Elden Ring Analytically Journalized -- NIGHT TWO
Underwater cities, talking jars with arms and legs birthing ultimate warriors, and bears outta nowhere on tonight's quest!
(This post was written as a script for the edited video above, which provides a more complete experience of the post’s subject. This video also contains unscripted interview sections notated in the text below. This text version is just for easier reference and comprehension for anyone in need.)
NIGHT TWO (3 hours)
I wasn’t entirely sure what this video series was going to be like until I had completed writing the first part, recorded the footage I’d be using for the first two nights, and finally edited the first part together; so it’ll be much easier from now on for me to explain any discrepancies between the footage on-screen and my description of what originally happened on the first four nights I spent with this game before I decided to start talking about and recording my playthrough. I went back and tried to re-enact as much as I could about the first two nights on night five when I concluded that this was going to be a series, and then raised the recording quality after looking back at this footage, so apologies for these first two parts. If you haven’t seen the first part, I recommend watching that one before this, and subscribing to continue the adventure with me from here.
When I loaded the game back up, I comically watched all of the corpses left from my previous encounter spawn in and fall to the ground dead. Leaving what seemed to be a dead-end cliffside on which I’d found myself, I continued along the continental perimeter of Limgrave, avoiding the mounted enemies and quickly finding myself climbing up a rainy hillside. At its peak, I found all of these strange enemies constructed of little round stones arranged in a line like rock caterpillars, with glowing purple eyes in the front. I found they went down easily to three hits with the club, but their odd movements made me nervous, so I thought it best not to try my luck tempting more of them to gang up on me. This hilltop, the Forlorn Hound Evergaol, in the center features an ornate platform which teleports you into a totally secluded boss fight arena against Bloodhound Knight Darriwill.
Right away, the presentation of this arena reminded me of the optional challenge rooms from Bayonetta, which were usually the hardest stops you could make at those points in the game. Darriwil’s design and attack patterns harkened back to those of Artorius, the first very-hard boss of the Dark Souls DLC--as well as several battles from Sekiro, moving way faster and pushing the player way harder with his suite of attacks than anything else I’d faced in the game so far. Considering how much damage I was taking with each attack, and how clumsy I felt trying to fend him off with just a club, I determined after a second, more mentally-prepared attempt and failure at the boss that it would be best saved for later. I won’t be surprised if some experienced players of the Souls series found Darriwill as their first boss and had the determination to take him on until victory right then and there; but the gap in skill between those players and myself is a lot larger than a few hours of throwing myself at this boss at this point was going to close.
I do think that Elden Ring is a lot more inviting to players who want to keep trying to blast through an overleveled challenge than any previous From Software game, just because of how much more frequently it places checkpoints. What with its heavy emphasis on the open world and ability to go off and do other things, and with Torrent allowing you to bypass most of the threats on the surface world to make beelines for Sites of Grace, it only made sense that the map should be more convenient to travel, and the challenge should be more reserved for independent boss fights and stretches of level where the horse can’t be used and the player is more conventionally funneled. Even still, I think the devs were aware that with the jump ability and general freer range of movement, players were going to be a lot more likely to just haul ass past enemies instead of trying to carefully plot their way through a challenge over and over again like they would’ve had to in Demon’s Souls, and also that if anything seemed like it was too much of a hassle, players were just going to give up and look for something cooler to do.
The Stakes of Marika are a very clever way of encouraging players to try their hand at specific challenges more than once, because the mere existence of one basically asks if you want to give what you just did another go. In previous games, single bonfires could often serve the function of a safe point for multiple branching level paths, but in Elden Ring a Site of Grace pretty much stands for a whole radius around you with all kinds of small challenges. If you imagine each of these game worlds as a spider web, where the safe points are placed at major intersections of strings, then the difference between Dark Souls and Elden Ring is that of traversing that web as an ant versus as a spider. Even compared to Sekiro, where I got “stuck in seven places,” as I put it, I can’t really imagine actually getting “stuck” in Elden Ring, because there’s just always something else you can do. If you want to stick yourself somewhere because you’re enjoying the challenge and believe you’ll be able to overcome it with determination, then that’s up to you--but you’ll see how the ability to move on from enemies you don’t feel ready take on and continue exploring can power you up to the extreme in preparing you to return to those challenges at your leisure.
I headed down the hill using the regular path this time, watching the horseback enemy I’d been avoiding end his run near the base of the hill before turning and heading away, and thus timed my crossing of the path to the foot of another neighboring hill accordingly. Over there, I found a few enemies mindlessly milling about near some big tombstone-like slabs and items on the ground. I stormed over and mowed through three of them--and then all of a sudden a massive fucking bear exploded out of the ground below me with a bellowing growl, and I immediately summoned my horse and panic-gallopped up the side of the next hill--only to find I’d run straight into an elaborate enemy encampment. I didn’t stop steaming past all of the strong-looking knight enemies, and instead continued straight over the back end of the hill, working my way back down toward the bridge I’d spotted earlier to the Weeping Peninsula at the hill’s bottom.
