In guiding the player
Elden Ring employs the lightest of touches. The Lands Between is truly open and offers the player complete agency in exploration, whether on foot or horseback. The world is ruled by five Elden Lords, each in possession of a shard of the titular Elden Ring. As a lowly Tarnished, you aim to defeat these corrupt lords, take their shards, stand before the Erdtree, and become an Elden Lord in your own right. With the premise established through a quick cutscene, you are let loose and left to forge a path through the world as you see fit.
A key part of From Software's design ethos is to strip down to the essentials, and in Elden Ring that process strengthens exploration and discovery, the heart and soul of the experience. The studio's games typically give the player very little while asking a lot, and Elden Ring is the most obtuse and demanding of its games so far. This is largely because everything you've come to expect from modern open-world games is absent; for instance, there's no map until you find an item that reveals the topography of a region. Even then, the points of interest in that region aren't marked until you've been there and seen them. There is no minimap, just a compass to show the cardinal directions and any waypoints you've placed.
Characters, meanwhile, aren't desperate for your attention; as with previous games, the quests they task you with aren't noted down or tracked in any kind of log--it's up to you to do your due diligence. Areas you go to won't be gated depending on your level, and there's no clear indication on when you should go to key locations. The best you get is at the Sites of Grace, which function as rest points in the same way Bonfires, Lanterns, or Idols did in other titles. At each of these sites is a dim trail of golden light pointing in the general direction of… something. Perhaps it's the next milestone in your quest or maybe it's just another area that has a dungeon--the only way to find out is to make the journey.
The challenge for From Software lies in the friction between the studio's design hallmarks and the expected conventions of a genre filled with games that try to be all things to everyone. And although the execution is an unmitigated success, one thing's for sure: Elden Ring is not a smooth-edged, one-size-fits-all kind of experience that will accommodate everyone. Instead, it's unrelentingly opaque, relishes in the savagery of confronting players with unfavorable odds, and delights in watching the ensuing struggle. Elden Ring's gameplay will feel familiar to those with experience of previous From Software games. The tried-and-true formula of measured third-person combat against enemies that are swift to punish foolhardiness is both as thrilling and nerve-racking as ever. Whether you wield a sword and shield, swing something that's closer to a heap of raw iron, or stand back as a mage and launch spells to topple your foes, Elden Ring tests patience and skill with tricky enemy mobs and ferocious bosses.