[Game: Elden Ring, FromSoftware, 2022]
Tarnishing:

A Thorough Critique Detailing the Few Mechanical Flaws of FromSoft’s Elden Ring

 

Introduction:

Imagine sitting next to a friend and looking out over a majestic seaside vista. The sky is clear and there are birds in the sky. The sun warms your skin and occasionally a soft breeze sweeps through. Now, over the gentle sound of the waves, your friend turns to you and says, “Look, someone left some litter on the beach.” In this context, I am that friend. That remark is the equivalent of what I am about to do. Welcome to my article on Elden Ring!

Elden Ring overflows generously with quality, beauty, and entertainment.

Despite its incredible boss and enemy variety, it includes several of the best boss fights that are present in any game, FromSoft or otherwise. Despite the staggering number of weapons, weapon arts, shields, and magical abilities in the game, genuinely novel methods of attack and defense are found from the start of the game to the end. And despite the immense size of its map, it contains multiple individual areas, such as the Volcano Manor and Elphael, which stand alongside earlier creations like the Painted World of Ariamis and the Boletarian Palace as some of the best level design FromSoftware has ever done. But you don’t really need me to tell you that. If you’ve encountered any review or other type of media about Elden Ring since its release, then you already know all of that.

In setting out to write an article about the game, I wanted to approach it from an angle that would be different from the thousand others in existence, while also providing something valuable. There’s really no sense in me just throwing my praise on the praise pile. So, instead of talking about Elden Ring’s overwhelmingly large number of mechanical (and other) strengths, I’m going to dig into its vanishingly small number of mechanical weaknesses. For reference, prior to writing this article, I played through the game three times with drastically different builds, racked up well over a hundred hours of playtime, gathered 100% of the game’s achievements on Steam, and (as far as I know) beat every single unique and repeated boss that is present in the game.

Elden Ring screenshot with draconic tree sentinel - From Software, mechanics, critique

In the sections ahead, the discussion will involve a healthy mix of elements carried forward from prior FromSoft games that worked better there than here, issues carried forward from prior FromSoft games that should’ve been improved long ago, and systems borrowed from other open-world games that FromSoft did an imperfect job of implementing. The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling a large cross-section of content in Elden Ring, so you should only continue reading after this section if you do not mind spoilers or you have already played the game.

The Spectral Steed of Elden Ring:

Torrent, the mount that can be used to accelerate overworld navigation, is a great place to start for this article—because the implementation of the spectral steed is a perfect metaphor for the game as a whole. Torrent is overall a great creation that provides a smooth experience, yet it nevertheless possesses several minor demerits that are likely to annoy players.

The first annoyance that the majority of players will encounter with Torrent is the incredibly weird interaction between the steed’s double jump and fall damage. The details of a double jump, from its straightforward contradiction of the laws of physics to the additional freedom it grants characters when exploring a gameworld, are by now universally understood by people who play games. But Elden Ring tries to have a double jump, and yet retain both a semblance of physical logic and a tight restriction on how the game can be explored. The manifestation of this compromise is a steed that can plummet off a cliff, cancel all downward momentum with a magical mid-air hop, and then receive the full force of the entire fall upon making contact with the ground from the height of their little hop.

Elden Ring screenshot with ill-fated double jump - From Software, mechanics, critique

It looks so genuinely wrong, so ludicrous, so out-of-step with intuition about how either a fall works in reality or a double jump works in a game, that when a player sees it for the first time they are likely to think it is simply a bug. There are several far superior alternatives that were available to FromSoft here: they could have made it so that the fall damage hits the player as soon as the double jump is triggered, which would at least make some kind of physical sense; they could have bit the bullet and allowed the player to cancel fall damage this way, even if it meant that they could rush past areas in an unintended direction; or they could have just removed the double jump, which doesn’t seem to actually be necessary for any part of the game.

The other annoyances of Torrent require some context for mount mechanics. There are two primary ways that a horse or similar mount can be implemented in a game. One is as a realistic simulation of the creature in question, meaning that mounted movement may be faster in a straight line, but slower when turning; that the animal may not always behave exactly as instructed (at least until fully tamed); that the animal has to be found at one or more fixed locations in the gameworld in order to be used; and/or that the animal has its own pool of stats apart from that of the player-character. A moderate example along those lines would be the horses in Breath of the Wild.

