Elden Ring is brilliantly awful. It’s the best worst game, and the worst best game, I’ve ever played. Here’s my spoiler free review of the biggest game of the year.
Like many people, I saw all the ads for Elden Ring. Every game and technology store had a huge poster out the front. Game sites were going nuts about it. People playing the closed beta/network test loved it. And it launched on Steam to absolutely ridiculous success, having the sixth highest number of players.
I’ve never really enjoyed any of the Souls’ series of games, and I’m not huge on open world games besides a few (more on that later), so I didn’t think too much of it.
And then the game hit YouTube. And every second video was Elden Ring Elden Ring Elden Ring. And after watching a few, I realised it was a game I would thoroughly enjoy. Plus after recently replaying Final Fantasy VI Pixel Remaster, I needed to put something on our TV that my wife would still enjoy watching when she’s around.
And then the amazing Ming-Na Wen was in a trailer for it, and I realised I would be buying it.
I haven’t written a game review in quite a while, but I am still a big gamer at heart. I majored in Games Technology at uni back in the day and have 15 game consoles. And I have spent a surprisingly ridiculous amount of time playing this game even in just the last month or so since I purchased it. It’s probably also because this is my little dad escape time when my daughter goes to sleep and I get some time for myself and it’s a great time to get lost in and unwind from the pressures of the day.
So, what do I think of this game? Well, as you can see from the title, I think Elden Ring is brilliantly awful. Is it a masterpiece? Absolutely.
But it’s also terrible.
It’s a really difficult juxtaposition of emotions and experiences on this one. Obviously given how much I’ve been playing it I am thoroughly enjoying it.
But I’m also thoroughly not on quite a few elements, and there is already a significant chorus of people out there who feel the same way on a lot of these.
So I thought I’d go through a list of reasons I think Elden Ring is brilliantly awful, or awfully brilliant. I’ll flip between Brilliant and Awful as that is much the way the game goes.
Also, no spoilers, to rest easy if you haven’t played it yet.
Brilliant #1: It’s a merger of some amazing games
After even playing initially for a short time, it was very easy to see the influences of several other games on Elden Ring. And that’s a good thing – it’s got some of the best elements of some games I really like.
- Horizon: Zero Dawn – I think the variance and the scale of the world is most reminiscient of a medieval version of Horizon’s world and design
- Zelda: Breath of the Wild – one I actually reviewed a few years ago, the crafting system seems most similar to this, and there is undoubtedly a few sections (especially after coming out of a particular castle after the first major boss) where it’s pretty much the view from BOTW, only much more epic. But thank goodness weapons don’t break – it makes games like this much more enjoyable
- Ocarina of Time – another Zelda, but you can’t have that much Z-targeting in a game and not be influenced by Zelda
- Middle Earth: Shadow of War – I absolutely love this game, and the locales and combat is very similar in some ways. The lore and story is a slow burn and with big pay offs to those who study its world in a similar fashion
I haven’t played any of the Souls or other FromSoftware titles but I can see that the interface and weapon system has been pulled straight from that, although by all accounts more accessible. I’ve found this to be the case as well – I could actually start playing Elden Ring and have a good time whereas the Souls games have always confused me or been too complicated
Awful #1: It’s also a merger with one terrible game
There is undoubtedly another game I see the shadow of throughout Elden Ring and that’s Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. I know, showing my age here.
Now I love Symphony of the Night and the Dawn/Aria of Sorrow games, but Simon’s Quest was universally and famously hated for the following reasons, that are absolutely prevalent here in equal or more abundant measure:
- The game doesn’t tell you what to do and isn’t clear on anything
- The hints on game systems are completely cryptic
- NPCs give you quests that you have to track yourself – the game has no tracking system, something the developers of the Horizon games have come out publicly and criticized about the title. It’s like playing an old NES game like Simon’s Quest where you have to remember everything yourself
- NPCs and other players outright lie to you – whether it’s a character giving you bad, incomplete, or absolutely impossible to decipher information, or the Multiplayer aspect of the game having other players give you hints to jump to your death off a cliff or lead you down a dead end, you can’t trust anyone in the game
- It’s impossible without a guide. Seriously. Like Simon’s Quest famous “kneel down in the graveyard for 3 literal minutes” quest, Elden Ring is brilliantly awful in its recycle of such approaches for quest design. Conversely there are also some amazing ones, but a saddening majority of quests are Simon’s Quest in 3D where the mention of a lake and a sense of urgency are all you’re going to get on what to do next, or even one character just saying “I’m leaving here, hope to see you again one day”. And without a guide, you probably never will
- Many places you’ll die and have to run 10-15 minutes back to where you were for another 3 second attempt to get it right. Needs at least a checkpoint before every boss otherwise it’s just cruelty
- Bosses have way, way too much health and you do ever decreasing amounts of damage no matter how strong you get. More on that later
- There are two level 100+ bosses in the starting area, 2 minutes in either direction from where you come out to begin the adventure.
