PHEW. Now that I've finally set EU IV aside, I can get back to playing other video games. The first big one I'm picking up is Elden Ring. I've been hearing about the Dark Souls games for years, and have been a little intrigued by them, but also put off by their reputation for brutal difficulty and action-heavy gameplay. I've heard universal praise for Elden Ring, though, and many suggestions that it's a relatively entry point to the series. I'm maybe 15 hours or so into the game and really enjoying it so far.
I'm avoiding any walkthroughs or spoilers of the game, but I am permitting myself to look up a few specific things. Some of these are mechanics that aren't really explained within the game; I also looked up the location of a better Staff for my Sorcerer to wield.
These days I'm pretty ambivalent about open world games, especially open world RPGs, but Elden Ring has been my favorite for a while. It hits the sweet spot of being both vast and dense: there are visually interesting things to stumble across, and you never go very long before stumbling over something intriguing and worth exploring.
Exploration in particular is a strong suit of the game, though I could also see it being overwhelming. I think this game has less direction than any game I've played since Baldur's Gate I: from the start you can go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything. There are some descriptions of past events and the world, but not much in the way of plot or goals delivered to you. There's no quest journal, no quest markers (except icons you can manually add to your map), very minimal dialogue and waypointing. There totally are quests, but they're stripped from the UI we've been accustomed to seeing for the last four decades of RPGs.
I'm way too early to have any opinions of the story or worldbuilding, but it's firmly in the dark-fantasy vein. Everything is decaying and falling apart; great battles were fought in the past, and you see the ruins all around you. There are a few spots of light and grace along the way, but they're definitely in the minority. It isn't exactly grimdark; so far there's nothing like the Baron's storyline in The Witcher 3, for example; if anything it kind of reminds me of Tolkien, with a strong sense of decline from a grander time in the past.
Like I said above, I'm playing as a Sorcerer, which is a ranged character. It's been relatively easy so far: I can attack enemies from a fairly safe distance, and usually evade by rolling out of the way. I know that classic Souls play tends to focus more on blocking, parrying and counters, but I'm glad that I can mostly ignore those for this initial playthrough.
As in many modern RPGs, there are a variety of tools you can have to overcome challenges in the game. The most Souls-ish technique is to "git gud": no matter what your stats are or those of your foe, everyone has their own moveset and strengths and weaknesses, and if you practice enough and study your opponent's behavior, you can beat them. It's hard, though! Another approach is to level up. Keep playing the game, fighting smaller enemies or bigger ones, and you can increase your stats to take more hits and deal more damage, and a harder fight will become easier. A third option is to get better gear. I'll write more about this below, but finding new gear, swapping out pieces or adding upgrades can make a difference. Fourthly, you can craft consumables that will give you a potent short-term boost, long enough to fight a difficult boss. Finally but most importantly, you can just skip it! This is truly an open-world game, with almost no critical challenges: in almost every case you can just go somewhere else and ignore a fight that's too annoying or difficult.
I have a well-documented antipathy towards the economic systems of RPGs, which are especially terrible in open world RPGs with respawning enemies; I griped at length about Mass Effect Andromeda, which had a whole bunch of overlapping currencies and resources and nothing worthwhile to spend them on. Elden Ring goes in the exact opposite direction, taking the bold step of essentially combining XP and GP. You only have a single resource "Souls", that you get from beating enemies, and you spend on leveling your character or on buying equipment. It seems crazy to cross those streams of money and experience, going against everything Gary Gygax taught us. After adjusting to the shock, though, I really love how it works in practice. Instead of forcing certain activities to achieve certain outcomes, you can do anything that's enjoyable to you and reward yourself as you see fit. And really, at the end of the day anything you spend Souls on has the same effect of improving your character. If you spend Souls on increasing your Vigor, you'll get more hit points and become more survivable in combat; if you spend Souls on a defensive piece of equipment, you'll increase your defense and become more survivable in combat.
Along the same lines, equipment in Elden Ring is very different than I'm used to. Most RPGs follow a steadily increasing path: as you get later in the game, enemies drop more powerful equipment, and/or you have enough money to buy more expensive equipment. As I've noted in the past, though, this can lead to player paralysis: you don't want to spend a little bit of money on a mediocre weapon when you know you'll get better weapons for free in a few hours. In Elden Ring, though, the equipment you get at the start of the game can last you through pretty much the whole game. Everything is basically equivalent in absolute terms, and just trading off various pros and cons: you might find a helmet that offers more resistance to piercing damage, but is more vulnerable to bludgeoning; or a heavy metal cuirass that has higher physical defense stats, but weighs more and will prevent you from effectively dodging during combat. Weapons may have a special ability, but any given weapon can only have a single ability. So really, as you play the game and acquire more gear, you aren't replacing old bad gear with new good gear: instead you're just acquiring a broader arsenal of available gear. For a min-maxing player, this may mean swapping out your loadout before a challenging encounter: heavy poison defenses if you're facing a poisonous boss, or switching to lighter armor if you need to be more mobile. For most players including me, you'll occasionally replace a piece in your loadout with something that better matches your preferred playstyle, but overall not sweat it much.
You can also upgrade your equipment in the game, mostly by spending Smithing Stones to increase their level. Again, this is a way to keep equipment pretty equivalent. I'm currently wielding a Meteorite Staff, which is noticeably more powerful than my starter Astrologer's Staff. But the Meteorite Staff can't take any upgrades. From my understanding, by the end of the game a fuller upgraded starter Astrologer's Staff with an appropriate Ash of War applied could be at least as powerful as the Meteorite Staff.
I spent a little time online trying to find the best armor for a Sorcerer, only to learn that it doesn't really matter. Unlike most RPGs, armor isn't all that important in Elden Ring: there's a difference between having a light encumbrance and a heavy one, but armor doesn't carry enchantments or give stat boosts, so Talismans and Weapons (including Shields) are a lot more important. Which, again, I think is great. Another common annoyance I have in modern RPGs is sorting through an inventory, checking the stats and abilities on every piece of armor I've looted, and deciding what to wear, what to keep and what to sell. I pretty much never do this in Elden Ring.
Let's see, I think that's all I wanted to write about in this first post! It's a beautiful game, often oddly relaxing to play at times, wandering through the world and seeing the sights, interspersed with challenging boss fights that, at their best, feel more like puzzles to solve than quick-button-mashing fests. I know it's a big game and I'm not sure if I'll maintain this enthusiasm through the whole journey, but at least so far it's been very compelling.