Most approachable? A dialectical review of Elden Ring

Dark Souls and other games made by FromSoft are legendary for their fans’ elitism. The phrase, “git gud”, archetypically spoken to the souls newb who asks for advice on game forums, resonates throughout gaming discourse. “Souls-like” and “The Dark Souls of” are practically synonymous with video game difficulty, and the conversation around it.

But when FromSoft released Elden Ring this year, I loosely followed the fan subreddit, and found that elitism was not nearly as common as reputed. The phrase “git gud” was rarely used, and only then as a joke–and not a funny joke either, but the kind everyone else would groan at. Perhaps I’m looking at the wrong fan-sites, but my impression is that the fans have moved beyond elitism. They have come to recognize that, actually, it would be great if more people enjoyed this series, so that they could make more of it.

It’s possible that fans and critics and have overcorrected for past elitism, now declaring that Elden Ring is FromSoft’s “most approachable game yet.” Other critics have pushed back, highlighting how the game can still be unfriendly to newcomers. To explore this issue, I present two reviews from different perspectives.

Introducing the players

My husband and I have contrasting perspectives on Souls games. I’m not exactly a veteran, but I did finish Dark Souls 1 and 3, and very much enjoyed at least one of those. My husband is turned off by the very idea of Dark Souls and its reputation for difficulty. He’s more of a Xenoblade Chronicles superfan—a JRPG series notable for its fantastic world design, epic narratives, and obstacles that arguably require more labor rather than skill. My husband didn’t think he would like Elden Ring, but I was going to buy it anyway, and it does have a 96/100 on Metacritic, so it was probably worth a try.

But there are definitely issues with relying on reviews. For one thing, most reviewers played on the PS5, a game console that was only available to the general public at scalper prices. For another, most news outlets assign Elden Ring to reviewers who are already veterans of Dark Souls, not to newcomers. For all the claims that Elden Ring is the “most approachable yet”, reviewers didn’t empirically test that claim.

The point is, a 10/10 game can be hated, depending on the type of player you are. A review intended for general audiences cannot tell you what kind of player you are. So my idea was to write a review not for general audiences, but specifically for my husband. Then my husband would give it a try and come back with his own review.

Husband Reviews: Elden Ring
By Siggy

Elden Ring is a combat-centric open world game. For my husband, the hook is the open world, and the catch is the combat.

The open world genre certainly has its pitfalls. They can feel big and empty, or like a particularly cumbersome level select interface. Sometimes they let you go in any direction but it turns out that every direction is blandly homogenous. To make an open world work, you need to have a large number of unique encounters, big and small.

Elden Ring’s main approach to making lots of unique encounters is, regrettably, mostly through combat. FromSoft combat is noted for its difficulty, but that’s not the relevant point here. The first key property of the combat is that it’s defense-oriented. That means the path to success depends heavily on the kind of opponents you face. Golems feel different from dire crabs. The tactics are different, and you need to actually pay attention to their animations instead of just paying attention to your own skills.

The second key property of the combat is that it’s context-dependent. The same opponent requires different tactics depending on the situation. Sometimes an enemy is alone, or in groups. Sometimes the enemy ambushes you, or you ambush it. Sometimes you have the horse available, or summons available, and sometimes you don’t. Some players complain about copy-pasted bosses, but often the game puts them in slightly different contexts to make them just a bit distinct.

Some of the unique encounters in the game arise from discovering new environments, or the wealth of unique rewards. Elden Ring’s world has many moments of awe, and the sublime. However, the bulk of Elden Ring’s unique encounters come from combat, presenting you with every combination of different enemies in different contexts. So if you don’t appreciate the combat, that’s a game-breaking problem.

How difficult is Elden Ring? It depends, because the difficulty is adaptive. You can bang your head on an encounter for a long time, or you could go do something else and come back when you’re overleveled. The problem with this adaptive difficulty is that it doesn’t adapt based on how (un)skilled you are, but rather based on how much you like to diverge from the critical path. You can also find guides online on how to unlock “easy mode” by collecting a particular combination of items and building your character just right, but that route is only really available to players who are invested enough to look up and follow guides, which is not the same as the set of players who actually need an “easy mode”.

There’s also a second kind of difficulty in Elden Ring, that I think goes completely unappreciated by series veterans. It just does not explain its mechanics very well. For example,there are at least 6 defensive options (block, parry, roll, jump, poise, moving out of the way, etc.) and the advantages of each are never fully laid out for you. The game throws dozens of numbers at you, and the explanations are technically there but who can actually sort through it all in a first playthrough? The game asks you to commit to a build before trying it, and respecs aren’t available for quite some time.

In any case, my husband definitely likes to diverge from the critical path, and has me here to advise on the mechanics, so I think it might work out to a moderately challenging game?

But let’s see what my husband thinks.

Robot Reviews: Elden Ring
By SRH, aka Siggy’s Robot Husband

Siggy’s advice at the start was absolutely essential. I would have given up in frustration within two hours. There was almost no tutorial and what little tutorialization existed ranged between uninformative and actively misleading.

He told me that what “class” I selected wasn’t important and that I should ignore the tutorial on “parrying”. He also watched me fight and provided a bunch of pointers on the things I was doing wrong, which was basically all of them.

The game’s best part was definitely the exploration. The world has a complex structure that’s fun to navigate, with points of interest in every direction. And you explore them by actually looking around, rather than by interacting with a UI.

Elden Ring’s world and UI design stand in stark contrast to many other “open world” games, which guide the player with a plethora of map indicators. In essence, the world becomes a glorified loading screen as the player walks from icon to icon. Elden Ring saw that convention and ran straight in the other direction, with excellent results.

