Over the last six months, we’ve seen a lot of Elden Ring, we’ve heard a lot about Elden Ring, but very few people, if any outside of From Software, have played Elden Ring. That’s no longer the case because over the last weekend I found myself completely absorbed in the world of The Lands Between. Just like many others will be as well once the Closed Network Test opens for all who are chosen to participate from November 12 to the 14th.
For those who want an early look at what’s in store though, here are my impressions of the Elden Ring Closed Network Test.
Before we get into what’s new in Elden Ring, let’s cover what’s familiar. This is, after all, the next game in FromSoft’s series of action RPG that has long outgrown any sort of convenient, all-encompassing label, unless you’d prefer to call the series the “Elden-Seki-Souls-Borne” series.
Slow and Steady
Elden Ring very much represents a return to the Souls style, which is most evident in its dark fantasy setting but also rings true in its gameplay and mechanics as well. It brings back the split Estus Flask system from Dark Souls 3, allowing you to choose to prioritize either health restoratives or mana restoratives by distributing your flasks as you see fit.
Combat is slower and much more methodical than Sekiro and Bloodborne.
Combat is slower and much more methodical than Sekiro and Bloodborne, with often fairly lengthy start-up and recovery times on most of your attacks and heals, forcing you to pick your spots and choose the right moments to attack, defend, and take a sip of a flask.
There are a couple of new tools this time around as well. A new technique called a guard counter lets you perform a crushing counter-attack after blocking a strike with your shield. And on the offensive side, you can execute a super satisfying helm-splitting jump attack that can crash through shields and leave weaker enemies defenseless.
The biggest change though in terms of the actual mechanics is how Elden Ring handles weapon arts (or skills) and upgrade paths.
Previously, weapon arts were special skills that were unique to a weapon or class of weapons, like for example, the battoujutsu stance with katana class weapons in Dark Souls 3. Upgrade paths on the other hand refer to your ability to transform a weapon into a different type, taking it down a path that either gives it more base damage, an elemental affinity, or increased scaling with a particular stat.
These two mechanics have essentially been combined in Elden Ring in the form of Ashes of War. As you play, you’ll find new Ashes of War that can be equipped with your weapons at sites of Grace – Elden Ring’s version of a bonfire. Equipping a new Ash of War to a weapon will not only change that weapon’s stats and scaling, but also overwrite the weapon’s innate skill with a new one, unique to that Ash of War.
As an example, let’s say my intelligence-focused character finds a Twinblade. Typically not a weapon I’d want to use on a magic-focused character, but it’s the best thing I’ve got and hey, it’s got a cool move-set. Later on, I find an Ash of War: Glintsword Arch, which not only gives the Twinblade intelligence scaling, making it viable as a melee weapon for my build. But it also grants me the Glintsword Arch skill which summons four magic swords that automatically fly towards enemies that get close. Now the twinblade not only works as a great melee weapon for my build, but it also comes with a powerful spell that doesn’t take up one of my actual spell slots.
The best part though is that Ashes of War are transferable and don’t get consumed upon use, so if I find a weapon later on that I enjoy more than the Twinblade, I can place the Glintstone Arch Ash of War onto it and easily transition to a new weapon, which has always been kind of difficult and costly to do in other Souls games once you’ve taken a weapon down a specific upgrade path.
Ashes of War encourages experimentation and opens up a ton of variety in build options
If it isn’t already abundantly clear, I love this. It encourages experimentation with different weapons, opens up a ton of variety in build options, gives me another type of reward to get excited about finding in the world, and the skills themselves are just super cool to mess around with.
A Truly Open World
As cool as the Ashes of War are though the big departure for Elden Ring is the move to a completely open-world structure. Right from when you step out of the tutorial cave, you’re free to go in any direction you choose. You can follow the recommended path, illuminated by the light of grace; you could take a look to your right and decide to explore the ominous-looking lake and ruins, or you could turn around and spot a lone island off in the distance and think to yourself ‘I wonder how I can get over there…”
The areas weren’t gated by having tougher enemies in one location versus another either. You’d find equally challenging fights in all directions, and you could tackle them in any order you choose. That said, the area in the Closed Test is walled off by invisible barriers, so it’s hard to say how this will play out in the full game.
What’s especially impressive about this Closed Network Test is despite how I was walled into a relatively small zone, there was still so much to explore and discover. From hidden NPCs to bosses just roaming out in the field, to a pack of extremely tough enemies that you could attempt to farm for weapon upgrade shards, to a plot of land where lighting continuously strikes leaving electrically charged rocks that you can scrounge up. It felt like every five minutes I would encounter something that made me go “what the heck is that?!”
And then there are the dungeons and catacombs that are hidden throughout the world, much like shrines in Breath of the Wild. These dungeons varied wildly in their design, with some including just two to three rooms, a handful of enemies, and a boss fight at the end. Others required a torch to see the enemies and hazards within; and others still were decently large, multi-leveled caverns, with some surprises for long-time veterans that I don’t want to spoil.
The bosses within these dungeons aren’t anywhere near as difficult as the mainline bosses found out in the world, but they’re still well worth seeking out as the rewards within have always been worth the effort in my experience.
Elden Ring is also surprisingly forgiving when it comes to its open-world exploration. Your character doesn’t expend any stamina when outside of combat so you can sprint, jump, and roll endlessly. There are automatically activated respawn points in key tough-to-beat areas, so you rarely ever have to make the long walk of shame back to your dropped currency if you die. And enemies will even retain their damage if you run away, so you can play hit and run on your horse all you want.
What is a Legacy [Dungeon]?
While I loved every bit of the open-world exploration, it did feel like something was missing from the overall package that wasn’t quite filled by the relatively straightforward dungeons hidden around the world. Fortunately, that’s where the Legacy Dungeons come in. These are lengthy, linear levels along the lines of something like Anor Londo in Dark Souls.
I only got a small taste of Stormveil Castle, the first of the Legacy Dungeons in Elden Ring, but that little bit was more than enough to whet my appetite for more. Stormveil Castle is massive, with multiple paths right at the start that each come with their own challenges. Take the side path and you’ll be met with treacherous terrain and the classic From Software trope of having a bunch of guys with firebombs overseeing a path with a bunch of explosive barrels. Take the main path and you’ll be met with a small army and a handful of ballistae all trained to fire on sight.
Despite being presented with a choice to do either one or the other, I still found myself going down both paths. And while they both eventually get blocked off for the sake of the network test, I can’t wait to see how they connect back with each other in the full version.
I didn’t get much of a chance to test out multiplayer due to there being a relatively small number of players in the Closed Network Test right now, but everything seems like fairly standard fare. You can leave summon signs both for cooperative and competitive play, you can invade other people’s worlds, you can wear rings that will summon you into worlds that are being invaded so you can attempt to defend the innocent, and you can wear rings that will call out for help when you get invaded yourself.
There are a couple of things to note though: It seems you’re only open to PVP invasions if you’ve summoned a player to play cooperatively with you. Otherwise, you use an item called the Taunter’s Tongue, which beckons invaders to come into your world even without you having a coop buddy to help you. There’s also an item called Finger Phantoms which can only be used during invasion multiplayer, but I haven’t been able to find any in my playtime.
I’ve put almost 15 hours into just this Closed Test alone, going through each of the five starting classes and putting them through their paces, and I’m still having a blast. If the full version of Elden Ring continues to match the quality of open-world design found within just this first area, then we’re in for a very special game come February of next year.
Mitchell Saltzman is an editorial producer at IGN. You can find him on Twitter @JurassicRabbit