Light and Dark in Elden Ring – A First Impression

Elden Ring's starting class Samurai
Dark walls of clouds gather in Elden Ring | Screenshot: Hollow Cake (

This is a short opinion piece on From Software’s recently released video game Elden Ring. This is my first impression and my personal experience with the game. Other experiences and opinions about Elden Ring have their legitimacy as well. The article is largely spoiler-free.
Elden Ring was released on 25.02.2022 for almost all common video game platforms and is rated age 16 and above in Germany.


I first came into contact with From Software games back in 2011 through the original Demon’s Souls and then directly through Dark Souls, and have since played each of their titles in the “Soulsborne series” (with the exception of the Demon’s Souls remake) extensively. After some initial hesitation, my personal highlight was Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, followed closely by Bloodborne and the original Dark Souls. However, all games have content or features that I particularly like about them.

Tried and Tested

Much of what I have seen in Elden Ring after almost 20+ hours of play looks familiar. There were already areas in Demon’s Souls where using the right weapon made it easier to fight certain types of enemies. The sometimes wild camera work, which is often (jokingly) referred to as the toughest boss in the Soulsborne games for a reason, is also back. Large groups of enemies were introduced in Dark Souls II, were generally hated at the time, and were seen as detracting from the fun.

Since Bloodborne at the latest, the developers have focused on increasing the game’s speed, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice not only made stealth possible, but also introduced a relatively open and almost freely accessible world, which I don’t think was even present in Dark Souls. Almost redundant to mention, but not to be forgotten, are the once again incredibly immersive game world, the minor player guidance, vague story elements, the magnificent art design as well as the atmospheric background music and of course the well-known gameplay.

More about gameplay and a scientific approach to video games can be found in our essay “What is A Video Game? A Philosophical Enquiry“.

Yet Fresh

The typical formulas and elements that From Software has refined with each release, at least since the release of Demon’s Souls (2009/2010), and that should let any Soulsborne veteran find their way into the game relatively quickly, are once again supplemented with exciting innovations and features that set the game apart from its spiritual predecessors and offer a (slightly) different or novel gaming experience.

The almost complete open world invites you to explore almost every corner and, in combination with the already very free character creation, makes it possible to individualize your own gaming experience even more than before. The jumping function was sensibly separated from the rushing function and has a separate button assignment, and a mount was also added, which can be used to cover the large distances of the upper world. Actually, only paragliding and a climbing mode are missing – I haven’t discovered either yet – and Elden Ring could put a checkmark behind almost every game option that a modern open world game offers.

This alone makes Elden Ring neither better nor worse than other video games of the same genre, and so far I’m enjoying the adventure in the in-between land, as the game world is called, very much. In my few hours so far, I’ve already encountered a few things that have surprised me both positively and negatively, and that shape my initial impression just as light and dark constantly accompany my journey in Elden Ring.

The Great Freedom of Elden Ring

Unrestricted Character Creation

The Soulsborne games have always been known for giving players a lot of freedom. Starting with the very extensive design options for your own character, leveling up, which allows you to freely distribute the souls, blood echoes or now runes to all available skills without class limits, so that you can create a completely individual build, to the often almost completely free choice of path, which in many cases is often only limited by one’s own abilities as a player or the character level, but not completely restricted.

From a philosophical point of view, the From Software games are very fascinating, among other things, because of this freedom offered, which stands in stark contrast to the cyclical flow of the stories told, which are actually found in every Soulsborne part. Although you are relatively free in how you approach the challenges in the games, the worlds seem to be very deterministic and repetitive from the ground up. The Soulsborne games are thus very suitable for taking a closer look at the debate about free will as it is conducted in philosophy.
Also popular are arguments with existentialism and nihilism, and thus, for example, connected with questions about the meaning of life, existence, and the binding nature of norms and values.

