Elden Ring is a special, once in a generation type of game. You can feel it the moment you push open the set of double doors looking out onto the opening area of Limgrave and begin exploring the vast open world at your feet. It’s an astonishing feat, as Japanese developer FromSoftware adapts its wide but ultimately linear levels of the past to suit open-ended exploration and discovery. If it wasn’t for the few too many disappointments under the hood, Elden Ring would already have most Game of the Year awards under lock and key.

FromSoftware can still be incredibly proud of its achievements here, though, as it successfully translates the Dark Souls formula to an open world setting. The Japanese developer hasn't let up on its commitment to difficulty in the slightest, and now you have the freedom to source that masochism from almost anywhere on the sprawling map of The Lands Between. A surprising amount of the world is open right from the off, allowing you to either take the main path or ride off into the sunset in any direction you see fit.

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And those opening, explorative hours are nothing short of gripping. Stumbling upon high-level areas, toppling optional boss fights, discovering secrets and hidden quests, spotting strange but captivating enemies and locations off in the distance: Elden Ring wholeheartedly fulfils that fantasy of an open world FromSoftware experience, triumphantly fusing difficulty, freedom, and intrigue.

Limgrave sets the scene, with its rolling green fields, dilapidated buildings, and the imposing Stormveil Castle sitting atop its cliffy perch off in the distance. You could lose dozens of hours to the region alone, exploring its underground dungeons, scavenging for new items and upgrades, and fighting the weird and wonderful enemies that inhabit it. However, what was included in last year's Closed Network Test is just the tip of the iceberg.

Beyond the comparatively ordinary borders of Limgrave lie otherworldly areas that wouldn't look out of place during the Blood Moon phase of Bloodborne. To the east are the toxic swamplands of Caelid, with a redraw sky hanging overhead. Meanwhile, the closer you get to the Erdtree in the north, the more magical the locales become.

Some locations bask in the golden energy of the sun while others look like they've been pulled straight out of the grungy depths of the Valley of Defilement in Demon's Souls. All have their beauty, though, and it's an engrossing trek venturing through them all. Yet another masterclass in art design and direction from FromSoftware.

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Navigating The Lands Between is made a breeze through the inclusion of an in-game map and compass — a first for these sorts of games by the Japanese developer. Using your own intuition and curiosity, you can place markers and icons to essentially create your own landmarks, labelling places you'd like to visit in the future. The main path is highlighted by some Bonfires Sites of Grace, but that's all the guidance you'll get. It means you can casually wander into high-level areas, encounter a boss that's far too powerful for your current level, and lose all your Souls Runes. While there could be a touch of frustration after the ordeal, it's more about the knowledge gained from the daring escapade.

Devoid of objective markers and Ubisoft style towers that mark activities and quests on your map, Elden Ring allows you to craft your own journey through The Lands Between. Find the places you want to explore and the enemies you wish to battle. Whereas the rest of the game will feel fairly familiar to FromSoftware fanatics, the open world and its endless opportunities provide a new, captivating way of shaping your own adventure.

Comfort can be found in combat, which has been dramatically expanded upon to be inclusive for almost any playstyle. The standard sword and shield setup will always be viable, but now magical abilities are more important than ever. A wide array of spells can be cast to down enemies from a distance, with even more options sourced from Ashes of War. These are special skills attached to weapons that greatly expand your capabilities by offering a different kind of attack which can be called upon if you have enough FP (Focus Points) juice. From a magical greatsword to temporary wind attacks, what they provide upon activation can change the tide of battle.

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Furthermore, summons have been broadened to the point where you can call in some help from the item menu alone. Spirit Ashes are a new type of summon, calling upon the souls trapped inside. They take many different shapes: a pack of wolves, a skeleton army, or jellyfish just to name a few. Fighting on your side until their health bars are depleted, they're vital for combat encounters, providing distractions for the enemy while you either regain health or go to town with a barrage of attacks from behind.

Elden Ring then borrows from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice with some simple stealth mechanics that make setting up backstabs and getting the drop on foes much easier. Hide in the tall grass while an unsuspecting enemy passes by, or crouch across the battlefield to lower the chances a group of combatants notice you. You can even fight on horseback whilst riding your trusty spectral steed Torrent. Some enemies and bosses actually require that approach, since trying to fight them with your feet on the ground is basically a non-starter.

With so many options to consider, combat has a genuine variety to it. You can take your build in so many different directions, prioritising the more magical elements of the game or committing your upgrade points to strength and dexterity. In between the two extremes lies a plethora of potential.

