(Pocket-lint) - To a much greater extent than with any other videogame developer, you can be pretty sure what any new game by From Software is going to contain. The Japanese outfit, famed for inventing the genre known as 'Soulsborne' via games like Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Sekiro, is notable for its refusal to countenance any form of compromise – and beloved by hardcore gamers for that very reason.
On paper, Elden Ring could have marked something of a departure for From Software. Since it was announced, it has been billed as a collaboration with Game of Thrones writer George RR Martin (although his precise involvement remains vague). It takes place in a conspicuously open world – whereas previous From Software games have involved painstakingly advancing a few hundred yards at a time, from campfire to campfire, dying frequently in the process.
But fear not, Souls fans: Elden Ring certainly brings a few new elements (and terminological tweaks) to the Soulsborne blueprint, but it most certainly is not some sort of radical departure. Invited to participate in a recent Closed Network Test for the game, designed to allow From Software and publisher Bandai Namco to give its servers a shakedown in advance of the game's 25 February 2022 launch, we managed to experience over five hours of gameplay – enough to get a decent insight into its nature.
Familiar yet fresher
Having chosen a character class from a surprisingly extensive array of options (we went for a fairly standard Enchanted Knight, armed by default with a scimitar and a small shield), Elden Ring starts exactly how you'd expect a From Software game to commence: in a dark, subterranean cave.
Illuminated by familiar tips and instructions written in white script on the ground, we collected a few useful items before emerging into a less familiar scene, given the game's provenance: a lush, green open-world covered with vegetation and dotted with huge stone ruins.
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We played Elden Ring on an Xbox Series X and while it's still recognisably a From Software game – its character and architectural design are familiarly distinctive – we would venture that it's the developer's best-looking game yet, with a pleasing crispness and detail to its graphics.
Emerging from said dark cave into an HDR-powered blast of sunlight felt like a new experience for a Soulsborne game. The general environment wouldn't be out of place in a Zelda game, although later in play we found darker and bleaker areas of the map.
But there's also plenty that's familiar too. The first thing we encountered was a Site of Grace – Elden Ring's equivalent of a Dark Souls campfire. Here you can do all sorts of things, such as level up (using Runes, rather than Souls, acquired in the time-honoured fashion by defeating enemies) and refill flasks (Elden Ring gives you two types of flasks, for health and mana; you're allowed four overall, and at a Site of Grace, you can adjust how many are allocated to each type).
Open-world and stealth
Like any good From Software game, any hint of hand-holding is more or less non-existent. One atypical aspect of Elden Ring is that stealth is a much more prominent and practical tactic to employ than in previous Soulsborne games. Instead of locking onto targets, clicking the left-stick puts you into a stealth mode crouch (auto-targeting is a bit of a loss, meaning that you often have to manipulate the camera in combat) and lets you melt into the lush vegetation.
This move proves pretty handy since, even in the gentle corner of the map in which we were first placed, there are still fierce enemies to face – or, more sensibly, avoid – such as a large knight on horseback, who dispatched us with ease before we had properly reacquainted ourselves with the combat system. Which, of course, adopts a classic Dark Souls configuration: right bumper and trigger taking care of light and heavy attacks; block and parry assigned to their left-hand equivalents.
Elden Ring has a weird obsession with severed fingers; you're given a bunch of finger-based items which allow you to summon players for co-operative assistance or competitive duelling. Given the limited nature of the Closed Network Test, we didn't check out Elden Ring's multiplayer side, but structurally, it looks much like the multiplayer in previous From Software games.
Ashes of War
Stealthing around makes it easy enough to take out individual enemies with attacks from behind, after which you'll begin to accumulate some Runes and useful items. It won't take long to get back into a comforting Soulsborne gameplay rhythm, albeit a slightly different one than we've experienced in the past, due to the open world.
Exploring a forest patrolled by fairly isolated low-level soldiers, we find a cave containing a Grace site, populated by giant wolves, but also leading to our first boss-battle, against a wild-looking beast-man. Local chests yield some handy items such as better armour, a map fragment and what the game calls an Ash of War.
Ashes of War allow you to infuse your weapons with new characteristics, upping their stats but also giving them magic attacks – as long as your character has the necessary attributes. For example, we used one on our scimitar, but weren't able to use its associated spell until we had greatly upgraded our character's Faith attribute. Ashes of War, however, can be removed from one weapon and applied to another, so offer an intriguing means of generating the sort of weapon that works best for your character.
After finding another Grace site the game's first cut-scene is triggered. In it, a woman appears, tells us that, as a semi-undead Tarnished being, we should have a maiden accompanying us to offer support and advice, and offers to fulfil that task. We accept and are given a ring to summon a spectral steed and ride around the map.
The ability to gallop around on horseback is a major departure for a From Software game, which really drives home the open-world nature of the map. It more readily opens exploration, though, as we head off, dodging a whole bunch of enemies - many of which we'd return later to take out, thirsty for Runes - and find distinctive new parts of the map.
At the northernmost point, we find Stormveil Castle, with a convenient Grace site just inside its entrance. As expected, Stormveil Castle is a classic dungeon and also home to the game's first proper boss, a grotesque giant called Margit. Unsurprisingly, in our first attempt against Margit we're dispatched pretty - but we find a different path through the castle to help with a period of grinding and levelling-up.
Not quite so unforgiving
Far be it from us to suggest that From Software is in any way going soft, but Elden Ring displays some characteristics which are a tiny bit more forgiving than we expected. For example, it's possible, when pursued by a couple of enemies, to run off into the undergrowth and lose them, take a draught from your Estus flask, then return to take them out one by one.
The possibility of jumping onto horseback and covering large distances – although if you were hit, say, by too many arrows, your horse will disappear back to its spectral realm – is also revelatory in the context of a Soulsborne game.
That air of creeping claustrophobia which characterises Elden Ring's predecessors has suddenly been blown away in favour of a new-found sense of freedom. Although once you dismount from your steed, careful movement and precise combat are the order of the day. As ever in a Soulsborne game, long combat animations mean that the timing of your attacks, parries and evade-moves has to be more or less perfect in order to prosper.
Based on our time in the Closed Network Test, From Software fans can justifiably be pretty excited about Elden Ring. While it delivers the familiar gameplay they'll crave, it also feels as though it moves that well-worn Soulsborne blueprint forward a few notches, adding a hint of freedom and the opportunity to take a more free-form approach.