In Elden Ring, this free choice of classes and characters is obviously found again. The new open world also gives players a degree of freedom that was previously only rudimentary available in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Unrestricted Exploration in the Lands Between

If you discover a settlement in the distance, or a ruin in the middle of a forest, or see an interesting structure on the world map, you can easily ride to any place and explore it – games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017) or the recently released Horizon Forbidden West (Guerilla Games, 2022) send their regards. It is also possible to avoid hostile mobs and even field bosses without any problems or to initiate a fight with them and – at least in the overworld – to escape from it again when you realize that you are underleveled.

Also, even at least one of the so-called Legacy Dungeons – where the main bosses of the game reside – can be bypassed relatively early in the game by simply walking around the whole area, which in turn means that there are even fewer limits to exploration and freedom here as well. This is something I’m not aware of in any other Soulsborne game, at least to that extent.

This option should also make Elden Ring much more beginner-friendly. The overworld of the Lands Between has so many freely accessible areas that it is no problem to discover new things, farm runes and internalize the game’s mechanics, so that the level grind is varied for those who still need to “git gud” and doesn’t mean having to run the same level section 100 times. Also, bosses or minor bosses that don’t suit you – Shirafuji and Shirahagi haunted my dreams for quite some time – don’t have to be game breaking any more. If you don’t feel ready for an area, you just ride somewhere else, gain experience, and then come back stronger.

Granted, there were often alternative ways in and out of areas in the predecessor titles, too – Dark Souls and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice being the most prominent ones. But until now, the usual pattern of a level section was that a boss fight waited at the end at the latest, which had to be won if you wanted to see more of the game. As free as the exploration in the Soulsborne games has been so far, they were still relatively linear.

Elden Ring’s Dungeons, Dungeons and Legacy Dungeons

If one feels overwhelmed by the open overworld, one should quickly feel at home in one of the countless dungeons that can be found at every corner in the in-between world. At least as a Soulsborne veteran. In these level sections, one fights through dark caves or guarded fortresses and often has to face an minor boss at the end, from whose battlefield there is no escape due to the golden wall of fog.

If one dies on their way through the dungeon or even in the boss room, one has to struggle along the same path – or hastily sprint past all the mobs and hope for some luck – to collect the hard-farmed runes. Simply riding your mount to the place of death and then running away is not possible. At this point at the latest, Elden Ring might feel like a classic Soulsborne game again for many players, which puts many obstacles in the way of the players that have to be overcome.

So far, I have only explored large parts of the starting area and the Weeping Peninsula, and fought my way through Castle Morne to deliver a letter. Accordingly, my experience with the game is still quite limited. Nevertheless, I noticed a few points that could possibly turn out to be problematic. However, these are not necessarily exclusive to Elden Ring, but represent the downsides for many open world games.

Does Elden Ring Offer Too Much Freedom?

Linear World Design and an Alleged Open World

Can there be too much freedom in a video game? This point is undoubtedly controversial and certainly a matter of personal taste. One player likes to be taken by the hand and experience a linear story driven adventure, while the other player wants to explore the world without restrictions and is only slightly interested in the story.

Different players with different interests and preferences are as numerous as there are different types of video games and genres, probably even more. And that’s not a bad thing, but allows us gamers an extremely diverse enjoyment, in which basically everyone can find their own individual kind of video game.

The “Peculiar” Level Design of the Soulsborne Games

The Soulsborne games have been characterized by the fact that, after an initial hurdle, they offer an immersive, profound game world that can convince with excellent world and level design. Specifically, I mean the interwoven paths and areas and the associated “eureka experience” that comes over you when you enter an elevator after a few hours of playing, following the level progression, and suddenly find yourself back at the beginning of the level, or a transition to a new area. This is especially impressive when the whole thing also makes sense geographically or is coherent.

Especially the first part of the Dark Souls series implemented this principle of interwoven paths, shortcuts and level transitions in an absolutely impressive way, in my opinion. The game achieves this by the fact that the individual sections are usually the aforementioned linear level structures, which have been sensibly and thoughtfully designed and placed next to each other. Dark Souls thus cleverly creates the appearance of a non-linear open world simply by the way the individual areas merge into each other and how they branch out into themselves.

