Can it really be almost thirteen years since we first clapped eyes on Demon's Souls? The very first time we sat down to tangle with FromSoftware's action RPG masterpiece we were blissfully unaware of the horror, the terror and constant, relentless death that awaited us. We were, of course, immediately hooked on it all, we couldn't get enough of its delightfully addictive mix of punishing battles and deep, all-consuming lore and have greedily gobbled up every Souls adventure that's followed it in its wake.
Yes, through three Dark Souls', through the Gothic bloodbath of Bloodborne and the majestic shinobi stealth antics of Sekiro, we've dodge-rolled, blocked and slowly hacked a path to victory. We've been huge fans since way back in the day then but, after so many years of unmistakeably similar experiences, was it all beginning to grow just a little stale? Bloodborne may have switched up the aesthetic vibe, and Sekiro had its own unique ideas in terms of combat, but the general ebb and flow here, the base level lay of the land; battling through small-scale encounters with tough common foes, grinding out upgrades and gear, parsing dense lore for clues, getting to grips with sprawling labyrinths that twist and turn and cleverly interconnect as you move towards the next big test of all you've learned...could it be that this core formula was beginning to show signs of fatigue?
The thought may well have crossed our minds fleetingly in the build-up to Elden Ring's release, but just a handful of hours with Hidetaka Miyazaki's latest has utterly erased any doubts we had about our ability to stomach yet more of his unique brand of punishment and pain. The move to an open world here, something we were honestly quite concerned about the first time we got wind of it, has turned out to be an masterstroke. This is (for want of a better comparison) Breath of the Wild levels of open world grandeur and finesse perfectly combined with the deep and addictive combat, the difficulty and dread and Eldritch terror that we all know and love from the Dark Souls series. It is, in short, an absolute masterpiece.
From the moment you emerge out of the dank depths of Elden Ring's starting area to your first glorious glimpse at The Lands Between you can just sense that something very special awaits, and it really, truly does. The vast expanse laid out before you here is bursting with hidden dungeons, terrifying bosses, secrets, lore, bizarre NPC encounters, riddles and conundrums. The way in which this game reframes what we've come to expect from the flow of a Souls title, giving us exactly what we crave whilst altering the fundamental rhythm of how it's delivered, makes for a dizzyingly delightful experience that's hard to find fault with. It's exactly the kick in the pants Fromsoftware's formula needed.
No longer locked into the more constrained semi-open puzzle-box structure of past Souls games, we're free to come and go as we please, to summon our double-jumping horse and take off across grassy plains, scorched earth and poisonous swamps. We can take our time, grow stronger, develop our combat skills, delve deep into dungeons and revel in the overwhelming sense of wonder and discovery that comes with slowly investigating every nook and cranny of this painstakingly crafted world.
There's so much detail and depth here, from the exquisitely animated enemies to the many amazing ruins — FromSoftware easily does the best ruins in the biz — from enormous legacy dungeons that provide great big juicy servings of classic Souls action, to hidden catacombs, castles, otherworldly realms and so much more besides. Any worries we had that we were about to experience some sort of diluted Dark Souls stretched thinly across a Ubisoft-styled open world are entirely vanquished early doors.
The Land Between is dense with meaningful interactions and quests and crammed full of the kind of decadent madness and mystery that we've come to expect from Miyazaki. Take off in any direction and before long you'll find yourself burrowing down deep into some unexpected adventure in pretty short order. There's no empty busywork here, no map bursting with icons leading you to your next pointless trinket, this is a living, breathing world that hides endless layers of pleasure, one that wants you take your time, explore, get lost and just absolutely marinate in its treacle-thick atmosphere.
Much is often made of the difficulty of these games, we've mentioned the punishment here already, but there's so much more to it all and here these aspects get room to breathe like never before. Dark Souls, Demon's Souls, Bloodborne... all difficult, there's no doubting it, but they are as much, if not more, about the journey, about the atmosphere and the lore and the slowly coming to understand the horror through which you must wade. There's a multitude of mechanics to get to grips with in Elden Ring, some old, some new, and we could spend endless paragraphs laboriously mulling over the details; the summoning and the weapon arts, ashes and stealth and so much more besides, but discovering all of this, making sense of it - either by yourself or through guides - is an integral part of the journey you're embarking on here. There's no rush, embrace the chaos, immerse yourself fully in the striking world that's been created by Miyazaki and George R.R. Martin and you'll not come away disappointed.
Yes, it can be tough, it will be tough, but this is also a Souls game that's so much more accessible to newcomers, if they approach it with the right mindset. You don't ever need to gallop headlong into a boss encounter here, there aren't strict roadblocks in the same manner as past entries in the series; you're now free to roam, to grind out levels, experiment, wander and explore to your heart's content before settling in to face off against one of the great big bosses you'll need to best if you're to follow along and finish the critical path. For every problem you come up against, you can be sure an explanation or solution is close at hand, there's guidance if you seek it, it's how these games are designed. And, if you're really stuck - and we all get really stuck - relax and hit up a guide or forum, enjoy the sense of community, summon a friend, a random stranger or NPC to help you out. There's always more than one way to skin a Demigod.
We've spent over fifty hours in The Lands Between so far, our journey a long way from over - and we've got no intentions of rushing it either - but even now, before we've seen all this game has to offer, before we've slayed every monstrosity and uncovered every secret, we can say with absolute confidence that it's FromSoftware and Hidetaka Miyazaki's crowning achievement thus far.
Elden Ring is an immaculate game in terms of its vision and how that vision has been executed. Yes, it's got a few niggling performance problems to be patched out right now — and patched out they doubtless will be — but even with these minor technical issues, what's been delivered here is nigh on perfection, a massively successful marriage of Dark Souls' unbeatable combat and an open world that's easily on a par with the very best we've ever experienced. A truly epic and wondrous adventure full of mystery, challenge and terror awaits you, and it's one that we highly recommend you throw yourself into with abandon.
Elden Ring is a crowning achievement for FromSoftware and undoubtedly the very best gameplay experience they've yet delivered - and that's really saying something given this developer's incredible back catalogue. The Lands Between deftly combine breathless open world exploration, stunning artistry, immaculate world-building and wondrous adventure with classic Dark Souls combat and dungeon-crawling, resulting in not just the best Souls game to date, but a candidate for one of the very best video games ever made.