Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Ring Around the Scarlet Rot

It's been a long time coming, but I've finally finished Elden Ring! I started playing back in the spring of 2023, and had gotten decently far into the game before pausing it to switch over to Baldur's Gate 3. After the holidays I picked it back up and have been enjoying getting back into it.


I wasn't sure if I would be able to get back into it, after a months-long absence. In the past when I've taken prolonged absences from, say, MMORPGs, I've hit such a powerful wall when coming back that I just give up: unable to remember my character's abilities or combat moves. And even games I loved like the original Divinity: Original Sin weren't able to recover after holidays, as the plethora of quests and mechanics of the midgame feel too overwhelming to reconstruct.


I was worried that Elden Ring would be even worse - unlike other RPGs, this is specifically an action-RPG, and requires a fair degree of reflexes and hand-eye coordination that I'd cultivated in my months of play. So I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't take a whole lot of time at all to get back into the swing of things. Part of that may be due to this being a controller-based game, which necessarily limits the number of mechanical options available, but also may tap into muscle memory better than a mouse and keyboard would. And unlike the sprawling western CRPGs I tend to play, I wasn't coming back to 30 unfinished side quests in varied states of progress scattered across multiple map zones.


Diving back into it, I realized that one of the many things I love about Elden Ring is the rhythm of play. My favorite sections might be the dungeons. You'll discover one while traveling the overworld, and either start it or mark on your map for later. You'll cautiously proceed into the dungeon, discovering what kind of creatures inhabit it and how best to fight them. You'll learn its route - some are linear, some have branches, some have pretty complex networks of passageways. You may find levers that open up shortcuts and allow you to bypass middle sections on subsequent delivings. Eventually you find a boss, fight them, maybe fight a few more times until you win, and are rewarded with some unique equipment and a large number of runes, usually enough to level up. I find that doing a full clear of a dungeon from start to finish usually takes me about 30 minutes, which is a perfect amount of time between getting home from work and starting dinner, or after a dog walk and before bed. It's just nice to finish something in a single sitting: still making progress towards your overall goals (higher levels, more power), but just checking something off as "done", without having a lot of things lingering.


That might be the key development of Elden Ring in particular, its marriage of the open world with dungeons. The open world is great for roaming around, seeing beautiful vistas, discovering things: it's (a few specific areas notwithstanding) a peaceful and relaxing vibe. The dungeons, in contrast, are meaningful, rewarding careful planning and careful play.


I also need to shout out the art direction once more. Seeing screenshots of this game (and other Dark Souls games) was a huge factor attracting me to it in the first place, and it's all the more amazing to be playing inside these enormous, awesome, weird, dark, compelling, beautiful spaces, alongside monstrous and delicately unnerving creatures. The art reminds me a lot of Brom - not the exact style, but the "dark fantasy" vibe is better realized here than in any other fantasy RPG I can remember playing.


While I loved the game, it did start to feel a little less fun (albeit more epic) as I headed into the endgame. The end is mostly a series of Legacy Dungeons - much larger than standard Dungeons, with multiple Sites of Grace (save points), they have more freedom of movement than regular dungeons but without the ease and openness of the open world. They aren't bad by any means, but I found myself missing that rhythm of doing dungeons, exploring and advancing the plot.


Let's talk about some mechanical stuff. I was pretty much a pure Sorcerer through the whole game. My staff progression was Astrologer Staff -> Meteorite Staff -> Academy Glintstone Staff -> Carian Regal Scepter. I updated the scepter to +10 by the end. As a backup melee weapon, I had a Short Sword for the first part of the game, then a Misericorde for the rest, which I also upgraded to the highest level.


Very late in the game, I started very situationally wielding a Horn Bow. This was specifically for toggling those fire/ice pillar things in certain dungeons. You usually need to time their blasts and carefully run between safe spots before getting close enough to bonk them. But you can totally just shoot an arrow at them from a distance and turn them off (or on) with no trouble at all. It might be possible to do this with spells, but I never found a good way to reliably free-aim them, and the bow works much better. I never bothered to invest the stats to wield the bow, but I'd pop on Radagon's Soreseal when I needed to equip it.

Speaking of stats: By the end of the game, I was INT 80, VIG 60, MIND 40. I think Endurance was around 33 before heading into the endgame, and around 38 by the end. DEX was 13, STR and FAI both below 10.


