It’s easy to think you’ve been dropped into the far corners of the world, an early peak in Elden Ring’s nightmarish endgame. But in the full scope of The Lands Between, you’ve barely moved on.
The world of Elden Ring is huge, but not groundbreaking. Despite the monsters, walking through The Lands Between won’t take you as long as walking through the United States of Red Dead Redemption 2, any of the recent Assassin’s Creeds, or even (don’t say it) Breath of the Wild Hyrule. But somehow Elden Ring manages to feel as big (if not bigger) than any of the above, and it all depends on how From Software curates that scale.
When you first enter the open fields of Limgrave, your map is blank. If you follow the main road, you will soon find a part of the map showing the entire region – an impressive enough space in itself that you could spend dozens of hours exploring.
But then you teleport to Calydus or explore south of the Peninsula and something strange happens. The map interface growing. Suddenly the possibility of what this world can contain explodes. Lunia adds a huge area to the map extending to the north, and for a good 30 hours, I figured it would be as far north as we were going – that the map would probably match up with a piece of land to the east. Then you find the Altus Plateau and the height of the map doubles – and not even for the last time.
However, the biggest shock for most people is when they stumble upon a small cabin in the Misty Forest. There is an elevator inside that goes down and keeps going down, even if it’s not smart until you find yourself in a huge underground world. Opening the map opens up a new hotkey for changing map layers, and suddenly you realize that an entire second world lies dormant beneath the surface of Elden Ring.
It’s important to note that Elden Ring doesn’t tell you this at the very beginning. The map screen does not show the second layer on a fresh character and does not allow you to scan foggy terrain. You start the game with no idea where The Lands Between will go or where it will end, which makes each new region even more exciting.
But the scale of Elden Ring is further enhanced by the fact that you can’t just walk from end to end. Dark Souls games have always had secret worlds, mountain temples hidden inside paintings, mysteries hidden in item descriptions that take you to ancient castles.
I mentioned one earlier, the long descent to the Siofra River, hidden in a forest temple. But that sense of discovery lingers in the game for a long time, as vast areas of the map are only accessible to those willing to dig into them. I stumbled off the path in the late game zone last night and hit a dead end, only to find that lying down was pulling me out of time into one of the most visually spectacular boss fights I’ve ever seen.
The late-game region, itself closed behind an easy-to-miss quest item, leads to two more hidden areas, one of which is even more confusing with labyrinthine difficulty and arguably the toughest boss fight From Software has ever created. Elden Ring is huge, but it retains the feel of the interconnected world set out in Dark Souls 1, with zones often connecting to each other in unexpected ways.
Elden Ring also doesn’t hesitate to recontextualize areas you’ve already visited. Some of them are small, and the enemies leave the main early location depending on the progress of the quest. But in the very late stages of the game, one area completely transforms in such a way that it actually becomes a completely new zone.
You see, I haven’t been playing too many open-world games lately. Leaving aside criticisms of checklists and uniform design around Ubisoft’s open-world model, I often find myself dropping the game the moment an open-world game becomes known. The moment I saw the borders and knew exactly what was over the next hill.
But at the 100th hour, Elden Ring is still a game full of mysteries. I’m standing at the doors leading to the final boss, and the idle return still opens up entirely new corners of the map. There are still towers that I haven’t figured out how to unlock, ruins that require out-of-the-box thinking to solve. And that’s not even to mention the NPC quest lines I missed, many of which I’m sure are on their own trails.
Elden Ring may not be the biggest game in terms of area. But its world is carefully designed to never reveal all of its secrets, and the game retains that fantasy-adventure feel until its final hours. I will finish Elden Ring within a week, but it will be a long time before I wear out his world.