Elden Ring is the first soulsborne that’s let me relax

It would be hard for you to tell that I’m enjoying myself if you watch me play Dark Souls. With my expression oscillating between steely determination and complete dismay, sweaty handprints on the controller and profuse swearing, it probably looks like I’m having a terrible time. But this constant feeling of teetering on the edge of a heart attack is one of the reasons I keep coming back. It’s a hell of a move.

Every time I jump up, I get transported back to the weekend, where in a blind panic, I decided that three days of caffeine pills, Red Bull, Slayer, and insomnia would help me pass the university exam in the subject I was in maybe five times. I felt like I was being followed. I could hear my heart pounding in my chest like a jackhammer and I would start laughing for no reason. But I also felt that I could do anything. I had not slept for three days and still stood, leaning over. I was unstoppable! I didn’t pass the exam.

The excitement that came from putting my mind and body through hell, and the possibility, however slight, that I was going to overcome difficulties was like electricity coursing through my veins, which looking back, suggests what it was trying to say me to stop. Just a year or two later, Demon’s Souls came out and brought me back to that state without risking my mental or physical health Well, not much.

FromSoftware games exist at the intersection of death and victory. One of those two things is waiting for you and you just have to move forward and hope it’s the last one. But even if it is, you won’t be able to rest. You have to go back there, sweat, swear, and almost certainly die again and again. Perhaps you will return to an easier place and farm less dangerous monsters, but this painstaking routine is hardly relaxing.

I never thought there could be another way. Of course, there has been a lot of discussion and debate about accessibility and difficulty when it comes to these famous punishment games, but almost everyone agrees that whatever changes are welcomed, they should still be challenging and even sometimes violent.

But while going through the squeeze is an undeniable part of the appeal, I’ve also come to appreciate a lot of what Dark Souls does. The bleak beauty, the subtle storytelling, the huge pile of mysteries all attracted me as well, but I found more and more that I wanted to experience these brilliant things without the specter of death looming over me all the time.

Elden Ring has it all, but its large open world also leaves plenty of room for more relaxing adventures. In other FromSoftware games, finishing a particularly frustrating boss usually means I need a break. Maybe lie down a bit. But in Elden Ring, I go to Torrent and look for paintings, or maybe just a good view of a screenshot. I could go to the Round Table to chat with my friends, or just explore a part of the map that I haven’t visited yet. This is the first FromSoftware game that I really have a hard time putting down because it always lures me in with new directions and fun.

Choose your poison

Inside the dungeons, going from point A to point B is fraught with danger, but outside, you decide what you want to do and where to go. And it could be towards the boss, or a huge pack of enemies, or a distant tower that is definitely full of shit that will confuse you. If the thought that even a few minutes when you are not threatened by an unexpected death seems terrible, you can still rush headlong into danger.

So it’s not just that there’s a place to stay, there are plenty of options here. You usually have a few options when you hit a wall in Dark Souls, but there are so many of them in Elden Ring, and so many enticing ones, that I actually really enjoy finding myself biting off more than I could chew. This is an excuse to go the other way and try something new. These are not walls; it’s an excuse to explore more of a world that loves to hide secrets and treasures everywhere.

All of this results in an adventure with more texture and undulating pace, with smoother ups and downs and more action between peaks and valleys. And it really highlights the moments when all the game really wants to do is grind your bones to dust. The juxtaposition of an unexpectedly serene gallop across some of the most stunning views you’ve ever encountered, and some sort of multi-legged monster gleefully hitting you with a single blow, makes these horrific battles all the more amazing and intense.

When I end up dancing with the boss, I’m more excited about the prospect because I’ve had some downtime. I was refreshed and all on fire. Filled with confidence. And then, of course, Elden Ring brings me back to earth, kicking the crap out of me. I love it.

I think it suits me better, but I don’t think it’s an improvement over Dark Souls. It makes sense that this isn’t Dark Souls 4: they have a lot in common, but the open-world changes the experience so much that it’s clear that Elden Ring offers something different, albeit related.

There’s a chasm between Dark Souls’ mega-dungeon labyrinths and the dungeon-strewn open world of Elden Ring, and it’s in that chasm that Elden Ring’s new releases lie. And the philosophical differences are also highlighted by things like a more generous fast travel system, allowing you to teleport to any place of grace from almost anywhere on the map. While this arguably makes Elden Ring a little easier and certainly more accessible, it also speaks to its desire to push you out into the world, to make you feel like a freelance explorer rather than just a tragic walking corpse.

Sure, it’s still pretty dark in places, and there’s an oppressive Dark Souls vibe hanging over everything, but it doesn’t have that aggressive, unforgiving, punishing vibe that oozes from every pore. Everything in Dark Souls is shit, everything sucks, and you should probably just sit down and cry a little. In Elden Ring, you can watch your horse take to the skies with a magical updraft and befriend a sentient pot. And so much more chatter! Of course, everyone is still pretty subdued, but it’s a much more alive world that feels here in a way that wouldn’t make sense in other games.

So Elden Ring is not the future of Dark Souls, but rather something that offers a Dark Souls-like experience, and then a whole host of other things. It’s broad, but not in a way that sacrifices too much of what makes FromSoftware games differently. And I can easily see how it seduces new players and inspires them to try previous games. In fact, once I’m done with Elden Ring, I’m thinking about starting Sekiro, the one soul romp I’ve barely touched because it reminded me that even though I like to relax, I still want to feel like a heart bomb delayed action.

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