Earlier in the game, I focused on stat-boosting Talismans, especially Radagon and Marika's Scarseals / Soreseals. Once you get close to the caps, though, further boosts don't really help you. My end-game loadout was the Green Turtle Talisman (faster stamina recharge - I found that stamina was always a more limiting factor than FP), Bull Goat Talisman (to reach 101+ Poise), and the Graven-Mass Talisman (boosting sorcery power). For the last slot, I most often rocked the Pearldrake Talisman +2, which boosts non-physical damage negation; my armor was already pretty good at physical negation, so the talisman helped fill a gap. But I would totally swap it out for boss fights, like the Dragoncrest Shield for physical negation or the Haligdrake Talisman for holy negation.


For helms, for the first part of the game I used the best INT-boosting helm I could find, which for a long time meant the Twinsage. After I got above 70 INT, though, I swapped it out for the Pumpkin Helmet, which has much better damage reduction and poise, and also protects against headshots.


For the rest of the armor, in general I tried to wear the heaviest armor I could while still keeping a Medium roll. One exception was for gauntlets, I used the Briar ones, which inflict a small amount of damage on contact with an enemy. I wore these specifically for dealing with undead enemies: I hate hate hate the respawning mechanic, especially as a sorcery user where you have a very narrow window of time in which you can target the body before it regens. With the Briar armor, though, you can just roll through the skeleton and they'll die, which is great. Even 1 point of damage does the trick, so I just wear the gauntlets for that. For the rest of the armor, I used the Carian Knight set for much of the midgame, and Tree Sentinel for the endgame. (At a couple of points in the game where I had to wade into a disgustingly large pool of Scarlet Rot, I used the Mushroom Set for the highest Immunity.)


As a sorcerer, I mostly focused on high-damage attacks, so for Spirit Ashes I tried to get tanky summons that could distract enemies while I focused on attacking from range. Early on I used the Lone Wolf ashes, then the Jellyfish. Around the midpoint I got Greatshield Soldiers, which are amazing: even a single one would be good, as they can block a lot of damage, but you get five, which also acts as a wall to prevent your foe from moving. I used those for most fights, but when that didn't cut it I'd use my Mimic Tear, which duplicates myself but with more HP.


I didn't really use any Ashes of War in this playthrough.

I had a pretty completionist playthough of the game: I'm sure I didn't 100% it, but I did pretty much everything I could find in the game. I think there were two dungeons I nope'd out on, both of which had Chariots. I was fairly engaged in the wiki for my playthrough. I didn't follow a walkthrough for the game or anything like that, but if I got stuck on a puzzle or an encounter for long enough I didn't feel bad about looking up guidance online.


Without the wiki, I almost certainly wouldn't have discovered multiple huge optional areas in the game, like the Consecrated Snowfield and Miquella's Haligtree. I've thought a lot about how much of game design in 2024 rests on the knowledge that gamers can and will collaborate online to share and find information. Probably something like 0.5% of players would organically find their way to these areas in a blind playthrough, but since so much of the culture of gameplaying is social, many more will be able to experience them.


And, similarly, even the side-quests in this game almost require a wiki to complete them. Not even because they're especially obtuse, just because it's so easy to completely miss them: there's no giant pointing arrows or quest markers on your map, and you can easily blow past an NPC without even realizing they're there. I'm not complaining, exactly: the game is doing what it's trying to do, and as a result occupying a very unique spot in the field.


Speaking of side-quests: These ultimately unlock the main endings to the game. You can get the default ending by defeating the final boss, but options for alternate endings can be unlocked by completing certain side-quests.


I've beaten the game, and I still don't totally understand what the main plot is. I'll likely dip into a YouTube video or something now that I'm done; I've been trying to remain unspoiled while playing. In general, the story is pretty powerful due to how sparse and evocative it is. In most RPGs, you get lots of dialog and lore books that provide different perspectives on any given concept. In Elden Ring, you'll get a single brief sentence of lore, and need to extrapolate a much larger meaning from that. It's kind of deduction rather than induction, which sort of gives the feeling of a spiritual fumbling towards some greater truth, rather than an investigator chasing down the solution to a mystery.


But even though I'm likely wrong, here's my vague understanding of the plot:


This game takes place in a separate universe from ours, in a world called the Lands Between. In an earlier primordial time, life force ebbed and flowed: creatures were born, would grow and procreate and die, and the cycle would continue. The power of this cycle was incarnated in the Elden Ring. An early Elden Lord was Godfrey, who basically guided the life of the world.