- There are no to little environmental cues. Many other games such as the Half-Life 2 games or any other modern action RPG give you hints via things you find in the world. Such a wasted opportunity and you do feel like you’re still playing a 30 year old NES game in this regard
People hated Simon’s Quest for it but unfortunately the online Elden Ring community is more “get gud” than it is helpful on these things.
You know what it needs? It’ needs the Bombers’ Notebook from Zelda: Majora’s Mask. A simple quest tracking tool that doesn’t tell you where to go, but just records where you met someone, who they said they were, and what you both agreed on you doing next. That would fit within the game designers’ intent but also help the modern gamer not to get lost forever or to give up completely on quests at all.
Brilliant #2: The world design is outstanding
After playing it for quite a while, I think I can now officially say that Elden Ring contains the best world ever created in a video game so far.
Big call, I know, but absolutely true.
The world is enormous. Utterly insanely enormous. After completing an area the size of Breath of the Wild in the first castle (or a way around it which also exists), I was gobsmacked to control dropping levels to find that there were several more areas beyond this point of equivalent size.
Then ever more gobsmacked to find out as big as the world is above the ground, there is essentially a second storey to this utterly huge game map. And many multi-storey locations within each.
The game has weather and day/night cycles. These affect what quests and enemies appear.
The scenery is absolutely stunning. Lighting, shaders, enemy designs, castles and structures and environments. And I thought Horizon: Zero Dawn was an achievement.
Even beyond that, on my semi-decent but old PC (super old i5, 1060GT, 12GB RAM), the game loads in 3-4 seconds and runs 60FPS on Ultra settings, and while there is quite a bit of pop-in on occasion, the fact that so much loads and stays in camera and runs so well is a technical marvel.
Well done. I cannot believe such a huge game could ever exist. Full price feels like you’ve barely paid enough for the amount of content available here.
Awful #2: The level design can be absolutely terrible
The latest FromSofware game may have the best game world ever created, but Elden Ring is brilliantly awful for having some of the worst level design ever. It’s a really frustrating experience to go from such an unreal open world to an absolutely broken and unfun set of puzzles and challenges in many dungeons.
Don’t get me wrong, there are quite a few great sections, but so many of the levels are designed to be deliberately frustrating.
One of the biggest issues I have with this game is that it keeps putting in platforming sections, but your character is weighty and the jump arch is unpredictable. There are many times where you are given a Mario-style dungeon or puzzle or environment to traverse but you have to do it with Elden Ring controls and camera angles. Shadow of War had a great solution to this by giving Talion a double jump with some tracking capability. Not enough to break the jumping sections but enough to help you feel in control of a game in 2022 and not Bubsy 3D.
Enemies regularly/always gang up on you, there are entire levels where there is poison or scarlet rot that is completely unavoidable, and many sections with instant death traps.
But because you lose all the runes (experience points) you gathered if you die twice in a row without picking them back up, you are regularly subjected to designs that will result in you losing anything you’re carrying with you.
There is so much fun to be had, then you hit a brick wall of important sections that are really unfun. Too many places where you have to awkwardly land on a small square to avoid falling to your death and losing all your progress and runes, and then get ambushed with a 2 second window to react before dying straight away.
Brilliant #3: The sense of progression can be wonderful and the variety is unreal
Elden Ring was so interesting to me because of its variety of starting classes. There are 10 in all and all of them start with different stats, weapons, and play styles.
So far I’ve been a Samurai (what it sounds like), a Confessor (like a holy knight/paladin), an Astrologer (a magician with a sword) and currently a Vagabond (a strong hero with an anime-sized huge sword).
There are another 6 and they’re all quite different. You can change your play style as the game goes along (to a point) so the options are quite diverse.
Plus every time I play it I find somewhere different I didn’t find before. Something more relevant for a certain type of character than another, or you could just try to do everything. It’s almost never the same every time.
Plus that feeling when you have the right equipment, the right moves, the right outfit and the right weapon, it’s just unreal how cool it is. And there are so many different combinations, I think the combinations would be in the millions easily.
Definitely in the “brilliant” category when I say Elden Ring is brilliantly awful.
Awful #3: The game tells you barely anything and it’s very possible to get stuck
There is another reason I’ve created so many characters so far. And it’s because for all of them, I’ve reached a point of being absolutely stuck.
Recommendation to any new player: the online community tells you Samurai is the best way to start. It’s not. It’s absolutely not. His range attack is slow and the sword skill is overrated compared to many other better ones.
So after 10ish hours of Samurai, I had a much much more successful run with a Confessor. Unfortunately I then reached a number of bosses the Faith based magic simply was no good against, and wanted to try again so I could get ahead.
Then the Astrologer. Boy oh boy. This is the way every new player should start. There are so many magic spells and advantages magic has over pretty much, well, everything. I only died a few times in a few hours, whereas it used to be every 10 minutes. I learned more of the story. I found more areas. Wow how awesome.
