Someday, I’m going to die. Hopefully it’ll be decades from now, but there’s a distinct possibility that it could be next month, next week, or even before I publish this review. I’ve accepted this and am trying to live my best life so that I have no regrets whenever it ends. I’m glad I played Elden Ring before I died, because I definitely would have regretted missing what’s going to go down in history as one of the bravest and most influential AAA video games ever made.
Admittedly, that was a pretty macabre and melodramatic way to open a video game review. That being said, Elden Ring is a hilariously grim and charmingly melodramatic experience that merits this level of bombast. From the characters and lore crafted by George R. R. Martin and brought to life by Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware, to the expansion of this gameplay style and format that FromSoftware has polished to the mirror sheen, to all of the little touches that filled my playthrough with capricious awe and joy; Elden Ring is a great video game. It might be one of the best and I don’t regret a single second of my 94 hour playthrough. If you don’t read a single word further, please know that I desperately hope you play this game and that I’m certain you won’t regret it.
All of These Weirdos Need Therapy
As you probably guessed already, I spend what I hope is a normal amount of time thinking about my own mortality. The major characters in Elden Ring spend what’s probably too much time thinking about it. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that just about every one of these goofy guys and gals is defined by their personal fixation on death and loss. So, while the ‘plot’ of Elden Ring is as mysterious and minimalist as previous SoulsBorne titles, the characters and world have never felt richer.
The world of the game, the Lands Between, was controlled for a nondescript amount of time by the Greater Will, a cosmic entity worshiped as a god and perhaps given form in the giant, gold, and maybe parasitic Erdtree. The Greater Will chose Marika to be this world’s fantasy Jesus and endowed her with the Elden Ring, the physical manifestation of the Golden Order created by Greater Will to govern the reality of the Lands Between. Her first act as this world’s new god was to pluck the Ring of Death out of the Elden Ring and have her half brother – who’s a beastman for some reason – guard it, so that they alone can control who dies and who lives forever in either a physical body or as a spirit residing within the Erdtree.
Those were a lot of proper nouns, but the short of it is that this game’s version of Jesus is defined by her desire to control death, and pretty much everyone else in the Lands Between inherits their own hang-ups about death as a result.
Take, for instance, Fia, another Tarnished who ventured into the Lands Between at the opportunity to become an Elden Lord and mold this place to her will. Having had a relationship with the first demigod to die, Godwyn, she wants to create a world where life persists after death and is accepted as a natural state of being. Like literally, she wants people to live on as zombies, skeletons, and whatever Lovecraftian nonsense is going on with her boyfriend’s body after his soul was murdered. She’s become so familiar with death that she can no longer process the emotions tied to loss and now views it as its anthesis; a distinct state of life.
Or perhaps the boss, Renala, who’s traumatized by her husband’s decision to leave her and is now hyper-focused on rebirth and reincarnation. After her defeat, she becomes the means through which a player can adjust their stat distribution and change their character build. Between her in-game function and lines of dialog, it’s heavily implied that Renala wishes to undergo a perfect rebirth so that she can shed the perceived flaws that she thinks inspired her husband’s departure. She wants to grow through death.
There are plenty of other examples of characters defined by their relationship with death in Elden Ring too. Radahn’s followers view it as a mercy now that their beloved general has fallen to madness, Rykard became the God Devouring Serpent and turns the death of those he consumes into power, and Malenia is both visually and narratively the angel of death. Admittedly, the world and characters of Elden Ring would feel more full and varied if more of its characters had more unique motives and hang ups. Still, all of these characters processing a fundamental part of the human condition goes a long way in making them feel like complicated people instead of just challenges to overcome.
That’s also why Ranni, who’s ending I selected, is such an inspirational and emotionally resonate character for me. In a world where nearly everyone is struggling to accept death or warp it to their preference, she embraces her own mortality; sacrificing her body and later her soul because doing so might bring about the change this world desperately needs. There are thousands of great stories about people who struggle to accept death and I’m not sure if Elden Ring handles these themes better than most of those works, but it went a long way in fleshing out these characters and reminding me how far I’ve come as someone who used to struggle with death and everything else out of my control.
Speaking of death, I had a great time dying in Elden Ring.
Reveling in Life and Death
There are going to be countless breakdowns and think pieces on the mechanics, design, interface, and construction of Elden Ring as the game grows older. People who know more than me about these specific areas of game development will have far more knowledgeable and interesting things to say about them than I ever will. I can say with authority, though, that I loved the act of playing Elden Ring; I got more fun out of discovering, learning, and mastering the many overlapping systems in Elden Ring than any other AAA game in recent memory.