As for the combat, with Siggy’s guidance I eventually got the hang of it and found that fighting mobs was more difficult than I prefer, but not actually unfair. Definitely a flaw, from my perspective, but not an unforgivable one.

Bosses were a bigger problem. They seem designed to be played on a “try many times until you succeed” gameplay loop, and when you’re not that good (like me) that means trying even more times.

Unfortunately, I was playing on PS4, and trying a single challenge dozens of times combined very badly with the PS4’s version’s extremely long load times. Often a boss would kill me in just a few seconds, so “try dozens of times until you succeed” meant I literally spent the majority of my playtime waiting around.

The load times are supposed to be better on current-gen consoles, but that wasn’t an option.Thanks for nothing, supply chain crisis.

The workaround I ended up with was to simply not fight the bosses at all. I would clear every part of one of the many minidungeons except for the boss, then come back to kill the boss when I was much higher level. This felt unsatisfying, but it worked OK.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to sustain this strategy of being overleveled, because bosses are one of the main sources of XP and when you skip a boss you miss the XP from that boss. Eventually, all that missing XP caught up with me. I was no longer overleveled, and I had nothing to do about it. The enemies on the critical path were too hard for me, but the bosses I had skipped were also too hard.

I found I had two options, neither of which sounded like much fun.

  • Play the game what seemed to be the intended way by fighting each boss dozens of times until I “git gud” at that boss, sucking up the 28 second wait with each attempt.
  • Grind regular mobs I had already fought until I leveled up more.

That was when I gave up. Just not worth my time.

Concluding remarks

I was prepared for the possibility that my husband would not care for Elden Ring, but I was surprised by some of the ways in which Elden Ring failed. Like the critics, I had this notion that you could make the game easier by skipping difficult encounters and coming back later. It turns out that you cannot do this forever.

From fan forums and videos, I was aware that there are many tips and tricks that you can use to make the game easier; I thought to tell my husband about a few of these. However, I was surprised when my husband simply did not have the requisite items. Some of them were locked behind bosses that he had saved for later. Others were out in the open, but my husband passed them by. He also couldn’t tell good items from bad ones when he had them.

I believe what makes Elden Ring difficult is not merely its combat, but its obscurantism. It is obscurantist in its lore, its world design, mechanics, and yes, even its tutorials. That is what many people like about it, of course, but it’s in direct conflict with approachability.


  1. geoffarnold says

    How do you (and SRH) feel about Ghosts of Tsushima and Horizon Zero Dawn/Forbidden West? In each of those, the open world was simply the setting for strong story-telling, and the range of difficulty settings made those stories much more broadly accessible the Elden Ring. In Horizon Forbidden West, my first playthrough coincided with some health issues, so I was happy to play in Easy mode and enjoy the world-building and the story. Once I finished, I used the “New Game Plus” mode to replay it on a much higher difficulty, which was also very enjoyable. So….

  2. says

    Neither of us has played Ghosts of Tsushima or Horizon Forbidden West, but we did play Horizon Zero Dawn. My husband loves it, although it follows the conventional open world design philosophy of throwing a bunch of icons at you. I rather liked its representation of immigrant/mixed race narratives.

  3. SRH says

    I haven’t played Forbidden West yet but I loved Zero Dawn.

    Zero Dawn’s world design is not its strong point though. It’s exactly what I have in mind when criticizing the standard open world design. Where Zero Dawn shines is in the combat, the sidequests, and the story.

    One thing I really like about the combat in that game is that there are a ton of possible strategies and switching between them is essentially free. You can snipe enemies from a distance, you can knock them down and do melee critical hits, you can try to disable specific weapons, you can take control of enemies, you can cover an area in traps and lure enemies to their death, and so on. And the strategy you try doesn’t work, or you just don’t enjoy it, you can switch to a different one at negligible cost.

    Elden Ring also seems to have a lot of possible strategies but switching between them is very expensive. You have to commit hard to a specific build without really understanding it, and even though you can eventually respec your own stats you can’t respec your weapons. The non-renewable resources you use to level up a weapon are lost forever. So having Siggy to advise me on what to pick was extremely important.

  4. Cutty Snark says

    I think that, for me at least, this does rather hit the nail on the head. Firstly the impenetrability of the mechanics feels a bit of a handicap if you aren’t familiar with the systems, and secondly I am far more prepared to practice if the time between death and restarting the fight is as small as possible.

    Not wishing to make any suggestions (personal taste is key!), I wonder if it might be interesting to look at the Souls-esque Steelrising (it is a game from Spiders studio which, if you’ve ever played one before, you know will mean a bit of jankyness – though, in fairness, I feel that is not exactly absent in the Soulsbornes!). It has the ability to play “as intended”, but also a secondary mode (available from the start) in which you can change stamina regeneration (making it less necessary to grind) and damage taken from enemy hits (up to 100% damage reduction).

    I’ve played it, and found it quite good in that sense – I could batter myself a bit against enemies to “git gud”, but could always just whack the damage taken down and skip if I found someone particularly annoying. And being able to do this, meant I could reduce the damage to 0, fight a boss for a bit to learn its patterns without getting killed, and then whack the difficulty up when I felt I’d stand a good chance.

    Unfortunately, it does also suffer a bit from the impenetrability of what the stats actually mechanically mean – but the level design was pretty good (a lot of that “unlock shortcuts that lead back to early levels” stuff), and I did enjoy it. Given this is the first Souls-like I’ve played to completion, it seemed a bit more accommodating than others I’ve tried (I intend no insult to those others – just not for me).

    Of course, YMMV!

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