The creators of Dark Souls and Game of Thrones have created one of the best games in years.

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I’m not really sure what’s going on in Ring of Elden. Thirty hours into the game, I’ve already explored ruins, dug caverns, attacked catacombs, stormed castles, slain a dragon, and looted countless corpses, but I still don’t know why. The game deliberately hides the scale of its map from you, slowly revealing it through fragments encountered while exploring. All I know is that I emerged into an area known as Limgrave, a beautiful dark plain lined with giant tombstones, bathed in the golden light of a massive world tree known as ‘Erdtree. I am given directions: to guide my character, a lowly so-called ‘tarnished’ warrior, seeking the Elden Ring to claim his power, to become ‘The Elden Lord’. None of these terms are defined for me; is the Elden Ring a ring for one finger? Is it some kind of large architectural structure? Some kind of fantastic hoop? And why do I want to be lord of it, anyway? Beat me!

What I do know is that I keep playing anyway and I don’t want to stop. It’s because Ring of Elden, out on Windows PC and PlayStation and Xbox family consoles on Friday, is wildly fun, brutally challenging, and the most thrilling video game I’ve played in years. The complete lack of exposition here – who am I in this world? What is my mission exactly? Why is this world arranged this way? – would be frustrating in most games, but in Ring of Eldendarkness is the whole point.

Ring of Elden is the latest game from From Software, the Japanese studio that has iterated almost exclusively on a single model since the 2009 catalog Demon’s Souls: a combination of hardcore action-based role-playing gameplay with high-difficulty challenges, gnarly level design, and opaque storytelling. Demon’s Souls threw players into a dense and challenging high-fantasy world that felt thrillingly at odds with the tutorial-rich, hint-filled style that game designers were headed towards at the time. But if its gameplay was a throwback to an earlier era of less forgiving games, its storytelling was something new: an almost impenetrable puzzle box about gods, kings, and dragons that was never explained to the player, only shown through environmental details and abstract clues. . Critics devoured it.

Demon’s Souls was followed by dark souls in 2011, a spiritual sequel with an unparalleled sense of scale and mystery. He refined the From Software philosophy; set in such an immersive world, dark souls felt situated in a pre-existing real place rather than an imaginary place. Each area flowed and branched into the next in a way that felt natural rather than just a collection of levels: a dilapidated castle empties into a rotting sewer connected to a miserable swamp leading to a giant tree that descends into a pristine beach occupied by a hydra. The result was a game whose world felt ancient, internally consistent, and even dignified, a quality extraordinarily rare in the cool world of video games.

The secrets hidden in the souls the games and storytelling of their spinoffs are central to their appeal. Instead of experiencing the story through traditional cutscenes, players wander through highly detailed worlds with only vague objectives, battling enemies, leveling up, killing massive bosses in good faith that’s what you’re supposed to do. , without establishing why you are I do. It’s only through careful study of the surroundings that the story becomes clearer: those broken statues lining the gallery aren’t just broken because they look cool; dig deep and deep enough, and you will learn that it is because this statue is of a god who was exiled, and therefore his statues were demolished. That boss fight you fought wasn’t just there on a designer’s whim, but because their character’s backstory makes it necessary. In the 13 years since Demon’s SoulsFrom Software has taken the practice of world-building from a secondary design element and turned it into an art form in itself.

After dark souls, From Software has gone from cult developer to one of the most famous and influential studios in the industry, with special praise for director Hidetaka Miyazaki. Now considered one of the few authors of the medium, Miyazaki went on to refine the souls formula through sequels and spin-offs; they all ranged from good to excellent, but none were quite able to match the groundbreaking sense of wonder of dark souls‘ interconnected world.

That is, until Ring of Elden. Where the souls the games were dense but ultimately grounded and self-contained, Ring of Elden feels cosmic in reach. Perhaps to help in this endeavor, Miyazaki enlisted a rare collaborator here: fellow fantasy genre writer George RR Martin of game of thrones notoriety. Martin consulted on the game, helping to develop his deep knowledge. Maybe it’s because I (deliberately) didn’t watch any of the explanatory videos which are already there, but it’s hard to understand exactly what Martin’s story contributions are on a first reading. The world of Ring of Elden is fractionalized, with complex internal politics – aspects that vaguely resemble Martin-esque. But whatever the game of thrones The author’s contributions really are, they have been entirely subsumed by Miyazaki’s powerful and intoxicating aesthetic.

Where modern classics of the open-world role-playing genre like The Witcher 3Dragon Age Inquisition, or the very recent Forbidden Horizon West and its predecessor are reminiscent of the experience of reading a great fantasy novel, Ring of Elden one has the impression of living one. Ring of Elden, like Dark Souls before it, distorts traditional fantasy attributes. Instead of controlling a hero who you know will be anointed as the chosen one, the game puts you in the position of a schlub simply trying to survive as long as he can against ever increasing odds. In the powerful fantasy world of video games, this twist seems telling, especially since Ring of Elden makes you fight for every possible advantage and lesser powers.

Ring of Elden de-prioritizes the classic hero’s journey, instead of centering the world’s journey itself. Not since The landmark of 2017 The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has a game that captured the sense of a wild world so well. While breath of the wild abstract and gamified its environment, Ring of Elden instead, all the details of the environment are highlighted. Each region is bound by environmental circumstances. A red-colored rot consumes the region east of Limgrave, sprouting horrifying flora and giant hounds hunched over like dinosaurs, as the ground turns crimson. The area is also home to a now-ruined wizarding village, decrepit and falling into the bordering swamp, overrun by statue-headed specters. I suppose there is an explicit connection between these wizards and red rot, but I don’t know what it is yet. But the feeling that the connection exists gives this world an almost electric charge.

Right now I’m not as excited about the textual relationship between these characters and these phenomena (which I probably won’t know until I watch one of these lore videos) as I am the story that I reconstitute in my mind. Knowing that the world of Ring of Elden is built on these implicit connections imbues the entire world with a sense of purpose and humanity. Absence of knowledge but abundance of imagination is what makes Ring of Eldenand all games from From Software, all good.

I still don’t know what the size is Ring of Eldenis the world, but right now it seems limitless. I did, however, get a clue that I can’t help but think of: I used a rare key to unlock a portal to the edge of the map, emerging far to the east on a floating piece of architecture in ruined. On the horizon, I see a giant cyclone enveloping a floating city surrounded by winged demons. When I first found this place I just stood and stared in awe. I don’t know when or how I will arrive in this city, but it is like a revelation, an obscure knowledge. I don’t know what to make of it, but it’s still valuable.

By Bandai Namco. Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series S/X.

Reviewed slate Ring of Elden on PlayStation 5 via a preview copy provided by Bandai Namco.

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