The other way is to simply use the horse or mount as an extension of the player-character, meaning that all movements are faster or more versatile when mounted; that the animal always responds predictably to the player’s controls; that the animal can be summoned instantly and anywhere; and/or that the horse has no stats of its own apart from those of the player-character. An example of this second type would be just about any mount in Maplestory.

For the most part, the spectral steed of Elden Ring falls in the latter camp: it appears anywhere in the overworld at the push of a button; it never disobeys an input; it can stop on a dime; it’s faster in every direction; it introduces the franchise’s first true double jump; its double jump can be used to turn instantaneously regardless of momentum; it shares the player-character’s stamina pool; and reviving it when it is banished in combat requires expending a crimson flask.

Elden Ring screenshot with Torrent respawn prompt and dragon claw - From Software, mechanics, critique

But there are two exceptions to this categorization, which are the causes of the two final topics to be covered here.

The first of these exceptions is that Torrent has its own pool of health. This leads to several problems, and just generally creates a situation where receiving damage during mounted combat feels inconsistent and hard to track. It’s inconsistent because whether the steed does or doesn’t tank some of the incoming damage feels arbitrary. It’s hard to track because Torrent’s health is expressed as a tiny bar near its head that only appears when it is hit and when it is healed. And, arguably worse than either of those grievances, the steed having its own health leads to there being two ways to be knocked off of it: (1) because the steed lost all of its HP, or (2) because the player-character took enough posture damage in a short period of time to be staggered. Often the difference between these is difficult to discern in the midst of combat, and the second occurring sometimes coincides with the first occurring as well. So it is frequently unclear, when knocked down, whether the steed can or can not be instantly re-summoned. If it can be summoned, no problem: it appears and combat proceeds without a hitch. If it can’t, a menu prompt appears on screen to ask whether the player wants to spend a crimson flask to re-summon it, and the prompt defaults to ‘no.’ The appearance of that menu prompt, say, when attempting to evade attacks from a dragon, can be a bit of a problem. My ideal solution to this would be for the steed to be invincible (it is spectral, after all) and to provide a flat boost to character posture while mounted—yet to retain the system where being posture-broken causes the player-character to fall off of it, and have re-summoning it after a forced dismount always cost a crimson flask, now with no text prompt.

The second of the galling exceptions to Torrent’s status as a player upgrade rather than a horse sim is how Torrent handles reversing directions. It’s an extremely minor complaint that becomes a consistent annoyance near cliffs. Basically, the steed has two different animations for turning in the opposite direction of its current one when on the ground. One of the animations has Torrent just sidle around in place to reverse direction. The other has Torrent lurch forward and push off from the ground to reverse direction. Since that second option can sometimes occur when the steed is stationary, stepping up to a cliff while mounted (whether to pick up an item or to simply look down) becomes unnecessarily nerve-wracking every time. The player’s options for turning around become either gambling on turning and just hoping the horse won’t stray off the cliff, or else unintuitively jumping forward off of the cliff in order to use the double-jump to instantly reverse direction in mid-air. Given the rest of the steed’s non-simulation, active-design control scheme—as well as the fact that it can not be instructed to step backwards—the ‘step-forward-to-push-off’ variant of those turning animations should have only been possible to receive when moving above a certain speed. And when stationary, it should always turn in place.

Elden Ring screenshot with abundant crafting material acquisition - From Software, mechanics, critique

The Crafting System of Elden Ring:

I don’t have too much to say on this topic, so it should be a fast section. The gist is that crafting is just as bad here as it is in most open-world games.

I understand that in such a large game, it is convenient for developers to include a system like crafting in order to fill space with interactive materials, add an extra class of drops for neutral fauna and minor enemies, and offer a way of interacting with the world other than combat. But after experiencing the excellent cooking system in Breath of the Wild, I at least hoped to see more flexible, intuitive versions of crafting in open-world games from then on. Unfortunately, the system in Elden Ring is neither better than nor even as good as that. Instead, it’s a rigid, boring list of largely interchangeable consumable goods that can be produced by gathering specific listed ingredient quantities.