Instead of continuing South, however, I decided to head North toward the Minor Erdtree and the mysterious castle on a peninsula which I’d noticed in the distance. It’s worth noting that because I still didn’t have a detailed area map and had turned myself around quite a bit at this point, I had the impression I was heading back East, and that the continent was altogether smaller than I’d originally thought. Most of the three hours I played on this second night consisted of trying to regain my bearings and fully understand the layout of Limgrave.
Heading up the Southwestern Coastal side of Limgrave, I came upon my first litter of open graves full of Golden Rune items, guarded by a litter of wolves with a larger grey wolf leading them. I systematically annihilated them and collected all of the items in the area, including one near the Giant Octopus boss that I was too afraid to try and attack yet. My description of events such of these and the on-screen footage of my overleveled character mopping through all these enemies can’t really do justice to the sense of trepidation and wonder with which I first approached this area. It’s not that I spent exponentially longer killing all of these wolves, although I’m sure I was much more cautious and took a lot more time with the encounter at first; it’s more that every minute I’ve spent playing this game has felt a lot longer than it actually was. Even though I spent forty-five minutes describing my first two-and-a-half hours of gameplay in the last video, it still sounded like I hadn’t really done all that much compared to how it felt. Watching me just stomp my way through all of these wolves, it looks like I’m really just playing an MMORPG, and without a doubt I felt echoes of games like World of Warcraft and Tera Online while I was exploring this game’s open world--but when you’re underlevelled and fighting a pack of vicious wolves that can individually hurt you worse than you can hurt them, you spend a hell of a lot more energy watching their attack patterns, figuring out where they’re allowed to move and how they can reach you, what spacing will keep you at an advantage against multiple attacking enemies at once, and everything else that’s so tense and exciting about base-game FromSoft combat. I feel like I take a lot of this for granted as someone who’s been playing these games for more than a decade now, but the evolution of AI and the movement mechanics in these games has only allowed each one to present even more memorable encounters.
I continued up to the Fort Haight West Site of Grace, but was intimidated by the number of enemies in the fortress and decided to continue along into the nearby darkened forest heading toward the Minor Erdtree. I came down to its base from above, and was enchanted with the deep forest atmosphere and all the glistening little flask-ball enemies rolling around. I picked up some important items that I won’t be using for a while, and really just basked in the feel of it all, having shown up at evening when the forest was really foggy and mysterious. This, more than anything, was the moment that most reminded me of The Legend of Zelda--and not just similar places from Breath of the Wild, but a sensation not unlike the Lost Woods from any of the games in the series. I was also entertained with the idea that even though the Minor Erdtree is bright like a neon sign from a distance, because its actual underbrush is a shroud of large trees, the space beneath it is actually one of the darker on the game’s surface.
While there wasn’t a Master Sword beneath the Minor Erdtree, it did stand right next to a sort of gazebo with an elevator inside of it, which I activated in total ignorance of the brain-blast discovery I was about to make. If you haven’t been down this elevator and you’ve been avoiding spoilers for this game somewhat, then I’d encourage you to skip to the next timecode in the video, as I’m about to show you one of those wow moments you can only really ever get once.
Right away it seemed a little fishy when the elevator ride started taking even longer than the first one up from the stranded graveyard. Then, suddenly the elevator shaft widened, revealing the platform to be held up just by magic, and the surrounding walls became more ornate. Then, through just a short window on the way down, I catch a glimpse of what’s going on coming--an underground city, bathed in purple light. The string of anticipation was taut at this point, and soon a huge vertical opening in the wall began to play up upon it the captivating reveal of a whole underground kingdom, seemingly comparable in scale just by way of its mystifying verticality to the entire continent that I’ve explored up until this point. I’m sure I’m not the only player who realized at this moment that it was going to be a while before I’d wrapped my head around the actual scale of this game world. Seeing all kinds of crazy stuff in the distance and finding hidden paths and secrets tucked into the nooks and crannies is one thing, but knowing that there could be just as much going on underground as there is on the surface unchained me from any impression that I’d be getting a full grasp on this map any time soon.
I also do not envy the task that From Software has given themselves of trying to one-up their previous work on these games while sticking true to the winning formula that’s made them work. I already mentioned on the first night how one of the biggest secrets in Dark Souls was the discovery of the underground Ash Lake, which itself was designed moreso in reference to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’s forest beneath the forest. Extensive underground bonus levels with more similar aesthetic layouts to the Siofra River Well can be found in Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 as well, and so I might not have even thought too much of this area if not for the awesome narrative construction of its reveal--the geodesic starlight illuminating its ceiling, and the uniquely purplish tone of the entire place. Even though some of my favorite levels in other games were not too dissimilar to this one in layout and concept, it’s the specific narrative trappings that let me be enraptured by this idea all over again, even though in the absence of the existence of those other works and with less gaming experience all around, I can’t even imagine the wonderment I might’ve experienced on this descent.
