Hear Me Out, Fellow Tarnished
It’s been countless hours since I started Elden Ring. As I ride through the Lands Between, Torrent turning the world to a blur, a strange ogre creature hurling stones into my back, I find myself wondering…
How important is Elden Ring’s open world to its gameplay loop?
As the stones bean me in the back of the head and send me back to a Site of Grace, I find myself thinking back to some of FromSoftware’s finest games. And I come to the same conclusion that I’d arrived at scores of hours earlier:
Elden Ring is so much fun. But its open world adds nothing significant to the overall experience.
Let’s talk about it.
Minor spoiler warning: I’ll be providing some examples from Elden Ring, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 3 to prove points throughout this essay. Please read with that in mind.
An Argument: Elden Ring 2 Should Be Pseudo-Linear
At first glance, this argument falls a little flat given the nature of the Dark Souls games—but stick with me.
This has always been an open-world series. In Dark Souls, you could step out from Firelink Shrine and have three different directions to take. Admittedly, those options were far more finite than the near endless directions Elden Ring has to offer. However, to say most Soulsborne games are purely linear experiences would be incredibly incorrect.
I want to make three points about Elden Ring’s open world:
1. The World Is Too Big for Its Own Good (and Its Development Time)
This point comes up a lot when discussing issues some people have with Elden Ring. While it’s lazy to argue that reused assets make for a bad game, in this case I do want to point it out.
If you’ve played Elden Ring for more than a few hours, you’ve run into your second copy of a boss. This copy usually feels incredibly similar to the original, save for some added elements. A Bloodhound might have electricity, for instance, or a new move. Or, there might be two Watchhounds instead of just one.
FromSoft games benefit a lot from varied content—namely boss fights. Any great Soulsborne boss is a puzzle; there are a few ways to solve it, but learning how the boss moves, what it’s weak to, and how it reacts to specific actions is critical to the player’s experience. Sure, “cheesing” a boss is a viable strategy, but even then it’s a way to interact with the puzzle.
Elden Ring offers so many of these puzzles. From massive, powerful creatures to Patches, you will encounter a ton of friends and foes that are new and fresh. But, a lot of this original content is relegated to “legacy dungeons” like Stormveil Castle, an ode to Dark Souls’ linear, handcrafted dungeons.
By contrast, walking into a Catacomb or a Mine Shaft for the umpteenth time tends to provide a duller experience. There are few bosses here that you can’t find elsewhere in the world. Some of the most interesting encounters in the game get ruined when, say, you activate an Evergaol and immediately see the boss you once struggled to fell, just with a new coat of paint. (The developers hardly try to hide it, either. At least name the Crucible Knight, like… the Cutlery Knife or something!)
The open world itself can also be bloated. While there is generally much more content than, say, Breath of the Wild, there are also massive plains and swamplands where the only real content is an enemy kicking your horse while you ride by… or a random ballista shot from the other side of the universe ringing your bell. And unlike Breath of the Wild, getting across these environments in a fun fashion is not the developers’ priority.
You can tell there wasn’t quite enough time to finish the game when the first post-launch patch included the ending to not one, not two, but four NPC questlines.
Elden Ring’s world could have been half as big, and I feel like it would’ve had the same amount of variety. If anything, the trimming would allow for the dungeons and world to be even more fleshed out than they already are. The devs wouldn’t have felt as strained to code in extra adds or effects for some bosses, and most players would have been fine without seeing another Erdtree Burial Watchdog.
2. The Legacy Dungeons Are Stupendous, but Held Back by the Open World
While exploring the open world of Elden Ring is a fun way to spend your afternoon, the hand-crafted larger dungeons are simply superb.
FromSoft is fantastic at making you paranoid as you make your way through Stormveil Castle, or Raya Lucaria, or Leyndell. I find myself exploring every single corner of these dungeons for secrets, and being rewarded for my efforts with loot, or a quick challenge that’ll threaten my Estus Flask or Crystal Tears.
These dungeons are almost unapologetically disconnected from the open world. Sure, there are elements of the open world that are related to the larger dungeons—questlines, especially! But in general, these dungeons have a simple trail that leads from the beginning of one to the beginning of the next.
So, there’s this weird situation where the open world seems more like a setup for the legacy dungeons. Where the only real reason the open world exists is so players can farm souls ahead of the next area, since going from Stormveil to Raya Lucaria otherwise will likely result in a random difficulty spike.
It’s this uneven difficulty from one legacy dungeon to the next that’s perhaps my biggest gripe with the game. I feel forced to farm for hours before taking on the next bit of content, because that’s what the game expects of you. Your character’s durability drops like a brick when you take on a new area, and enemies tend to benefit from extra health and resistances. The curve is rough compared to prior Soulsborne games, where the difficulty tended to ramp up in a more natural way.
I love Souls games, but they’ve never felt this punishing. Usually, when a boss hits you in Dark Souls, it take a good four to five hits to put you down. The difficulty, rather, comes from the boss’s aggression; it punishes stupid mistakes. In this game, even the quickest bosses tear a fully armored build to shreds in seconds. At the speed in which you die in Elden Ring, you’d think every run was a Dark Souls RTSR build.
