Wednesday, August 02, 2023

Rest In Coffin

So, I was vaguely hoping to wrap up Elden Ring prior to Baldur's Gate III officially releasing on August 3rd. That's not happening! I probably could have done it if I just focused on the main quest, but I'm congenitally incapable of turning down side quests, and I know I haven't even opened up half of the map. So I wanted to write this post to kind of capture where I am at the moment, with the vague thought that I'll likely set this aside for several months while I quest in Faerun, before hopefully returning to the Lands Between. (That said, if there do end up being game-breaking bugs in BG3 [unlikely] or I don't dig the game [even more unlikely], I may come back to Elden Ring while BG3 gets its initial patches.)


Before spoilers, some gameplay things:

In an earlier post, I confidently wrote about how I'm intentionally boosting INT to increase damage for my sorcerer, while paying less attention to Vigor/Health, with the thinking that the best defense is to kill enemies before they can reach me. I've since done a bit more online reading about theorycrafting, and am grokking why the current recommendation is to initially prioritize leveling Vigor, with just enough in the offensive stat to allow you to wield your weapon or catalyst (staff, seal, etc.).

The reason for this comes down to how damage is calculated in the game. A given weapon does a flat amount of damage, plus an additional amount that scales based on your stat. The amount that the stat contributes varies based on the scaling level of the weapon. So, as a made-up example, a short sword might do 20 points of flat damage, plus a "B" level of scaling based on DEX. If you have 10 points of DEX, this might add an extra 5 points of damage; if you have 20 points of DEX, it might add an extra 10 points of damage, for a total of 30. As you continue through the game, you will be able to level up your weapons. This will increase the flat damage, but also the scaling amount. After several upgrades, that same short sword might now do 35 flat damage plus S scaling. That same 10 points of DEX could now give 15 more points of damage, while that same 20 points of DEX would now give 30, for a total of 65 damage.


The point is, early in the game, most of the equipment you find will have a low scaling value, so you don't get much incremental benefit by leveling up your attack stats. In contrast, the extra Health you get from Vigor is consistent throughout the whole game: leveling up Vigor from 10 to 11 will always give the same number of extra HP. Because of this, there's a benefit to front-loading your Vigor points early in the game, because you're already getting the full benefit of that investment. Offensive stat points can be spent later, shortly before you start getting those higher scaling amounts.

All that said, in my very specific case of a sorcerer who was wielding the Meteorite Staff, my build was still OK: the Meteorite staff can't be upgraded, but has "S"-level scaling for sorcery, so I was getting full benefits from the moment I found that staff. Which also helps me understand why so many online guides recommended picking it up ASAP for these types of builds!



I've also been warned that thee is a big spike late in the game, when enemies can suddenly do a lot more damage in a single hit. Having a big fat hit bar will be essential for getting through that part, and you might as well have extra health before then anyways.


Like almost every RPG, health is ultimately the single most important resource: if it gets reduced to 0, you die. This can happen in a lot of ways (fall damage, poison effects, lots of little pinpricks over time, some big swings that connect), but for most people most death will occur during boss fights. Bosses in Elden Ring are tough, resourceful, have unique mechanics and lots of health. As I've noted before, boss fights can feel a lot like puzzles, in some ways like in The Witcher 3: learning about your opponent will allow you to prepare for them, applying the best buffs ahead of time or discovering how to counter their moves in combat. Unlike The Witcher 3, where you could do that research by Witching around the enemy in advance, in Elden Ring you usually get that damage by dying a lot. I've had a lot of moments of going "Oh, OK, that guy swings his whip twice, so I can't just dodge the first and then attack, I need to dodge both before there will be a window."