Breaking left around the ruins that the level design seems to funnel you toward, I could see a bunch of enemies lying in wait up the creek, and decided to head around the other way. Around the right of the structure were some decent items littering the cave, but mostly it seemed like the way to go was forward. I trepidatiously made my way up the slopes, collecting plants, and tested my club against the first enemy in sight. As I made my attack, I both realized that there were a lot more of these dudes nearby than I first thought, and also that my club wasn’t doing shit--not only did it hardly score any damage, but the enemy didn’t flinch on getting hit, and made me feel like it just absorbed all my momentum. Deciding this place was definitely too much for me at this point, I noped right back up the long elevator ride back to Mistwood (which I almost accidentally called Darkwood Basin).
Mistwood isn’t a huge area, but it’s very easy to get lost in. The land is heavily folded like anywhere else, but also spotted with trees that limit your viewpoint, and generally difficult to navigate in the nighttime fog. Making things a lot scarier is the ever-present bears roaming about its underbrush. Some of these are smaller and not super intimidating, but when you see one of the three or four giant bears scratching on trees, sleeping or drinking from the lake, then if you’re like me you start hauling ass out of there immediately. As I kept circling around these woods looking for items and avoiding enemies, I met a merchant who sold me some more smithing stones and cookbooks, picked up some flowers, and unfortunately completely missed the map in the blind panic I was galloping about the woods in before I decided this area was too stressful and followed the road further North-East, dodging the Giant Crabs on my way up the beach until reaching the Third Church of Marika and finding another Site of Grace, along with another important item that I won’t really be using yet.
On my way to the ruined church, I had spotted a giant pacing the road to my left, so instead of continuing along the road, I took an interest in the cliffsides behind the church and started scaling my way up, knocking out another pack of wolves and looting another graveyard full of goldan runes along my way. I really do have to thank From Software for doing so much kindness to the kinds of players who keep running along in search of more power-ups every time an enemy looks hard, because the sheer number of runes I picked up circling the continent definitely gave me the leg-up that would let me storm my way up to Stormfront Castle with relative ease later into the night.
Somewhere along the way up, I came upon a little platforming puzzle, as a bunch of stone slabs jutted out in an arc over an unsurvivable drop far below to a shallow river. Some of these slabs had bug enemies waiting on them as well to harangue me to jump faster. I expected this to pose little challenge thanks to the bit of info I’d learned only after the game’s release that spiked my hype for it through the roof--that Torrent can double-jump. There are so many uses for that double jump it’s insane, and I’d found my way up on top of every structure I’d come across that I could find a way to climb, which had also contributed to the length it already felt like I’d been adventuring for. Later on, I would learn from watching speedrunners just how many crazy routes across the world architecture have been secretly set up for skilled and brave players to make their way around it very quickly. Having said all of that, I still haven’t totally gotten used to the way that Torrent lands out of those jumps--and trying to quickly turn back and regain your bearings like you might’ve done after a running jump with your player character is a quick way to run your horse in a circle right off the platform. I had more luck trying to let go of the stick before landing so that I’d land flat, but then I had trouble initiating the next jump. All in all my clumsiness didn’t make it across this gap after a couple of tries, and I could see that the other side would be reachable just by crossing the land above me, so I decided to go back to ascending the cliffsides behind me.
A Spiritsong Jump Point took me up to the Rear Gael Tunnel Entrance, where I found a Site of Grace, and then--to my abject surprise--a gigantic talking jar with arms and legs standing in the tunnel. It was at this moment that I really had to take a step back and be like, “Jesus Christ, what in the fuck even is this game??” The flightful penguins, rolling goats, the deadly-fast giant crabs, the haunted stone ball caterpillars, huge fuckoff bears that materialize out of thin air, elevators into starlit caverns, giant wind tunnel jump pads, dead dragon heart-eating communions, mysterious white footprints on the beach, traveling mercantile races, overpowered bosses in low-level areas, sudden dragons, velociraptor attack patterns, cryptic teasing NPC dialog, poetically written item descriptions, windy bimby, and a god damn talking jar on legs, I wouldn’t really know how to characterize the overall tone of this game besides that it never manages to stop evoking a reaction.
From Software has a long history of developing dungeon-crawler RPGs with tabletop RPG complexity in their underlying mechanics, and Souls series director Miyazaki Hidetaka-san was also a fan of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons in his childhood. Like many of the authors and game designers they took influence from, the staff combined heavy reference to high fantasy creatures like those found in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the otherworldly alien ideas of H.P. Lovecraft, with Demon’s Souls taking monsters and mechanics right out of Call of Chtulhu as often as Castlevania, Berserk, and Shadow of the Colossus.
