Elden Ring - title

I always considered the first Dark Souls to be an "open world" game in all the ways that matter. The world is interconnected, coherent, and surprisingly functional. Almost every location in the game is walkable from almost any other location, and every distant landmark is an actual place that you can go, which usually has a big, scary monster waiting to show you the "YOU DIED" screen for the thousandth time.

As such, I didn't really expect that a transition to an actual open world would in Elden Ring would really make all that much difference -- either positive or negative. Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro already felt open and exploratory despite being a series of linear corridor crawls cleverly interconnected into a tight helix. So I didn't expect Elden Ring to really feel all that much more open or exploratory. Further, all of From Software's games are also designed from the ground-up with a play-at-your-own pace paradigm of story delivery -- in that From's games are more about doling out "lore" in piecemeal rather than about a linear narrative with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end. So I wasn't terribly worried that a transition to an open world structure would break any narrative flow or the sense of stakes for the character, as it does in so many other open world games.

From Soft's brand of player-driven lore discovery is well-suited to an open world format.

What I didn't expect though, is how the open world would dramatically improve both the accessibility and the challenge of the game.

Elevating the genre

Having transitioned to a more traditional open world design, Elden Ring does suffer from some of the same problems that plague the sub-genre. Assets, enemies, bosses, traps, and so forth are all re-used throughout the map, and many of the dungeons look like they were pulled straight out of Bloodborne's Chalice Dungeon generator. Each region of the map will assuredly have at least one mine tunnel full of upgrade stones. It will have at least one crypt dungeon (usually with a Burial Tree Watchdog boss that looks like a cat statue). It will have at least one set of ruins with a boss waiting in the basement. And they'll all have a minor Erdtree with an Erdtree Avatar (or similar) boss.

That being said, I haven't come across any of these dungeons that feels to me like it was just haphazardly thrown together. Each dungeon has its enemies, traps, and setpieces thoughtfully arranged to test various gameplay skills and the player's power of observation and thoroughness of exploration. Each one also has a unique piece of loot offered as a reward for defeating it -- usually a weapon, talisman, or spirit ash. Unlike, say, Skyrim, which just rewards all of its dungeons with disposable weapon or piece of armor that is level-scaled and arbitrarily magical, each dungeon in Elden Ring rewards a unique item that conveys a piece of lore. Early in the game, almost all of this loot is something that will be useful to most builds, which really helps to encourage the player to continue exploring these mini-dungeons. And later, even if the item isn't useful for a build, it might still reveal valuable lore.

Bosses are frequently re-used, but none of the dungeons feels haphazardly thrown together.

The sheer volume of places to go and things to do might seem overwhelming, but it's also a huge boon to new or struggling players. They have plenty of options for alternative challenges to try, which vary in difficulty. Getting stuck on the main quest path, or in a particularly nasty optional dungeon is easily alleviated by simply wandering off in another direction -- any other direction -- and trying something new that might be a bit easier to conquer, or which might provide loot that is useful in the places where you are struggling. Or you can just wander around the overworld and grind.

A lot of these dungeons can also start to feel tedious and unnecessary. I can go through entire dungeons, beat a boss, and still not have acquired enough runes to gain a single character level. On the one hand, this is frustrating, and some of these dungeons feel like a waste of time for a mid-to-high-level character. On the other hand, the increased desire to hold onto these runes means I'm more inclined to run away from a fight that I'm not equipped to handle, which forces me to engage more with that open world by trying to find another boss or another dungeon that is more my level, rather than continuously bash my head against the same boss wall over and over again.

If you get stuck on a boss, explore somewhere else.

Players are much more free to follow your own path through the game. In fact, From included plenty of opportunities for sequence-breaking for particularly inquisitive and observant players. Dungeons and bosses that seem like a mandatory bottleneck for progress can sometimes be skipped entirely. And honestly, it's not even all that hard to find these bypasses, since they are often out in plain view for anybody who bothers to deviate off the main path at all.

And this process of exploration really does provide a sense of genuine discovery in ways that most other open world games fail to deliver. The full scope of the map is hidden to the player at the start, so reaching the crest of a hill and finding an entire continent that wasn't on your map a moment ago is genuinely surprising and awe-inspiring. The fact that every notable point of interest is not immediately marked by climbing a tower or finding a checkpoint really facilitates a sense of exploration and adventure. It really feels like there's always going to be something new and interesting over every hill, around every corner, and within every dungeon.