Partly because of this, it can be really hard to decide when to keep attempting a boss and when to give up. IF you could pull off every move with perfect timing and perfectly read everything your foe would do, you could definitely beat him/her/it/them. If you mess up too many times, you'll fail. Having more health will let you mess up a few more times, and having more offensive power will shorten the duration of the fight and give fewer opportunities for failure. I've also had the experience many times of fighting a boss, getting them down to ~5% health before dying, then trying again another dozen times without getting them below 80%. I don't really have a hard and fast rule for when to give up... for sure if I've died a lot of haven't gotten them down, but if my frustration rises too high I may call it quits even if I've gotten close multiple times. When this happens, I just open the map and add a Skull marker to the spot. I'll come back 10-20 levels later and almost invariably stomp the floor with them.


One of the things I really love about Elden Ring is how different types of areas have different modes of play that reward different strengths. Boss fights are mostly about skill and secondarily about stats. You'll chug your Flask of Wondrous Physick, maybe chug a consumable, and join the dance, maybe using some potions during the fight. Bosses are typically at the end of long dungeons, and dungeons are a game that in my opinion is more about resource management. Particularly as a sorcerer, I have a finite amount of FP available to cast all the spells I'm going to cast between the beginning and end of the dungeon. That FP is based on my Mind, the number of Golden Seeds I've collected and how many Flasks of Cerulean Tears I allocated at the Grace. Even if I'm outplaying all of the enemies in the dungeon, if I run out of FP along the way I'll need to bail and return to the start, respawning the enemies.

To some extent, this is a little like boss fights where the next time through you'll likely do better. I might have learned that I only need a single cast to take down a particular enemy, so I won't spam my spell and waste FP. I may have already picked up a collectible down one branch, so on my next run I can skip that branch and the enemies inside it, saving my resource for the main branch and the boss. But in some cases I just realize that I need to go explore elsewhere, level up and get more Seeds so I can have the resources I need to finish the dungeon.


There's also the Overworld portion. The thing that's unique about this is that defeating groups of enemies will grant you recharges of spent Flasks. This leads to a more open-ended, wandering feel to things: unlike a dungeon, which has a tight beginning with you at full health and resources, and a tight end where you're bloodied and exhausted but victorious (or just bloodied and dead), in the open world you're typically near, but not at, full Health and FP, and have several, but not necessarily all, of your Flasks. What's kind of fun is that you can just keep wandering indefinitely, without needing to visit Sites of Grace - in fact, I often prefer to avoid them, to keep the map depopulated. Overall the Overworld is much easier than the rest of the game, and I think it's nice to have a rhythm which makes the tense parts feel more tense.



Monsters in the overworld tend not to be too worrisome. There aren't any yellow-fog gates, and everything is out in the open, so if you do get into trouble you can typically just GTFO on Torrent's back; you can even escape boss fights this way. The big concerns here are fall damage and, to a lesser extent, status effects. Scarlet Rot is really nasty in the early game but can be easily avoided by staying on horseback; stay out of fights to avoid getting knocked off! Death Blight can kill you in a few seconds, so move quickly to get out of it. Actually, in general, "run away" is a good all-purpose response to bad things happening in the overworld.

Scarlet Rot is just about my least favorite thing in the game, and for quite a while I've put off doing things that involve this effect. Much like with bosses, I'd drop a marker on my map that basically means "Nope" and then move on. I recently kind of had to deal with Scarlet Rot, so I did a bit of reason on how to handle it. The main thing to do is get your Immunity as high as you can. This slows down the rate at which the Rot gauge will fill up. Once Rot does fill up, you will start taking significant DoT. For some DoT effects like Poison, you can potentially heal through it with enough Flasks of Crimson Tears; in my experience, you can't heal through Scarlet Rot, but if aren't in combat you can fast-travel to a Site of Grace to clear the effect. There's also a rare craftable and consumable item called a Preserving Bolus that helps with this, but I'm honestly not totally clear on how it works, with even online information not being very helpful: it doesn't make you immune to the effect, and may just slow down the effect and clear an instance of the effect on you; I haven't died from Scarlet Rot while using one, so I think it may keep the effect from triggering during some period of time, similar to how the Flask of Wondrous Physick buffs for a period of time.



