With FromSoftware’s latest release, Elden Ring, more gamers than ever have been venturing to the world of Dark Souls (in everything but name). While the trial and tribulation-based gameplay hasn’t been for everyone in the past, Elden Ring quickly became a mainstream success, smashing the sales of previous Souls games in mere days. With so many people playing and countless stories about how each is approaching it, Elden Ring has unlocked memories of an olden time where gaming secrets were found via word of mouth and the name of the game was constant discovery.
Unlike past Souls titles, Elden Ring has taken a huge page from the book of open-world games — more specifically, a critically acclaimed hit you may have heard of called The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Like Zelda, Elden Ring throws players into its world and gives them free rein to play exactly the way they want. There is no set road and no rules of advancement besides going into different areas and defeating the main bosses, but the way you get to those objectives is entirely up to the individual player.
This gameplay philosophy gives every player a unique game identity, aside from their absurd custom characters. I recall a conversation I had with a friend where we talked about what we’d done so far in the game. He told me how he went under a lake and found some mystical area (which I still haven’t come across) and how he’d stormed Castle Stormveil and found a respawning zombie area to grind in. Basically, he’d been everywhere that the northwest of the map could offer.
Meanwhile I’d been going southeast, dealing with the likes of Castle Morne to find a pumpkin helmet, grinding levels by taking down a giant at the third church, and finding a turtle shell shield to finish my Ninja Turtle Samurai build.
This difference in gameplay persisted when he traveled to my realm and asked me, “Have you done anything up near the Castle Stormveil?” I replied that “I’d mostly been exploring the lower areas.” He showed me his map and it was nothing like mine. That’s when I realized this game truly captured the magical essence of the gaming days before the internet was a thing, despite the internet being able to play a factor in the experience.
The best part is that even Twitter and other social media don’t break this magic. I’m routinely seeing posts from different players with entirely different experiences. Their conversations and questions around what they’re doing are a total blast from the past, reminding me of old internet secret forums that I was too young to even take part in. It takes me back to a time when it was just me, my siblings, and cousins — and minimal internet usage. All we needed to find in-game secrets was our curiosity for exploration and the rarely obtained gaming magazine.
This is one of the reasons that Elden Ring is one of the first Souls games I could even recommend to those who haven’t gelled with the series in the past. I still don’t think the controls are the best for everyone, the game still feels mechanically aged as always, and the frustration that certain bosses can bring on makes mileage vary from person to person. However, the exploratory design, experimentation-based gameplay, the sometimes hilarious community aspect, and that “old game smell” I’ve been gushing about really make me believe that even Souls game haters could find a bit of fun in this one.
For gamers like me who’ve long missed the innocence and emotions of that bygone era, Elden Ring feels like a breath of fresh air. Nothing is obvious in the in-game world of the realm of The Lands Between and the call to adventure is strong. Much like Breath of the Wild, there is no one true way to solve a problem. I’m seeing everyone share their tactics, as if we’re playing an old Apple II role-playing game and saying things like, “Oh wow, you did it that way? I just parried and knocked him off the cliff instead.” That’s made Elden Ring one of the most non-throwback throwback games in a long time, and I can’t wait to experience even more of it.
Elden Ring is available now on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.
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