And then no spoilers I got to a mountain with a giant boss (if you’ve played it you’ll know it) towards “the end” of the main story which I just couldn’t beat. I had overleveled my character, I had rune farmed, I had “the best” equipment” for that character, but the boss was just impossible.
And so I’ve started my latest character who fortunately I am building the right way with the right stats to be able to tackle these bosses that come later. So far so good. Because as I’ve found out, your build matters. You can fully respec at one point of the game, but if you’ve been playing a certain style the whole game, you might as well just start again with the character in that playstyle instead of wiping out all your progress.
The online community says you can have so much fun just going anywhere you want. The truth is that you won’t. Because the items don’t change depending on what character you play as – they’re in the same location every time.
So it’s very easy for you to spend an hour doing a super hard dungeon only for you to get an item that is absolutely useless for the character you’re playing as.
If you want to have fun, here’s some things the game won’t tell you that you should know:
- Levelling your weapon is more important than levelling your character, and is almost the single most important difference between victory and defeat in an area. Do not fail to upgrade your weapon or you will do no damage to anything after the first area/s. This one alone dramatically increases satisfaction with this game
- Spirit ashes are a must, follow a guide on how to find them. The game is designed for you to use them, and you won’t get far without them.
- Rune farming is a must. Find the midget one and then the palace one. The Internet will light your way. After about 20 levels the normal progress of gameplay does not level you up fast enough for the challenges it throws at you, but the farming can help take the edge off and help you get the equipment and spells and swords you want to use
- Don’t try to do a quest on your own. You won’t find what you’re supposed to do. There has not been a single quest where a character has been clear enough for me to get it right what is needed to do next.
I find after using guides and getting stronger for the area I’m in, then and only then do I go randomly exploring. Otherwise you just go into 10 dungeons in a row and die in all of them and want to stop.
Brilliant #4: These “awful” reasons might be why I keep playing it
It occurred to me that maybe these reasons I’m listing as bad are the reason I’m enjoying it. After all, all the dev interviews unconver that Elden Ring is brilliantly awful by design.
They want you to die a lot. They want you to feel hopeless at points. They want you to be frustrated. They want you to feel the stakes. They want you to spend 3 hours trying to solve a quest on your own.
And here I am all these hours later still doing it, and still loving it? Madness.
Awful #4: The enemies in the later game are stupid strong
I found out that I am in the very small minority of players in Elden Ring – I’ve defeated the first major boss. For real – on Steam I think it’s less than 25% of players that have done that.
And beyond that I’ve defeated a lot of bosses and areas. I’ve gotten 3-4 of the Great Runes, I’ve beaten bosses above the earth and under it.
But just, there are way too many bosses with one shot kills, that attack too fast, and that have way too much health.
People hated the first Final Fantasy XIII for having bosses with way too much health, but here everyone is like “Oh yeah that Fire Giant is supposed to take 40 minutes to beat”. No way.
PS. They fixed the health issue in Final Fantasy XIII-2 which is absolutely one of the best RPGs ever made, but more on that another time.
Some enemies I’m just like, nope. I don’t care enough what’s in this dungeon. I don’t need to beat you to get to the final boss (apparently). I don’t care about the item you’re blocking. It just takes too much effort for many, many bosses.
And even enemies. In the first probably three major areas, this isn’t super bad, but the last few areas, there’s no enemies left that can’t kill you in seconds, no matter how magical or ranged attack-y or super strong you are.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to the final boss at this rate in any playthrough. I have enjoyed my time up to a point each time and then hit a wall that makes me want to go back to the very rewarding sense of progression and victory in the first few areas. Just the end-game makes me want to end the game. And based on other reviews and experiences, I haven’t been alone on that.
So, in short, Elden Ring is brilliantly awful. Or is that awfully brilliant?
Is it a masterpiece? Absolutely.
Is it ridiculously fun? You bet.
Is it one of the best games ever made? I fully agree.
But it’s just got a lot of stuff holding it back.
I hope if the developers came out with an “Easy” mode where you get twice as many stat points per level, the enemies had half their health, and you didn’t lose all your runes/experience points every time you died, you’d have perhaps the best gaming experience ever, or at least it would be up there.
Oh, and the Bombers’ Notebook from Majora’s Mask like I mentioned. Even just that would help. A semi-recent patch introduced a tracker for NPCs so I think they may (hopefully) be on the way to fixing this serious design flaw.
And the stats don’t lie. I think I’m actually very average at this game and yet I am actually in the upper echelon of players if Steam achievements are anything to go by.
I would recommend Elden Ring, but I would also recommend you play it a certain way. Watch the guides on how to get overpowered. Follow the guides for any of the quests. And then once you try again with another character, you’ll find yourself enjoying it way more. You’ll know where things are. You’ll remember how to beat that quest. You’ll remember that you got that amazing item at that place and you’ll always always go back to get it.
Elden Ring is brilliantly awful. And I love it.
How about you? Do you think Elden Ring is brilliantly awful? Or just brilliant? Or just awful? Most people seem to be on the opposite extremes on this one.