My character standing with a sword and shield, with towering cliffs and the Erdtree in the distance

How Far I Got: Completed the main storyline alongside Ranni the Witch’s questline, choosing the Age of the Stars ending. Defeated all the Legend Bosses. Did a bunch of random side content, dungeons, etc. although I’m sure I missed a ton of it. My playthrough clocked in at about 110 hours. I may try New Game+, but not before a nice long break.

What I Liked:

  • The classic Souls formula, scaled up to a massive open world, made for one of the most daunting and immersive game experiences I’ve ever had. This is basically the only game I played for six straight months.
  • Tons of small quality-of-life improvements over From Software’s earlier titles.
  • The visuals are absolutly sumptuous, from the broad vistas of the overworld to the most out-of-the-way corners of every castle and cave. The attention to detail here is unparalleled.
  • The controls feel great, especially with the ease of jumping. Combat is fluid and dynamic as always.
  • As challenging as the game is, it is very generous with its options for all kinds of players. I was always able to find a way around any particular roadblock before it became too frustrating.
  • The Legacy Dungeons are some of the best-designed in From Software’s repertoire. They’re huge, but also dense and intricate, and they’d make for an impressive game even without the open world connecting them.
  • Stakes of Marika. The perfect way to give players nicely spaced respawn points in such a big world without needing to place bonfires sites of grace every 10 feet.
  • Ashes of War. I didn’t use many of these, but I love how much variety they give you to work with, allowing you to choose your favorite weapon type and cool magical powers for them with ease.
  • Spirit summons. This addition was absolutely brilliant: a super-simple way to better your odds against tough bosses without any of the unpredictability of cooperative multiplayer. I used my Mimic Tear a lot and I have no regrets.
  • Online multiplayer. I love how easy it is to summon players and join their games, and I particularly love that you can only be invaded after you’ve summoned. Of course, this means that anyone who actually invades you is probably an absolute PvP fiend who has no fear of challenging multiple opponents, and it was very rare for me to survive an invasion. But I still think it’s better than the old invasion systems by far.
  • Torrent. Torrent is the best. The vast majority of an open world game experience is just traveling from place to place, so the best developers know that you really have to make it fun. From have nailed this with Torrent. Being able to summon him at any time, and the double-jumping, make him feel wonderfully liberating.

My character riding Torrent through a misty autumnal forest

What I Disliked:

  • As cool as the Lands Between are to explore, they ultimately suffer from the repetition problem that every open world game has. I eventually stopped bothering to enter most of the caves and catacombs I came across, because I’d already seen all of the pieces that formed them, and fought all the enemies inside them. This is just the reality of open-world games, but I was secretly hoping From Software would find some kind of way around it (hopefully without working their staff to death).
  • I didn’t actually dislike the crafting system, but I completely forgot it existed by the second half of my playthrough.
  • Obscure sidequests. This is a From tradition, and I liked it in Souls/Bloodborne/Sekiro, but I wish they’d figured out how to signpost these better now that the game world is so much massively larger than their previous games. I occasionally stumbled on NPCs in my wanderings, but I would have completely missed all the most interesting side content without checking online guides. Maybe that’s just expected at this point. Still, it’s so cool when you find something hidden on your own and I would like it a lot better if From could subtly guide you in the right direction.
  • The story. This wasn’t the first time I made it through a From Software game with only the fuzziest idea of what had happened or what I was doing; but I think this was the first time that I didn’t even care. I don’t know what specifically George R.R. Martin offered as part of this writing collaboration, but it’s natural to assume that the convoluted web of character relationships, alliances, and betrayals were at least partly due to his influence, given how prominent they are in A Song of Ice and Fire. And I think that this was a mistake. From Software’s house style of storytelling—i.e. setting the events of the game long after most of the story has transpired, keeping characters’ motivations cryptic, and withholding all but the most tantalizing clues about what actually happened—is just not a good fit for his brand of ensemble court intrigue fantasy drama. There’s no one to root for, no one to unexpectedly change your mind about, and none of the nail-biting “what will they pull next” tension that makes his novels work—not when half the characters are already dead and the rest are milling around in their boss arenas waiting for us to come and stab them. The game doesn’t even really explain what your goal is; I had no idea that we were going to burn down the Erdtree, Melina, maybe you could have mentioned that earlier, so I might know how to feel about it. Couple this with the fact that not only do you have multiple characters with very similar names (possibly because of G.R.R.M.’s initials?!), but sometimes characters are actually different instances of the same person, and the whole thing just feels like an absolute chore to decipher, if it’s even worth it. I pity Vaatividya.

Morgott the Omen King entering his boss arena with the subtitle "What is thy business with these thrones?"

My dude, I genuinely have no idea.

