There’s an old phrase used to describe the ambition of open-world games, and it goes something like, “See that mountain? You can go to it.”
In the closed network test demonstration for media last week, my Bloody Wolf knight rode his trusty mule across the gold-tinged plains of “The Lands Between,” the game’s world. In the distance, I saw two massive beasts lumbering toward me. Intimidated, I steered to the side to observe. Not only were these twin monsters staked through the chest with spikes attached to chains, but they were dragging a wagon the size of a house behind them. I waited a few more seconds, and I realized these two were leading an entire caravan of undead soldiers, magicians and other beasts. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen in a video game. The short network test was full of moments like this one.
“Elden Ring” will be released next spring with a story penned by “A Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin in collaboration with Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creator of “Dark Souls” and the genre it inspired. The Dark Souls series has always been full of huge castles and breathtaking vistas and landscapes. But these areas were always cordoned off in sections, traveled to and from often by “magical means,” sometimes involving a load screen.
It’s fitting, then, that the world of “Elden Ring” is called The Lands Between. As the first true open-world game from Miyazaki, “Elden Ring” will finally allow players to explore all the lands between these amazing locations, choked with similarly captivating locations. I played about 15 to 20 hours of the network test, toppling eight boss encounters of varying difficulties and type, plumbing three different catacombs, riding my mule across a cliffside beach like I did in the PlayStation 2 classic “Ico,” and climbing a hill perpetually engulfed by a storm.
All of these options are available immediately. In this way, it makes perfect sense to compare “Elden Ring” to “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” Both games take direct inspiration from the very first screen of the original “The Legend of Zelda” in 1986. In that game, the first screen presents the hero with three different directions to go to, and a cave. There’s no other player direction other than “explore.”
The beauty of the experience in “Elden Ring” is that most of what I did was optional. I tried to beeline straight toward the foreboding castle, where, as I correctly assumed, I found the end of the network test. At the gates of Stormveil Castle, which sits atop the aforementioned stormy hill, I met the boss you’re required to fight to end the network test, a powerful, fast wizard warrior named Margit the Fell Omen. I spent the entirety of my four days with the game trying to beat him. In between these attempts, I would go back to The Lands Between, killing smaller enemies, practicing my swordplay, gathering resources, gaining experience to strengthen my knight’s sword-and-shield build, and gaining new abilities for my weapons that can be switched out on the fly at the game’s rest points.
I found the Limgrave Tunnels, a cave network with hidden passageways rich with blacksmithing materials for my weapons and stones to craft helpful resources out in the field. At the end, I found a towering stone troll with skin so thick, my sword would bounce off even after registering the hit. After some perseverance, the troll fell, and I acquired a lightning-infused katana that I suspected would help with my battle against Margit. Thanks to the resources I found in those caves, I upgraded the katana and went back to Margit. I continued to lose.
In another set of catacombs set across the map, I found a summoning spell for warriors that could assist me in tough fights, including the one against Margit. This feature is one of a range of options to make the famously punishing Dark Souls games more accessible to players. Summoning player combatants to your side has been a staple since 2009′s “Demon’s Souls,” but this is the first time we can summon AI-controlled help on a whim.
These warriors aren’t the only help. The aforementioned donkey steed not only helps you navigate The Lands Between more quickly, but it’s a nimble, agile way to weave through enemy attacks. In a swampy area of the map, a dragon swoops down to ravage everything in its path — the player included. I battled the dragon atop my steed, baiting it to attack and punishing it by sprinting forward, slashing my foe as I passed. Horseback combat has always been tricky to pull off, a struggle that dates all the way back to 1998′s “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.” Sometimes games will control the horse for you as you attack. In “Elden Ring,” you and your steed work as one. It’s the most thrilling horseback combat I’ve ever experienced in a game.
Therein lies the promise of “Elden Ring,” a game that offers everything ever dreamed up within the action-adventure genre, all drenched in the gorgeous aesthetics and lore of a From Software game. When I slowly walk my mule through a moonlit forest, I think of how I dreamed of this moment since Sony’s “Shadow of the Colossus,” which offered a similar experience on a much smaller scale, with far less to do and explore. When I hike the storm-covered hill and see the gates of Stormveil Castle come into view through the dust and clouds, I think about every Dark Souls game that allowed for this moment, except with an even stronger sense of discovery. I didn’t just reach the next level, I took a journey. I saw it, and I went.
The network test hints at many other places to go and things to see. Offshore in the distance, there are three large stone pillars on which rests a cathedral. The base of a towering, skyscraper of a tree shining gold remains out of reach, even though it seems inevitable that players would reach it. The network test has artificial mist to block off what appears to be many accessible areas of the map, and even still, through the fog you will see fields and ruins beyond, populated with items and monsters.
“Elden Ring” also teases the possibility of this being a From Software game that’s teeming with life, as if the game continues to live after you turn it off. The night brings different creatures and situations depending on where you explore. Ever since “Demon’s Souls,” From Software games have been obsessed with death and desperation, and the worlds always reflected this. While not exactly a jaunt through the Mushroom Kingdom, The Lands Between feel busy with routine and spectacle. Limgrave, or at least the western portion of it that’s available in the network test, is already filled with wildlife, merchants and cackling doomsayers.
On the final day of the media network test, I reached level 29 and pumped as many points as I could into what role-playing games call the “quality” build, focused mostly on quick, precise strikes from a longsword. I slapped “ashes” of lightning on it, which can augment your weapons with elemental magic, and can be done at any rest point in the game and swapped out at any time. I then proceeded toward the gates of Stormveil again to face Margit. The Fell Omen finally fell. Beyond the gates, players will be offered a choice on how to storm Stormveil. After a bit of exploration, I was told I had reached the end of the test.
From what I understand, the 20 hours I spent were just a small slice of the entire game. And I don’t believe I’ve seen everything the game has to offer. I heard voices from someone who needed help, and I never found them. There was another optional boss encounter I was never able to beat. There was a chest on the back of that wagon I mentioned in the beginning that I never opened.
There was only one hiccup in the network test: I wasn’t able to figure out how to cooperatively play with someone. I tried to connect with a fellow journalist in the United Kingdom to work toward fighting Margit, but the game never made our “summon signs” visible to one another. That’s not to say it didn’t work: I understand a few others were able to connect. And I was also summoned into a player vs. player match, and there, I was finally able to see that — at least for the small amount of people playing — the connection was solid. I never experienced any latency during a pitched battle against my skilled human opponent.
Outside of that one technical hiccup in my experience, “Elden Ring” is shaping up to be the game I’ve wished for since I played the first Zelda title back in the ’80s. Even in its truncated state, I could’ve played those same 20 hours over and over again just to enjoy the wandering, exploration and thrilling swordfights. Somehow, the final game launching in February will offer more. Until then, I’ll keep dreaming of the places we’ll go and the things we’ll see.
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