Elden Ring is the newest entry in the genre of modern AAA open world games that immediately upon release received the highest critical praise imaginable. Many claim this game to be a pure manifestation of adventure, a crowning achievement in modern open world games. I don’t count myself among those people, but I am also not particularly interested in only stating that I disagree with that sentiment. What I find much more fascinating is questioning why open world games, or more specifically in this case, Elden Ring manages to be an incredibly immersive experience to some, yet for a small minority seems to unfortunately fall flat on its face.
So, let me first try to define what I see as the modern open world problem by going on a probably unnecessarily long excursion and go from there.
To me, the modern expectations for open worlds seem still too far ahead of their time. With teams regularly having to crunch intensively to meet unrealistic goals, it is unreasonable to believe that current day developers have the resources and tools to present quality content consistently across a massive playground. If you tell a team to create vast amounts of content while simultaneously having to connect all that content coherently within the same world, all the while gaining maybe just a couple of years of additional time for development compared to non-open-world releases, you simply have to accept that compromises will probably have to be made.
As a fitting example, Dark souls III was allocated roughly three years of development time. Elden Ring only received two additional years on top of those three years. Hell, Sekiro was even developed during the creation of Elden Ring. But somehow there’s now roughly three times the amount of content than in Dark Souls III? This discrepancy in the amount of content versus the time spent making said content should already be enough to make a case for compromises arising from being this ambitious.
The most common compromise found in open world games is that the organic creation of the world is left in favor of following a theme-park-like pattern to meet the scope of the massive world.
Commonly, developers create blocks of content, space them out among a level plane, then fill the empty spaces between these blocks and add in verticality in order to create the feeling that you are indeed in an open, living world. The bigger the desired world, the less time can be spent individually on each content block, encouraging content blocks to follow similar, repetitive designs that can be mass pasted onto the world in order to fit the desired size of the world.
Furthermore, spending time on elevating the quality of the environments between the blocks of content also in turn leaves the developer with even less time to improve the content blocks themselves. Of course the exact methodology will vary based on the developer, some choosing to focus on creating the environment first and then adding in the blocks of contents and so on, but the general approach seems to be reducible to a very formulaic, instantly recognizable pattern.
Since open worlds are expected to be absolutely massive, developers are left with an unbearable balancing act where there’s never truly enough time to make each aspect of the open world shine without lowering something else in quality in the process.
The desired modern open world simply can't offer high quality all across the board given the expectations, while a realistic high quality open world would not have the desired size that is expected of a modern open world.
This predicament seems to leave all modern open world games with a simple goal: to create the illusion of an immersive world. It doesn’t really matter whether content is mass produced or placed in inorganic ways in the world when the player might not even notice those patterns in the first place, right? If you feel immersed in a world, despite it technically being quite formulaic if you were to look at the world from a clinical perspective, then it seems like that’s all that matters.
I’m not really sure if illusions are a good or bad thing. They seem to provide incredibly powerful experiences if you are successfully ensnared by the illusion, but if you notice the deception happening, then the whole game could possibly be ruined for you. This is where the discussion has to be linked back to Elden Ring, since this seems to be the crux of the matter as to why Elden Ring’s open world failed for me, yet worked for most.
The game does its absolute best at trying to make you feel like you’re walking around in the best open world created so far. There are completely breathtaking vistas of locations found positively everywhere. Practically every location that each vista invites you to explore does in fact become explorable at some point in the game. You have certain locations (called legacy dungeons) that rival the best From Software locations in sheer quality. Areas such as Stormveil Castle, Leyndell and Crumbling Farum Azula are without a doubt peerless in scope and beauty. And yet, the rest of the game falls down the same rabbit hole as every other modern open world. There is a huge amount of reused content, used sometimes so shamelessly that many prior powerful moments become retroactively ruined. When you’re not exploring a block of content you’ll be riding with your horse through vastly empty areas until you find the next thing to do. Almost every single optional block of content that isn’t a legacy dungeon follows a set, highly repetitive pattern.
Since so far I’ve written in relatively broad terms I’ll finally become specific. Apart from the legacy dungeons, Elden Ring offers only a handful of different types of blocks of content that are generously repeated throughout the lands, those being:
A) secluded areas that are of high enough quality to be similar to legacy dungeons, but are of much smaller size comparatively, like Castle Morne or The Shaded Castle.
B) side dungeons that are non-randomized versions of the chalice dungeons in Bloodborne, usually offering menial adventuring with highly repeated enemies, bosses and sections.
