Elden Ring hands-on: an open world so pretty you won’t mind dying a lot

The Elden Ring closed-network preview began in a dark cave. Instead of following the obvious path, I turned my back towards what appeared to be a cliff on my right to see what I could find. I was able to see flickering lights at what was probably a far too dangerous distance below. It wasn't infinite. My logical brain couldn't tell me that there was fall damage in Souls games. But my curious squirrel brain drove me over the cliff and I landed unscathed. I let out a delighted, surprised little squeak as I was on my own. After playing Elden Ring for about ten hours, that was the main source of my excitement. There are so many hidden treasures in the Lands Between that you can have a completely different experience every time you play. My Souls-loving partner was able to borrow a portion of my playtime and the two playthroughs were quite different.
Elden Ring looks similar to FromSoftware. They decided to abandon the unique conventions in Bloodborne and Sekiro Shadows Die Twice, to return to the Dark Souls formula which made the studio so famous. The UI is almost identical to Dark Souls III. The bottom left shows quick items, while the number of Elden Ring's level up currency, runes, is displayed in the right. In the top left, you can see your stamina, health, and focus bars. The world becomes darker when you defeat a boss. If you are familiar with FromSoftware games you will see Elden Ring look like the bones from Dark Souls in a prettier skin suit.

Elden Ring feels more warm than Dark Souls. The color palette reminds me of the last light before the rain. Although there are night and day cycles, it is not a sunny title. However, the bright yellows and shiny golds and lush greens make it feel more optimistic than other FromSoftware games. Although it sounds unpleasant, you play the Tarnished. However, instead of feeling like the corrupted damned in Bloodborne, I feel pretty confident about my chances at finding the Elden Ring's fragments.

The Elden Ring offers many quality-of-life enhancements that are not common to Souls games. If the open world becomes overwhelming, the sites of grace that heals you will also help you navigate to where to go. A vast map system allows you to mark important locations such as the location of merchants and roaming bosses that you should avoid. You can buy or find items that allow you to summon spirits that will help you defeat enemies or distract bosses. You can also choose to resurrect at the site of grace that you activated, or at a special statue you have passed. This could save you from having to walk through difficult terrain again. Despite all the conveniences, Elden Ring doesn't make for a pleasant Souls-experience. You will get the crap kicked out a lot. The game wants to make it a bit easier for you when you do get the tar beat out of you several times.

You're going to get the crap kicked out you -- a lot!

The magic-focused prophet class was my choice for my Elden Ring adventure. You get a healing spell, a weapon spell that grants healing and armor, and you start with the Beast Claw spell. It's fast, but it's so slow, you might die before it hits. Although I know I could have done more to increase my survival rate by using better spells or wearing better armor, I fell in love with the spell and was determined to make it work, despite its fatal flaw. This openness was what attracted me to Elden Ring. It takes you into an open, beautiful world, giving you a blank canvas and saying, "Okay. Make it work." I then devised a dodging and weaving strategy to ensure my safety and that the spell would hit me. I defeated a few bosses this way. Those I couldn't beat I found another place to explore.

One of my favorite places was a dungeon that consisted of a network catacombs. The dungeon was full of fire traps, which killed me unless my health was good. There were also quick little bastard enemies who clung to the walls and fell on me with lightning fast strikes. Is it possible to misjudge the distance between a gout and a flame? Death. You are like a soldier breaking into a compound. Death. Death.

After defeating the boss at the end my not-bottomless pit dungeon, the boss, I found the first place of grace. I was greeted with a snickering shithead, who said I would be better off living in a ditch than being killed by an asshole. I then wandered The Lands Between, avoiding a heavily armored, mounted asshole, and sucking up runes form tiny, woodland creatures and sheep that have the amazing ability to curl up and rollaway, a la Samus' Morph Ball. After activating the second site of grace, Melina, a tattooed woman, welcomed me and offered an agreement. I was a level-up woman FromSoftware games love, so she offered to be my maiden and gave me Torrent, a spirit horses to help me navigate the vast Lands Between. I spent time with Torrent and enjoyed mowing down my enemies from horseback with my Beast Claw, which was something I was delighted and surprised to discover the game allowed me to do. I then returned to the snickering shithead and dueled him to death. Felt good, righteous even.

Elden Ring spent several hours with me. The thought that my mind keeps returning to long after the closed-network test session ended was "Can I climb the Golden Tree?" But I never did. I survived a fall into a deadly chasm and rode a ghost horse to battle. But I never got close enough to those trees. The trees tower over the vast, open landscape and glow a beautiful yellow gold, calling out to me to climb their many branches. This is Elden Ring from FromSoftware. The game's appeal lies in defeating boss fights and punishing enemies. When I am presented with such an open, beautiful world, and a trusty, two-jumping spirit horse to guide it all, all that's left is to climb the tree.

Elden Ring launches on PlayStation 2 and Xbox 3 February 25, 2022.