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Elden Ring hands-on preview: From Software’s magnum opus?

Andy White
16 Dec 2021

Warning: This article includes spoilers for FromSoftware’s upcoming open-world action RPG, Elden Ring

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Elden Ring is one of the most eagerly anticipated video games of 2022, and for good reason. Since the release of Demon’s Souls on PlayStation 3 in 2009, Japanese developer FromSoftware has rarely put a foot wrong. The studio’s most acclaimed work - Dark Souls - spawned the “Souls-like” sub-genre and has seen two successful sequels, while Bloodborne and Sekiro are right up there with the best games of the previous console generation.

Its latest undertaking is its biggest yet, both in terms of scope and the hype surrounding it. Elden Ring is the first From game to feature an open-world setting and that world was created with the assistance of none other than George R.R. Martin, the writer of the A Story of Ice and Fire novels upon which Game of Thrones was based.

Having spent 15 hours with Elden Ring as part of November’s closed network test, I can say without hesitation that it’s shaping up to be FromSoft’s most complete game to date. It’s the culmination of a decade’s work and a masterful piecing together of the best bits from From’s previous games.

But despite feeling reassuringly familiar, Elden Ring keeps things fresh by introducing some engaging new elements and making smart tweaks to older mechanics. After exploring pretty much everything the network test had to offer, it’s hard to imagine any game being able to satisfactorily fill the agonising wait until Elden Ring releases on 25 February, 2022.

Elden Ring hands-on: Closed network test conditions

Such is the interest surrounding Elden Ring, gaining entry to the closed network test (CNT) proved extremely difficult, with places limited to 50,000 per region. I didn’t manage to secure a code in the Bandai Namco ballot but, as it has done on numerous occasions in the past, the Souls community came up trumps.

After commenting on a Reddit thread about spare test codes, I was contacted by a benevolent community member, who provided me with a code for the PS5 version. It’s thanks to him that I’m able to bring you my impressions of the game after five three-hour play sessions, two of which kicked off at 3am UK time.

The test took place in what I assume is the opening area of Elden Ring and there were five classes to select from: Warrior, Bloody Wolf, Prophet, Enchanted Knight and Champion. Each started at level five but with stats and equipment superior to those we’ll see from the ten starting classes at launch. Progress across the testing sessions carried over, providing an opportunity to try out a few different builds and play through the content in different ways.

My initial run was as the sorcery-wielding Enchanted Knight and it took me roughly seven-and-a-half hours to see the majority of the content on offer. The rest of my time was split between the faith-based Prophet and tanky Bloody Wolf. All three felt unique and fun to play, which is great news for those like me that play through From games multiple times with multiple characters.

Rather than provide a blow-by-blow account of each testing session, this hands-on preview breaks down my experience of key aspects of the game. Where relevant, I’ve also included information and insight gathered from prominent members of the Souls community.

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Elden Ring hands-on: Basic mechanics

The network test began in true FromSoft fashion with a very easy-to-miss tutorial area. Many of the basic mechanics and controls remain unchanged from previous Souls games but there are a few notable differences and this entirely optional zone did a good job alerting me to them.

Historically, the default action button in Souls games on PlayStation has been X but this time around actions such as opening doors, reading messages and picking up items are mapped to triangle, with X executing a jump as it did in Sekiro. Both light and heavy attacks can be initiated while jumping, adding a new, dynamic aspect to combat. Jumping also adds verticality to exploration, which feels appropriate given Elden Ring’s lofty open-world ambitions.

Sekiro’s stealth gameplay also makes a return. Toggling L3 causes your character to crouch down, making them harder to detect by enemies and able to hide in long grass. It’s far from a fully fledged stealth system but is an effective way of taking advantage of enemies' often wonky AI to creep behind them for a backstab.

For those taking a more direct approach, From has added a new guard counter mechanic. After blocking an attack, players have a generous window within which to hit R2 and perform this potent new technique. It’s highly damaging if successful and weaker enemies that survive it will have their stance broken, putting them into a ripostable state. Stronger enemies aren’t quite as easy to stance break but I found a combination of jump attacks and guard counters generally did the trick. Stance breaking seems to be tied to a hidden meter similar to that of the Posture bar in Sekiro.