Favorite Areas:

  • Liurnia of the Lakes. I traveled here before I completed Stormveil Castle, making my way along the narrow cliff path with everything obscured by fog—until suddenly the air cleared and I was treated to a glorious vista of misted mountains, with Raya Lucaria academy towering over the water in the distance. It was a stunning moment, and I loved exploring all the weird and surprising corners of the area.
  • Siofra River. Simply one of the most beautiful and otherworldly environments From has ever put together. Descending into this magical star-cavern was like stepping into Blackreach in Skyrim for the first time, but even better. I didn’t even mind getting pincushioned by a million spirit arrows as I sprinted through.

My character overlooking the vast cavern of the Siofra River, with star-like lights suspended in the air and a pink nebula-like glow in the distance

  • Leyndell, Royal Capital. This felt like an actual ancient city, and I couldn’t quite believe how big it was as I ran around in it. The huge dragon corpse makes for interesting traversal, and I loved the contrast between the openness of the golden rooftops and the shadowy alleyways far below. I probably missed a ton of small things here and it’s the only area I really feel I should revisit.
  • The Mountaintops of the Giants. I spent most of my time here running away from fights, but it’s such a great late-game area, with the frozen giants everywhere and the huge creatures battling amongst themselves. I couldn’t wait to get to the Forge of the Giants once I finally spotted it. It just keeps getting cooler the farther you go, beckoning you onward.
  • Crumbling Faram Azula. Dragons! Floating temples! Tornadoes! What’s not to like? This kind of unabashed fantasy setting is like catnip for me. I didn’t find the enemies as enjoyable, but I’m willing to forgive it when the place is this cool-looking.
  • Miquella’s Haligtree. I got a little sick of this outrageously hard gauntlet by the time I got down to Ephael, but my early movements through the upper branches and their Rivendell-gone-to-crap aesthetic were entrancing. I wish I could have figured out how to get here on my own, as it would have been such a cool reveal, but as I mentioned, the sidequests in this game are just too guide-dependent.

My character crossing the narrow rock bridge that leads to the Mountaintops of the Giants, a huge plateau above the clouds covered in snow

Favorite Bosses:

  • Starscourge Radahn. What a setpiece. I love the build-up with the festival at Castle Redmane, I love the mechanic of summoning and re-summoning help, I love that he rides a tiny scrawny horse, and I even love the hilariously over-the-top meteor entrance to his second phase. I know some people found him mechanically frustrating, but if you’re willing to cheese the guy a bit with some scarlet rot and just ride away from his attacks, he’s pretty manageable. This felt like the first really new approach to a boss fight in the series in a long time.
  • Rykard, Lord of Blasphemy. Another big setpiece fight with amazing visuals that would be the final boss in most other games. The special weapon is a little gimmicky, but it didn’t really bother me, and I think it worked better than the earlier draft of this fight with Yhorm in Dark Souls 3. Also, beating him got me the Blasphemous Blade, which I was able to use to absolutely steamroll through most of the late-game bosses.
  • Mohg, Lord of Blood. This was a very tough fight for me, but I never really got frustrated, partly because Mohg may be the most entertainingly metal of all the game’s bosses. A big ol’ demon who emerges from a pool of blood, sprays blood everywhere that catches fire, and sprouts massive wings halfway through the fight? That’s just pure goth fantasy fun.
  • Malenia, Blade of Miquella / Goddess of Rot. Probably not most players’ favorite, for a lot of good reasons, but it turns out she’s not that tough when you level up your Blasphemous Blade and Mimic Tear all the way. I just really enjoyed her design and animations, and I loved the buildup to fighting her—both in the game itself, and just from reading and watching other players as they struggled with her. I don’t normally bother with optional challenge bosses, but I just had to give her a shot, and I felt very good about myself after I took her down.

My character standing overlooking Volcano Manor, a gothic castle complex in the crater of an active volcano

Least Favorite Areas:

  • Any of the mini-dungeons that used a template: caves, catacombs, mines, etc. They were still well-designed and challenging areas by most game standards, but the contrast between them and the uniquely designed areas is really striking. Immersion is part of why I like From Software’s games so much, and these just feel so blatantly game-y that it pulled me out of the moment.
  • The Lake of Rot. I am never going to enjoy trudging through poison swamps no matter how many times Miyazaki & co. try to foist them on me. Throwing basilisks in there too was particularly cruel. I felt like the designers were simply trolling me here—there’s no way they actually think this is fun. The area just beyond it is very cool looking, but still.