I had this much fun with Elden Ring because it let me approach it the way I wanted to and let me fail again and again as I navigated through its ever uphill format.
FromSoft games have quietly succeeded in bringing a tabletop RPG level of character customization to video games for a while now. Elden Ring pushes this to the next level, with so many different weapons, skills, summons, and opportunities for interaction that I found that I had unintendedly created a character with a distinct personality and interiority. In fact, I might write-up the adventures of Lucas, Sovereign of the Moon and post them here someday! I’ve kept up with RPG discourse for about as long as I’ve had a serious interest in video games, and I cannot remember the last time a game in this genre had so much discussion about varying character builds and how they led to fundamentally different experiences in-game. All that being said, the character creator doesn’t have many options for folks who want to play as a character with a darker skin tone and that phenomenally sucks. Do better FromSoftware.
Now for the obligatory discussion of difficulty that comes with every SoulsBorne style release. Yes, Elden Ring is a challenging game that lacks even basic accessibility options for the differently abled. Steep learning and difficulty curves will also frustrate many and cause them to bounce off the game. Both of these were conscious decisions made by the FromSoftware team and I can’t fault anyone for their critique of this game and company based on these decisions.
I’m fortunate in that I was able to get past these hurdles, though, and was able to experience one of the most rewarding games I’ve played this decade. While the highs that come from defeating a particularly irksome boss are lofty, I found myself having the most fun while exploring the many set pieces scattered throughout Elden Ring’s world. There’s nothing quite like venturing through a dungeon like Miquella’s Haligtree, dying dozens of times to increasingly weird enemies, and realizing you’ve found a host of secrets and know the place like the back of your hand after a few hours. Also, every kill, no, EVERY HIT you land on an enemy in this game feels like a triumph because you know that, even by the endgame, there’s still a fraction of a chance that they could fuck you up.
And when they do, it’s just one of the many strange and quietly hilarious things that can happen in this title.
Elden Ring Fuck Me Up, PLEASE!
There is so much weird shit in Elden Ring that swings so rapidly between hilarious and unnerving that I would have whiplash if I didn’t immediately go limp and accept the volatility as it hit me. You can’t go fifteen minutes in this game without encountering a message that encourages you to explore anal masturbation. But there are also giant spiders that are just gangrene stricken hands that make me feel physically unwell. They don’t even have to attack to be creepy! Seeing a fingercreeper massage itself as an idle animation or writhing in pain while on fire felt wrong on a visceral level because of the corruption of such a familiar shape.
Speaking of messing with my expectations, the way this game engages with George R. R. Martin’s writing habits is delightful. The second I learned that I needed to meet “the Two Fingers,” I instantly had an idea of what to expect from watching Game of Thrones. I was genuinely slackjawed ten hours later when, instead of being a couple of conniving little guys, the Two Fingers turned out to be…a giant-ass hand comprised of just two fingers.
There are so many examples of this world and the characters in it being eccentric in the most endearing way. General Radahn became a master of gravity magic so that his house sized frame wouldn’t crush his beloved horse Leonard, and he now charges into battle while shuffling forward with his knees bent like an eight-year-old pretending to ride their dog. There is a man named Big Boggart who, while the very reality of the world around him begins to distort, is boiling up a heaping pile of crab and cussing up a storm in the process. It rains wolves in the Lands Between!
This is a game where I can kill an eldritch horror and then, twenty minutes later, learn that I can’t jump across a gap because I saw the phantom of someone else playing this game try and eat shit. This is a game that lets you hug a woman in exchange for a secret status debuff! Elden Ring has an enemy named Wormface and still somehow managers to be one of the most emotionally affecting pieces of media I’ve experienced this year! How does it do this? How does this game have such wide swings in its moment to moment experience while still feeling tonally consistent???
It’s because Elden Ring is a damn good video game that is entirely itself at all times. This game is a refinement of the genre that FromSoftware created to near perfection, and is clearly the product of a group of very skilled individuals collaborating masterfully to execute on a shared vision. This game isn’t just the result of a couple years long development cycle. Elden Ring and it’s tremendous success is the result of over a decade of honing this sub-genre to both its sharpest and expansive form.
If you only play one game this year, it should be Elden Ring. If you only play one SoulsBorne game in your life, it should be Elden Ring. This game is proof of how authenticity and originality can thrive in gaming and I’m so glad I was able to play it before I die.