Whenever FromSoftware’s Hidetaka Miyazaki releases a project, a debate about difficulty and accessibility erupts. His games are notoriously challenging as they put players in the role of a lowly hero who must overcome hordes of adversaries and impossibly powerful bosses.
Players die from ambushes. They’re overwhelmed by stronger foes. They die in traps. The campaigns are merciless and frustrating because players are given a minimal amount of information and tossed into a thresher.
Critics ask what’s the appeal of failing 75 times in a row. They object to a game that’s so impenetrable that many just quit out of frustration. They complain there’s no point to title what you can’t finish.
CHALLENGE AND REWARD
The counterargument is that they don’t understand that Miyazaki titles demand a lot from players. These aren’t Nintendo platformers built solely on delight. Soulsborne titles, as they’re popularly known, are mountains to be conquered or James Joyce novels to be read. As challenging as they are, they’re equally rewarding as players scale the steep learning curve and uncover lessons about patience, perseverance, discipline and community.
Miyazaki and his team’s latest work, “Elden Ring,” is the most accessible. With the help of author George RR Martin, the campaign has a clear story as players take on the role of a Tarnished. These are exiles who are wounded by a guiding light that directs them to pieces of the Elden Ring. The powerful artifact created a peace in the realm known as the Lands Between until it was shattered and warring demigods took the Great Rune shards.
As a Tarnished, players will have to fight these horrific bosses and re-forge the Elden Ring to become the Elden Lord. That’s easier said than done as players start off as a weakling in a world full of danger. Newbies will figure out how to defeat foes and gain experience points called runes to level up. They’ll also die within the first hours and lose all their XP. If they don’t go back to the site of their death and retrieve the runes, they lose that work forever. It’s punishing but the mechanic also makes every encounter intense.
MAKING YOU A BETTER GAMER
It teaches players to be methodical and patient in the Lands Between. Players will encounter all sorts of troublesome adversaries in dungeons, castles, villages and mines. If they die, the failures teach them a lesson. Reading enemy attack patterns, coming up with new tactics and trusting a plan instills discipline. The reward for all that perseverance is a sense of accomplishment and yes relief.
That’s the basic formula for these Soulsborne games, but what makes “Elden Ring” more accessible and distinct is its size and scale. Miyazaki adjusts the gameplay for a vast open-world, giving players a mount called Torrent. The beast lets players cross long distances and it’s equally as important when fighting giant bears or even dragons. The speedy mobility lets players avoid attacks that would otherwise kill them. Torrent also absorbs blows if players take damage.
That change goes hand in hand with a battle system that is more flexible than in past titles. Players can focus on a melee character or one that relies on magic. “Elden Ring” offers weapons, spells and restorative flasks that lets players find a style that suits them best. Better yet, they can rearrange a Tarnished’s stats midgame to try another style if they want to explore more of the system.
Adding another wrinkle to combat, FromSoftware introduced the concept of Spirit Ashes. Players can summon these allies and they’ll fight for the Tarnished as long as their health lasts. It makes some battles easier as it distracts a boss so that players can get in free hits. Of course, players can also throw down a sign and friendly online allies can enter the game to help out. That’s a core mechanic from past games. If those aren’t available, players can call on a computer-controlled ally for help.
RELYING ON THE COMMUNITY
That’s a reminder that though a majority of “Elden Ring” is played solo, the game is a surprisingly social one. That’s because Soulsborne games are meant to foster outside conversation in the same way games like the original “The Legend Zelda” did. If players couldn’t figure out where a dungeon was or what wall to blow up, they’d ask friends for advice on the playground. This collective knowledge would help players advance as they divulge their own experiences.
“Elden Ring” and the Soulbourne games are built on the same general concept. Players ask for advice, but instead of the playground, they have an avalanche of information on the internet with Let’s Play videos, online guides and social media. Few actually tackle the task alone, but instead, they rely on the community experience to uncover tips and find help.
That’s invaluable in “Elden Ring” because it’s vast and filled with catacombs, merchants and secrets waiting to be explored. The game even has tertiary characters who have side quests that players can pursue. These diversions haven’t been a staple of Miyazaki games but how they’re done is refreshingly low key. Players won’t have a nagging marker pop up on the map. Instead they’re given a location and it’s up to them to explore it. It’s all about how much effort players want to invest in the campaign.
Miyazaki games aren’t meant to be easy. The difficulty is intrinsic to the message and feelings the developers intend to communicate. How those lessons come across depends on whether players meet them halfway. Those who make an effort to learn the language of play will discover a rewarding conversation worth having.
4 stars out of 4
Platform: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC