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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Elden Ring’s smartest trick is scale

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There’s a trap, early on in Elden Ring, that I reckon a lot of new players fall into. In a puff of smoke you’re whisked from the fields of Limgrave to a claustrophobic crystal cavern. The enemies here are brutal. Running past them to find the cave’s exit you emerge into a heavy metal hellscape—all lakes of blood and colossal skulls embedded in mountainsides.

It’s easy to think you’ve been thrown to the far corners of the world, an early peak at Elden Ring’s nightmare endgame. But in the full scope of The Lands Between, you’ve barely gone down the road.

Uncharted

Elden Ring’s world is large, but not groundbreakingly so. Monsters notwithstanding, hiking across The Lands Between wouldn’t take you nearly as long as a jaunt across Red Dead Redemption 2’s United States, any of the recent Assassin’s Creeds, or even (don’t say it) Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule. But somehow, Elden Ring manages to feel just as large (if not larger) than any of the above, and it’s all down to how From Software curates that scale.

When you first emerge into Limgrave’s open fields, your map is blank. If you follow the main road you’ll soon find a map piece revealing the whole region – an impressive enough space in itself that you could lose dozens of hours exploring. 

But then you get teleported to Caelid, or explore further south into the Peninsula, and something strange happens. The map UI itself grows. Suddenly the possibility for what this world could contain explodes. Liunia adds a huge, northward sprawl to the map, and for a good 30 hours I reckoned that was as far north as we’d go—that the map would square off with a bit of land to the east, perhaps.  Then you discover the Altus plateau, and the map doubles in height—and not even for the last time.

The biggest shock for most people, however, is when they stumble into a small hut in the Mistwood. There’s a lift inside that goes down, and keeps going down, long past any point of reason, until you emerge in a vast subterranean world. Opening the map reveals a new hotkey for changing map layers, and suddenly you’re struck with the realisation that there’s a whole second world slumbering under Elden Ring’s surface.

Crucially, Elden Ring tells you none of this at the start. The map screen doesn’t reveal a second layer on a fresh character, nor does it let you scrawl over fogged-out terrain. You begin the game with no sense of where The Lands Between will go or where they end, and that makes every new region feel all the more exciting.

Survive the Lands Between with these Elden Ring guides

Elden Ring guide: Conquer the Lands Between
Elden Ring bosses: How to beat them
Elden Ring map fragmentsReveal the world
Elden Ring weapons: Arm yourself
Elden Ring armor: The best sets
Elden Ring Smithing Stone: Upgrade your gear
Elden Ring Ashes of War: Where to find them
Elden Ring classes: Which to choose

But Elden Ring’s scale is aided further by the fact that you can’t simply walk from end to end. The Dark Souls games have always been nestled with secret worlds, mountain temples hidden inside paintings, riddles hidden in item descriptions that whisk you off to ancient castles.

I mentioned one earlier, the long ride down to the Siofra River hidden in a woodland temple. But that sense of discovery lasts long into the game, with vast swathes of the map available only to those willing to root around. Last night I stumbled off the path in a late-game zone into what seemed like a dead-end, only to discover that lying down pulled me outside of time into one of the most visually arresting boss fight I’ve ever seen. 

A late game region, itself gated behind an easy-to-miss quest item, leads to two more hidden areas—one of which is even more dense with labyrinthine complexity, and arguably the hardest boss fight From Software has ever designed. Elden Ring is vast, but it retains the sense of an interlocking world laid down in Dark Souls 1, zones frequently connecting with each other in unexpected ways.

Elden Ring also isn’t shy about recontextualising areas you’ve already visited. Some of these are small, with enemies vacating a major early location depending on quest progress. But a very late-game development sees one area utterly transformed in such a way that it practically becomes a whole new zone.

See, I don’t play too many open world games these days. Criticisms about checklisting and homogenous design around the ‘Ubisoft’ model of open worlds aside, I often find myself dropping off the moment an open world game becomes known. The moment I’ve seen where the borders are, and know exactly what’s over the next hill.

But at hour 100, Elden Ring is still a game full of mystery. I’m at the doorways to the final boss, and idle backtracking is still revealing entirely new corners of the map. There are still towers I haven’t figured out how to unlock, ruins that require lateral thinking to solve. And that’s not even to mention the NPC questlines I’ve missed, many of which I’m sure spin down their own trails.

Elden Ring might not be the biggest game by square footage. But its world is painstakingly designed to never quite spill all its secrets, and the game maintains that sense of fantasy adventure right up until its final hours. I’ll finish Elden Ring within the week, but it’ll be a long time yet before I wear out its world.

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