C) ruins with nothing more than a treasure chest room that sometimes has a reused boss preceding it.
D) sorcerer towers that contain a reward locked behind insultingly low effort puzzles.
E) minor erdtrees with a single residing boss that you will see roughly a dozen times.
F) enemy camps that contain, well enemies. And, with luck, an item.
G) “roaming” bosses such as dragons that are repeated to an absurd degree.
H) walking mausoleums that really aren’t even worth mentioning.
Out of all of those, only A) seems like adequate filler for the rest of the world. But no, it has to share its space with its seven other types of neglected siblings, desperately clinging for your attention.
It seems impossible to me to be truly immersed in a world in which every optional block of content sticks out so painfully obvious in its repetition and crude implementation. Realizing that every side dungeon is placed seemingly randomly into meaningless cliffs, that every ruin is a shuffle of the exact same assets, that the dragon bosses were so poorly implemented into their respective areas that they will de- and respawn multiple times throughout a fight, that the density of content of each major area drops further the more you progress in the game, that there’s simply so much empty dead space between content blocks just feels to me like slipping and falling on your face every time you are trying to immerse yourself in this open world.
And yet, for most this doesn’t matter in the slightest. Many would probably even agree that there’s a lot of stuff in the open world of Elden Ring that simply isn’t that great, and still it does not matter. The open world illusion seems to get upheld by some immensely powerful individual moments that you find while playing the game. Like the sheer wonder felt when you explore the completely optional area called Nokron, only to then find the second Hallowhorn Grounds, ending into Siofra Aqueduct and thinking it's over but no, it continues to the Deeproot Depths and then after that you somehow still find a new area called Nokstella, that then leads into a new area called the Lake Of Rot, that then finally culminates in a secret boss fight making you think this side journey's over but no, if you continue the side quest that lead you to these areas to begin with you will then unbelievably unlock another final new hidden area.
I get the feeling. Even with all the low quality padding mixed into the world there are a couple of magical moments to be found. But even with that incredible experience I just described I had to leave out the fact that at least four of these areas are in fact incredibly similar to each other, while not even coming close to reaching the quality of the legacy dungeons (and that secret boss gets reused later on for some reason) – once again potentially ruining this whole side journey if you dare stare past the illusion.
For me, these moments just weren’t enough to carry the open world experience on their back, but I can understand if for some they were. It’s just that when the veil of the illusion gets dropped there are objectives that every open world has to achieve for me. That I am truly exploring a world that exists the way that it does organically and not because this was simply the most comfortable way for the developers to make this world in a tight time window. That every area receives the same attention to detail instead of continuously dropping more and more in content and quality as the game approaches its end.
Maybe I have unrealistic expectations for open world games, but it seems to me like any open world game that isn't immediately comparable to the obviously awful Ubisoft-style open world games is already instantaneously considered an open world masterpiece, when in reality, these games are still far from achieving what they set out do, even if they admittedly do it a bit better than the current competition.
I can acknowledge the occasionally great thing that Elden Ring’s world achieves, but immersion just seems like a very fleeting thing to me. Let the game slip up one too many times and it becomes exceedingly hard to return to it.
To pile on top of all this, the combination of open world design with souls-like gameplay devalues a lot of what the open world is trying to achieve in the first place, especially given how little From Software cared to adjust their gameplay systems established in previous games. Specifically, there are three core problems that I have been able to recognize so far.
1. The god damn horse
Adding a horse in a game series that has always struggled with incentivizing players to engage with enemies means you can now effectively skip all content found in the open world where the horse is allowed to be used. This means that the majority of your time in the open world is spent frantically riding around every corner looking for an item to quickly pick up before any enemy can react, then casually moving on. The meager rune rewards wouldn’t make the enemies worth engaging with to begin with though.
Leveling and weapon upgrades have always been the most impactful changes you could make to your character in Souls games. It is also now one of the best ways (the best one will come up later) to accidentally trivialize the vast majority of the content this time around. Even just by mistake doing one later-game area too early might result in you struggling to find any challenges until the endgame. When most of the enjoyment from the more low quality side content results from you overcoming challenges with your designated build, then having fixed levels for enemies is probably not a good idea.
