Under a butter-yellow sky, high up on the Altus Plain, driving my horse at full gallop, I spied a group of peasant women dancing. They hopped between feet, as if on scorching ground, twirling in unison beneath the sails of a neglected windmill. It is a mesmerising scene – one of hundreds you will happen upon while exploring the relentlessly beautiful, relentlessly hostile expanse of Elden Ring’s fantasy world, the Lands Between – but its rustic appeal is not to be trusted. I learned that lesson several hours earlier, when I caught the strains of a melancholic song carried by the wind. I rode toward the sound, hoping to meet someone who might offer support in my journey. The singer, however, was no friendly merchant or cooperative knight, but a grotesque siren, with beating leather wings and foot-long claws. The song was a ploy, and I was the prey.
The dangers posed by director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s games have been notorious since 2009’s Demon’s Souls: these are challenging works, filled with eldritch monsters, where even apparent allies are not to be fully trusted. Every danger must, eventually, be confronted. But Elden Ring differs from its predecessors in its expanse: every hillcrest represents a fresh opportunity. If one path seems too foreboding, one dragon too fearsome, one group of cackling dancers too disconcerting, you can simply ride off in another direction. The rhythms of struggle, setback, perseverance and, finally, triumph familiar to any player of Miyazaki’s work are present here, and exquisitely refined. But the frustrations have been eased; there is always another alluring path wending into the horizon, another cave entrance hidden in the bushes, another mineshaft down to a subterranean cathedral city.
This is an ancient world. Old battles have left scars on the earth: toppled statues, rotting fortifications, charred ground where the grass is yet to regrow. Game of Thrones’s creator George RR Martin provided Elden Ring’s history, a narrative foundation on which Miyazaki and his team have carefully built. But don’t expect House Lannister-style intrigue; this is not a story game in any traditional sense. There are no tedious cinematics to endure. Any character you meet who wants to talk, rather than fight, will offer only fragments of clues about the world and your purpose within it. What is clear, however, is that Elden Ring wants you dead or banished, and you must scavenge whatever resources and alliances you can to resist extinction.
Newcomers have much to learn, but Elden Ring is a more welcoming game than its predecessors. While there are hundreds of different weapons to find and forge, even your chosen character’s starting arsenal, once improved by the relevant blacksmith, will remain workable for dozens of hours. Provided you’ve wooed them correctly, friendly characters or other players can be summoned to provide support during the most challenging battles with the game’s hellish monstrosities, and it’s now possible to conjure a variety of spectral warriors to provide additional backup. As in Miyazaki’s previous games, you are never entirely alone in Elden Ring. The ghostly outlines of other players occasionally flicker on-screen as you roam its world. Later, hostile players may enter to hunt you – and others can be summoned to your defence.
Combat in Elden Ring is unmatched by any other game, with a sense of heft and precision that rewards patience and learning, whether battling with weapons or spells. You can fight on the ground or, if you prefer, on horseback, galloping around a foe before retreating to a safe distance. Your steed, Torrent, is a revelatory introduction, clambering sheer rockfaces like a mountain goat, enabling thrilling getaways with his pace and nimbleness. It is possible to gallop across a misted lake, wake and draw a dragon from the mouth of the cave it guards, then dip inside, loot the treasure from horseback, and make your escape.
Miyazaki and his team prize secrets, and opening up the world has multiplied the possibility for riddles, conundrums and treasure hunts. There is a deep sense of wonder and excitement whenever you happen upon a cave mouth on some out-of-the-way shoreline that leads to a warren of trinkets – and the ghostly graffiti that other players can leave to point others toward these points of interest has never been more useful. Miyazaki’s worlds have always felt like elegant contraptions, with secret passages and delicious shortcuts that provide “ah-ha” moments as the architectural logic is revealed. That sense of watchmaker’s vision is only heightened by Elden Ring’s expanded scale, and minute details (the skeletons who, once reformed from a pile of bones, tap their heads down into place) ensure Elden Ring delights from every angle.
It is not an accomplishment in itself for a game to be large, or long. An algorithm could theoretically toss off a virtual universe, and another could fill it with busywork. It is inane to equate scale with value and enrichment. Elden Ring’s hills, valleys, mountaintop settlements and underground palaces offer something far rarer: true texture, variety, and long-term intrigue. This is a massive world, astonishingly rendered (the sun and moon wheel in the sky, casting each scene anew) and seemingly limitless in its creative diversity. It is an unrivalled feat of design and inventiveness. For Miyazaki, Elden Ring represents the actualisation of a vision he and his team have refined for more than a decade. Technology has finally provided the power to meet their expansive imaginations.
Video games can be all kinds of different things, representing all manner of artistic ambitions. Most, however, share a common goal: to conjure a compelling fictional reality, filled with beckoning mysteries, enchanting secrets, and enriching opportunities to compete and collaborate. They aim to provide a liminal space in which a determined player can fix that which is broken, order that which is chaotic. By this definition, at least, Elden Ring is the finest video game yet made. Its final gift is the assurance that, whatever monsters lurk in a broken world, with perseverance and cooperation, they too can be overcome – all without losing the mystery and wonder that makes our existence beguiling, infuriating, and fascinating.