On the whole, controls feel intuitive, with one notable exception. To two-hand a weapon, you’re required to hold triangle and press R1 or L1 depending on whether you wish to two-hand the weapon in your left or right hand. I got used to this after a while, but it’s a design decision that causes problems when in the vicinity of messages or summon signs. As interacting with those messages and signs is mapped to triangle, I found myself accidentally reading them while trying to switch between one- and two-handed stances.

That issue aside, the controls will feel very familiar to those that have played previous From games. Shoulder buttons are used for blocking and attacking, the circle button governs running and rolling and the square button uses items. You can also set item shortcuts that can be accessed by holding triangle and hitting a direction on the d-pad. This is particularly useful for things like summoning signs and the whistle for hailing your steed, about whom there will be more later.

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Elden Ring hands-on: Setting, graphics and performance

Elden Ring takes place in the “Lands Between”. Once you’ve skipped or completed the Cave of Knowledge tutorial area, the grand scale of the game reveals itself. The network test only featured a portion (people have estimated anywhere between five and 15%) of the game world but there was a lot of ground to cover and a tonne to explore - this is going to be a BIG game.

Upon opening the door out of the cave, you’re met with a sprawling vista that extends as far as the eye can see. If I had any doubts about From’s ability to create a visually appealing open-world setting, they were immediately allayed. There was a pleasing variety to the locales, with forests, sandy beaches, a windswept graveyard, a large lake and military encampment just a few of the areas to explore.

Graphics have never been central to the Souls experience but I have very few complaints about how Elden Ring looks. The colour palette of the overworld is vibrant and, despite being a game made to run on both last and current-gen hardware, Elden Ring looks great.

There’s a fair bit of environmental pop-in in the open world but the lighting and weather effects are impressive, there’s a wonderful contrast between indoor and outdoor areas and character models, armours and weapons all look suitably convincing. Clipping is still an issue with certain armours and weapons equipped, which always bugs the Souls fashionista in me - but it’s something I can live with.

The legacy dungeon at the heart of the test - Stormveil Castle - was exceptionally detailed and foreboding, a real statement of From’s intent with regards to the sections of the game that are key to story progression. But even if you’re not following the main story beat, each area has something of interest, be it animals to slay for crafting materials - a first for the series - enemies protecting precious items or an entrance to one of the numerous side dungeons. The world feels alive, encouraging and rewarding exploration in a way only a handful of open-world games manage to do successfully.

This is aided by a day/night cycle that affects which enemies appear in certain areas. I only came across one instance of it - a black knight that would only spawn on a specific bridge at night - but this feature opens up a whole host of intriguing possibilities.

As far as performance goes, there were some notable framerate drops, particularly during my first play session. At one point, playing through the Cave of Discovery was like watching a slideshow that ended in me getting booted out of the game. I imagine this was as a result of the initial stress placed upon the server by a sudden deluge of players, as it proved an isolated incident.

I did experience the framerate dropping well below 60fps on a number of other occasions, however. This typically occurred in open-world sections when the game engine was processing combat and environmental effects simultaneously. This didn’t happen frequently enough to be a significant issue but my fingers are crossed that From can ensure a consistent 60fps at launch as this makes for a far smooth Souls experience.

I also suffered a couple of crashes during my time with the game: once while resting at a Site of Lost Grace (this game’s bonfire equivalent) and once while traversing the open world. On another occasion, I had to quit the game via the PlayStation menu after getting stuck in an infinite loading screen while attempting to fast travel just as I got called into an invasion.

It’s impossible to say what caused these crashes but they’re exactly the sort of thing network tests are designed to catch, so any such issues should be ironed out ahead of release. On a brighter note, loading screens are practically non-existent - they’re only present when fast travelling or after death, and even then, they’re mercifully brief.

Elden Ring hands-on: Exploration and navigation

There are three main ways of navigating the world of Elden Ring: on foot, on horseback and via fast travel. Stamina doesn’t drain when sprinting in the open world, which is a nice quality of life touch, but for the most time-efficient exploration, you’re going to want to use your spirit steed, Torrent.

In the CNT you gain access to Torrent after resting at a third main Site of Lost Grace. It can double jump and also possesses the ability to use jump platforms that boost you high into the air. Both techniques enable you to reach previously inaccessible areas or take shortcuts back to elevated terrain. If the network test is anything to go by, they’re going to be key to seeing everything Elden Ring has to offer.

You can summon Torrent at any point in the open world (and even collect items while on horseback) but it cannot be used in dungeons. You’re also blocked from summoning your steed during multiplayer, which is a sensible move on From’s part. The idea of mounted multiplayer combat is certainly appealing but having four players on horseback at once would likely be too much for the game engine to handle. You’d also likely end up with frustrating chases back and forth across the map as players indefinitely ran from invaders.

To fast travel to specific points on the map, you need to have activated their corresponding Site of Lost Grace. These are your main checkpoints in Elden Ring and you’ll find them dotted around the overworld but also at the entrance to every dungeon you come across. They’re the hub at which you can level up your character, store items, equip spells and Ashes of War, distribute your healing flasks and more.

Sites of Lost Grace aren’t your only checkpoints, however. Stakes of Marika serve as halfway houses that can’t be fast travelled to but can be respawned at when you die. A common complaint about Souls games is that running back to bosses and certain areas feels too punishing and these stakes provide a neat solution to this. You’re prompted to choose between respawning at the last Stake or Site of Grace you visited upon death, which can save a lot of backtracking.

While points of interest appear on your in-game map when discovered, you have to find map fragments to reveal the full extent of the area you’re currently in. A single, relatively easy to find fragment unveiled the entirety of the CNT map but I doubt things will be quite as straightforward in the full release.

To aid your navigation, you can add beacons to your map, which then appear in the world and make exploring a pretty painless experience. To make advancing the story slightly more straightforward, Sites of Grace linked to progression emit a trail of light leading in the direction of the “critical path” i.e. your next story objective.

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Elden Ring hands-on: Difficulty

Those user-friendly inclusions are somewhat contrary to the intentional obscurity and challenging nature of FromSoft games but feel pragmatic given the open-world setting of Elden Ring. That said, you shouldn’t take these convenience features as a sign that From is going to go easy on us.

Difficulty has always been integral to the FromSoftware experience and, as is the case with most of its games, Elden Ring throws you into a world where cautious exploration is encouraged and where mistakes are severely punished. There’s no hand-holding, no “right” way to play and no easy mode outside of over-levelling and summoning assistance.

This hardcore approach to game design is not for everyone but I adore it and don’t want From deviating too far away from that formula with Elden Ring. With the exception of one or two bosses and a couple of tricky gauntlet sections, the network test felt a little on the easy side for someone with thousands of hours in the Soulsborne games.

I’m not overly worried about that, however, and am definitely not saying the final game will be easy. My relatively smooth progress through the network test was largely down to the tools at my disposal. Each class had beefed-up stats and access to punchy equipment right off the bat, which won’t be the case upon release, while some of the weapons and spells proved downright busted.

This made bosses at the end of some of the smaller dungeons a cakewalk, particularly when using spirit summons. I’ll talk about those in greater detail below, but in their present state, some of them are the game’s easy mode in all but name.

A couple of bosses did provide that quintessential FromSoft feeling, however. Margit the Fell Omen - the main boss of the test - gave me plenty of problems during my first playthrough, as did my early encounters with Flying Dragon Agheel.

I bested the former shortly before the first test session concluded having spent over half an hour getting to grips with his relentless attack patterns and honing my magic-focused strategy. When he eventually went down I felt that rush of exhilaration and sense of accomplishment FromSoft games excel at delivering. For my money, no developer does this aspect of gaming better than From and I’m confident they’ll deliver again.

Margit proved significantly easier on my second and third playthroughs of the content, but that’s always the way with From games. Once you know a boss’ tricks and the flow of the flight clicks, things become immeasurably easier.

Elden Ring hands-on: Bosses

Aside from Margit and Agheel, there were eight named bosses to take on, along with a couple of large, unnamed unique foes. I enjoyed the diversity in terms of design and flavour of each, though as mentioned above, most didn’t put up too much of a fight. Many felt like callbacks to previous From games, which may be a sticking point for some, but induced a sense of welcome nostalgia for me (and meant I had a decent idea of how to take them on).

The Stonedigger Troll reminded me strongly of the Last Giant from Dark Souls 2, while the Demi-Human Chiefs encounter felt reminiscent of the Skeleton Lords from the same game. The Beastman of Farum Azula gave me strong Bloodborne vibes, while Bloodhound Knight Darrawil felt like a distant cousin of Dark Souls 3’s Boreal Outrider Knights.

I’ve seen people criticising From for reusing assets from their previous games but personally, I think it’s to be expected given the scope and size of what it’s trying to achieve with Elden Ring. Given we got ten bosses in a network test, I can only imagine how many will make it into the full release version of the game and I’m super excited to see what kind of outrageous creations From has in store for us.

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Elden Ring hands-on: Enemy variety

It was a similar story in terms of basic enemy variety. The cast of hostile humanoids ranged from torch-wielding soldiers to mercenaries on horseback complete with curved greatswords and felt on par with what we’ve seen before from FromSoft. However, enemies in the open world are often found in larger groups than in previous games, making thinning the herd with ranged attacks or stealth advisable over taking a Leeroy Jenkins approach.

The list of non-humanoid creatures that call the Lands Between their home is extensive, with trolls, goblins, undead skeletons and golems just some of the adversaries I stumbled across during testing. Giant crabs and eagles with bladed talons were among the more ferocious fauna, while passive critters like sheep, owls and turtles posed no threat and unassumingly went about their business until I decided to murder them for their crafting resources.

The enemy diversity on show in a small section of the game is extremely encouraging and the different combat experiences enemy encounters offer feels broad. Each can be approached in a range of ways but most have an optimal strategy or gimmick. Undead can only be killed outright by hitting them on the ground once you’ve depleted their health bar, while giant crabs and land octopuses are most easily dealt with by using heavy attacks to stagger them before executing a critical attack.

I’ve no doubt I only saw a fraction of the enemies we’ll face off against in Elden Ring and hope that the rest of the roster is equally well thought out. I expect to see some reskins and direct callbacks to previous games pop up along the way, but From’s art direction and enemy design is some of the best in the business, so I trust Miyazaki and co to absolutely nail this element of the game.

Elden Ring hands-on: Lore and NPCs

Unsurprisingly, From gave little away about the story of Elden Ring during the CNT. There was no opening cutscene and as is the case with FromSoft games, it’s the responsibility of the player to exhaust dialogues and examine item descriptions to get the most comprehensive idea of what the heck is going on. Even then, a lot of one’s understanding will come down to personal interpretation and conjecture.

What we do know for sure is that the player takes control of a “Tarnished”, who has been exiled from the Lands Between but returns to locate the shards of the destroyed Elden Ring and reconstruct it. It’s a suitably high-fantasy plot and a scenario similar to previous From games.

NPCs play a central part in world- and lore-building and there were a few to encounter during the network test. You’re introduced to one of the more important ones - Melina - once you reach your third overland Site of Grace. She offers to play the role of your “maiden” and it’s by accepting her accord that you gain access to levelling up and the ability to summon Torrent.

Other NPCs include a couple of merchants, an outcast sorceress with ties to a magical academy, charming chap Varre, who encourages you “to go off and die in a ditch somewhere”, tricky-to-trust gatekeeper Gostoc and a demi-human monkey who is tied to a side quest that couldn’t be completed during the network test.

Finally, there’s Bloody Finger Hunter Yura, who comes to your rescue during an NPC invasion. Bloody Fingers are the name given to Elden Ring’s red phantoms and seem to be the equivalent of the Brotherhood of Blood, Darkwraiths and Vilebloods of From’s previous titles.

Deep diving into lore at this stage doesn’t really make much sense but suffice to say, there’s going to be lots to sink your teeth into. Given what director Hidetaka Miyazaki has said about Elden Ring, I expect the central story to be more slightly accessible and straightforward than previous From titles but with bountiful embellishing details hidden in every corner of the world.