Just like other games about living in Eternal Darkness, each of the FromSoft RPGs can be seen as a Dark Descent, with sanity mechanics even getting introduced and playing a larger role as you make your was along the adventure starting with Bloodborne. The games start off pretty difficult and confusing, with lots of open paths, unique encounters, and crazy boss fights, but they also tend to start off relatively tame in the world of ideas for things you might fight against in an RPG. At the start of Demon’s Souls you’re mostly fighting knights, zombies, and blob monsters, with maybe the occasional rolling skeleton to shake things up a little bit. Venturing into 4-1, you might come across some Cthulian-headed jail wardens, or, in the darkest corners, one of those hellish orgy balls from Castlevania; but things only get weirder and more higher concept as the game goes along, eventually reaching eldritch scale. Each game since has gotten just a touch weirder, and has bled that weirdness earlier and earlier into the experience, until with Elden Ring we enter a setting so topsy-turvy and turned-around that it’s hard to even really describe the genre that it falls into without comparing it to other From Software games.
Anyone who’s looked into the background of these games knows about how their fragmentary storytelling style and fixation on aesthetic detail came as a result of Miyazaki-san’s attempts to read illustrated English fantasy books that he could only understand bits and pieces of as he tried to fill in the details with his imagination. It’s hard to imagine the narrative structure of his games translating into any other medium besides video games with its hard focus on environmental storytelling and implication about events already past. Even when you are actively progressing side storylines, you will often find yourself arriving just after something important has happened to a character that you couldn’t prevent. (Like their death.)
Actually, I think it may be most fair to summarize the aesthetic ideas of the Souls series and its offspring as “post-apocalyptic high-fantasy,” with the closest thing I can compare it to being Final Fantasy X as another story in which the apocalypse is actually kind of unfolding all around you as you go--but whereas in that game, you were sort of keeping pace with it, in these games, the end of society is always a step ahead of you--and even still, the bones of other, much longer-dead civilizations can always be found laying just underneath this one’s carcass. You can’t really prevent the end of the world in any of these games, but depending on the way that you play, you can effect how the cycle is going to continue with your ending.
On the very surface of it, Elden Ring presents itself as the most conceptually generic high-fantasy story in the whole series, paying very deliberate tribute to the Lord of the Rings in its core concept, but with the George RR Martin twist that instead of everyone getting their own rings of power, the one ring is split for everyone to kill one-another over obtaining. I have no doubt that these core ideas of what the story would center on conceptually were the sole contribution to this game’s design by GRRM, as you can unsurprisingly feel very few of his fingerprints on the game as compared to everything already habitual to FromSoft therein. It isn’t uncommon for new fantasy and sci-fi intellectual properties to call upon an established name in the field like Masamune Shirow or Leiji Matsumoto to hand them a few pages of proper nouns and setting details that allow the creators to feature their name on the product to drive sales; and that’s clearly what happened here to extreme benefit, what with Game of Thrones being the most successful adult fantasy series of all time by a wide margin.
As soon as you start playing Elden Ring however, it’s hard to really compare it to anything. Even though I’ve said that its visual aesthetic isn’t so different from Dark Souls 3, there is one definite technical upgrade that, while somewhat established in Sekiro, is used constantly to breathtaking effect across the surface of Limgrave--that being the effect of wind on the environment. From Software’s design department was surely studying Kurosawa Akira-sama’s filmography in getting the exactly-right tone for their samurai epic, and as now-inactive youtuber Every Frame A Painting (whose entire channel is mandatory binging for anyone with any interest in film and animation analysis) pointed out in his video on Kurosawa-sama, the kineticism of the master’s frames was often lent to it by the abundance of interesting movement within the frame.
It’s that movement which makes Limgrave feel not only sweepingly epic and awesome, but also chaotically alive and intimidating. Even the stuff that actually lives here has to struggle with the constant pressure of the wind, and with assholes staging fights in the middle of the field, causing giant enemies to level everything in sight. Even though golden leaves aren’t necessarily uncommon to real-world trees during the fall, the verdant land of Limgrave seems to be enjoying summertime, as there are just as many luscious green trees as golden ones, and the far-off Erdtree and Minor Erdtrees are outright otherworldly in their glow. The first time I saw footage of someone emerging onto this landscape, and then seeing it again when my husband played the game for the first time and confirming that you have just as much context into what any of this is when you see it for the first time, my continual thought was just simply: “no really, what in the actual fuck is going on here??”
I am an extremely cynically-minded person, and also a creator with a creator’s mindset, and so I tend to approach answering questions like this at first through a sort of marketing lens. They had to make it look visually distinct from all the competition, including from their back catalog, and so they chose yellow. It makes perfect sense to me--the preciousness of gold is often acknowledged in these kinds of stories, but I don’t know another fantasy universe which leans in on the ever-presence of it to such an extent as this. Previous games rarely took the approach of coloring the environment itself too vibrantly, but instead used incredibly well-thought-out mood lighting to create the unique tone of each of their environments--but Elden Ring’s open world has an active day-night and weather cycle, meaning that it will be seen in all sort of different conditions by the player in the course of their run. Hell, it’s probably just a coincidence that I saw it as particularly windy the first few times, unless we’re just talking about Stormhill.
