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How Elden Ring’s Open World Design Changes the Dark Souls Formula

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How Elden Ring’s Open World Design Changes the Dark Souls Formula

Elden Ring is a big game–there’s no denying that. From the variety of enemies and bosses, to the near-endless choice when it comes to spells and weapons, to the sheer size and scale of its open world, Elden Ring eclipses every Soulsborne game that came before it. (And it’s one that is set to grow even bigger once its long-awaited DLC finally drops.) But, in going so big, did developers FromSoftware bite off more than they could chew?

Tipped to sweep this year’s Game of the Year awards across the board, Elden Ring’s new approach has certainly gone over well with fans–as has its improved combat mechanics and deep story, penned in part by legendary fantasy writer George RR Martin–but nonetheless, in going open world, FromSoftware fundamentally changed the Dark Souls formula.

There’s a Whole World Out There

FromSoftware’s traditional cramped and narrow linear paths designed to funnel players directly into the arms of imposing bosses, and the tightly-crafted, interconnected, and looping pathways that opened up shortcuts around them still exist in Elden Ring‘s Legacy Dungeons–smaller, isolated levels, like Stormveil Castle and Raya Lucaria Academy, that play almost identically to Soulsborne games of old–but they are almost entirely absent from the open world. For the first time, players are given the freedom to choose where they would like to go and which dangers to tackle next. Once they take the lift and emerge out onto the sundrenched plains and forests of Limgrave, they are handed to reins to their own destiny (quite literally once they get their hands on Torrent). And while this equates to an unprecedented level of freedom for a Soulsborne title, it also creates a few pitfalls absent from other titles.

Image: FromSoftware Dark Souls - Legacy Dungeons like Stormveil Castle are the closest Elden Ring gets to the tight, interconnected levels of old.
Image: FromSoftware – Legacy Dungeons like Stormveil Castle are the closest Elden Ring gets to the tight, interconnected levels of old.

Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne were all profoundly linear games. Levels were designed to lead directly from one to the other, gradually increasing in difficulty as the player was drawn ever deeper into their dark and desolate worlds of despair. Yes, some levels offered branching paths or a choice of routes to reach a certain location (for example, reaching Blighttown in Dark Souls 1 can be achieved through defeating the Capra Demon and Gaping Dragon and trying not to fall to your death on rickety wooden walkways, or by using the Master Key on the gate in the Valley of the Drakes, or even through a roundabout method via Darkroot Garden) but they are few and far between, and players will always be funneled to the same place eventually. There was only ever one path to tread. Likewise, with secret and optional areas–they existed in the older titles, but there were only one or two per game to discover.

And as time wore on, the wonderful interconnectedness of these worlds–those looping paths that showed how each area fit together like a jigsaw piece–started to dwindle to the point of near nonexistence. Just compare the many twisting paths of Dark Souls 1 to the linear route the Ashen One must walk in Dark Souls 3

Enter the Lands Between–a world built to show off FromSoftware’s peerless ability to create seamlessly interconnected maps. Elden Ring’s map is staggeringly colossal, and one that just keeps growing and growing over the course of the Tarnished’s adventure. Just when the player thinks they have seen it all, they turn a corner and take a lift down to an underground lake of rot, or find themselves transported to a floating city that’s only barely holding itself together. Yet despite its size, the Lands Between is just as lovingly crafted as every other Soulsborne world. Careful thought was put into how this land linked together–the geography of the world, and how the varied terrain would affect not only the enemies that live there, but the buildings and structures built there, and the history and relationships of those who once called it home. Environmental storytelling is FromSoftware’s forte, the Elden Ring shows them off at their very best.

But of course, going open world meant the Lands Between had to be put together a little differently. This is a wide-open continent, rather than the walls and courtyards of a castle under siege or the twisting backstreets of a shadowy gothic city, and as such there are fewer pathways that lead back to the same starting location, and far more leading to new and exciting (and quite often entirely optional) areas. And while there is a path players are expected to follow–one that steadily increases the challenge as players are led by the grace of light from Limgrave to the Lakes of Liurnia to the Altus Plateau and beyond–there are entirely different paths to follow, should the player be so inclined to explore. Venturing off the beaten track, completing certain quests, and talking with certain NPCs can all open up new routes around the Lands Between, allowing players to skip certain bosses and reach late-game areas out of their intended order.

Elden Ring offers far more choice and freedom of movement for players to chart their own path through its world than all of the previous Soulsborne games combined. In fact, as players only need to acquire two Great Runes to trigger the end game, and only twelve of the roughly 150 bosses are mandatory, the vast majority of Elden Ring‘s world could be considered optional content. As a result, the game is, effectively, as linear or as open as the player wants it to be. But this is both a blessing and a curse.

Image: FromSoftware's Elden Ring map - The Lands Between are a wonder to explore, no matter the order in which you decide to do so.
Image: FromSoftware – The Lands Between are a wonder to explore, no matter the order in which you decide to do so.

Power to the Player

The major blessing, and one that immediately sets Elden Ring apart from its forebears, is that of accessibility. Soulsborne games are difficult, everyone knows that–you don’t become a synonym for the word “hard” for nothing–and Elden Ring is no exception. In fact, with the likes of Malenia and Radahn, it has some of the most infuriatingly difficult bosses in FromSoftware’s entire history. However, as well as giving players a challenge, Elden Ring also gives players something new–a choice.

In previous Soulsborne games, the linearity of their design meant that if players found themselves stuck on a certain boss or couldn’t get through a particularly troublesome area, they were essentially locked out from the rest of the game. The only way to could continue was to grind for more levels or try, try again until they got lucky. And considering the difficulty of the bosses on offer, the latter of the two often felt like slamming your head against a brick wall. Then, in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, players have no choice but to “get good” and learn the intricacies and rhythm of its combat. There is no conventional leveling system to grind through, and no different armor sets or weapons types to equip to improve base health, defense, or strength. As a result of this commitment (or some would say, stubbornness) to challenge, it’s easy to see why so many potential fans were turned away from past FromSoftware games.