I got to one point in the game with a ton of Scarlet Rot, and resorted to the wiki to figure out how to deal with it. My eventual strategy was:

  • Go back to a previous dungeon that I had skipped because of the Scarlet Rot in it.
  • In here, swap out all of my armor for the pieces I had with the highest Immunity. Some of these were lighter than I would normally use, but there aren't a ton of tough enemies in these areas; also, you can totally swap out equipment while in the field and not just at Sites of Grace, so it's tedious but possible to put one one set while navigating through Rot and swap it out on the other side.
  • Equipped a Talisman with a boost to Immunity and another that boosts Immunity, Focus and Robustness. (These come with normal and +1 versions that don't stack with each other, but the different types of talismans do stack.)
  • With highest possible Immunity, you usually want to run across Rot for the shortest distance to dry land. Jumping doesn't help but is OK if you need to go up. Rolling is unhelpful.
  • Once on dry land, wait for the Rot gauge to tick down. This is very tedious and my least favorite moments playing the game.
  • Repeat until you reach your destination.
  • In this particular dungeon, I was able to pick up the Mushroom set of armor, which has extremely high Immunity. It makes navigating this dungeon a lot easier, and that other area feasible.
  • In the other area, you can race forward and kill an enemy in the rot who drops a +1 version of the Immunity-boosting Talisman. It's impossible to kill him before getting Rot yourself, but you can heal through for many seconds while you grab the talisman and then fast-travel back to the Grace.
  • Once again, Run to dry land and try to change the terrain to something you can walk on!



For Spirit Ashes, I think that at the time I wrote my previous post I was mostly rocking the Jellyfish Ashes, which are pretty cool and easy to get early on: it's decently tanky, which is helpful for a ranged fighter like me. Since progressing further in the game I've gotten the amazing Greatshield Soldier Ashes. I'd read about these online, but hadn't realized that it summons five of these guys: huge defensive stats and health, they're the ultimate tanks. They are a bit weak when it comes to AOE, but overall they make battles a breeze. I've since also picked up the Mimic Tear, which duplicates your PR, and leveled it up to 10. It honestly feels a little like cheating to use that Ash so I often don't, but when I do bring it out it's pretty amazing.


In terms of my progression: in the main story, I'm no closer than the previous post, but I've now cleared most of the major content before I can progress. In particular, I've defeated four of the Shardbearers and several Legends. Radahn was a little frustrating but also one of the coolest fights in the game. With Rykard, I somehow totally missed the Grace right outside the yellow fog and got frustrated when I died, and hated the journey to that point so long that I waited well over a week before trying again. In the meantime I'd done a ton of Nokrun Eternal City and picked up the Mimic Tear, which is insanely helpful for that fight as well as being a great Spirit Ash in many other fights.



I peeked at the Wiki several times to figure out how to progress quests, but I'm trying to play as organically and naturally as possible, without spoiling anything. I had seen a few references to the Shabiri Grape maiden quest, which I discovered I had totally missed due to not seeing her hanging out at a Site of Grace just past Stormveil Castle. I think this was a spot where Boc the Seamster was hanging out, so maybe I just didn't notice her standing there. Anyways, that's a super-dark quest with some really unsettling voice-acting! Even for a game that feels dark, I'm surprised at how much darker it can get at parts. I'm also starting to have real conversations with the Loathsome Dung-Eater, and phew boy, I can tell that will be an ordeal.


I'm currently going through Ranni's quest, which I've mostly been able to do without the wiki, and Sellen's, which has needed a little wiki assistance. Ranni's in particular seems really key to the game and the plot, opening up huge new areas of play, and it's really ballsy game design to have these things be so easily missible. I have been wondering if From Soft could or would have made their games this way in the pre-Internet era; trusting that they will be big hits and communities will come together to help answer questions and document solutions probably empowers developers to make more obtuse games than they otherwise would have dared.



This is a great game, I'm loving it, and just about the only thing that could keep me from playing it is the prospect of a return to Baldur's Gate. Until next time, Tarnished.

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