I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at that title and you’re saying to yourself, “this guy must be out of his mind.” You’re thinking I’m full of it. That I have taken one too many crazy pills and I’ve gone off the deep end into some weird abyss of gamer insanity. That something like Elden Ring could ever possibly dethrone The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as one of the greatest games ever made. I’m here to say to you that yes, Elden Ring does exactly that and more. Elden Ring rears up its gigantic flag and stakes it into the ground at its feet. A flag that proudly displays all its merits and boasts loudly that it has taken the crown out of the hands of any open world game that came before it, ever.
We here at DEE absolutely love this genre. We love it so much that our credo when reviewing them starts with the simplest achievement the genre can have us do. The “Go Anywhere, Do Anything,” mindset is what we stick with when it comes to this kind of game. The rest is all the usual technical merit that comes with video games. Does it play well? Does it present a unique and interesting world to explore? Does the combat hold up? Does it tell a story within its world? Does it treat me like an intelligent player? All those points and more are what we look for when it comes to the open-world genre. Very few games within the genre have fulfilled this need. Some come close but still tend to stick to the classic open world tropes that oft plague the genre. The constant tropes of marked bandit camps, the scalable towers to survey landscape, the plentiful side missions that just offer a nuance to pad game length and nothing else to the overall story told within the game.
Often that leads us to compare each game within the genre. We look at something like the Grand Theft Auto franchise which paved the way for the Assassin’s Creed series which in turn birthed games like Just Cause and Crackdown giving them all fair chances at the genre. We saw the design change affect games like Jak & Daxter as even they embraced open-world tropes to be concurrent with the times in the ever changing landscape that is video games. Each have done things to move the genre forward while some stick to what has worked and try not to change too much within the specific school of design that open-world games come in.
This constant evolution has bled into so many other genres. Even Uncharted 4 and its spin-off Lost Legacy snuck in some open-world ideas in certain sections while maintaining a focus on the single player storylines it is known for. 2018’s God of War even had a taste of open-world to it with its sense of exploration within a giant hub world, and we saw it repeated even in Gears of War 5. Nintendo’s beloved Pokemon games have grasped onto the concept with their latest iteration in Legends Arceus, leaning more towards what has been seen in games like Monster Hunter and the ilk. The point is that the concept of open world has been a long running design in video games dating back to even the original NES Legend of Zelda, and as game’s fight for your attention and longevity with extra content; whether it be DLC or expansion passes or even sequels, From Software has slowly built up its rep with every game it has put out within their SoulsBorne efforts. Everything they learned while making the Dark Souls trilogy led to Bloodborne and they took those lessons and built up into Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and now they take all and embrace the school of design that is open world. It’s interesting to see this across the growth and scale that is the current generation of gaming. The Souls games have inspired many other games to embrace different design and we have seen games like Skyrim and The Witcher birthed because of it, which in turn have bolstered open world design in gaming to now influence the influencer so to speak.
Elden Ring takes the best things every open world game ever made or has put into the genre and smooshes it together faster than the Tree Sentinel uses his horse to kill unprepared players when they first set out into The Lands Between. This sprawling open world is unveiled to you after the tutorial area upon opening a wooden door and what a sight it was to be seen. A giant glowing tree beckons your curiosity and an open field and mountain beg exploration. Traversal is primarily on foot, but you will also receive a summonable horse named Torrent that can double jump and use vents to go up a mountain or cliff. You’re taught that that there are Sites of Grace that can guide you on your path. These grace points give you a respawn point and act as a save spot. In typical Soul’s game fashion using them will respawn all the enemies you’ve killed but they also point you towards your next objective or direction. Of course, you’re free to explore The Lands Between at your discretion, finding other Sites of Grace that will lead you to other areas and your natural curiosity will determine if you will find the game’s many secret portals and warp points. Some portions of the land may be too tough for your character, and the freedom to just up and leave a difficult area to power up and return later is a major upgrade to this type of game. The Dark Souls series and Bloodborne and Sekiro often felt bottlenecked at points were you to be against a difficult boss. The “git gud,’ mentality would creep in and if you weren’t a skilled gamer, it may be daunting to try to get as good as the game demands. This changes with Elden Ring, as you can now leave areas that are too difficult to upgrade your character and return souped up and able to do more damage and survive the encounter better.
Surely, Elden Ring is one of the more accessible Souls games made but make no mistake, it is still very much a Souls game. Some of the bosses have multiple phases with varied attack patterns that will make you question the developer’s sanity. I remember the first time I felled Malenia, Blade of Miquella only for a cinematic to play and see her transform into a smoking hot butterfly momma in a second phase fight that remains one of my personal favorites. Surely some will curse the very ground Margit the Fell walks on, and I dare anyone to claim they beat Godrick the Grafted on their first attempt. It took me seven tries before I bested him.
From Software also partnered with A Song of Ice and Fire series (also known as Game of Thrones) writer George R. R. Martin for Elden Ring’s lore and story. He contributed a bunch of the stories behind the world and many if not all the game’s NPCs and bosses. The story is mostly hidden as it is in many other Souls games, with rich and deep lore. Item descriptions, NPC and boss dialogue and even environmental pieces all clue you in to some semblance of what is going on in the world of the game but a large part of it is for the player to deduce and theorize on. You’ll grasp the major points of the story as you discover the history of the Elden Lords and just what your role as a member of the Tarnished might be. The better stories are the ones told about the smaller bosses and the NPCs. The diversity in these tales helps to really build the world you explore, as you may overhear about a great battle that took place in a particular location and then when you get to said location and its name pops up on your screen, you’re hit with that, “oh wait this is where that guy said this event happened or a character died.” It makes the world feel lived in and someplace you can be a part of. It does this open world with no map markers, no enemy towers to climb, no bandit camps and none of the usual open world fluff that other developers love to throw into these types of games. The sheer sense of exploration and curiosity are the driving force in this game, and it does an extremely excellent job of making you feel like you are the Tarnished and it was your spirit called forth to save The Lands Between.
Elden Ring is the greatest open world game ever made. Sure it has obvious inspirations from other titles like Breath of the Wild and Ghosts of Tsushima but it also cleverly manages to wield those inspirations and improve upon them tenfold. Whereas Breath of the Wild was weak regarding how it told its story, Elden Ring presents a rich atmosphere that is so visually impressive let alone literal in the found lore that simply running through the world tells a part of its story. The freedom present in Ghosts of Tsushima’s playability to allow you to tackle the game in any way you wanted is tenfold in Elden Ring. It is one of the few games that truly embraces the quota of “Go Anywhere, Do Anything,” we strive to look for in this genre. Elden Ring has firmly raised the bar on how developers should approach the genre, and it will sit upon its throne like a mighty tyrant looking out to the rest of the industry. It will part its parched lips, thirsty for the runes of the felled enemies in the game and utter these dry words to these other developers who dare to try to reach for its crown.