Then there's the Erdtree. I'm not totally clear on the relationship of the Erdtree with the Elden Ring, but the Erdtree seems to be a sort of depository of life-force in the world. When people die, their souls are returned to the Erdtree, and then are reborn again. I think this is an in-game explanation for the game mechanics of respawning: when you die, and then respawn, you aren't rewinding time and doing things differently: you did die before, and then your soul was reborn in your body. Likewise, all the enemies respawn for the same reason: even if they died, death isn't eternal.


At some point in the past, the Shattering occurred. This caused the Elden Ring to split into multiple fragments. Each of these was fashioned into a Rune, and the owner of each Rune became a demi-god. These demigods wielded enormous power over other living creatures. However, because the Elden Ring was not intact, the cycle of life froze. The same beings would die and be reborn over and over again, instead of old things ending and new things starting.


Many of the major NPCs/bosses in the game seem to have storylines tied to the Shattering, which also causes strife and division among the extended family tied to the rulership of the world. Somewhere within there, General Radahn stopped the movement of stars in the sky, freezing some ancient power tied with the night sky. He led armies in rebellion against the lord. A woman, Malenia, created the Scarlet Rot in response, bringing Radahn's armies to ruin and his mind to madness. Various demigods sought to rule from the traditional capital of Leyndell, or rejected the old gods and followed the path of blasphemy, or retreated in sadness from the world and created bubbles of sanctuary sealed off from strife.


In theory, any person could gather all of the Great Runes and use them to reforge the Elden Ring, in the process becoming a new Elden Lord and overseeing a healthily functioning world. That's the path you're on for most of the game. As a Tarnished, you are one of the many many people seeking Great Runes.


Late in the game, you collect enough Runes where you could reforge the Ring. However, at this point you find that the way is blocked by the Erdtree. It seems that the Erdtree likes things the way that they are, with itself as kind of a chokepoint over the flow of life. This causes consternation and upheaval among the various great powers that are trying to mend the Ring, as they haven't contemplated what to do in the face of an intransigent Erdtree.


The game can go a few different ways from here. In my playthrough, my Finger Maiden, a woman named Melina, was willing to go against the letter of the law in order to uphold the spirit: the only way for life to resume is for the Erdtree, the repository of life, to die. She immolates herself as kindling to light the Erdtree on fire. After this, you fight the Beast Clergyman Guranq, later revealed to be the Black Blade Maliketh (sp), the keeper of Destined Death. Once he is defeated, Destined Death is loosed in the world, which allows the Erdtree to die, which in turn opens the way for the Elden Ring to be reforged.


The current ruler of the world is Queen Marika, though I'm not clear on whether she's actually an active ruling presence or not: you never fight her, and at the end she just appears as a hollow statue. You can mend the ring in a few different ways, which set the tenor for how the world will work going forward.


In my case, I summoned Ranni, who is an ancient being affiliated with the Dark Moon. I'm not totally clear on the chronology here, whether this predates the Erdtree or not. She accepts the power of the Elden Ring and brings the world back under the cool alignment of the moon, with you as her consort.


Favorite area: Liurnia of the Lakes


Favorite Boss (Story): Radahn


Favorite Boss (Mechanics): Mohg


Favorite NPC: Sellen. No, wait! Iron Fist Alexander!


Favorite Dungeon: Cave of the Forlorn

Favorite Legacy Dungeon: Stormveil


Favorite Merchant: War Counselor Iji. (Runner-up: Miriel Pastor of Vows)


Favorite Spell: I used Magic Glintblade by far the most, but Ranni's Dark Moon was the coolest

Favorite Crystal Tear: Opaline Hardtear

Favorite Consumable: I used Preserving Bolus the most, but they are not fun! Maybe Boiled Crab.


I feel like I ought to be writing a lot more about this game, given how much I've been playing it and how much I enjoy it... but I guess the downside of a fairly minimalist story is that I have a lot less than usual to say about it!



This is my first game in the Dark Souls vein, and while I've loved it, I'm not sure yet whether I'll try any other FromSoftware games. I do see the appeal after playing this: it is hard, but fair, and it feels immensely satisfying to overcome obstacles after repeated failure by examining your mistakes and then executing well. But I honestly don't know if I'd have the patience to go through something like that again, without the ease and visual distraction of the open world to break up more punishing sections. Still, I do feel a certain sense of achievement for Having Beaten A Souls-Like Game, and who knows, maybe I will go back for another in the future!

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