In the entirety of my initial hundred-hour playthrough, although I found or purchased every crafting recipe I could, I only ever felt compelled to craft a couple of poison cures. That left a huge list of things that seemed worse or slower than any of the primary, non-craftable ways of buffing a character and attacking enemies. Perhaps I’d feel different if I had played the game as an archer, but as it stands I’d hardly notice if the entire system was removed from the game. The only thing I can really say in its favor is that the steady stream of crafting materials can be sold to bolster the stingy availability of runes from most early-game enemies.

Input Buffering in the Combat of Elden Ring:

The fighting in Elden Ring is accomplished through the deepest implementation of Souls-style combat that FromSoft have produced so far. Now, I personally believe that, as opposed to Souls-style combat, Sekiro-style combat is more appropriate for the type of fast-paced encounters that FromSoft have favored more and more over time; but I am also aware that the system in Sekiro is controversial due to being far less flexible and less forgiving than Souls combat, so their decision to revert is understandable. And while the attack actions in the earliest Souls games hold up surprisingly well despite their relative simplicity, due to the remarkable weight and realism of them—the increasingly rapid, increasingly weightless combat of Bloodborne, Dark Souls III, and Elden Ring does suit the increasingly rapid, increasingly weightless enemy and boss designs of those games.

Elden Ring screenshot with riposte in evergaol - From Software, mechanics, critique

Indeed, when the player-character is on foot, Elden Ring essentially sports the exact combat system from Dark Souls III, with a few notable differences. Those differences include (1) that the Dark Souls III-style combat arts, now called ashes of war, are no longer tied to specific weapons—making individual offensive and defensive options more versatile and customizable; (2) that powerstancing returns from Dark Souls II as a buff to dual-wielding melee weapons; and (3) that there is a tiny amount of Sekiro DNA spliced in through guard counters and guard breaks, minor stealth elements, and the Flask of Wondrous Physick (which is essentially a better version of the per-death buff limits introduced by Sekiro).

Not all of that is entirely positive, mind you. Guard counters in particular feel half-baked, as they deal enormous damage to both health and posture, and so frequently work as a trivial (almost automatic) alternative to parrying. And though stealth is present, the lack of anything resembling Sekiro’s deathblow system means that using stealth to target a foe is often a worse idea than it should be, as it simply initiates a combat encounter now involving both the intended foe and anyone in the vicinity ignored for the purpose of stealth.

But both of those points are very minor in comparison with the main points of this section: that the window for buffering inputs is still too wide, and that it is still impossible to interrupt most buffered inputs. This requires some explanation. First, put simply, what is input buffering? Input buffering is when a game remembers a sequence of inputs provided during an animation, then queues up those inputs to happen after the animation ends. So, if you press the heavy attack button while already performing a heavy attack, then the game will remember the second input and immediately follow the first heavy attack with a second (even if no buttons are pressed after the first attack concludes). And similarly, if casting a big spell and simultaneously spamming the roll button, a roll will follow the conclusion of the cast. At this abstract level, this system is theoretically solid. It allows players to plan out moves and fight strategically, and avoids requiring frame-perfect button presses for chaining maneuvers.

Elden Ring screenshot with Rykard, Lord of Blasphemy - From Software, mechanics, critique

But there are big problems with it, which should by now be familiar to players of From’s games: it starts remembering inputs much too early in animations, and it is generally impossible to jump the queue. That is, the buffered inputs can not be interrupted or canceled, even before they begin. If you are in that heavy attack and have queued up another, only to realize before the first hit ends that the enemy is going to attack you, pressing the roll button will not cause a dodge to occur; the second attack will still happen instead. If the player has time to change their mind about what it would make sense to do next, then so does the player-character. But the player’s idiotic in-game avatar will still rigidly follow the queued input and get smacked in the face.

Being unable to interrupt the overzealous input buffering after receiving new information is an issue that was present (and already a source of complaints) in Demon’s Souls back in 2009, and has been carried forward into every major FromSoftware release from then on. While it was an imperfection in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, it wasn’t usually a big deal there due to the far slower pace of combat encounters in those games. But the fact that this issue is still present in high-speed games like Sekiro and Elden Ring is a huge problem. Reacting to something at a split second’s notice is frequently the difference in such games between survival and death. In Elden Ring’s version of the Storm Ruler fight, for instance, it’s possible to accidentally queue up two activations of the serpent-hunter’s multi-swing, five-second weapon art, locking out control of the player-character long enough for the boss to charge up and release a one-hit-kill attack.