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Elden Ring hands-on: Combat

Combat in Elden Ring most closely resembles that of Dark Souls 3 but is elevated with the addition of guard counters, horseback combat and a few techniques lifted from previous FromSoft games. There’s also been a change to how R1 attacks are handled.

Hitting R1 cycles through a short string of attacks that end with a finisher. Landing the first of these blows no longer guarantees hitting with the second, putting paid to the so-called “true combos” of previous games. The new system means players are going to have to be a bit more creative when it comes to dovetailing attacks together, which I rather like.

I’ve already talked about jumping attacks but also making a return are Dark Souls 3’s charged attacks and powerstancing, which was one of the highlights of Dark Souls 2. By equipping matching weapon types in each hand, you open up a new dual-wielding moveset and some of these felt particularly powerful. There was no additional stat requirement to dual wield in this way, which makes doing so less prohibitive than powerstancing did in Dark Souls 2.

I played around with dual-wielding using the two greatswords in the game - the Bastard Sword and Ordovis’ Greatsword - and found it immensely satisfying. The damage output was decent and the moveset was fluid. For an example of just how strong dual-wielding can be, check out this insane dual katana demolition of Margit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NgiyMuzt3c

Elden Ring hands-on: Weapons and Ashes of War

Various weapon types were available during the CNT but given that Elden Ring will apparently feature more weapons and equipment than any of From’s previous titles, what was on show was but a taster of what’s to come.

Greatswords were the only weapon class to have two options, while there was one weapon available in each of the following categories: daggers, straight swords, spears, great spears (lances), katanas, curved swords, hammers, axes, double-edged swords (twinblades) and light bows. The movesets all felt very familiar but I enjoyed trying my hand at each, with the twinblade and lance proving particularly fun to use.

I expect to see pretty much every weapon class return in the final game so prepare to wield ultra greatswords, greataxes, whips, fists, claws, crossbows and more. We may even see new weapon classes added - one of the CNT dungeon bosses wielded dual flails, which would be awesome if put in the hands of players.

Upgrading weapons in the CNT was performed using smithing stone shards at a Smithing Table. You could take your weapons up to +3 in this manner, at which point you were told you’d need to visit a blacksmith to upgrade further. This is very similar to how previous games have handled upgrading but Elden Ring adds a whole new layer of weapon customisation via its new Ashes of War system.

Each weapon comes with an innate weapon skill that can be activated by pressing L2 while two-handing it. Doing so uses Focus Points (FP), which are the equivalent of mana, thus preventing you spamming the skills indefinitely. Some weapons share skills, while unique weapons like the Dragonscale Blade katana possess a unique skill that can only be used by that weapon.

For non-unique weapons (and shields), the initial skill can be replaced by a new one by equipping Ashes of War at a Site of Grace. These are found in the world or gained by defeating certain enemies and are one of my favourite elements introduced by Elden Ring.

They can be equipped and unequipped freely, though there are a couple of caveats to bear in mind. Some Ashes of War can only be equipped on certain weapon types. For instance, the “Piercing Fang” Ash of War executes a powerful forward thrust that can’t be blocked but can only be used on large thrusting weapons. Despite this limitation, the system provides a welcome new dimension to builds, allowing you to give your weapon a cool extra move that fits your playstyle.

But that’s not all the Ashes of War can do. They also act as a way of changing the scaling and damage type of a weapon, much like infusion did in Dark Souls 3. Each Ash of War has a specific “affinity” governing which stats and damage types it affects. In the CNT we saw Standard, Keen, Quality, Lightning, Magic and Sacred.

I won’t go into each individually but to give you an example: equipping the twinblade with one of the magic Ashes of War and choosing the magic path adds magic damage and scaling with Intelligence at the cost of reduced base damage and lower strength and dexterity scaling. However, the great thing about this system is that you don’t have to go down that scaling route. If you love the particular weapon skill granted by the magic Ash of War but want to retain your weapon’s base stats, you can do so by sticking with the Standard affinity path.