3. Meaningless rewards for exploration
Almost all of the impactful items you can find through exploration are weapons and ashes of war (weapon skills that can be freely attached to weapons). You can theoretically upgrade 21 weapons to their maximum. In practice however, this is way too tedious to be something that most people will reasonably do, especially because you’ll have to respec your character every time you make more drastic changes to your build. Therefore, a typical playthrough will have you probably committing to only a couple weapons/spells, rendering all of the optional areas that don’t require items for your build somewhat useless. Perhaps removing leveling and upgrading like Sekiro did would’ve been a great way to incentivize you to use everything that you find (similar to what the ashes of war are already kind of doing), but I realize that that kind of goes against the whole RPG thing.
As a final point, it seems to me that the decision to go open world has also made From Software not able to put in enough effort into its combat this time around, showcasing probably some of the most obviously flawed game design I’ve seen from such a talented company. While the combat is effectively the same as in the other Souls games, there is something that seems completely off about it.
It looks and sounds great, feels relatively smooth and has an acceptable amount of options for endgame builds. The invisible posture meter for enemies, jumps/jumping attacks and guard counters aren’t particularly impactful but somewhat welcome additions nonetheless.
Once again gaining access to weapon skills that can be freely switched between your non-legendary weapons seems to further promote build variety, although most skills seem to only be glorified flashy looking R2 strong attacks with varying degrees of posture damage and status buildups. This, however, remains to be something to be tested over many playthroughs.
I suppose there’s also horse combat, but it is so severely undercooked and underutilized within most encounters that it doesn’t end up making any real impact on the combat as a whole. There are many encounters that seem like they were designed around the horse, but were then apparently decided not to have it included after all, possibly because the horse lacks any mechanical depth and was deemed too unfinished to use before the release of the game. The boss fights that do include the horse usually end up with you making circles around the toes of the boss, continuously forcing them to do easily avoidable stomp attacks until they die.
All in all, the good old press-the-invincibility-button-in-rhythm-with-visual-and-auditory-ques-and-then-sometimes-punish-principle is still in place with no real variation whatsoever, leaving a solid, albeit unimaginative feeling combat system extremely reminiscent of what you’d find in every other Souls game.
Yet, the enemy design seems to be a baffling parody of previous Souls games. Almost every enemy and boss has very long combos, minimal or nonexistent recovery times and high damage. Many animations are comically artificially drawn out to bait out early inputs. Most attacks are unreasonably hard or outright impossible to react to. Input reading is in its most blatant state yet, causing bosses to finish combos, only to then input read your punish and inexplicably punish you instead for whatever reason. All these design decisions synergize in such a way where memorization and passivity are immensely promoted – or at the very least if you intend to actually engage with the core combat mechanics.
This gets worse and worse the further you progress in the game, although you can see the same glimpses in even early game bosses such as Margit. While I wouldn’t say that exploring endgame areas is as infuriating as it’s often made out to be, since by then you’ll probably be immensely powerful and most normal enemies retain relatively low health, the later-game bosses certainly feel irredeemable in their mechanical design.
I simply do not understand why every boss has to be designed in such a way where your time gets maximally wasted. Every previous Souls game understood that while the boss fights are certainly one of the main draws of the overall experience, they have to be carefully balanced in such a way where they don’t feel like pushovers, while at the same also not overstaying their welcome by forcing you to over-memorize every single animation that the bosses can do.
Since these games have also never been particularly mechanically deep in the first place, the best case scenario is creating boss fights that feel, sound and look engaging and challenging( even if mechanically they really aren’t) so that you forget that really all you’re doing is pressing an invincibility button at certain memorized times.
However, when the balance gets skewed in favor of tedious memorization, the whole combat system of these games just kind of falls apart. You are never allowed to get in that vigorous flow state where you are relying on your instincts, avoiding certain attacks correctly on the fly since they give you enough visual information to react the way it was intended, punishing when it simply feels right to do, and of course also occasionally hiccuping when the boss presents you with interesting tricks up their sleeve. Instead, like in Elden Ring, you are made painfully aware that you are offered nothing more interesting to do than guessing and memorizing roll and punish timings for obscure animations until you finally get them right and get to move on to the next area. Even the across the board once again fantastic aesthetic designs of the bosses weren’t enough to distract me from these issues.
I want to make it clear that I am not complaining about the game being too difficult, in fact every boss is certainly doable even with severe player-imposed challenges. The issue is rather that the process of learning and then beating many bosses is just not very fun this time around.
There’s just so much guessing going on every fight – how long will an attack be artificially delayed? Will that combo consist of three or rather thirty attacks? Is that multi-hit attack even dodgeable? When am I allowed to press the heal button without getting immediately sniped by an attack? When can I finally safely punish something?
