After a 15 minute hands-off gameplay session, we finally know a bit of what to expect from From Software’s latest Soulsborne game.
When I interviewed Hidetaka Miyazaki back in June about Elden Ring, one of the things that really stuck with me was how so many of his answers came back around to this core theme of Elden Ring being all about freedom and choice. Having now watched about 15 minutes of gameplay from a variety of sections of the game, I now fully get what Miyazaki was saying, and how Elden Ring offers more options and flexibility than anything From Software has worked on in the past.
The gameplay demo opened up with a look at Elden Ring’s first open field, which spread out in every direction with a number of easily visible points of interest. To the left was a small watch tower, far off in the distance straight ahead was the gigantic glowing Erd Tree, and just in front was a site of lost grace, which will serve as the game’s bonfire checkpoints. But what’s interesting about them is that some will cause a light to lead the way towards a recommended path, but of course, it's up to you whether you actually follow that path or not.
One of my takeaways from watching the open field gameplay was this feeling that you could encounter almost anything while exploring. In one section, the player approached a group of enemies gathered around a campfire, when all of a sudden, a gigantic Dragon swooped down in typical Souls fashion and took them all out in a single blow, which then prompted a massive boss fight. In another section there was a group of passive enemies walking along a trail escorting a giant carriage that could presumably be attacked and robbed of its contents, should you be skilled enough to survive the fight. In a different area, there was another carriage that was guarded, but this time by a large encampment of enemies that the player carefully snuck through without alerting the whole camp, even going as far as using a sleep arrow to silently pacify a guard.
One of my takeaways from watching the open field gameplay was this feeling that you could encounter almost anything while exploring.
Of course, in order to navigate across such a giant open field, you are able to summon a Spirit Steed, which can utilize special jump platforms to leap over cliffs, allowing for a ton of verticality in the open-world design. One big departure from previous Souls games (though one that makes sense with a world as massive as The Lands Between), is that you’ll now have access to a map. The map gets updated by finding map fragments throughout the world, and has the look of an actual illustrated parchment made by an actual cartographer who lives within The Lands Between. You can drop markers to note locations of tough enemies, NPCs, treasures, or dungeon entrances. As you’d expect, marked locations also place a beacon that’s easily visible in-game, allowing you to set your own waypoints when you’re looking for places to go next.
Dungeons can be found throughout the open field and of course, they’re full of enemies, traps, treasure, and even illusory walls. The one dungeon that I got to see seemed very basic in its design, with a room that featured a bunch of guillotine traps, and then a treasure room that was guarded by a handful of enemies ready to pounce when you went for the treasure, but since the gameplay I watched was cut up and segmented, I never really got a feel for how big or substantial it really was.
The Legacy Dungeon however I did get a feel for, and it felt massive. Legacy Dungeons are the main attraction of each of the six main areas of The Lands Between, and I got to see the first of them, Stormveil Castle. This particular Legacy Dungeon begins with a choice, you can either head through the main gate and suffer through an intensely challenging route full of enemies aware of your presence, or you could sneak around the side through a secret entrance that takes you along a lesser guarded, but still very dangerous, path with narrow walkways that will punish one errant dodge roll with a fall to your death.
Stormveil Castle definitely brought to mind comparisons to the Boletarian Palace from Demon’s Souls, right down to a section lined with explosive barrels and an enemy looking to ignite them all with an explosion of their own. Moments like these felt more like homage than anything else, and what really stuck out to me more than anything else was how enticing exploration felt with all of the various paths that were left unexplored in my hands-off demonstration. Way off in the distance was a house all by its lonesome on a narrow cliff that had me wondering how I could get to it; when the player looked back towards the cliffside I saw all sorts of unexplored platforms and shinies; and with the ability to freely jump, I constantly wondered if I could jump across certain gaps and find something on the other side. I was told that Legacy Dungeons were built with this kind of freedom in mind, and that they were designed to be complex and multi-layered, which is exactly what I had hoped to hear.
Legacy Dungeons were designed to be complex and multi-layered.
The Legacy Dungeon capped off with the player reaching a rooftop that oversaw the main path the player could have taken if they went through the main gate and fought through the army that awaited them. Since the enemies were unaware of their presence, the player was able to use a sleep arrow to incapacitate the giant beast guarding the boss door, and make it through undetected.
Finally, I got a little tease of the boss fight against the giant multi-armed lord from the trailer, and it was about the Soulsiest boss they could have possibly shown, with gigantic sweeping attacks, earth shattering slams, counter attacks that come out while it reels from being hit, and eventually, a second form with a transformed Dragon arm that spewed fire and had an unblockable grab that just roasted the poor player. It looked absolutely brutal and I can’t wait to try it myself.