Because I have been talking about the FromSoft action-RPGs online since like 2013, I’ve been asked plenty of times what kind of setting I would want to see one of these games in. My take has always been that I wanted a completely unhinged fairy-tale world with art design like how Yoshitaka Amano’s artwork actually works, and a primary emphasis on pinks and purples. I haven’t quite gotten anything as fruity as my dreams yet, but the glittering gold of Limgrave is right along the lines of what I wanted--something still familiar enough to be relatable, but truly otherworldly in its approach to color design and sensibility for what can exist.
The Erd tree itself is such a ballsy visual idea that I can’t think of anything else quite like it in any medium, really, though I’d love to hear what you can think of based on how I’m about to describe it. While there are plenty of video games designed in a high-saturation aesthetic across the board, games with generally dimmer saturation sometimes use high-saturation colors for special effects or screen markers. FromSoft games have always allowed the player to saturate their own character’s skin to their heart’s content and become a glowing neon beam that doesn’t seem to belong in the setting whatsoever--and that’s exactly the ethos with which they approached the Ertree model, looking completely ethereal and unreal on the horizon. Just the fact that this surreal object is visible in the sky for like 70% of your time in this game threatens to induce a kind of madness. It’s all at once gloriously, unavoidably and decadently awesome, and yet also garishly beyond reality and impossible to picture life without. The sun I might take for granted, even when a video game is constantly commenting on its lack of presence, be it from cloud cover in Dark Souls or the never-ending night of the hunt from Bloodborne--but even if the Erd tree might have slid into the space of just a fact of life for me as a player after a couple of days, it was impossible not to feel the impact of its symbolism on the narrative at the start.
All of this has been for me to come back to the talking jar, which it turns out is actually a collection of a bunch of warriors who were tossed inside of it in order to be combined into some sort of ultimate warrior. Having just rewatched Inuyasha, this reminded me of the episode where there was a mountain just full of demons killing one-another and powering up until only one strongest demon remained--which is also just sort of how hell is described in Devilman. In any case, this jar is not only outlandish, but also a funny character in a familiar way to fans of guys like the Knights of Catarina from the Souls games.
According to the Map Genie map I’ve been using to remember my course through the game, this encounter in the cave with Alexander Iron Fist is actually supposed to be your second run-in with the character--you can find him the first time stuck halfway in the ground near the Saintsbridge Site of Grace. Because of this, I am tempted to imagine the way that From Software expected the average gamer to end up at this location. Assuming that you followed the light from each Site of Grace exactly where you needed to go, only maybe sidestepping the Tree Sentinel on your way to the site where most people receive the horseon their way up to Stormhill, and then maybe bypassing the giant on your way to Stormveil Castle, then even if you very diligently annihilated and looted all the knights along your way, there’s no way in hell you’re going to be even remotely ready for the fight with Margit. At some point, unless you’re bullheaded enough to have probably already beaten the Tree Sentinel through sheer determination and do the same with Margit, you’re most likely going to give up these foul ambitions and finally go try to do something else. If you’re really that much the type to follow the beaten path (maybe just assuming that you can’t go as far off the path as it looks), you might take the road immediately down from Stormhill, which would lead you to Alexander on your way down into Western Limgrave. I speculate this only because it seems a lot less likely to me that a player would cross Saintsbridge from the West before scaling the cliff that leads to this cave.
Regardless of the intent, it would seem that if you reach this cave before getting to Saintsbridge, then you will simply meet Alexander for the first time here, where he is once again impeded in his journey, as he can’t get past a wall with a locked door blocking his passage through the tunnel. Consider that in either of these encounters, the player’s presence is presented as necessary for Alexander’s survival and ability to reach his goals of--ahem--birthing the greatest warrior of all time. It’s goofy enough on the surface of it, but there’s so much balancing the comedy, horror, and fantasy of this character as a concept that it’s worth breaking him down.
When Alexander basically described himself as a swirling pool of sacrificed warriors, I had to pause a moment and imagine the feelings of the people offering themselves up to be a part of this project. Were they excited to become a part of a greater life form? Have they retained any kind of sentience, or have their personalities in some way blended to form that of Alexander as a whole? How many warriors are in there, and do they think they have enough? Does Alexander appreciate that we may be in competition toward our ultimate goals? Everything about his design is built to keep these questions in the air.
Sure, he’s a jar with goofy humanoid arms and legs--but he’s a pretty special-looking magical ornate jar, which already has capabilities beyond our comprehension. He’s got the same name as the best-known conqueror in history, He sounds pretty sure of himself and has a charismatic tone of voice, and yet is obviously completely hapless in his present state and seemingly without much wit. What is the worst-case scenario? That he dies without accomplishing his goal? That what emerges is a malformed monster? Or maybe he just keeps getting stuck until he gets stuck somewhere you break him open trying to help him out of. I can’t help but think about all the possibilities to come when Pandora lets Schrodinger's Cat out of her Box.
