It’s been a few months since a chosen few were able to take their first steps into Elden Ring – thanks to From Software’s Closed Network Test – and explore just a small fragment of the open world that was teeming with mini dungeons, roaming field bosses, and plenty of secrets. I had just weeks to go before the release date, so I got one last chance in the Lands Between. This time there were no barriers to stop me — just a lot of incredibly tough adversaries waiting to kick my ass.
Rather than trying to solely progress through Elden Ring’s “main path” that led through incredibly grueling “Legacy Dungeons”, I decided to spend my precious six hours finding out exactly how the open world really works, and there’s a lot more than meets the eye.
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My first lesson after creating a new character was the importance of the Lands Between as a steppingstone to my journey to become an Elden King. In truth, there’s nothing stopping you from running straight from the tutorial cave to the first main dungeon that houses one of several demigods you’re tasked to defeat. But like trying to race right to Ganon from the start in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, there’s a good chance the enemies in Stormveil Castle will wipe the floor with you. Even brimming with confidence from my time in the Closed Network Test, I was swiftly put into my place by the first boss fight just trying to get into the dungeon proper, and I realized the previous beta may have given players a lot of powerful toys to play with much earlier than you’re going to find them now. Odds are if you thought the Network Test was too easy, you’re in for a rude awakening.
In this sense, the first regions can be used as a test ground to see if you are capable of defeating different types of enemies. There is also a wealth of rewards hidden throughout the area. Elden Ring, like most FromSoft titles encourages exploration and rewards creativity. This is even more apparent when taking in the sights of Elden Ring’s gorgeous vistas. As I stopped to enjoy the scenery, I almost forgot that Stormveil was there. Later, I discovered a secret lift that led me into an underground ruin, which had its own rivers, forests, and was illuminated by the glimmering lights embedded within the rocks. I would have believed I was looking directly into space if it wasn't for the faint lines of the ceiling.
Exploring these vast regions reminded me of how many times we’ve seen glimpses of the larger worlds that FromSoft has crafted in their past titles — only now I actually had the opportunity to explore the breadth of what I was being shown. Just seconds after admiring the breathtaking views, I was already focusing in on the bustling enemy camp, distant bridges to forlorn island, and broken churches that piqued me curiosity. I was often rewarded with items and gear, single merchants, or terrifyingly scary enemies.
I was never once told to go to most of these places. The joy of discovering them grew exponentially. In fact, I soon realized there was nothing stopping me from bypassing Elden Ring’s main legacy dungeons entirely. After a bit of trial and error, I was able slink by Stormveil Castle and later the Academy of Raya Lucaria. It towered above the second region like an evil Hogwarts. It made me wonder how far I could go without having to confront one of the demigods who ruled each domain. It was great to know that, unlike Dark Souls where I had to fight my boss to make progress, I could delve deeper into the Lands Between if necessary.
Over the course of my six-hour adventure to explore as much as I could, my mind kept coming back to one question: “What exactly are you supposed to do in Elden Ring’s open world?” This isn’t the first time a developer has taken the plunge to try their hand at an open world game, and it’s safe to say that results have varied. Some open worlds were created simply for the sake they are large, while others have filled the space with endless map markers that can lead you to side activities, minigames, and quests. Elden Ring so far has been vast. However, it is not so large that the areas feel overwhelming. This is due to the numerous checkpoints (called Sites of Grace), as well as large roads that are often connected to new areas. It is still a difficult and lonely place to travel. You’ll find very few friendly faces and many enemies can prove relentless even if you're on horseback.
FromSoft seems to be determined to deliver more of their best side attractions: a variety challenging enemies, hiding important characters and items off the beaten path and offering up secrets and mysteries in every corner. This may sound simple, but it is. Arguably Elden Ring’s most open world-y addition is a crafting system that allows you to gather resources and materials by harvesting plants and killing creatures, but even this has been given the FromSoft treatment in a way, as you’ll have to hunt down various recipe books to learn how to craft important tools and consumables that ranged from different types of bombs to a type of “faux sorcery” that allows characters not well-versed in magic arts to detonate mini magical attacks.
