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The Joy of Elden Ring

I bought Elden Ring during a Steam sale after it won all the awards in 2022. Historically, I avoided Soulslike games. My gaming as an adult has leaned heavily on Easy Mode and approached games more as interactive stories than challenges of skill. But, given the noise around this game, I decided that a $40 splurge was worth the risk.

I kind of remember the first few hours being a frustrating slog, but once I had gotten my head around the controls, pacing, and the surprising number of risk levers you could use, I was hooked. I spent hours exploring Limgrave(the starting area), and then by chance found the shortcut to Liurnia(typically your second area). I explored that land far and wide until one day I went back to Limgrave and discovered I had never entered Stormveil. Somehow I had managed to unintentionally avoid the first major dungeon in the game, which was a surprise.

I kept moving forward, tackling mini bosses, delving into caves, exploring, and dying over and over again in the Royal Capital. Then after reaching Crumbling Farum Azula, I got stuck. Life elsewhere got interesting, house projects started looking enjoyable again, and gaming basically stopped.

Then this February, the trailer for the expansion was announced. I started thinking about Elden Ring again. I was worried that the loss of muscle memory and timing would make it too frustrating to return to, but then I watched the trailer. I decided I wanted to get back into things, not really because of the expansion, but mostly because it reminded me of how much fun it was to be challenged in a game.

I fired up the game and immediately took a few passes through some easier areas to get my timing back. Then, as I was thinking I was almost ready to head back to Azula, I noticed a path that I had never taken. It turns out I had ignored a whole region of the map. This highlighted two things I love about this game. One, the game world is so vast and well-designed that not only can you skip an entire dungeon, but you can also stumble upon hours of content that you just randomly missed. The second thing is that the challenges do not scale as you level up. There is pride in defeating bosses that are extremely tough, but there is also a lot of joy to be found in romping through an area you either left intentionally and come back to 20 levels later or discover further down the line than expected. It was kind of the perfect return.

Of course, the other joy is how the game reminds you to never relax. If you take lowly enemies lightly, you will die. If you challenge an enemy that is your equal, you will probably die die; in fact, it is almost inevitable you will die each time you fire up the game. And I found that surprisingly, I was ok with that.

Before I played it, the story I told myself about Elden Ring was that constantly losing would be annoying, but instead, the game is built so that even when you “die” you learn something. You learn the timing of a boss’s attack, the location of an ambush, or the fact that that hole is deeper than you anticipated. So you can come back to it and try again, armed with just enough knowledge to get just a bit further. It’s a blast and I highly recommend giving it a try.

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