The result of all of this is that input buffering, which should feel like a tool or even a convenience afforded to the player, instead feels like a problem that the player has to work around. I’ve seen it claimed by a few people that its current implementation is actually laudable, because it punishes spamming buttons for upcoming actions. This is technically true, but it also punishes simply pressing buttons calmly, whenever it is done in advance. The most prudent way of approaching the situation is, unintuitively, to avoid thinking ahead. Trying to plan carefully and play strategically, which is otherwise the best approach to progressing in a FromSoft title, is not an asset in a combat system designed in this way. Just tapping attack and defense buttons one at a time in order to completely avoid using the included input buffering system is often the superior strategy.

Elden Ring screenshot with guard counter in Elphael - From Software, mechanics, critique

Abundant Repetition in Elden Ring:

The biggest, oldest problem of the open-world genre is the challenge for developers to produce enough content to naturally and satisfactorily fill a wide open gameworld. And it’s a problem that Elden Ring comes far closer to overcoming than the majority of its genre peers. The sheer quantity of unique enemies, bosses, weapons, spells, NPCs, and (to a lesser degree) areas is miraculous. It’s as clear as day that an utterly absurd amount of work went into the content of this game. But FromSoft is nothing if not ambitious, and despite the incredible variety of stuff in the game, they still apparently created a world too big for it.

Enemies, minibosses, and bosses (including a big chunk the primary story bosses) show up repeatedly in various iterations around the map, often at the end of one of a number of similar caves, catacombs, or mines. Bosses show up with remixed moves, in pairs instead of solo, in the company of regular enemies, simply with a subtle change of name, or with no difference whatsoever. It’s hard to take seriously the complaints that people used to have about fighting three versions of the Asylum Demon in the first Dark Souls, now that FromSoftware have released a game with three or more instances of most bosses in the game. And as for regular enemies, well, apparently crabs and wolves are native inhabitants of every climate and landscape across all of the Lands Between. And there’s something quietly disappointing about discovering enormous endgame areas like the Haligtree and Elphael, only to realize that they don’t contain a single new enemy type.

Further, as a different kind of repetition, specific enemy designs from the Souls universe show up in Elden Ring with many of their original animations intact. And this isn’t just limited to arguably justifiable overlaps like rats, crabs, slugs, skeletons, slimes, and rotting dogs (all of which do return). Rather, truly unique denizens of the Souls games also appear in Elden Ring, such as basilisks, oversized wolf bosses that wield giant swords in their mouths, and variants of the serpent men from Dark Souls and the thralls from Dark Souls III. They get a pass on Patches since his creation precedes the Souls games, and I don’t really mind the serpent men and thralls since a fair amount of work was done to differentiate them. But otherwise this was pretty disappointing to see. Sif and the basilisks are some of the most memorable entities in the Souls universe, and as a result they serve as part of the identity of that universe. At some point, if it’s one’s own prior creations that one is repeating, it no longer counts as ‘homage’ or spiritual succession. It’s just deadening some of the uniqueness of the earlier work.

Elden Ring screenshot with basilisks in Lake of Rot - From Software, mechanics, critique

And the mechanical repetitions from previous games do not end at the enemies. Our experience resources once again double as our currency; we once again drop resources on death and must go reclaim them; and we once again progress via an archstone-like checkpoint network, though a sloppier one than ever. And as I explained above, the combat mechanics are almost all reused from Dark Souls III. Moreover, I can’t be the only one who assumed that the company that made the dazzlingly original online system of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls would continue to impress with unusual forms of co-op and competition over the years. Instead, they’ve produced increasingly conventional and more easily ignored forms of the exact same online system ever since—not only repeating their approach to direct multiplayer, but also to messages and bloodstains.