There’s possibly a lot more waiting in the Lands Between beyond the regions I explored, but here’s just a sample of what I found waiting for me in Elden Ring’s open world:
- I found even smaller dungeons that were not in the Network Test. While some of these may have obvious entrances, or nearby statues pointing you towards them, many others have narrow openings that can be easily missed.
- Assaulted enemy encampments where soldiers had dug in fortifications and lined the entrances with guards – including those that would sound horns with alarm, and send every foe running at me if I wasn’t careful.
- After tiptoeing around huge and intimidating field bosses, Tiptoe tried to ride on horseback to score quick hits. But was quickly flattened by one strike.
- To find the next major dungeon, I used the guidance of light that was provided by checkpoints. You can have multiple guidances in different areas. The one that pointed me to the large fort was larger than the mini, but smaller, legacy dungeons.
- I met lonely NPCs with stories to share. Some of them stayed to sell me items and spells. Others showed up at the Roundtable Hold, a secret hub that was not locked until a few hours after I started my playthrough. There, I met more characters who were reluctant to share their secrets.
- I was ridden up and down the cliffs by my spectral horse to seek out alternate routes to avoid legacy dungeons or difficult chokepoints.
- Opening a seemingly innocuous box, I was transported to another place.
- I expanded the map by finding fragments guarded and feared enemies. This gave me more clues about where to go next. I was excited and slightly terrified to find that Elden Ring kept its secrets close to its chest by never showing me the full scope of the open world, as each fragment slowly increased the map’s maximum size.
- I found a beautiful painting in an abandoned house. Thankfully, it didn't lead to a painted universe. Instead, I was drawn to the image and returned to the location to find a haunting visage and a unique helmet.
- There are many undiscovered secrets. Some were locked by specific keys that you had to find and then permanently embed them in nearby imp statues. Some seemed to unlock optional boss fights, or rooms full of treasure – like one where I found an assassin’s crossbow that could be used to snipe down the sights, or held in the off-hand like I was playing Bloodborne.
FromSoftware’s boss Hidetaka Miyazaki recently remarked that they haven’t “intentionally tried to lower the game’s difficulty,” but expect more people to beat Elden Ring than their previous titles. After spending a few hours in the Lands Between, I think I’m starting to understand why.
Excluding Sekiro, each of their action rpgs have let you choose between several class archetypes, and Elden Ring’s ten starting classes are no exception. And yet, sometimes even with the ability to level up and invest in the attributes you find more important, I felt like there were limited options to experiment once I’d invested in certain weapons and attributes. Elden Ring’s customizable weapon skills – called Ashes of War – seems to aim to change that. I am proud to say that in just six hours I have amassed quite a collection. Depending on my skills, each of these could be used for different types of arms depending on how I was building them up.
This gives you the ability to customize your skills and swap them out to try new strategies without having to spend resources. Coupled with the ability to use your focus points either on spells, skills, throwing magic tools, or summoning a variety of different spirits to assist you in combat, there’s way more forgiveness to find out what works best for you without having to spend time grinding for more levels to spend on attributes. One of more interesting examples I found was the ability to possibly apply the parry skill to things other than shields, and even to apply “no skill” to shields so that you could make use of your main weapon’s skill without having to switch to two hands.
All these discoveries led me to realize that six hours was too short to even scratch the surface of all the other possibilities. Can I get around every major dungeon to the end? Is there any other secret areas hidden just beyond my reach? Where’s my complimentary open world fishing minigame? Thankfully, I won’t have long to wait to find out.
Brendan Graeber, a guide editor at IGN wrote walkthroughs of Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Sekiro. You can ask him questions about the Elden Ring on Twitter @Ragga_Fragga