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Just like its predecessors, it's always going to be a difficult title. Timing your attacks correctly and managing your stamina gauge is the bread and butter of FromSoftware games, and Elden Ring is no different. It's what you do in between those attack patterns that truly shakes things up. Combining the traditional combat of Dark Souls with stealth elements of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and then throwing in some new ideas, Elden Ring feels like everything the studio has been building up to. This is FromSoftware combat at its peak; the definitive versions of its past titles all packed into one.

Your skills with these weapons and magical abilities will, of course, be put to the test in gruelling boss fights. As is tradition, a lot of these encounters feature completely unique enemies with attack patterns exclusive to them. This is yet another factor that outperforms its predecessors thanks to some impressive mainline battles. Bosses dramatically change their weapons during phase changes and even go as far as to switch up the arena you're fighting in to suit their more powerful abilities.

What's more, there's a frankly absurd amount of optional bosses in the game. Some simply roam the open world while others are hidden away in dungeons, caves, and catacombs. The only problem is some of them are just a bit crap. Either repurposed enemies from the mainland or posing little threat in general, they can be very hit or miss. And since there are so many of them, it can sometimes feel like they're just there to pad the game out a little more. The issue is nowhere close to being a Dark Souls II problem, but a bit more care and attention for these side battles wouldn't have gone amiss.

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The same can be said of the non-mandatory dungeons: the first few will be exciting ventures into the unknown, but you'll quickly begin to spot their quirks and general layouts. A lot of them begin to look the same the more you play, with a simple puzzle of finding a lever to unlock a door being the task behind a lot of them. They're enjoyable enough, but don't expect to find anything revolutionary down in their depths.

Making up for that slight disappointment are the mainline areas, all of which are intricately designed with their own set of enemies and layouts. The ramparts of Stormveil Castle impose as you scale their outer walls before making it to the treasure-filled rooms within. Directly north of the fortress is a region drowned in water and ram-shackle dwellings. Next comes the Academy of Raya Lucaria, an enchanted place teeming with spellcasters. Every region feels distinct; every area has something to call its own. And when you can freely visit these places on horseback, crossing their borders within minutes of each other, it's tough to think of a more varied world.

If you'd rather not bask in that scenery, though, a few quality of life improvements makes getting about the place much easier. You can fast travel from anywhere on the map to Sites of Grace you've interacted with — you no longer have to actually visit one in order to get somewhere quickly. Then there are the Stakes of Marika, which act as checkpoints for boss battles. Their inclusion eliminates the boss runs from previous games, where you'd have to run to the fog door from the nearest Bonfire. Now you can respawn right at the entrance and immediately have another go.

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However, where the game falls short is in its visuals and performance. There's no getting around it: Elden Ring doesn't look as good as PlayStation 5 launch title Demon's Souls. Bluepoint Games did an outstanding job remaking the 2009 classic for the modern era. In comparison, Elden Ring looks... fine? There's a clear drop in overall visual quality, but the art direction of FromSoftware shines through with some jaw-dropping scenes and environments.

What isn't acceptable is the framerate. The game has two options: Performance Mode aims for 60 frames-per-second while Quality Mode improves the graphics. The vast majority of our playthrough was conducted in Performance Mode, and rarely did the title maintain a consistent framerate for any decent length of time. We're not talking dramatic drops that slow the game to a crawl, but rather constant little dips here and there which become a bit of a nuisance. While we just about managed to put up with it, you'll constantly notice the framerate dipping no matter where you are in the open world or what you're doing.

Except there's more: persistent texture pop-in occasionally spoils the scenery. It happens most often when fast travelling to Sites of Grace, but can also occur when you're simply riding about the open world. It takes a second or two for the greenery at your feet to load in, and other smaller objects will suddenly just appear in the distance despite being able to see the landscape well beyond them. A common problem for open world games, but it's particularly egregious in Elden Ring.

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And then we have the load screens, of which there are surprisingly many. While they never last for more than a few seconds, they're plentiful enough to take you out of the experience somewhat. It's understandable when one is needed to fast travel across the world, but they also appear when all you need to do is cross a magical barrier using the key in your inventory. You're moving forward maybe three feet, but we suppose the title theoretically has to load in a new area at that point. It's not a FromSoftware game without some technical flaws, though, is it?

But all is (almost) forgiven as you gallop across many of the late game areas, taking in their sublime vistas and downing the abnormal enemies within. Elden Ring only gets better the more you play, expanding its map boundaries and what you thought was possible. It just keeps going and going, never letting up for a second to allow comfort to creep in. While past titles have always upped the ante, nothing quite prepares you for the final few locales.

Conclusion

Elden Ring is the definitive FromSoftware game. With a refined combat system packing new ideas and an open world perfect for exploration, it sets a new benchmark for titles of this ilk to strive for. This is the Japanese developer firing on all cylinders — far and away its best creation yet. Elden Ring is an utterly essential PS5 title.