Friday, July 14, 2023

A Slightly Older, But Still Relatively Young, Ring

It's been a while since I posted about Elden Ring! I'm still playing and loving this game.



First, some general thoughts and comments on the gameplay:


This game is just fun to play. I don't feel like I'm checking off a tasklist: I'm wandering around, seeing cool sights and doing cool stuff. The open world feels really liberating in a way I haven't felt from many other games: it isn't a vast plain to slog through or an overwhelming set of icons on your world map, but it's a fertile land packed with things to explore or - just as validly and importantly - ignore as you wish.


The enemies are non-scaling. In a lot of other open-world games or large-zone-based games, there's a sort of soft limit on exploration based on the strength of the monsters you encounter. In Elden Ring, though, outside of dungeons you don't really need to worry much about enemies if you don't want to. You can kick your horse up to a trot and blast past monsters before they even realize you're there. I'm not saying that you should do this, but it's viable, and can even have advantages: for example, by finding Golden Seeds in the landscape you can increase the number of Flasks at your disposal, which in turn can make earlier dungeon content a lot easier.


There are multiple ways to advance through the game: for example, after doing a lot of the Limgrave content and getting to a decent level, you could head south to the Weeping Peninsula or north to Liurnia of the Lakes or east to Caelid. They're all pretty different, but each is a step up from Limgrave. And you could be like me and explore one region for a while, then switch to another for a bit longer.


I think that the actual difficulty for specific areas and encounters probably varies based on your build. My character is a Sorcerer, built entirely around ranged damage, so I do very well in places where I can engage enemies from far away; a melee-focused character would have a harder time in big open spaces, but do much better than me in a tight enclosed labyrinth. And I think it would be interesting to do a Faith-based build, which gives access to a lot of buffs. I think this would allow players to shrug off status effects like Poison and Scarlet Rot that are much more debilitating for me.


Early on I did some reading on optimal attribute allocations during leveling, but in practice it's turned out to be really casual. Overall I'm mostly putting points into Intelligence, some into Vigor and Mind, occasionally into Endurance and a couple of times into Dex. If I realize that my Flasks are fully filling my FP, then I'll bump up my Mind so I can fully utilize my Flask capacity. Early on I took a lot of Vigor so I could survive a couple of hits from bosses. Lately I haven't been leveling that as much; other than bosses, it's usually more effective to nuke enemies before they can reach you (enemies can't deal damage if they're dead!), so a strong Int-based offense is generally superior for my playstyle. For burst damage, Stamina runs out before FP, so Endurance is important to keep that burst high. This is especially useful for bosses: at the start of a boss fight, you often have several seconds while the boss rears up / charges in / unwinds their serpentine coils / otherwise prepares to fight, and if you can be pummeling them this entire time, you'll have a bit advantage heading into the fight.

Oh: my main spell bread-and-butter these days is "Magic Glintblade". This is a fantastic spell: when you cast it, a projectile will appear above you, pause a few seconds, and then fire off towards your enemy; it can arc slightly to follow your foe if they are moving. This has all sorts of great implications. You can cast it rapidly multiple times in succession, so by the time the first blade fires several more are ready to go. If your enemy is unaware, you can nuke them down before they entire combat (this also doesn't cost Stamina). If they are chasing you, you can line up some shots, then focus on evading, and still do damage while running away. Enemy AI will dodge when you cast the spell, not when it fires, so it's hugely helpful against agile and evasive enemies. It has a good FP-to-damage ratio. Each individual cast is pretty quick and small, so it isn't a major disappointment if a couple of shots fail to land. I use this all the time, on basically every regular monster and most bosses.

Prior to getting Magic Glintblade, I mostly used the starter spell Glintstone Pebble. This is one of the most economical spells in the game: cheap, decently fast, decently powerful, decent range, with a little bit of tracking. I almost never use it since getting the Glintblade, though.

Glintstone Stars and Star Shower can be useful against extremely mobile enemies. For the most part Magic Glintblade has replaced these in my arsenal, but these projectiles seem to have better tracking/homing qualities, so I'll switch to one if an enemy is consistently dodging my Glintblade.

Carian Slicer is situationally very useful. Unlike most of my spells, this is a close-range spell, making a magic sword that sweeps through the area right in front of me. It's a life-saver for boss fights where I can't stay at range during the fight and need to fight in close quarters. It's also useful when fighting against invisible enemies who aren't be targeted.

Rock Sling is a crucial addition. Unlike most spells, which deal Magical damage, Rock Sling deals Physical damage. There are a few specific enemies, like many of the foes inside Raya Lucaria Academy, that have very high magic resistance. You might spend almost a full bar of FP on casting Glintblades to take down a single zombie. Or just hit them with a Rock Sling. It's a bit trickier to use: the casting time is longer, and it makes large projectiles that can collide with the environment, so it's really hard to use effectively in close quarters. But, again, when facing certain enemies it's a life-saver.