The weapon skills add a really fun dimension to Elden Ring’s combat in the same way weapon arts did in Dark Souls 3. But by giving you the flexibility to swap them out, From is letting you experiment without necessarily having to switch your weapon, which is really cool. Granted, you won’t be able to use every weapon skill on your trusty longsword, but with the number you’re likely to find, there’s bound to be something that takes your fancy.

The system will hopefully mean greater build diversity but this will of course depend on how well balanced the various skills are. On the evidence of the network test, certain skills stand head and shoulders above their peers.

“Glintsword Arch” is effectively Homing Soulmass from Dark Souls and creates four small magical blades that deal great damage for a relatively small FP cost. “Barricade Shield” also proved incredibly useful, buffing your shield to improve its stability considerably, which reduces stamina consumption when blocking. It can be activated extremely quickly and costs a tiny amount of FP, making it an amazing skill to have on your shield in every situation. I’d be surprised if both skills make it into the game untouched given how potent they are.

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Elden Ring hands-on: Spells

Weapon skills and Ashes of War offer melee-focused classes a way to access ranged and magical attacks but casters aren’t short of options of their own.

Going by the content in the network test, spells now fall into one of two categories: sorceries and incantations. The former require a staff to cast and scale off the Intelligence stat, while the latter are cast using a sacred seal and scale off Faith. Certain spells will also benefit from the new Arcane stat, which also governs item discovery and some resistances, but no such spells were available in the CNT.

There were, however, seven sorceries and 11 incantations to find and you can view the full list along with descriptions of what they do here. Each took up one of the three spell slots available. It’s been confirmed that additional spell slots will be unlocked by finding consumable items in Elden Ring, rather than by levelling up the Mind stat, which increases your FP.

I was impressed by both the variety of spells on offer and how they looked when used.

Sorceries ranged from Glintstone Pebble - Elden Ring’s Soul Arrow - to Meteorite, which rained down a series of meteors from the sky in scattergun fashion and Briars of Sin, a blood magic that used HP to create an AoE around the caster, while also building up the Haemorrhage (bleeding) gauge.

Each sorcery looked unique but their efficacy varied wildly. Carian Piercer, which conjures a magic sword to impale enemies, proved an effective tool against bosses, but Magic Bubble, a projectile attack that emits a number of magic orbs, was laughably weak.

Incantations cover miracles, pyromancies and spells that have a connection to dragons. The Beast Claw miracle was probably the single most powerful attack in the network test, creating five shockwaves that fan out across the ground, doing massive damage. It will almost certainly be nerfed in the full game, as at present it costs a ridiculously low amount of FP relative to how much damage it does.

Utility miracles like Cure Poison and Heal return from previous From games but it was the new incantations that really caught the eye. The Flame of Frenzy worked rather like a fire version of A Call Beyond from Bloodborne, while the dragon-powered Greyoll’s Roar decimated anything within its radius.

In what is a significant change to the spell system used in previous Souls games, you can now charge many sorceries and incantations. By holding down the casting button, you can power up spells like Beast Claw, increasing their damage and in Beast Claw’s case, its range too. This is a gamechanger in PvP as you can delay casting to keep your opponent on their toes or catch their roll. Other spells such as Glintstone Arc seem designed to be chain-casted, with your character swishing their staff back and forth while firing off projectiles.

I’ve always been a fan of spells in From games and my first Elden Ring build will likely be a sorcery-based spellsword. At present, incantations look to have the edge in terms of power and utility but I think sorceries look a lot better. Ultimately, both will be viable - they always are - and I really can’t wait to see the full catalogue of magical options at our disposal.

Elden Ring hands-on: Spirit summons

Speaking of magical tools at our disposal, Elden Ring features a new mechanic whereby the player can hail AI entities to aid them in the form of Spirit Summons.

To use one, you need to find its corresponding Spirit-Caller’s Ash. You were able to purchase two of these from the first merchant in the CNT, with a further three found hidden in the game world. Once acquired, these Ashes are equipped into an item slot and are then used as you would use a healing flask or item. Once you’ve bought or found one you have it forever, but there are a few limitations to their use.