In addition, the game offers relatively non-linear passages, in which the order in which the individual areas are approached can be freely chosen by the players. Due to the many branching paths and transitions, it can happen that one plays certain sections in a different order than other players.

Game design and level design are significant points for the Philosophy of Video Games and are also examined in Aesthetics, for example.
There are also many video essays on Youtube that explore and examine the worlds of Soulsborne games. A very good video essay, in my opinion, is “The World Design of Dark Souls” by youtuber Game Maker’s Toolkit.

The World of Elden Ring

Elden Ring now seems to break with this approach to world and level design. At least in the areas I discovered within the first 20+ hours. The obvious supporting factor here is the open world. A freely traversable world map makes it nearly impossible to maintain the interconnectedness of the individual areas and the branching within individual areas, if one does not want to artificially set boundaries and thus limit the exploration of the players.

However, the familiar level design is brought back through the normal dungeons and Legacy Dungeons. By defining areas within the open world that have only one access, proven and popular design choices can be reintroduced within these areas in the form of the relatively linear and supposedly nonlinear levels. The “spirit of the Soulsborne games”, at least in terms of level design, is thus transferred to the new open game world.

In fact, the tendency towards a more open game world already seems clear to me in the predecessor titles. While Dark Souls II still has a similar world structure to Dark Souls – even if the interconnectedness of the individual levels doesn’t seem to make as much sense at times – the primarily linear and branching sections are greatly reduced in favor of more expansive areas that can be approached from many different directions, at the latest in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

This is problematic for two main reasons. On the one hand, the aforementioned “eureka experience” is basically lost or at least greatly weakened. On the other hand, this naturally also has an influence on how an area can or must be designed, which in turn affects the balancing of the whole game.

The dungeons I’ve explored so far all seemed less complex and branching, and any forks were already rejoined after a few minutes of play. Since I consider the level design of the first Dark Souls to be extremely successful, this is a small disappointment for me so far. However, I’m still very curious to see what else will await me in the Legacy Dungeons. Moreover, this is basically not a bad thing, since such a design can be quite convincing in a successful overall concept – like in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, for example.

The problem with the area design and balancing is that, especially in the overworld, the placement of the mobs sometimes seems very random, and one has to fight three human mobs at one point and an oversized bear around the next bend, from which one probably only has the option to flee, at least at the beginning. Also, the difficulty of the dungeons within the starting area varies a lot.

On the positive side, one can simply ride away and come back later when stronger. On the other hand, from a design perspective, it can be asked why the developers decided to integrate a dungeon for which a significantly higher character level makes sense so early on, instead of keeping the level cap at a similar level for all dungeons in an area.

But such a problem ultimately not only affects Elden Ring, and it does not necessarily harm the gameplay in the first place. Again, it will probably be a matter of taste for many players.

Filling the Game World Sensibly

The second problem follows on from the placement of the mobs and addresses other aspects that affect open world games in general. In order to make the game world interesting and the game entertaining, an open game world must be filled in a meaningful or sensible way. This concerns not only the mobs, but also other NPCs, available items, dungeons, settlements or cities, and other interesting places. In addition, an open world should be varied and ideally also offer interesting, imaginative or fun side quests.

Quests and NPCs

Since Elden Ring, in keeping with its spiritual predecessors, does not strike a particularly cheerful tone in terms of the story it tells and its overall presentation, and since From Software‘s top game principle is to make both the plot and the gameplay as vague and mysterious as possible, a particularly big hurdle arises here. By no means is it to be said that Soulsborne games have no humor. On the contrary, they are sometimes, whether intentionally or not, extremely humorous. Be it items or their descriptions, certain design decisions or some NPCs – just think of the Knights of Catarina.