If Elden Ring were a string of legacy dungeons, with some side content off to the side for players to explore, I don’t think the game would lose much. FromSoft has proved that strategy immensely successful time and time again. And with that, I think the game would have less bloat of riding on Torrent, running into an enemy that doesn’t give you anything, and saying, “Well, at least the game looks pretty.”
3. FromSoft Hasn’t Quite Worked Out What “Open-World” Means
Here’s a weird thing. But hear me out.
So, I started playing Elden Ring and decided to follow the Sites of Grace, which point you in a specific direction. I did Stormveil Castle, Raya Lucaria, and Leyndell. The game does a pretty good job at guiding me toward these locations; the golden lines are actually quite helpful, and I do a good job exploring the nearby locales so I never feel underpowered.
And then I go to Caelid. And I am dramatically overleveled. I accidentally crush Radahn’s toes, and the loot there does very little to improve my current toolset.
And then I go to the Weeping Peninsula. And start two-shotting bosses.
The upgrades didn’t scale with me, so they just improve side-weapons that don’t matter all that much. They’ll never get to the same level as my current gear; I used my only Somber Stone  on my big sword, so all of my other weapons are, at best, +6 for Somber and +14 or so for normal.
The enemies don’t scale either. This is cool for a power-trip scenario, but feels kinda bad from a challenge angle. This part I’m mostly fine with.
This isn’t an issue that many other open world games run into. In Skyrim, gear and enemies scale dynamically with you. Early game dungeons still contain treasure with garbage in them, but there’s a higher chance for higher tier weapons to be around every corner.
I’m not asking for a Ubisoft-style “if you aren’t this level in a zone, warning signs blare and the game screams in fear” kind of open world. However, the rewards for entering an area that is below you are completely nonexistent. It makes exploration far less interesting. Which stinks! I don’t want to feel like a bully because I missed a cave in the Weeping Plateau.
Unlike most other open-world games, there’s no reward for entering an underleveled area. You’ll find unique weapons and Ashes of War in most dungeons, but that’s kind of it. And there’s only so many weapons and spirits that you can focus on to upgrade in a run. There’s a set number of final tier upgrade stones, after all!
And don’t even get me started on what that means for New Game Plus. Because there are no relevant changes between NG and NG+, you can’t even get reasonable upgrades for your weapons at the start. I’m not begging the game to crap out the final tier of upgrade, but by NG+, there should be access to significantly more high-level stones early on. By then, we’re fighting against higher-strength enemies; no reason to throw +1 stones at us until we get to the late game ourselves.
The solution is relatively simple; once players gain access to the Miner’s Bell Bearings, the loot in the overworld should be upgraded by a level or two. To a point. It wouldn’t be too hard to advance the IDs of the drops to be slightly stronger. This should especially be done for NG+ to allow for more builds and weapons to be viable early in a run.
A Few Counter-Arguments
Before I close, I do want to address a few things that I know people are talking about in terms of the open world:
Torrent Mixes Up the Soulsborne Formula
Yes, Torrent is a fantastic mechanic, but it’s a solution to a problem FromSoft itself created. If the game wasn’t this massive open world with plains and stuff, then Torrent wouldn’t be necessary. There’s a reason you’re kicked off of Torrent the moment you enter a building.
I wish Torrent was more crucial to the game. Right now, it’s a method of fighting dragons, and Radahn to an extent. There’s no real way to make Torrent crucial without making things feel artificial, so I don’t have a realistic solution to this. However, making the game less bloated and more linear does nothing to Torrent. In fact, it would make its presence even more potent, since more coherent platforming puzzles could be designed with Torrent in mind.
The World Design Provides a Sense of Scale
Elden Ring does an incredible job allowing players to see what they are working (or riding) toward. However, that’s just what Fromsoft does with their worldbuilding.
Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne all do fantastic jobs making a world that is cohesive—one the player can explore to its fullest. It is easier to get to places that you can see… But, even in that case, some areas are still hard-locked behind story progress. And some areas that you can go to have enemies that will destroy you instantly. It’s not a flawless system, just as it was in the other games.
The Open World Allows Players More Freedom
Being able to bail out of an encounter to do something else is actually very fun and freeing. However, I don’t think the open world needs to be the size that it is to accomplish this. Dark Souls 1 had many different side areas that you could explore as early as Quelaag.
A Closing Note
I think that Elden Ring’s open world is absurd, in every possible definition of the word. The size of the world is incredible, and I would never want to express any sort of displeasure with the hard work of FromSoft’s world artists and developers.
I do wish to see a world that’s more compact and coherent, without as many same-tile dungeons, without as many copy-and-paste bosses. I want an experience that shows me the difference between a temple of Marika in Mt. Gelmir and the Mountaintop of the Giants, rather than stick to the same exact style. I want to see how the Catacombs of an Army is different from one of a Giant. How the mines of Atlus Plateau are different from the mineshafts of Caelid.
FromSoft is home to incredible worldbuilders. And they’re only improving. I just hope, next time, the game can be more focused on what makes it absolutely stunning, rather than simply increasing the amount of time a player can run around, killing their fourth Erdtree Burial Watchdog at the end of a catacomb they’ve seen all too many times before.