Okay, enough about this asshole, I couldn’t go any further so I left the cave and continued along the cliffside. There was a slope leading up to the top of the cliff guarded by a giant in such a way that I was almost certain he’d start dropping boulders down the slope or something, so I avoided that entirely, and I believe I found another route up which took me right to Summonwater Village. I am entertained by the use of the word “village” in this game to describe ruins which in no way resemble living quarters anymore, but what I love about Miyazaki-san’s games is that their environments are always sensible to scale as places that people could live and operate--they’ve just been ruined to the point that you have to use some imagination to put back together how they were being used before the monsters took up residence there. We’ll be able to go into a lot more depth about the environmental storytelling later, but suffice it to say that I think the way this game uses its post-apocalyptic nature to marry the combat-focused level design-driven gameplay with the narrative in a way that’s much more exciting than how towns are usually presented in RPG games, as totally disconnected places usually without very interesting stories.
Summonwater Village houses a spectral boatman that looks really cool and also really scary, so I only glanced at him long enough to admire as I shot right by the rest of the village, failing to find many items in the immediate vicinity. I reached the Summonwater Village Outskirts Site of Grace, and there I met D, Hunter of the Dead. Not Vampire Hunter D, mind you, as he’s a lot more concerned with zombies in this game at least so far. D has another one of those instantly evocative designs, with one hand permanently grasping this, like, statue of a head, and he’s also got fake arms for both him and his companion to be hugging one-another at all times, and it’s all at once tragic, kind of romantic, and also grossly twisted and disturbing in a way that I rarely see in modern media--it feels like something out of an 80s OVA by Kawajiri Yoshiaki-san or something--which incidentally, look forward to the next anime alphabet on the classic ero-guro anime masterpiece Ninja Scroll coming to the channel April 4th.
D stands in front of a stretch of graveyards littered with enemies which are easy to knock to the ground, but which immediately reanimate, and which I didn’t realize at the time could be easily killed simply by attacking them while they’re reanimating. I grabbed the items and fled north, meeting another merchant, and finally making my first truly meaningful purchases. Up until this point, I had been under the impression that I’d needed to maintain a light weight build in order not to have any effect on my rolling and running speed, so I’d been very nervous about adding any kind of armor to my build. This merchant however sold a simple black face covering that offers some resistance and minor defense benefits and without much weight, and it seemed like it fit my character’s personality, so I bought and equipped it. Even more importantly, though, I purchased the halberd here, which I was excited to see how far I could carry as my main weapon. Halberds are one of my favorite weapons conceptually, but hadn’t ever seemed as useful to me as great axes in previous games. The extra reach and ability to swap between a piercing regular attack and a sweeping heavy attack seemed like massive benefits to the combat in this game, and for a while that would definitely prove true. My favorite part of using the halberd though was easily the feeling of using it on horseback. The way you can run up to your enemy, halt your horse, and just smash a poleaxe into them a couple of times felt like actually playing out one of those satisfying Fire Emblem battle animations.
Seeing the pumpkin head enemy losing his shit in the middle of the Saintsbridge, I was afraid to cross it, which I sort of wish I hadn’t been. Not only is the Pumpkin Head easy to just run past and reach Stormhill from the back way which I would’ve probably found really cool, but he’s also very easy to just kill anyways. Instead, I ended up clamoring South over the level geometry until I reached the Artist’s Shack, which is as described, a simple shack on a hillside which contains a painting of another of the game’s vistas. I read the note in my inventory about how this painting depicted the site of someone’s death, which caused me to think it was warning me that this is a place where something would fall from the sky and kill me. I later found out that it actually tells me the place where a ghost will give me an item--and in this case, if you watched the on-screen footage during NIGHT ONE, then you actually saw me go to the place depicted in this painting and collect the item completely incidentally in the course of recreating my adventure, which is how I got the scarab helmet I’ve been wearing on-screen ever since.
Just East of the Artist’s shack is a place where the land is deeply split by a river, but joined by a piece of felled architecture in a way that leads you to a Site of Grace. From this perch, you’re just low enough to jump down into the riverbed, so that’s exactly what I did. Initially, I started following the river South, only for my horse to suddenly disappear below me. I was confused for a moment until the text on the screen informed me I was being invaded by Bloody Finger Nerijus. I’ll go into a lot more depth about the invasion mechanics when we get into the multiplayer later on, as this is a story invasion that you’ll always run into by coming here, but long story short, he kicked my ass and I went North instead.
Bypassing a bunch of blobs as stone slabs above cast shadows over the narrowing river, I found my way to a door at the end of the line which led me into my very first of the game’s many hidden catacombs. These levels feature by far the most traditional FromSoft level design, funneling the player down narrow tunnels rife with booby traps, hidden enemies that wait until you’re just in the perfect spot to reveal themselves, and bastardly layouts generally built to kill you quickly and ruthlessly. If you’ve been to Sen’s Fortress and to the Bloodborne chalice dungeons, you’ll find some sort of combination of both here.
