles, and I pelt them to death with blue bolts of energy. The trail of soldiers stops at the Groveside Cave, which a pack of wolves have made their home.

Exploring a spooky keep in Elden Ring

It’s a very short dungeon, the final boss of which is the Beastman of Farum Azula. His frenzied attacks seem wild, yet are surprisingly predictable, and I don’t take a single hit as I pepper him with spells. Unfortunately, this drains all my FP (spell-casting juice), and my squishy Astrologer is forced to draw his poky sword. I take a near-lethal blow in doing so, but manage to bring the Beastman down.

The boss’s corpse disappears, rewarding me with over 1,000 Runes and leaving behind a glowing portal that teleports me back to the entrance. Compared with even the average area in Dark Souls, let alone Bloodborne’s nightmarish deep Chalice dungeons, it’s a positively bite-sized experience. I’m suspicious. I expect some sort of catch. But this is one of the ways From has decided to fill the world.

Without these mini dungeons, players could go for long stretches without ever fighting a boss. These short encounters give players that satisfaction without having to run through a large castle first. From Pumpkin Heads to Soldiers of Godrick, there are plenty of bosses within these mini dungeons that eventually become regular enemies across the map.

Chatting to NPCs in Elden Ring

Groveside Cave is a short walk into Limgrave, but it’s soon time to look further afield, and for this I need my spectral steed. Simply by being conveniently summonable and very quick, this ghost horse is Elden Ring’s elegant nudge to get you out into the world and exploring. The fact that every rest site you find can be easily teleported to via the map is another. Venturing too far into an unknown area in Dark Souls could result in you becoming trapped, whereas Elden Ring always gives you the option to return ‘home’, wherever that may be.

My final two hours of the preview are spent discovering the area of Caelid, a location that wasn’t available to Rich when he got his hands on the game last year. The green-gold glowing trees of Limgrave yield to an ominous red sky, beneath which sits a deserted village. Gone are the docile animals and Bob Ross-esque forests; Caelid is the dark, twisted version of the starting area, filled with shrivelled fungi and disgusting creatures. Just by looking at the environment, it’s clear that this is a high-level zone that shouldn’t be explored by new players. So, of course, I venture forth.

I soon discover Caelem Ruins, an area packed with fire-breathing contraptions on wheels. I descend into an underground passage to avoid a massive flame attack from one of them, only to discover another mini dungeon. From a thick yellow mist, two familiar faces emerge: Mad Pumpkin Heads, except this time they come equipped with fire-imbued weapons. The first time I encountered this enemy, my summoned Lone Wolves made quick work of the fight. This time around, it only takes one swing from their flaming hammers to wipe out my wolves. My death follows shortly after.

Getting backstabbed in Elden Ring

Coming up against the Mad Pumpkin Head from Limgrave was a surprise, and I hope this is an example of Elden Ring introducing us to recurring enemy encounters. As you get stronger and outgrow certain areas on the map, there are always going to be locations filled with strong enemies ready to take you down a peg. Fighting buffed versions of enemies that were once pushovers is a great way to challenge your perception of your own strength. In classic Souls fashion, there’s always something bigger and meaner right around the corner.

Does your PC meet the Elden Ring system requirements?

The majority of my time in Caelid is spent running away from enemies that are far too strong, though it’s nice to be able to peek ahead to see what’s in store. There are so many new mechanics and features in Elden Ring, but I only had six hours to explore this vast world. As it stands, I’m looking forward to a fair fight against the overpowered enemies that destroyed me: I’m making a list of the monsters that took me down, and I fully intend to come back for revenge. Then again, who knows… my next experience could be completely different.

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