Summons cost FP so you won’t be able to use an expensive one if you’re a melee class that hasn’t invested in the Mind stat. They can only be used when within range of a rebirth monument (an icon on the left side of the screen indicates when this is the case) and have their own health bar. Once this is depleted, you’ll be locked out of using the summon again until you rest at a site of grace, so there’s no spamming them during boss fights. They’re also disabled during multiplayer. Despite those limitations, Spirit Summons are among the most powerful tricks a Tarnished has up its sleeve.

Need an ally to dish out solid melee damage to a tricky foe? The Northern Mercenary - a burly fighter wielding a curved greatsword - has got you covered. Want to distract a boss by sending three wolves to pester it while you charge up your heavy attacks? The Lone Wolf summon does that with aplomb. And if you’re looking for a tanky companion that can also debuff your enemy, the Spirit Jellyfish will be your new best friend. The other summons on show were less useful, with the Noble Sorcerer and pack of Wandering Nobles both lacking in terms of damage and health.

I personally love the incorporation of Spirit Summons, despite not actually using them that often. Like Ashes of War, they add a fun collecting element to the game. I will always try to get absolutely everything on my first character in From games and can’t wait to hunt down all the various summons. Finding them felt like a satisfying reward for thorough exploration, though I used them sparingly as the three stronger ones made certain encounters rather easy.

Elden Ring hands-on: Inventory and items

Elden Ring treads very familiar territory on this front, though I do want to highlight a couple of new additions to the formula, both of which feel worthwhile without being essential. First, as mentioned earlier, you can now craft items using resources gained in the world. You need a Crafting Tool to unlock the ability to do so and your list of craftable items grows as you come across cookbooks while exploring.

I didn’t feel the need to craft items during the CNT but there was a decent array of options including weapon buffs, throwables, curatives and consumables to increase damage and reduce stamina consumption. Being able to craft such items at any time is liberating as it removes the need to visit a merchant to buy essentials like arrows, but the crafting mechanic doesn’t feel forced on you. It’s there to make your life a little easier if you have the appropriate resources but can be just as easily ignored entirely.

One new item you definitely won’t want to ignore is the Flask of Wondrous Physick. This was found in a chest after beating a dungeon boss and functions as a customisable Estus flask. You require at least one Crystal Tear to use the flask but can mix two together to enjoy two different benefits simultaneously. For example, mixing the Crimson Crystal Tear and Greenspill Crystal Tear would make a flask that heals a proportion of your HP, while increasing your maximum stamina. Replace the latter Tear with the Ruptured Crystal Tear and you’ll heal yourself while causing an area of effect explosion that also damages you.

It’s another one of those smart inclusions that increases the choice you have at your fingertips. I’m hoping we get some really inventive effects in the full game and the third flask type doesn’t simply become an additional source of healing or FP recovery, though that seems likely in PvP.

Elden Ring hands-on: Multiplayer

Alongside difficulty, the Soulsborne games are perhaps best known for how they incorporate multiplayer. With the exception of Sekiro, From’s games over the past decade all feature some form of cooperative and competitive multiplayer.

Both are included in Elden Ring, with a maximum of four players able to share the game world at any one time. As was the case in Dark Souls 3, summoned or invading players have their number of HP and FP flasks halved (rounded down) so you need to distribute them smartly if you plan on doing a lot of co-op.

Overall, I felt like the framework for Elden Ring’s multiplayer had been streamlined from previous titles and I was impressed by how well thought out it seemed during my CNT experience.

Those looking to be summoned can still put down a summon sign in a specific location and there’s password matching for those that want to ensure they get spotted by a friend. But there’s also a new mechanic, which speeds up how quickly one gets summoned by randoms. By using a multiplayer-specific item - the Small Golden Effigy - you can send your summon sign to the “Summoning Pool”.

Specific pools need to be activated by visiting them first but once that’s done, using the effigy appears to send your sign to all active pools. I say appears to, as it’s currently unclear as to what limitations there are on this feature. It may be that your sign only gets sent to a certain number of pools or ones you’re within a certain radius of. Either way, it’s a nice method of securing co-op if you’re not getting any summoning action in your current location.