Oh! Other than spells, one of the biggest things I've figured out in this game is how to use summons. Before a few select boss fights, you can sometimes see a faint glowing space on the ground, which you can activate to summon an NPC to help you in this fight. This usually requires you to have previously chatted with that NPC and/or solved a quest for them. Most of those summon opportunities are early on; as I've gotten further into the game they've become a lot more scarce.


A far more common thing, though, is summoning Spirit Ashes. You can acquire these in the world and add them as quick items, like your horse, lantern or consumables. The Spirit Ashes are not consumed, though. You can summon a Spirit whenever you see the portal icon in the center-left of your screen, which includes most boss fights and also more difficult/hectic environmental encounters. The Spirit Ash is controlled by the AI and will support you until it dies, or you leave the area, or all enemies in the area are defeated. You can upgrade your Spirit Ashes (similar to upgrading your weapons). Spirit Ashes vary a lot and can be useful in different situations. Some are better for distracting enemies and absorbing damage, others for inflicting status effects, others for directly dealing damage, others for staggering, and some can summon swarms that will keep your opponents' hands full.


Anyways, I didn't really understand Spirit Ashes or summons for my first dozen hours or so of the game, and it got a lot easier once I started using them: there's never any downside to using one, and it's worth bringing one out whenever you see the icon appear. Some fights that previously felt impossible became significantly easier once I had two or three people on my side facing off against a boss. In particular, if you get in trouble, you can focus on running away for a while; your summon(s) should continue doing damage in the meantime, and eventually the boss will pivot back to them, giving you an opportunity to recover, reorient and dive back in.


For the most part I'm playing the game unspoiled, but one thing I occasionally peek at online is side quests. There aren't a ton of actual sidequests in Elden Ring. Most of the game's side content is nicely self-contained: you'll reveal a map section, notice a cave somewhere nearby, wander over to it, go inside, have a great encounter in there, and just be done when you leave. But some NPCs have longer-spanning quests, which are a lot more vague than what I'm used to seeing in RPGs. They might request an item, which could be anywhere in the world; or as you to deliver a message to someone you've never heard of. As much as I hate the "Go here and do that" style of quest from Elder Scrolls, I do find myself wishing for some guidance in Elden Ring.


None of these are essential - these are side-quests, after all - and I'm sure lots of players will have a great time just blasting through the content. Personally, I'm afraid of missing out on stuff, particularly since sometimes a later development will kill or change or relocate an NPC, which may end the possibility of doing their quest. So, I'll periodically consult the wiki to see if I should be doing something before heading out.


I do kind of wish that there was more of an in-game reference for this sort of stuff (information like "The Tattered Man near Sellen is looking for a Golden Needle" or "Aloquia in Roundtable Hold needs to send a message to Prancis, and thinks he's near a waterfall somewhere"). I do love that there isn't an Elder Scrolls type of quest journal, but it would be nice to have something similar to the "Sites of Grace" locator that would show you where already-discovered NPCs are located. And just having a free-form in-game writeable journal would be awesome; I think some of the early Ultima games had something like that. I think a lot of Elden Ring players play with a pen and a notebook near their controller, and maybe that's something I should start doing as well, which would be more fun than periodically opening the wiki.


The story itself is interesting. I have a better sense of what this world is and what's going on, but so far the story has been much more evocative than descriptive. It doesn't feel like an epic novel; it's more like an anthology of short stories, all set in the same universe and each one interesting on its own. That's a different feel from the grand RPGs I'm used to playing, which introduce their Big Story early on and keep it in focus throughout the game, but the change in pace is nice. (And, necessary caveat: I have a lot more game to play through, and it may end up being more unified later on.)



Oh, and a general checkin on my progress so far: I've defeated two of the Shard-Bearers, Goddrick the Grafted and Rennala Queen of the Full Moon. In both cases I skipped past the boss's stronghold and did a lot of content later in the game before doubling back and defeating them later.I walked around Stormveil Castle and into Liurnia, spending a lot of time there before going back and defeating Magritte the Fell Omen. I found the Goddrick fight really difficult, then realized that I didn't have to fight him alone: I went back in with two summons and beat him on my next try.


Raya Lucaria Academy is extremely difficult for magic users, since most enemies have high Magic Resistance, so I did basically all of Liurnia of the Lakes and quite a bit of the Altus Plateau before doubling back and finishing it. I did get a lot of great gear out of it, though, including several INT-boosting helmets. And unlike Goddrick, the Remembrance I got from Rennala looks really useful, though I'll need to level up quite a bit more to have the stats to use it.