However, the vagueness of the questlines, the lack of genre-typical design elements like quest logs, as well as the sparse general introduction and wording of the tasks, do not necessarily make it easier for Elden Ring. While much of this is precisely the charm or appeal of the Soulsborne games – which is one of the reasons I enjoy playing them so much myself – the game can run the risk of this having a negative impact on the experience in the open game world. Probably not without reason, the ability to place markers has since been added via a patch, and in addition, NPCs are now displayed on the world map.

Furthermore, the From Software games are not known for really varied quests and significant interactions between player characters and NPCs, although there are certainly deep stories told – see Siegward and Yhorm’s story in Dark Souls III, for example. However, I cannot yet say whether this is enough for a large open world. Of course, we can’t rule out whether the Lands Between needs such interactions and quests at all.

Back to the Dungeons

However, what I have noticed as minimally annoying in the game time so far is the design of the dungeons as well as the reuse of the mobs. Four different types of dungeons I’ve been able to locate so far. Plain caves, mines, tombs, and fortresses. Within these four categories, the first three dungeons in particular are not very varied and hardly differ from each other.

In caves, it’s mainly dark, the walls are made of clay, and every now and then they contain the obligatory environment hazard, such as a poison swamp. In mines, you often go down in an elevator, at the end of which the Bonfire – here called “Sites of Grace” – is placed, while alternatively one can jump down to the left of the elevator to collect one or two items. In the tombs you will find traps and so far they always contain the same mobs.

This will probably change in the further course of the game, but unfortunately it speaks for the lack of variety and a reuse of already used elements. This “reusing” and, in the case of mobs, “reskinning” is often found in open world games where there was not enough time to fill the entire world or where the developers ran out of ideas and as a player one might the impression that less might have been more.

I had a similar impression with the use of the minor bosses. I consider the minor or main bosses to be the mobs that have a separate life bar at the bottom of the screen and that do not respawn when one rests at a Site of Grace. On the one hand, I have already defeated two of the same minor bosses twice in the short time, which were almost identical in behavior and design, and I know from Youtube videos that minor bosses are also inserted into the game quasi via copy and paste in other places. Here, of course, the background story of the game world can contribute, but it seems relatively unimaginative at first glance. I also had similar impressions with certain objects and buildings, which is of course criticism on a high level considering the large number of different creatures in Soulsborne games.

On the other hand, the open game world in Elden Ring unfortunately seems to lose one significant effect of the Soulsborne games for me. I remember the Taurus Demon very well and I have an even better – not happier – recollection of the Capra Demon, which were both bosses in the beginning of Dark Souls and became standard enemies later in the game.

I consider this reuse of former bosses to be later standard mobs as quite successful: On the one hand, it seems to create the feeling that the developers cannot be entirely serious about this, because, after all, this used to be a boss fight – in the case of the Capra Demon, a very frustrating one for me. On the other hand, however, this gives players the impression of progress when they realize that the same mobs they had greater difficulty with in the beginning can now be defeated relatively easily.

In Elden Ring, I unfortunately had the opposite effect, which was triggered by running into several strong mobs on the overworld that I later encountered as minor bosses at the end of a dungeon. As a result, at least this positive sense of progression was lost for me. In addition, I already knew the moveset, which is why the minor bosses were no longer a major hurdle, robbing me of the feeling of satisfaction, once I had defeated them.


Since I still have most of the game ahead of me, these criticisms should not be considered too far-reaching. As described at the beginning, these are my personal first impressions, which I can definitely attribute in part to my previous experiences with Soulsborne games. Without the previous knowledge, this impression would certainly have turned out differently.

However, Elden Ring is so far a very entertaining and a very good video game, which takes up the strengths – and also some weaknesses – of the Soulsborne games and uses these strengths skillfully. The freely accessible overworld should make it much easier to get into the game, especially for newcomers, and with the dungeons and Legacy Dungeons, Elden Ring brings back familiar but still coherent gameplay and knows how to entertain overall. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what else I will experience in Elden Ring.

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