Being put up against these little gargoyle hellions definitely put me on-guard more than anything in the game so far. They’ve got tricky movement patterns, annoying ranged attacks, a tendency to lead you into traps, and took like six consecutive thrusts of my halberd to kill. Thankfully I started with pretty decent endurance, and was able to get off a six-hit combo on these things and wipe them out at once most of the time, provided I could lock one of them down at a time. I know I died at least a couple of times in this very short catacomb, but in that little bit of time out of protection for my runes, I learned the enemy locations and patterns and approached the level as systematically as I would any traditional Souls level until I reached the boss. This dude was a big buff guy carrying a couple of hammers attached to chains who looked like he’d hit a lot harder than I wanted to find out. I did find out on my first attempt, but I was doing pretty solid damage as well, and figured out that I could stun him really easily after a couple hits and punish him hard. On my next run, I kept my distance every time he attacked and then rushed in and ruthlessly poked him for a fifth of his life bar at a time until he was done, and I got a new the Banished Knight Engvall summon--which, at the time of this writing, I haven’t actually used.
Leaving the catacomb, I took the Spiritsong Jump Point back up to the Artist’s Shack and started heading East. Before long, I heard a voice calling out to me from somewhere, and had to scope the area to find a nobleman standing up on one of the ruins looking helpless. He turned out to be Kenneth Haight, who’d been in charge of the castle to the South near the Minor Erdtree that I’d been too scared to enter about an hour and a half ago--though I did not realize this at the time. He told me his story, broadly giving the impression of an entitled and haughty coward whose situation is so far above his head that he hasn’t really processed the extent to which the world is being upturned yet. This guy gave me the most impression of an actual plot unfolding around me in the game so far, although I didn’t know the meaning of most of the names he used yet, and only really got a total grasp of his place in these events and his impression of me as his potential savior--which is begrudging in its respect.
It’s around this point where I was starting to get exasperated with exploring the continent aimlessly, as I didn’t feel like much of what I’d seen was something I’d be ready to deal with at my current level, and I still had no real idea where the hell I was without a detailed map. It’s easy enough to see where you are kind of relative to the Sites of Grace you’ve discovered, but the process of getting from one place to another can turn you around so much that it’s hard to really know what’s between you and where you’re going if you don’t have the map yet. I’d kind of been hoping that I’d find an even more powerful weapon or piece or armor laying around somewhere and that I wouldn’t have to purchase anything from merchants, but it would seem that the bulk of those kinds of treasures are found inside more dungeon-like areas rather than littering the open world. Nonetheless, I felt like my halberd was strong enough after boosting it to +2 and like I’d gotten enough of a hang on playing the game that maybe it was time to follow the beaten path instead of trying to beat a new one, so I teleported back to the Church of Elleh.
Heading North from the Church into the woods filled with knights, I was making easy work of them with my rapid halberd pokes, and quickly found my way up to the Groveside cave. It was obvious to me right away that From Software had expected this to be the very first side-tangent most players were going to take from the beaten road--since, if you hadn’t already activated another Site of Grace before the one a the Church of Elleh, then you wouldn’t even have had the horse until reaching the next one. There’s a bunch of wolves in this cave that I mowed through with ease, and only at the end saw the neat little AI trick where the wolves jump up onto the ledge above and are all coolly lit by the torches. This tactic did not help the wolves. The Beastman of Farum Azula boss didn’t fare any better against my halberd, and after having eliminated three bosses, I was starting to feel like I’d actually gotten something done a little bit, even if all of them were at the back of very small dungeons.
Leaving back up through the woods, I think it’s really funny that there are Sites of Grace on both sides of the Gatefront Ruins encounter which are pretty much equally accessible from this point. You’d be more likely to pick the one to the east as it comes into sight right-away when leaving the woods, and the one to the East is more likely to be your starting point if you came to the village from over the bridge from the Waypoint Ruins, but the fact that you can reach either one just as easily is emblematic of the different design theory between this game’s overworld, and the level design of previous games.
Gatefront Ruins is the stomping ground of twenty or so soldiers, several of which have shields and somewhat stronger weapons which make them tougher than the others nearby. They’re pretty spread out and segmented so that you’re not likely to aggro more than three of them at a time unless you’re being really clumsy, and there’s a few dogs scattered about to complicate things, as well as a spattering of treasures to attract you to explore the ruins all the way through and take on all of the enemies. Here is where I finally picked up the map of Eastern Limgrave, and it sunk in right away that the overwhelming majority of players would not likely have felt nearly as comfortable venturing into Western Limgrave after having been given a map that explicitly limits itself to the Eastern half. Suddenly it made sense why everything had seemed so tough over there, and also just how much I hadn’t understood where the hell I was before. I also got the Storm Stomp Ash of War here, which I equipped and found useful a few times.