You’ll get the answers to your questions eventually, but not without getting severely punished for every time you ask. Why wouldn’t you then just stay back to keep out of range of those ridiculous combos? Why try punishing anything but the slowest attacks that take longest to recover? Why not just use ranged attacks to never be put into the insane blender that almost every major boss is? There’s just no reason not to play very passive and barely engage with the bosses if you don’t fancy being overwhelmed by tedious memorization.
The balance is just totally off here for me – instead of having a healthy mix of some memorization but also the utilization of your reaction time and intuition to create the illusion of exhilarating, close call encounters, you get the awfully bloated mess that the boss fights in Elden Ring often are. Memorization should only serve as a sort of countdown that ensures you will beat a boss over time if you simply keep at it – it instead being so far at the forefront of the boss design just shows a total lack of understanding as to why the boss fights in the previous games managed to feel engaging in the first place.
Maybe I’m in the minority here though; I can definitely imagine people preferring this new way of designing bosses, since for some the memorization of complete movesets and then finally almost perfectly overcoming bosses is the most satisfying aspect of Souls combat. Making them memorize even more and for much longer should in theory just make this satisfaction even stronger when they finally beat a boss.
However, my preference for boss fights that are fast paced, close call tumbles in which I have to rely on my instincts, as well as my love for mastering a combat system and then being massively rewarded for it (like in Sekiro) just aren’t things that Elden Ring provides at all, which makes the combat feel truly awful for me.
I also realize that it might’ve proven a real challenge for From Software to balance all these encounters while knowing that the player can become immensely strong from exploring the open world and overleveling, but then this just seems like another argument against using the modern open world design philosophy in a Souls game. You could surely say that the overleveling helps in counteracting the problematic aspects of most bosses, but then, as previously mentioned, the fights usually just become so easy that they feel completely impactless anyways (apart from maybe two or three boss fights in the endgame, where overleveling seems to have little to no impact).
Of course, I haven’t mentioned spirit ash summons yet, which are very similar to the NPC summons found in the previous games. If you are inclined to use them, all of these problems are simply washed away, since you are no longer required to engage with the gameplay mechanics to begin with. Pair that with all the insanely powerful ashes of wars and spells and you are effectively able to steamroll everything. As a power fantasy this kind of works, but even if now all of the mechanical issues are technically somewhat solved, what is really even left of the combat in the first place? I’m not exactly against an “easy mode”, but if it is designed in such an unengaging way, then I don’t just understand the appeal.
You could even argue that summons aren’t the easy mode of this game to begin with, but rather an almost mandatory thing you have to engage with, since so many bosses seem to almost be designed around them. Otherwise I could not explain the messy state that most bosses find themselves in, especially Malenia, Godskin Duo (and every multi-bossfight for that matter) and the final boss being prime examples.
Also, considering that one of the most major flaws of the souls combat formula has always been that fights with multiple enemies or allies simply do not function in the first place, the supposed focus on summons becomes even more bizarre.
Some of the only multi boss fights that ever kind of worked, like Ornstein & Smough, only did so because they were specifically designed to be practically 1v1s regardless.
Likewise, using a summoned ally just breaks the aggro priority for every boss, once again only kind of working when you are fighting two bosses to begin with, where your ally can then focus one boss while you fight the other – but this really just creates another practically 1v1 situation.
From Softwares decision to not only add widely available, easily upgradable summons but also seemingly focus the combat encounters on them with zero adjustments to the AI was completely misguided. You’re put in a damned if you, damned if you don’t situation, where not using summons forces you to both engage with the combat but also with the across the board unejoyable bosses, whereas using summons fixes those encounters but then in turn just makes the whole combat experience feel completely hollow.
I am unsure what went wrong here. To make a game like Sekiro that managed to make such a refreshing feeling and criminally enjoyable combat system with minimal, but ingenious changes to the core systems of the Souls combat formula and then somehow arrive next at Elden Ring is just really confusing. My best bet would once again be that this was caused by all the challenges arising from having to create a massive open world and the lack of development time that they likely caused, but who truly knows.
it just feels like there is a distinct lack of intention for all these design decisions, struggling to form a cohesive whole. Add to that the redundancy of once again substituting any meaningful narrative elements with highly familiar feeling lore and mildly charming, but ultimately uneventful and too obscure to follow side quests and you end up with a game that is far too similar to its predecessors, while failing to innovate anything meaningful in the new territories it tries to explore.
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