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Now that Dark Souls is supposedly over (pending the inevitable DLC for Dark Souls III), it's time to wonder what new games From Software and Hidetaka Miyazaki might decide to make. Will they continue to make Souls-like games (ala Bloodborne)? Will they go back to older IPs like Armored Core or King's Field? All indications seem to point towards the company going back towards making mech games along the lines of Armored Core (though it may be a new IP).

I've played some of the Armored Core games, and I actually really liked some of the PS1 / PS2 - era games. But I would actually much rather see the company try their hand at something different. I'd like to see this company (under Miyazaki's direction) take a stab at a genuine horror game.

Hidetaka Miyazaki
Miyazaki has said that Dark Souls is likely over. So what's next for his company?

They've already played around with some horror concepts in some of the Souls games. Levels like the Tower of Latria and Valley of Defilement in Demon's Souls had genuinely frightening atmospheres. The Dark Souls games also had their share of some horror-inspired levels. Sen's Fotress and Tomb of the Giants have the pacing of a horror level. And of course, Bloodborne was a whole game inspired by Gothic horror and Lovecraft.

Granted, these games were all hack-and-slash action games, rather than genuine horror games, but ...

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Skyrim DLC

In my Skyrim review, I pretty much only considered the base game content. But the game does include three paid DLC packs that are fairly hit-or-miss. Instead of making my original review longer and more complicated (it's already long enough), I'll lump all the DLC reviews into this one post.

As a reminder, I am playing the PS3 version of the game, so my review applies specifically to the console version. Many (if not all) of my complaints can probably be relieved on the PC by mods. Sadly, I do not have access to mods...

Table of contents

  1. Hearthfire adds more meaningless time-sinks
  2. Stupid vampires create genuine motivation in Dawnguard
  3. Dragonborn hides worthwhile rewards behind an unmotivated adventure and horde of glitches
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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - title

Skyrim is one of the biggest names of this console generation. It's already earned the status of "classic" in some circles. It's over three years old now, and I've been playing it (and its DLC) on my PS3 off and on for much of that time. I've been wanting to write a review, but I just never felt that I had progressed far enough into the game to have a full idea of its overall quality. Considering how long the game's been out, and how successful it's been both critically and commercially, this is more of a retrospective than a true review, since I'm not going to influence anybody's purchase decision. All I can do at this point is talk about what I think he game did right, and what it did wrong, so that future games can hopefully improve on the formula.

After years of playing, I've finally made enough progress with various characters to feel comfortable writing a review. With the recent rumors that Fallout 4 may reuse Skyrim's engine, I feel that this review actually has some relevance still.

The game also includes DLC, which I have reviewed separately in a another post.

The engine finally works! … Mostly …

It seems like Bethesda’s open-world game engine is finally maturing. It’s still a little rough around the edges and has its fair share of bugs and glitches (particularly pertaining to companion characters and home customization), but I was amazed when I realized that, for the first time with a Bethesda RPG, I had been playing the game for weeks without needing to consult the online wiki to find a work-around for a glitch that rendered any characters missing, quests inaccessible, or items missing! With Oblivion and the two Fallout games, it didn’t take more than a few hours of gameplay to start running into such glitches.

Skyrim - world size
The large, open world is finally stable enough to be more fun than frustrating.

My roommate actually had a game-breaking glitch that prevented him from saving after the initial character creation (including auto-saves), so he lost a whole Saturday afternoon’s worth of progress and had to restart the game. That one was a doozy, and admittedly the worst bug that I've experienced so far in any Bethesda game! But these problems have been the exception rather than the norm.

So that’s one big check mark in Skyrim’s favor compared to previous Bethesda games!

Removing level-scaling makes leveling a reward rather than a punishment

Believe it or not, it wasn't the frequency of glitches that deterred me from finishing Oblivion; it was the level-scaling system. On paper it seemed like a good idea. Leveling up the enemies, quests, and loot so that the game is consistently challenging and rewards are consistently worthwhile sure sounded like a good idea!

Oblivion - overleveled bandits
Oblivion's level-scaling resulted in a world overrun by trolls, glass-armored bandits, and Daedra.

But in practice, it turned out to be completely ruinous. Leveling felt more like a punishment than a reward, as everything in the world also became progressively harder. This issue was compounded by the poor balance between different classes. If you weren't leveling your combat skills, and had created a class built around - say - Mercantile, Athletics, and Acrobatics then you could easily over-level early in the game simply by walking around and talking to NPCs, only to get slaughtered in the first Oblivion gate because the enemies were stronger than you and you couldn't talk your way out of the fight.

Skyrim fortunately, does not retain Oblivion's strict level-scaling feature.