But setting that tangent aside, here’s the thing: even without any of the repetitions, whether from preceding titles or within its own encounter list, Elden Ring would have more enemies and more bosses than any game they’ve ever released. Elden Ring simply didn’t need so many repeats to feel large and alive. And I say this as someone who generally doesn’t mind a bit of repetition where it makes sense in the world, as with the night’s cavalry, the various dragons, and most of the regular enemies. As it stands, a first playthrough of Elden Ring will take most players well over twice the length of time of a first playthrough of any of FromSoft’s other games. Open-world or not, the game simply didn’t need to have over 100 hours of content in a single playthrough, when employing such a huge amount of recycling was one of the crucial strategies to get the number that high.

There are some players who will play practically nothing other than Elden Ring for the next few years, stringing one playthrough into another. Those who love the game that much are almost unaffected by the duration and repetition of it. The proposition of cutting the game down to better match the amount of unique content it contains is primarily a suggestion for the benefit of those who will be playing the game at most once per year, if not once ever (to experience the game as a work of art before moving on to experience other works).

And the idea that it can be finished much faster, by speedrunners for instance, is irrelevant. Again, this point is not for the benefit of players experienced with the game—but rather for players who are new to the game, particularly those having the intended experience of playing it through (as I did) without consulting any external guides. With a tighter execution, such players would have a much higher chance of seeing all or most of its content while retaining a sense of awe and wonder at the new things around every corner.

Elden Ring screenshot with tree spirit - From Software, mechanics, critique

It’s odd to find myself saying this outside of a discussion of literature, but it’s the thought that struck me during my seventh fight against a flailing tree spirit boss: it feels like the work needed an editor.

Restrictive Enemy Leashes in Elden Ring:

This is another short section, as it’s an easy thing to describe. Elden Ring is a game with a wide open map and mounted combat mechanics, yet it is simultaneously a game that tightly guards which enemies may go where. Enemies are still leashed to intended locations or routes exactly as in prior games, meaning that it is frequently possible for an enemy one is fighting to simply give up, return to neutral, and begin walking away—or, in worse scenarios, for bosses and minibosses one is fighting to vanish and reappear at their spawn point. Not only does the sudden return to neutrality tend to drop the challenge of a fight to zero, but there’s nothing that kills the momentum and mood of a big fight quite like the opponent popping out of existence to instantly respawn nearby.

This issue is most likely present for technical reasons, as performance could suffer if an enemy is drawn into a place that the developers did not intend it to be (increasing the number of entities or assets in a particular area beyond some key backend limit). But that is a fairly poor excuse under the circumstances. Elden Ring was created from very early in its development specifically as an open-world game. Designing around this problem more elegantly could and should have been a high priority for such a game, yet it wasn’t. Globally restricting asset density to accommodate wider enemy roaming would’ve been the best solution. But even a more blunt approach would’ve been fine; for instance, if other enemies, items, NPCs, and even bits of the environment had to be temporarily despawned or culled in surrounding areas in order to prevent active sentinels and dragons from often fading in and out of fights, then that absolutely should’ve been done.

People playing as ranged attackers are most likely to encounter the worst of this problem, due to the way that they are always trying to put distance between themselves and their opponents. Thus, the already-powerful spellcasters of the Lands Between (who are buffed relative to their counterparts in earlier games in terms of spellcasting speed, spellcasting damage, variety of available tactics, and availability of spirit ashes to tank for them) find themselves in an even stronger position than they already were, as so many enemies and minibosses lose interest in pursuing them after a shockingly brief span of time.

Elden Ring screenshot with pursuit of retreating enemy - From Software, mechanics, critique

Interactions between Spirit Ashes and Enemies in Elden Ring:

In a nutshell, spirit ashes are items which allow the player to summon one or more instances of a particular miniboss or regular enemy type as allies in certain combat situations (most often, during boss fights). It plays out sort of like a Pokémon monster collection system, as it is possible to acquire most of the non-boss combatants in the game for combat usage.

And right off the bat, you may be tempted to think that the complaint in this section is something other than what it actually is. This section is certainly not about the mere notion that spirit ashes were added to the game. Anyone opposed out-of-hand to players using them is simply applying a bias inherited from playing FromSoft’s earlier games. And anyone complaining that some of the bosses near the end of the game are too hard is likely a victim of this exact false equivalence. Spirit ashes aren’t simply a straightforward alternative to NPC summoning here, as Elden Ring places a far heavier mechanical stress on them than summoning has ever received previously—through the diversity of available ashes, the FP cost associated with summoning them, and the accompanying 10-tiered upgrade system.

