'Elden Ring' Is a Bloody Good Time

The new open-world Soulsbourne entry, in part designed by George R.R. Martin, is the franchise's most accessible game yet.

Elden Ring
Bandai Namco

You're galloping over a shallow lake when a dragon the size of a house swoops down from the heavens, crushing spindly trees beneath its scaly bulk. You mash the button to dig your heels into your horse's flank, and the sorcerous steed, Torrent, charges toward the maw of death. You leap off in time to slash the dragon's snarling, smoldering face, then roll through its counterattack and hack at its ankles a few times. As the air around the beast begins to crackle, you remount and disengage just in time to avoid the billowing flames—and yet another link in a never-ending chain of deaths.

As this Elden Ring encounter plays out, seasoned Soulsborne players won't be able to help thinking back to the dragons they fought in FromSoftware's 2009 release, Demon's Souls, the game that spawned the Soulsborne genre. The dragons of 13 years ago were mostly smoke and mirrors; they seldom moved, instead remaining stationary on the ground or perched high above, spewing occasional bursts of flame, and a typical battle with one involved launching arrows at their soft bits for an hour or two to slowly whittle down their health. In contrast, Elden Ring's dragons range far and wide, teeth gnashing, tails lashing, fire splashing like napalm—behaving like proper mythical beasts. And these incredible battles—more epic than most scripted boss encounters in any previous FromSoftware game—occur naturally in Elden Ring's world as you explore, perpetually scavenging for the next shelter-providing Site of Grace.

This comparison leads to one possible conclusion: Elden Ring must be the game that visionary designer Hidetaka Miyazaki, the FromSoftware president responsible for the best games in this series, has always wanted to make. It's the apex of all the ideas he's poked and prodded and stretched and sculpted over the last 13 years, the features that Soulsborne players love, set in an expansive, dense, immersive world that feels endlessly layered with secrets and adventures. And strangely, it's the most accessible Souls game ever, with much of the series' infamous friction smoothed down to more tolerable levels.

Elden Ring
Bandai Namco

All the tentpole Souls ideas remain in play. For example, you still drop all your unspent experience points—in Elden Ring, they're called Runes—when you die. But this time, you get a compass marker across the top of your screen guiding your way back to make recovering them easier. You can also see your Rune pile on the game's map—the very existence of which is a first for the series—along with notable locations, checkpoints that you can easily fast-travel to, and custom markers that you might use to denote the sites of merchants, puzzles, or tough foes you want to challenge later.

And if all that isn't enough, you might find an item hidden somewhere in The Lands Between—maybe 10 hours in, maybe 100, maybe never—that lets you retain your Runes when you die. You may stumble across an impromptu boss fight galloping through some ruins in the dead of night, and that boss could drop an axe that replenishes your precious spell-casting points with every kill. A spirit in the woods might lead you to a cave, and inside that cave you may find the blueprints for a custom attack that allows your new favorite axe to heal you every time you swing it. Then you might saunter into death's lair like you're invincible, ready to steamroll a troll with all your new toys, only to be stamped out like yesterday's embers, because, after all, Elden Ring is still a Soulsborne game, and it's hard as hell.

Prominently for those who pay attention to this sort of thing, Elden Ring's world was designed in part by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. That might pique your interest, but as in all these games, the narrative takes a backseat to the action and the player's own emergent stories. As a "Tarnished," you're thrust into The Lands Between and tasked with defeating five powerful demi-gods, each of whom possesses a shard of the titular macguffin. There's something called the Golden Order, and you'll eventually answer to a sentient rotting appendage called The Two Fingers. Unless you're a YouTuber who makes a living dissecting inscrutable Soulsborne lore, none of it matters as much as the stories you'll tell yourself, of the roaring dragon you fought on horseback or the overpowered axe you found.

The last game world this dense and rich with loving, meticulous craftsmanship was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which set a new high benchmark for open-world games on its release on Nintendo Switch in 2017. Elden Ring is sure to have a similar effect; the comparisons are inevitable, as one can imagine Miyazaki becoming absorbed in that game and hurriedly jotting messy scratch paper notes that would eventually become Elden Ring.

In any case, as a Soulsborne game, Elden Ring has staying power beyond any predecessor, contemporary, or competitor. There's a subtle science to shaping your stats and gear, but Elden Ring's character progression is far more malleable and forgiving than ever before. Those who have been put off by the Souls series' difficulty in the past won't find an easier game in Elden Ring, but if you've ever considered getting into this series, there's never been a more inviting option. Although the game can feel daunting and directionless, you'll find yourself hopelessly engrossed once you let it sweep you away. Diehard fans will discover the deepest, most accessible, and most challenging game in the genre yet. But, as always when it comes to Souls and Souls-like games, just make sure you're prepared to die.

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Mike Rougeau is a Los Angeles-based contributor for Thrillist. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.