At the Stormgate, I was feeling clever because I had watched my husband do this part and simply storm through on his horse, evading all enemies and never turning back. I set out to do the same, but made the horrible mistake of trying to target the items along the way, which led me to getting hit with arrows and stunlocked and rapidly ended. I was immediately frustrated with myself not only for failing something that I thought should’ve been easy, but also because as soon as I saw that big guy up there on the ruin, in the back of my mind I wondered, “couldn’t I just climb up there and kill that guy first?” With that thought in mind, I circled back down South from the gate through the forest hugging the cliffside, and sure enough found a ruin I could easily climb right up to Stormhill. I stopped a second to praise the level design genius of FromSoft for the umpteenth time in my life.
Heading right up to the Stormhill Shack Site of Grace around some buildings hardly holding together against the awesome onslaught of weather, I picked up some items and met Roderika. She told me of her adventuring party who’d all gone to be grafted--some godawfully horrible-sounding superstitious procedure of stitching people together for more power, not unlike what was going on with eyeballs and insight in Bloodborne. It sounds like some nasty, but evocative stuff, especially when we have her perspective as someone who feels like a coward and failure for her unwillingness to be grafted like all of her friends.
From there, I went back down to try and kill that troll on top of the ruin over the road. Along the cliffside I took out another pack of wolves which I suspect might have jumped down to ambush me had I tried to stay down their fighting too long, and then I went to pick a fight with the troll. The bumpy geography of the ruin was giving me a lot of trouble maneuvering, and a lot less to him than I had expected it to--but I still did pretty well all things considered, getting him down to just a couple of hits left and using all of my flasks before he finally got me. I didn’t try again.
East of that area, Stormhill appeared to be utterly littered with more of these huge troll enemies, so I decided not to try exploring it yet. Instead, I continued north along the road from the shack and finally passed under the gigantic arches of the bridge out to the lake of the Erd tree which had been just about the Northernmost point visible from the start of the game. My favorite moments in these games are when they build these structures as big as anything that’s ever really existed and twice as ornate, and then realize an interesting angle of exploring it. Standing under these huge arches reminded me of being on Chick’s Beach under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia Beach, which I lived nearby to for a while, and could hang out underneath and amid its pillars. In Elden Ring I found this place strangely peaceful, aside from the little haunt of bats circled up in one spot. On the other side of it begins to reveal the faint outline of the next continent, and some new far-off and even higher-up castles to try and scope.
The road here tapers out to another bridge, where an old eyeless woman sits on a podium at the Southern end. She asks to see your fingers and prophesizes some stuff about what you’ll be doing next, but laments to inform you that the bridge is out, so you’re gonna have to go through Stormveil castle. Now, at some point while I was wandering under the big bridge, I had found a side-way onto the road leading up to Stormveil castle and very narrowly dodged a huge arrow flung at me from its entrance--so I’d noped out of there and continued to this bridge, assuming I was going to find some back way into the tower. Of course I went to the end of the bridge to check for items, and what do you know--there was a narrow back back up and around the castle right here! So I continued. Following my way up this gorgeously verdant narrow path with animals running at my side, I eventually ran up on and killed a trio of wolves, and finally came up on the Lake-Facing Cliffs Site of Grace overlooking Liurnia.
When I got to this vista, I was honestly confused for a moment. Wait a minute--is all of that also a part of this game world? Are all of those castles new or were any of those the ones I was looking at earlier? Wait, is that ENTIRE midsection explorable?? Oh god…
I was starting to feel overwhelmed, considering that by this point I’d hardly actually even done anything and just run around the open world trying to get a lay of the land, failing that, and now realizing there is way, way, WAY more land available to me to get a lay of. Was this really the way I was meant to be going? The yellow lights were still egging me onward… and when I rested at the Site of Grace, Melina appeared before me to ask me to come to the Roundtable Hold--which, it turned out, was another teleport to a totally new location.
Each of the Souls games has featured some kind of hub area which feels comparably relaxed and safe to the rest of the game, and where NPCs that you find in your journeys tend to gather. Of these, the Roundtable Hold is both especially homey and especially practical, with all of the NPCs in close quarters and easily reachable to communicate. Locationally, it feels realistically like some kind of dormitory for a secret decisionmaking order. Rodericka, whom I met in the shack, had found her way here, and I also met a smattering of other NPCs that I will talk to later, including this game’s intrepid blacksmith. Ever since the popular Andre from Dark Souls, a character like this has appeared in each of the games, with dialog implying a deeper and deeper state of enslavement to the eternal role of the blacksmith to heroes in Souls games. The metatextual stuff is not lost of me here, but again I think it’s going to be better to talk about most of these characters in more depth once we’ve gotten to know them more. It wasn’t long after reaching the Roundtable Hold that I realized it was 3:30 in the morning and finally went to bed--which I’m going to do now because it’s 4:04 as I’m writing this and my brain is not found!