It is my personal opinion that anything with such an extensive upgrade system in a FromSoft game is a mechanic that players are intended to use, at least during their first playthrough. Analogous situations present in some of their previous games are the ability to upgrade armor, the ability to kindle bonfires, and the ability to farm consumable healing items. Where such things were available, the games featuring them were generally balanced with them in mind.

But here’s the thing: the notion that Elden Ring is balanced around the inclusion of spirit ashes ends up being only a half-truth. Crowds of regular enemies and multi-boss encounters are as prevalent here are they are in Dark Souls II, and in that regard the sentiment seems accurate. But, with the exception of Radahn and a small set of fights toward the very end of the game, practically all singular enemies and bosses seem ill-suited to the presence of the spirits. The considerable mechanical stress I’ve detailed until now in this section is somewhat misleading, as an old issue crops up and makes them overpowered.

Elden Ring screenshot with ash summoning - From Software, mechanics, critique

The old issue in question is that boss and enemy aggro still seemingly works close to how it does in Demon’s Souls: the opponent will simplemindedly focus most of their attacks on whichever entity most recently attacked them. The combination of this with the lengthy string of strikes involved in many boss attacks leads to a situation where lone bosses can be freely damaged by the player-character for almost the entirety of a fight—simply by switching between waiting for a spirit to attack the boss, and then dealing damage as soon as it has initiated an attack against the spirit.

Bosses do seem to sometimes randomize their targets or at least select by proximity, but the most recent attacker remains a clear priority. Aside from that, it seems like the only attempt at alleviating this problem was simply giving AoE attacks to bosses a bit more often. That was a good decision under the circumstances, but the issue remains obvious and problematic regardless. Ideally, bosses would either more frequently alternate who they’re fighting irrespective of who is attacking them, or else would attack characters to an extent that is roughly proportional to the amount of damage each character has dealt to them. An even better solution would be giving many of the lone bosses, especially in the midgame, the ability to respond to the player calling a spirit by summoning a spirit of their own. But in any event, aggression that is primarily based on ‘most recent hit’ is simply not complex enough to handle the number of entities a player can introduce into an Elden Ring boss arena, even if they are playing offline. Though I’ve never found this a particularly satisfying solution, at least summoning an NPC or another player for co-op is balanced by boss health being increased.

Now, just before closing the book on this subject, there is one other (very small) annoyance that the spirit ashes introduce into the game. When it is possible to summon them, a small purple symbol appears on the lefthand side of the HUD. It’s small; it’s clear; I have no complaints about the design of the symbol itself. The annoyance stems from the fact that most scenarios in the overworld where they can be summoned are boss or miniboss fights. The outcome of that state of affairs is that the summoning symbol ruins the surprise of nearly all of the game’s otherwise unexpected boss encounters. When it appears, it’s likely that a major enemy is nearby or is about to spawn. They could have solved this particular problem by ditching the existing symbol, letting spirits be summoned once per grace rest almost anywhere in the world, and then only displaying a symbol in the rare situations when they can’t be summoned.

Elden Ring screenshot with dragon spoiled by summoning symbol - From Software, mechanics, critique

Unjustified Mechanics in Elden Ring:

This is the last main section of the article precisely because it’s something of a stretch to say that this is a problem with the mechanics themselves. But basically, some of the core mechanics simply don’t make enough sense in the world in which they’re placed.

One of the things that initially drew me to FromSoftware’s games was hearing about the way that every solitary detail—from the lore to the mechanics to seemingly minor things like item placements—were considered with great care in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. Upon playing those games myself, I found that the people who had described that aspect of the games were, if anything, understating the situation. Typically, games at the scope of those two simply do not have mechanical and logical coherence at the level that they do, nor do such games usually enforce the consequences of player choices with such consistency and equanimity.

The same is true in Elden Ring . . . most of the time. But there are a lot of exceptions.