Image: FromSoftware Elden Ring - The lack of any true levelling system meant players had to "get good" or die trying in Seriko.
Image: FromSoftware – The lack of any true levelling system meant players had to “get good” or die trying in Seriko.

Not so with Elden Ring. The game’s open-world design allows players to go almost anywhere they wish to go. Naturally, certain areas are gated off for higher levels and late-game revelations, but enough of the world is fully open to explore from the very beginning of the game that if players find themselves unable to progress down one path, they can easily strike out in a different direction, explore somewhere entirely different, and come back later, leveled up and ready to face that old stumbling block head on.

The ability to find new paths or travel to new areas of the Land Between when seemingly unable to progress down another takes away much of that infuriation that certain players felt in the older games. Instead of grinding levels, the open world allows them to keep exploring in fun and meaningful ways, while still gaining the experience, weapons, and Runes needed to overcome whatever was originally holding them back from becoming Elden Lord.

The downside of this is the fact that if players spend too long exploring, venture too far into more challenging lands, when they come back for a rematch against whatever had halted their progress before, they may find themselves incredibly over-leveled. In those cases, what should have been a difficult boss or harrowing gauntlet becomes a cakewalk that players can breeze straight through without breaking a sweat.

Enemies in each of the Lands Between’s distinct areas have their own set levels of challenge. These don’t change over the course of the game or increase with the player’s own level, and so, without even meaning to, it can be very easy for players to out-level certain areas and bosses and rob themselves of the challenge and fun of struggling through them. Perhaps it could have combated this by going down Bloodborne’s route and introducing new and more terrifying enemies to the early locations as the player gets further through the game.

That being said, areas of pre-set challenge also work in the opposite direction. With dangerous, higher-level areas like the red wastes of Caelid open to explore from the very beginning of the game, players can adjust the difficulty to suit their own playstyles. If they are skilled and know what they are doing, they can try taking on the biggest challenges first, while they are technically underpowered and underequipped. But if they are new to the game, then these areas make the Lands Between feel like a truly terrifying and dangerous place to explore. But also one where high risk comes with high reward, as if they are able to sneak past or outrun the horrors that could kill them in a single hit, they might find some rare and respectable rewards on the other side.

Image: FromSoftware Elden Ring - Caelid is a truly awful place, but one that's brimming with treasures and secrets to find.
Image: FromSoftware – Caelid is a truly awful place, but one that’s brimming with treasures and secrets to find.

The Journey and the Destination

Elden Ring’s open world instills a sense of wonder and a feeling of true discovery in the player. Previous Soulsborne games feel like a guided tour around a decaying kingdom compared to the absolute freedom offered by the Lands Between. The world is massive, and with no quest markers or question marks to tell the player where to go, everything discovered feels like it was found organically, through player curiosity and careful world design. I recently started replaying Elden Ring and have already found so many little secrets and entire areas I missed my first time through. There is just so much to see and do.

And Elden Ring rewards that exploration, not just with fantastical new environments, impossible architecture, and a staggering variety of enemies to face, but also tangibly, with new armor sets, new weapons, and new spells. As well as backstory from item descriptions, new character quests, and a deeper insight into the amazing world FromSoftware has created. And the best part is, almost all of it is entirely optional. FromSoftware has created a world that feels so real partly because of the fact they don’t expect players to see everything.

This attitude really highlights the laziness and complacency of many modern open-world games–games that are open-world simply because it is the “in” thing to do. Games that are empty, devoid of meaning, and stretched out with copy-paste assets. Games that are so stuffed with repetitive side quests, pointless collectables, and more, just to keep players playing for “one more hour”, without ever giving them a real incentive to do so. Games whose developers are so afraid of players missing something out that their screens are cluttered with pop-ups, prompts, markers, and quest logs, and whose maps are buried beneath a sea of icons. Elden Ring has none of that. Its map is bare.

In going open world, Elden Ring essentially took the game out of their game, and made it feel all the more real. Nothing in the Lands Between feels artificial, or placed there simply to pad out the runtime. Everything has its place, and everything exists for a reason; to tell a story, and allow the player to lose themselves in a world of pure imagination and fantasy.

But the sheer scale of it all raises another problem–that of the reuse of assets. While exploring the Lands Between, it doesn’t take long to start seeing the same enemies and designs cropping up again and again, or the same mini-boss repeated ad nauseum. Places too, like the Minor Erdtrees and the various catacombs, reuse the same models, enemies, and bosses, so that in the end, it’s impossible to tell one apart from another. And while it is true that previous Soulsborne games have reused assets and enemies, such a thing is far more obvious in a game as big as Elden Ring.

Of course, it’s only natural for developers to do this. With a limited budget and limited time, even the proudest and most hardworking developers have to cut corners somewhere. And in Elden Ring, these repeating enemies and assets are used as sparingly as possibly and always in ways that make contextual sense, that add to the environmental storytelling of the world and its inhabitants.

Image: FromSoftware - Everywhere you turn, there is something new to discover.
Image: FromSoftware – Everywhere you turn, there is something new to discover.

Going open world has changed the Dark Souls formula in more ways than FromSoftware could have predicted–some for the better, some for the worse, depending on who you ask–but overall, it was the right decision to make, and the developers pulled it off fantastically. With the unprecedented success and unstoppable popularity of Elden Ring, it would be hard to go back to the simpler, more linear designs of Soulsborne past. So, please, FromSoftware, whatever nightmarish hellscape of a world you decide to make next, make it an open world.

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.

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