Elden Ring is a terrible, ugly, weird, unpleasant, wonderful, sublime, addictive game, and I am not very good at it and I love it.
If you need a capsule review from me, that’s it.
My PS5 died on me in the middle of playing Horizon Forbidden West. This was a very good game and I loved it a lot, and I was literally in the middle of tweeting how I loved it a whole lot when the console shit the bed and bricked itself. I have heard stories of HFW bricking other consoles, some fixable, some not, though I assume it’s less the game and more that the console has some problems. My problem with those problems is, I’m just out of fucking warranty, which means Sony is like, “lol, pay us $199 to fix it, you dickhead,” and so now I’m very salty at them because they have little interest in supporting the console. (I’m paying it, of course, because I am just that dickhead. But I shouldn’t have to. I’m going to yell at my credit card company to see if they can help me, but who knows.)
I’d been hearing how fucking hard this game was, and I am the farthest thing these days from a GIT GUD gamer. I maybe could’ve been once, but my video game reflexes have turned to sponge cake, and the best I can do is button-mash wildly until a goal is achieved. I have withered.
As such, I committed, ha ha, I will never play this very mean game.
But all these people were like NO NO IT’S GREAT AND BEAUTIFUL and I was like, ha ha, not today, Satan, but I was bored and it did look pretty and some friends convinced me to try it on Xbox. So, apparently yes, today, Satan.
So, as a person very new to the Souls-like games, let me share with you my experience and my tips for this game, none of which will be revelatory or interesting to actual gamers, who are free to log off now and go do something better with their time.
My first realization with this game is it doesn’t hate you, it doesn’t love you, it actually doesn’t care about you at all. Meaning, it exists separate from you and your interests in it, or your interactions with it.
What I mean is this: it’s going to tell you almost nothing about how to play it. What clues it gives are tantalizingly spare. You are a baby in this world. You don’t know shit and your parents are gone and the only elder you have is Elden Ring, and Elden Ring doesn’t have time to show you how to walk or eat, you shitty fucking baby. Elden Ring has things to do, and hand-holding your way through its ugly-beautiful world and its Byzantine rules is not anywhere on that list.
I’ve been playing for… I dunno, fifteen, twenty hours at least, and I still don’t know what the fuck is actually going on. Not in the story. Not in the stats. Not with half the items. Here is what I do in the game, and this constitutes a tip in the sense that I am alerting to you that this play-style works and can actually be quite rewarding:
I began life as the Prisoner, who enters the game with what I believe is some kind of IRON BEDPAN SUBMERSIBLE helmet on their head. This character is ugly because I could not not create a hideously ugly character, a character who looks like some grungy dirt-farmer stitched from naughahyde. (Here I note this article: Elden Ring’s character creator fails Black players.) I have a stick that shoots slow magic swords at people. I have an estoc thrusting blade.
I run around. Aimlessly.
I kill the things I am able to kill, I run from the things I am unable to kill, at least in theory. Just as often, I am killed by fucking rats, or I manage to kill some pumpkin-headed hell-boss without thinking. You can count on no outcome.
I collect shit everywhere I go. I have zero idea what this shit actually is, or does, for the most part. YOU HAVE COLLECTED A FOUL EMBERSEED. YOU HAVE (1) GNARLED CRAB PHALLUS. YOU PICK UP THE CORRUPTED SHARDSCROLL OF BEARSCAT ACADEMY. I try to learn what these things do, and that only becomes more inscrutable. THE SHARDSCROLL MUST BE TURNED INTO THE BLIND KLEPTOCRAT ON THE RUINS OF DREAD JAPERY AND THEN FROM HIM YOU CAN BUY VENOMOUS TAINTFLOWERS WHICH ARE USED TO UPGRADE THE ASTROLOGER’S METEOR CODPIECE. I decide I don’t know what any of this means, so I continue on.
I get on my horse. I love my horse.
I ride to the furthest flung locales of the map.
I fight. I win. I fight. I die. I go back and recollect my runes. I die again recollecting my runes but at least I recollected them, so I can grab them again without dying the next time. Witness me.
I am killing zombie coal-miners and a giant fucking hell bear falls on my head.
I enter a cave and rats chase me into a chamber with a chest but then the floor collapses and this time, I fall onto a fucking hell bear’s head.
When I fight, I have the grace and aplomb of one of those magical dung beetles you have to kill in the game. I watch some videos and other players are elegantly side-stepping monstrous boss attacks. Meanwhile, I’m over here somersaulting into the wall like a mule-kicked fourth-grader; trapped there, I am given a broadsword colonic and hurriedly guzzle potions so I don’t expire three seconds into the fight. I swing a variety of bladed instruments and I run around and it feels like I’m trying to do parkour with a dump truck.
I find scenes of staggering beauty and brain-curdling ruin.
I love my spirit wolves.
I have killed almost no bosses. The ones I have killed are probably mini-bosses. I tried to kill Margit or Magrit a few times, and I got him about halfway down and haven’t gone back. I will. But I don’t have to yet. I’ve gotten distracted and am happy about the distraction. There are no real side missions, so I make my own, and my side missions are nearly always: “I dunno, let’s ride that way, and see what’s in that ruined tower.”
Everything is ruined and in ruins. The world is ruined. The enemies are ruined. You are ruined. You use runes found in ruins. It’s a thing.
The enemy AI is boldfacedly plain. Sometimes a dude will talk ten feet and turn around and walk back the other ten feet. They’re not even on looping paths like in Horizon, they’re just… set pieces, wobbling about.
Sometimes bosses randomly happen to you. You run into a clearing and next thing you know, you’re fighting some dude made of wolves and roots and his guts are hanging out and he beats you with his own whirling bowels and his name is like, BORGRAL THE MISBEGOTTEN, PRINCE OF WOLFROOT, KEEPER OF THE SACRED BOWELS. (There’s probably a story there, but the game won’t tell it to you.) You die fighting him, choked by coils of sentient intestine.
I’ve begun really putting my juice into magic, because magic seems like, well, magic. Instead of running up and bluntly headbutting wolves, I can sit back at a distance and pick them off. Most fights seem inelegant up close, which probably mirrors how real fights actually go — two dudes in metal suits clonking each other with more metal. Each fight seems to be its own little puzzle box, and if you want the runes inside that box, you must figure out how to open it.
You can do this, too. You don’t have to GIT GUD or even BE GUD ALREADY, you can just enter the game and fumble around like a dipshit and die a lot and get a tiny bit better every session and learn one small thing here and there, and you find eventually without even realizing it that you’re not dying as often. And that maybe you understand something today you didn’t yesterday. And just as you come to understand something, just as you know which direction the pain is coming from and you know to block it, the game sweeps your leg like Johnny Fucking Lawrence and you fall to the mat again.
Yet despite all this I am surprisingly zen about it all. I expected to hate it. I expected to throw my controller against the wall and break it into a thousand shards. Maybe because I can tell the game doesn’t think about me at all and never ever will, so I don’t have any investment in whether or not it pleases me. Maybe it’s because at this moment in time, in history, I’m not looking for the comfort of Animal Crossing but the soul-flensing punishment of a game whose kink is killing me over and over and over again. Maybe I’m angry enough at the world around me that in that anger, Elden Ring is a game that still looks like peace, like escape. I don’t know why any of this works. I should on paper hate the game, and the game just doesn’t give a fuck whether I like it or not. It’s not going to show me the way. It’s not going to explain itself. Like life, it is boldly unfuckwithable. I play it. I die. I don’t mind. It is what it is. It’s a terrible game. It’s brilliant. I don’t recommend it. Except when I do.