NPCs are a source of many such exceptions. To the game’s credit, many NPCs still naturalistically make their own way around the gameworld without regard for the player’s wishes, and NPCs do not resurrect after death. But areas in the game where fighting NPCs is made impossible are more numerous than ever, and slain NPCs with stuff for sale now drop items that magically port their inventory into the shop in the hub. Whether to help, hinder, or even kill each NPC used to be one of the most consequential choices a player of a FromSoft game could make. Now, many of the most important NPCs are simply granted invincibility, and there’s actually an incentive to kill merchants (given that it’s incredibly convenient to consolidate their shops).

The most egregious instances of logical circumstances, justifications, and consequences related to NPCs being removed, however, relate to mid-game and late-game story events.

Elden Ring screenshot with erdtree aflame - From Software, mechanics, critique

On the minor side, none of the four primary smiths and merchants in the Roundtable Hold are mechanically affected by the burning of the erdtree. A distaught Roderika and an apparently dying Hewg carry on seamlessly performing their duties for the remainder of the game, and—after the rune of death is unbound—a motionless, seemingly dead Finger Reader Enia continues to silently conduct business with the player-character.

On the major side, it makes absolutely no mechanical difference whatsoever whether Melina is or is not accompanying the player-character. When she first leaves in Leyndell, she tells them that she’s letting them keep both Torrent and, somehow, “the power to turn runes into strength,” which was her ability to raise the character’s level. The player-character even retains both of those benefits if they make Melina their enemy by inheriting the Frenzied Flame. Now, clearly, temporarily removing the mount and the leveling system would be a pretty wild mechanical change. Yes, it would make by far the most sense in the game’s universe, but not doing that is obviously the safer choice. However, FromSoftware is a praiseworthy developer in part because of their habitual insistence on making the sensical choice over the safe choice when choosing mechanics. But even pursuing a safer design didn’t preclude them from assigning mechanical importance to Melina. All that is required here is to make her mechanical importance be even remotely analogous to her narrative importance. Even just making leveling more expensive in her absence, and/or forcing the player-character to find another steed, still could’ve made her less of a non-entity in terms of gameplay from her initial appearance onward.

Setting aside the NPCs, another aspect of the game that includes many elements which are mechanically convenient but logically unjustified (reminiscent of the work of a lesser dev team) is navigation. The ability to ‘fast travel’ between checkpoints, now granted immediately and never substantially revoked, is not tied to any aspect of the lore in the way it is in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. Placing beacons on the map causes columns of light to appear at those spots miles away in the world. And an infallible compass appears on the screen at all times, pointing toward both beacons and lost runes.

While I’m on the subject of the compass, just a side note: sadly, the game offers no option to independently disable it. Players are forced to choose between having it onscreen at almost all times and disabling the HUD entirely. As the latter would involve giving up in-game access to seeing the status bars and equipment menus, it’s not a realistic option. This means the distractingly accurate and frequently useless compass is a practically unavoidable companion throughout the game.

Elden Ring screenshot with beacon and compass - From Software, mechanics, critique

But back on topic, some systems are beholden to deeply arbitrary rules. Torrent can not be ridden in buildings or caves, but can be ridden inside of rises as well as in some deep underground zones. The game provides no in-universe justification for the fact that every conceivable dungeon boss suppresses fast travel. Flying enemies can be escaped by climbing ladders. Some non-phantom, non-summoned bosses nevertheless appear out of thin air. It’s all capricious, ill-justified, and, to borrow a phrase from my article on Sekiro, video gamey.

Finally, armor choice is more meaningless and less realistic than ever, because the higher level of a typical endgame build moves nearly all of the character’s defense into their stats and their talismans, because armor can not be improved by smithing, and because light and mid rolling are now almost mechanically indistinguishable. In short, the mechanics of Elden Ring usually match the game—but it’s less often that they match the depicted world.

Conclusion:

Okay, so those are the primary mechanical issues I encountered in Elden Ring. But here’s the thing: is there another open-world game in existence that does all of these things better?