I was getting summoned near instantly after putting my sign down outside Margit’s boss room and I had no issues with connections when aiding others. Getting summoned via the summoning pool proved pretty swift too but trying to summon was a different matter. I’d regularly have to try numerous signs before actually getting one to work but this was purely because so many people were trying to summon.

Invasion mechanics have long been a bone of contention in the Souls community, with many feeling that having a random join your game to kill or grief you puts new players off. While I can understand this point of view, I see invasions as a core component of the games so I’m pleased they’re still present in Elden Ring.

However, the odds are very much against invaders, as only those that have a co-op partner summoned or have actively used an item to beckon invaders into their world can be invaded. This immediately hands the initiative to the host, as they’ll either have a numeric advantage or be prepared for PvP shenanigans.

Invaders have received something that helps rebalance the scales though. The Phantom Bloody Finger is a consumable that invaders receive 10 of at the start of an invasion. Using it sees your character transported to a different, seemingly random nearby location when things get spicy. You can be knocked out of the animation if you’re not careful but, timed well, it’s a real lifesaver. I can see some people getting pretty salty about invaders having this get out of jail free card but with gank squads meaning the odds are normally stacked heavily against invaders, I like its inclusion.

In terms of actual PvP combat, lances and katanas look set to be very popular in the meta at launch based on my CNT experience. The lance was particularly frustrating to fight against due to its incredible range and the katana hit very hard, while the Glintsword Arch Ash of War and Beast Claw incantation were being spammed left, right and centre. As mentioned earlier, we have no idea how accessible these weapons and techniques are in the early game but there will inevitably be twinks getting hold of OP stuff at low levels to ruin others’ days. Will I be one of those players? I couldn’t possibly say…

There are a couple of final things I wanted to touch on that play a big part in multiplayer combat. I’m currently unsure as to where we stand on poise and hyper armour. Poise had been discussed and tested by content creators that got early access to the CNT but it seemed to have been removed in the version I played. A single hit would knock me out of animations regardless of what weapon or armour I was using.

That shouldn’t be the case - wearing heavy armour should mean I can tank a hit or two without staggering - but balancing poise has always proved tricky for From. It was horrendously overpowered in the original Dark Souls, while in Dark Souls 3 it only triggers during animations with hyper armour. There'll be criticism whichever route From takes but from the content creator testing I’ve watched it looks likely the system will be more closely aligned to its implementation in Dark Souls 3.

Last but not least and a staple in Souls games are backstabs. These work fine in solo play: sneaking up behind enemies and plunging your weapon into their back for massive damage is still an optimal strategy. However, in PvP, these proved as elusive as Pure Bladestone. To actually execute one, your positioning had to be absolutely perfect and your opponent pretty much AFK.

This may be intentional on From’s part. Backstab fishing has been the metagame in Souls PvP in the past and perhaps it is eager to avoid a similar situation in Elden Ring. Pushing players to try and use a variety of attacks is certainly no bad thing but there’s no getting away from the fact that backstabs are a crucial way of punishing bad play and healing. Neutering them to the point where they simply don’t work most of the time feels rather draconian and I’m hoping From can find a happy medium ahead of launch.

Elden Ring hands-on: Final thoughts

We’re just shy of three months away from the release of Elden Ring (assuming there are no further delays) and the wait is excruciating. I look forward to every new From game with fervour but having had a taste of Elden Ring, it’s my most anticipated title from the developer yet.

I’ve seen a lot of people saying it’s just open-world Dark Souls infused with elements from Sekiro and Bloodborne, to which I say: there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. FromSoft knows what its fans want and rarely disappoints. It has its formula down to a fine art and judging by what I’ve played of Elden Ring, it manages to cram in just about everything that makes From games so great. But it also successfully adds engaging new mechanics and gives the player greater freedom than ever to approach the game in their own way.

What remains to be seen is how George RR Martin’s narrative influence manifests itself and how well the development team can balance the game while tying together the multiple moving parts of an open-world environment. If they nail that, they’ll have a masterpiece on their hands and will further cement their place as one of the best developers in the industry.

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