I've made it to the gates of Leyndell the Royal Capital, but I'm currently focusing on clearing the earlier areas of any unexplored dungeons, undefeated bosses or unfinished-but-finishable sidequests first. It's taking a while, but I'm having a blast doing it.



That's it for now! I think I'm taking a fairly thorough, though definitely not 100%, approach to the game. That means it's taking a while, but I'm thoroughly enjoying myself, and it's nice to overcome some of my natural deficiencies with higher levels and gear. I'm sure I'll have more to check in on later!

Monday, July 10, 2023

No (Nah)

I had the privilege of taking a whole week off of work, which among other things meant a lot of focused time for reading. I brought entirely too many books, including the absolutely massive House Of Morgan, which I may finish in 2026. Balancing that tome, though, was the incredibly fun and readable Nona the Ninth, the third entry in Tamsyn Muir's excellent series about Necromancers In Space.


It looks like I never blogged up my reaction to the second novel, and perhaps partly because of that, my memory of that book was a lot fuzzier than the first. I remembered many specific scenes and characters, but not much about how that book exactly ended, and as a result felt somewhat lost when following the new action here.


I've enjoyed all three books, but my favorite remains the first, almost purely because of Gideon's voice. Harrow and "Nona" are great and well-drawn characters, but it's tough to compete with Gideon's razor-sharp wit, sarcasm, anachronistic pop-culture references and relentless meanness. Harrow wasn't as funny, but felt really dangerous and intense. In contrast, Nona seems like a total cinnamon roll: sweet, helpful, considerate, compassionate. I can see why the people around her act so shocked at her attitude!

It felt a little constricting to step into a seemingly smaller-stakes story after dealing directly with the Necrolord Prime, the Resurrection Beasts, the River, the Saints and the other high-profile elements of the previous book. I think it works pretty well, though. Living at the smaller scale of a city wracked by fear gives a great sense of the human stakes that are impacting everyone in the galaxy. And at the same time we keep tabs on the grander story proceeding in the background. The most dramatic face of this is a series of flashbacks, between the necromancer emperor ("John") and a female companion, which lays out the origin story of the whole series.


It's a pretty cool story, and makes it clear that this story takes place in our future, not some alternate Star Wars-style universe. Things on Earth have continued getting worse and worse, to the point where the whole planet is dying and our species with it. A lot of people (and companies and governments) are debating and experimenting with various last-ditch survival strategies. The big goal is to somehow get humanity to a far-away planet that can sustain life. The problem is how to get there: the distances in space are unimaginably vast, far longer than people can live. There are some suggestions like cryo, freezing bodies for the long journey and then thawing them out; and more radical ideas, like digitizing peoples' consciousness and carrying them on hard drives or scraping a few cells onto a plate and then cloning them after arrival.

John is working on his preferred approach, and discovers by accident that he is able to animate dead bodies. He experiments with this, getting to learn more about his ability and the underlying powers of thanergy and thalergy. As amazing as this ability is, it still pales in comparison to the threat of species extinction, and he tries to find ways to put his gift to use. There's some limited progress along commercial lines, but he and his followers become supremely disenheartened when they discover that the rich and powerful people bankrolling this effort have no intention of saving all of humanity: they're building a single ark that will get themselves off the planet and leave everyone else to die behind. (Which is sort of an inversion of the Douglas Adams story of the B Ark.)

Things escalate, with John deciding that he'll get more ability to direct things for good by presenting himself as a necromatic wizard instead of some scientist, and using his powers to directly affect things. It all comes to a head when John realizes that individual peoples' souls are all connected to the soul of the Earth, and then he devours the planet's soul, making himself incredibly powerful, able to crush his enemies and bring his plan into action.

These passages were really compelling: the story itself is pretty wild and bonkers, it does a great job at filling in backstory that was only teased at before, and John himself has a pretty great voice: wry, self-deprecating, chagrined, occasionally angry.

The main story doesn't rise to those high levels, but I came to really love Hot Sauce, Honesty, the Angel, and the more domestic glimpses of Pyrrha Dve and Sextus Palamades and Camilla. The Sextus/Camilla situation in particular was interesting; again, my memory of the second book is pretty fuzzy, but I think there was a similar scenario in there of multiple memories / "souls" residing in a single body, and the first book also played around some with mistaken identities and swapping bodies. I don't want to say that this book is "about" gender necessarily, any more than Gideon the Ninth was "about" sexual orientation, but it's cool to have a book that's comfortable portraying these ideas in interesting scenarios.


This was another really fun book, a quick read but not at all ephemeral. It looks like we have at least one more entry on its way. Next time around I think I'll refresh myself with a synopsis or something before diving back in, but I am definitely going to dive in!