Some quests, enemies, and loot are scaled, but most things are not (or they're only slightly scaled). Now, bandits are always just bandits, overpowering enemies start the game overpowered, and the world does not suddenly become exclusively populated by trolls and Daedra halfway through the game. "Dungeon bosses" do seem to scale with the character’s level. As you start going up in levels, you’ll start to notice that the grunts in the dungeons are trivial to fight and leave worthless loot. You’ll actually feel like all that leveling has paid off! Then you get to the "boss" at the end of the dungeon and might get your ass handed to you and have to reload several times.

Hard areas should be hard, and easy areas should be easy. It's just mildly annoying that this game gives you no indication which it’s going to be until you’re already a mile underground, and the difficulty varies wildly - even within a single dungeon crawl.

Skyrim - bandits
Most ambient encounters aren't scaled to the player's level, so bandits always remain just bandits.

Removing the class skills frees up the player to develop whatever skills he or she needs without the compulsion to micro-manage leveling class skills versus non-class skills. Character development feels much more natural and organic, and you can change your specialization at any time if circumstances change ...

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Bloodborne title

Well, it's finally time for me to buy a PS4. I avoided it for a year and a half because there weren't any games that I cared to play that weren't also available on PC or PS3. But, since Bloodborne is a PS4 exclusive, and I'm a huge Demon's Souls and Dark Souls fan, I had to cave and buy the new console in order to play this game. Luckily for me, this game is good enough to be a console-seller, and I don't regret my purchase one bit!

Bloodborne - praise the moon
Bloodborne is finally here! Praise the moon!

Soaking yourself in the blood of your prey

Mechanically, Bloodborne does not deviate significantly from its Souls predecessors. Most of the controls are the same, and the game was immediately comfortable for me, being that I'm an experienced Souls player.

But the way that the game is played deviates significantly from the previous games - much moreso than Dark Souls deviated from Demon's Souls. The three Souls games strongly favored defensive gameplay tactics and a more cautious, patient style of combat. Dark Souls II tried to encourage faster, more aggressive gameplay by further developing two-handed melee combat, but that only applied to specific character builds and was only moderately effective. Bloodborne enforces an aggressive model as practically the only viable one.

Bloodborne removes the comfort and security of a shield and replaces it with a steampunk gun. The gun's range is limited by the ability to acquire a target lock-on, and there's no manual aim that I'm aware of, so you can't sit back and snipe enemies from a safe distance. Some of the functionality of the shield does carry-over to the gun though. For example, shooting an enemy as they attempt to attack you will stun them, and you can follow-up the "parry" with a critical "visceral attack". But since this is a gun and not a shield, you can perform this parry at range, which opens up some new tactical possibilities.

Bloodborne - rifle spear hunter
Bloodborne adds guns to the familiar Demon/Dark Souls formula, but still encourages aggressive, in-your-face combat.

And since you don't have a shield, you're going to take a lot more direct hits than you would in the previous games. In order to offset this, you can regain some of your lost HP by attacking an opponent immediately after taking damage and infusing yourself with their blood. Literally. There is a lot of blood in this game, and it will stick to your character and soak you from head to toe if you survive long enough.

These features strongly encourage more active and technical play, since you're more likely to survive by counter-attacking than by running away and hiding. You can't get away with just holding up your shield and tanking through levels with the basic 3 or 4-hit sword combos. You need to learn the more advanced maneuvers and techniques that the game offers, and you need to use them. This keeps the player in the thick of the action and the pace of the game on overdrive. It also adds a lot of apprehension, since you can't run around the level with a shield up in case an enemy jumps out at you. You constantly feel exposed and vulnerable. These changes don't necessarily make the game "better" than the Souls games, but they do encourage and reward better play. Both models are valid and fun, but Bloodborne does get the adrenaline pumping in ways that Dark Souls just couldn't [outside of PvP]. In fact, after playing Bloodborne, you may go back to Dark Souls (or Demon's Souls) and find that you're suddenly better at those games too!

Devil May Cry
Similarities to Devil May Cry abound.

In fact, Bloodborne's combination of guns, swords, trenchcoats, gothic horror, and brutal difficulty remind me a lot of the first and third Devil May Cry. While Devil May Cry encouraged melee combat by rewarding "style" points that converted directly to currency to pay for character upgrades, Bloodborne forces you into melee by making it a way to keep yourself alive! So it's more fundamental. It's doesn't get quite as fast and fantastical as Devil May Cry because the character doesn't have all of Dante's powers, and you have to deal with ammo restrictions. You can only carry a finite amount of bullets, so you can't go over-the-top with your gun or stay too far away from the action...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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