No. There isn’t. There are games that do one or some of these things better, but there is no single open-world game that improves on all of them. The only one to get anywhere close is Breath of the Wild, but that game, as wonderful as it is, does a drastically worse job than Elden Ring when it comes to the category of ‘abundant repetition.’ As it stands, Elden Ring is the best true open-world game that exists. It is the current pinnacle of the genre. Like Breath of the Wild, it was developed by people that clearly know that stepping back to let exploration and control by the player take center-stage is the greatest virtue an open-world experience can possess. Yet unlike Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring also has narrative details that sometimes capture my interest, a map bursting at the seams with worthwhile experiences, and numerous individual zones or levels that measure up to the standard set by its non-open-world predecessors. Hell, it contains two non-consecutive, completely unrelated moments that felt just like discovering the Great Hollow and Ash Lake in Dark Souls—which is a feeling of awe and surprise no other game in FromSoft’s catalogue has replicated even once, let alone twice. With all that being said, however, something being the best of its genre doesn’t mean that there is no room for improvement.

Elden Ring screenshot with view of Leyndell - From Software, mechanics, critique

Moreover, while the elements discussed in the main sections of this article are the mechanical issues that stand out when I am playing Elden Ring moment-to-moment, none of them directly address my main complaint about its mechanics. This is because my main complaint is simply that, with the singular exception of a few of the boss designs, the game is not mechanically original. Though admittedly fairly unique in some of its settings and narrative details, its mechanics do not distinguish themselves as innovative or even new. The small pool of noteworthy mechanics which were not present in a prior FromSoft release are instead borrowed from other titles (especially other open worlds), and often not to the game’s benefit. Now, Elden Ring is a noticeable refinement of many (though not all) of the systems it incorporates. But for what an extraordinarily long game it is, it is remarkable that there were just a scant few times when playing it that I felt like I was being given an experience I hadn’t already had.

At the time of their releases, both Demon’s Souls and Sekiro were among the most mechanically inventive games ever created. In the PS3 era, big games were increasingly moving in the direction of being self-completing, rigidly structured, and cinematic. Demon’s Souls’ bold emphasis on instead being challenging, loosely structured, and immersive was a stunning and admirable intervention in the industry. 10 years later, Sekiro’s innovation was more modest, interrupting not the trajectory of the entire industry but rather the trajectory of From’s own releases. In terms of mechanics, it was a very welcome change of pace for the company, as it finally felt like FromSoft was embracing all of the consequences of the action-heavy game design they had been favoring since Bloodborne. It is a regrettable fact that, as detailed in a prior article, Sekiro’s strengths—its wonderful originality in terms of gameplay and setting—were coupled with a number of regressions toward intrusive AAA design clichés that the company had until then avoided for many years.

Elden Ring screenshot with familiar self-immolation - From Software, mechanics, critique

Elden Ring, again to its credit, is mostly free from the abundance of small bits of unlikeable design (like full-screen item popups, invisible walls, pausing the gameplay for all dialogue, and abundant text prompts) that plague Sekiro. It’s a smoother overall experience than Sekiro, just as it’s a smoother experience than Bloodborne and any Souls title. Elden Ring feels absolutely engrossing to play, and I enjoyed playing its insanely huge amount of silky-smooth content a great deal. But it’s not new. And to some degree, the unmatched reputation of their earlier releases rests precisely on the ways in which they offered something spiky when everyone else was offering something smooth.

Game developer Bennett Foddy has likened the experience of playing Elden Ring to that of sitting down and eating an entire birthday cake. Others have compared it to a FromSoftware theme park, with different zones resembling different earlier works by the company. I take their points, but I favor a different analogy. To me, playing Elden Ring is like listening to an entire four-hour greatest hits collection of music by my favorite band. It’s easy to sing along with it; I know all the words. It’s got all their most popular tracks (and it’s got them in album versions, radio versions, and sometimes also a third time as live versions). It even includes their covers of a few well-known songs by other artists. But the greatest hits collection is missing the tight structure, pacing, and originality of the individual albums; it doesn’t include some of the band’s best ‘deep cuts;’ it’s more than a desirable amount of the same style of music all at once; and after a while—even as comfortable and consistently enjoyable to hear as it is at any given moment—listening to it just leaves me wanting to hear them play a new song.

[Game: Elden Ring, FromSoftware, 2022]
Tarnishing:

A Thorough Critique Detailing the Few Mechanical Flaws of FromSoft’s Elden Ring

was last modified: July 6th, 2022 by Daniel Podgorski
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