Least Favorite Bosses:

  • The Fire Giant. Looks cool, and I like the open design of the boss arena. It almost felt like playing Shadow of the Colossus again. Unlike SOTC, however, Elden Ring is not designed around the concept of fighting very large enemies. So I would spend all my time poking at his ankles, doing pathetically little damage, while failing to notice when he was winding up an attack because 90% of him was always offscreen. Eventually I was able to wear him down with poison and scarlet rot, but it was a long and frustrating road to get there.
  • Dragonlord Placidusax. I’ll admit I’m conflicted on this one. On the one hand, I don’t think I’ve been this infuriated by a boss since the Blood-Starved Beast nearly made me rage-quit Bloodborne. Like the Fire Giant, he’s a very large enemy in a game that doesn’t give you the kind of camera control or movement mechanics to really deal with it. He has way too many attacks that can one-shot you and feel cheap: the disappear-and-swoop move, the disappear-and-materialize-behind-you move, and don’t even get me started on his laser attack. Unlike the Fire Giant—with whom I never got to his second phase until our last fight—he always seemed to kill me when I had him down to the tiniest fraction of his health bar.

The screen after I've been killed by Dragonlord Placidusax, with his health bar at the bottom showing the smallest fraction of remaining health.


And to cap it all off, the developers decided that this of all bosses needed to have the classic Souls boss run, even though nearly every other boss does not. To get back to him after dying I needed to descend an elevator, run past a bunch of angry werewolves, dodge lightning and Frisbee blades, and then jump down perilously placed floating rocks for what felt like half a mile. When it takes you more than 30 tries to beat a boss, this gets just a little bit irritating.

And yet…everything about this boss is also awesome. He’s a formerly-five-headed-now-two-headed dragon with lightning magic who you fight in a floating Colosseum after somehow traveling back to the ancient past, and he shoots lasers. That explode.

My character and Mimic Tear standing before Dragonlord Placidusax before the fight starts, with him suspended in the air over a massive circular arena in the sky

The whole fight seems like a progression of the Nameless King from Dark Souls 3, and it might be even more over-the-top. It’s also completely optional and very easy to miss. So is it really so bad that I struggled for a few nights to beat a boss that is clearly just there for players craving a massive challenge? I can’t say for sure. But my emotions definitely ran higher for this semi-decapitated dragon than for anything else in the game.

What Do I Think of the Game as an Evolution of the Souls Series? When the game was first announced, my first thought was to wonder why From Software decided to pivot to open-world game design. Now that this game has sold over 16 million copies in well under a year, the answer seems obvious, but I never got the sense that From was the kind of developer who would just chase a popular trend. And now that I’ve played the game and wandered far and wide over its open world, I’m still not sure I found the answer to my question. Does the Souls formula, with its tightly designed environments and pacing, really benefit from the addition of huge amounts of open space?

Hidetaka Miyazaki has said in interviews that the intention was to make the game accessible to a wider audience, and in that regard, I do think the game succeeds. People have long argued (and will continue to argue) about whether or not the Souls games should have an “easy mode,” and while no one would accuse this game of being easy, the open world does provide an elegant compromise. The player is no longer forced into super-difficult chokepoints, and it’s far less tedious than before to level yourself up to a point where the challenge is more managable; but the game world still feels totally indifferent to the player in the way that has made all these games so compelling. If you just want that tried-and-true Souls challenge, it’s still very much here.

Honestly, though, that’s what surprised me the most: there really is not a lot of deviation here from classic Souls gameplay. The game eats its cake and has it too: if you smushed together all the legacy dungeons and combined the mini-dungeons into singular, larger complexes, you’d basically be playing Dark Souls 4. That’s not to say the developers weren’t thoughtful in translating Souls combat to an open world, and I’m kind of amazed that it works as well as it does. Nor am I accusing the open world of being forgettable empty space—it’s one of the coolest virtual environments I’ve ever visited, and the way it conceals how large it is (and how high it goes) as the game goes on is absolutely brilliant. But then I think of Breath of the Wild and the way it broke apart its classic Zelda puzzle dungeons and scattered them across every corner of the map. I don’t know if this was the best decision (and Elden Ring makes me wonder what an alternate BOTW that kept its old-school dungeons intact might look like), but it was definitely a huge risk, and I was a little disappointed that Elden Ring doesn’t really have that swing-for-the-fences approach.

Still, this game is nothing short of a massive achievement. From Software gets so many things right, so consistently, that it’s easy to forget just how completely wrong an open-world Dark Souls follow-up could have gone. There will almost certainly be DLC, and probably sequels; and I will forget all my complaints and play them as soon as they’re out. I genuinely feel like I’ve gone on a dangerous, exhausting, and exhilirating quest, one that I’m not going to forget anytime soon.

My character standing in the ash-covered city of Leyndell, looking up at the corpse of an enormous dragon and the burning Erdtree overhead

Do I Want to Move to Jarburg? Yes.