Developer FromSoftware has become famous for notoriously challenging yet rewarding games. Its latest release, Elden Ring, has set the bar even higher by expanding the challenge to a completely open world. All previous entries in the Soulsborne series (Dark Souls 1-3, Bloodborne, and Sekiro) have followed a similarly linear path as straightforward adventures with a hub area connecting different regions. There's no doubt the major success of Elden Ring has piqued FromSoftware’s interest in creating more open-world games, but a major part of its previous successes were their compact and linear structure.
Elden Ring has taken the world by storm. Not only has Dark Souls series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki perfected his craft, but he was assisted in developing its setting by famous novelist George R. R. Martin. The game’s story is brought to life in the vast, open world of The Lands Between, featuring a variety of different biomes for players to explore at their own pace. The FromSoft style of gameplay and difficulty applied to an open world allows players to come and go to different areas as they please, so if one enemy or boss is too difficult, the player can simply explore elsewhere and come back.
This is a feature that players could not take advantage of in previous games. If one mandatory boss was too difficult, players could only grind the area leading up to the boss and keep trying until victory was eventually achieved. That being said, while the benefits of the open-world approach are clear, both styles have their rightful place within FromSoftware games.
Dark Souls Created a Perfect Linear Design
The original Dark Souls was a true pioneer in the video game industry. Released in 2011, the game has defined RPGs for the past 10 years, leading to not only multiple sequels, but even its own sub-genre of “Souls-Like” games. Many games take place in a dark-fantasy settings, and high difficulty is a turn-off for many players. However, there is something special about the way that Dark Souls tells its story and uses its difficulty to mold the player and teach them through trial and error.
The main story of the original game is fairly simple to follow, and has been tweaked for most of its successors. However, it is not the story that makes these games unique; rather, it's how the story is told. There are few monologues from NPCs or cutscenes, so to find out the true story, the player must discover it through implications, item descriptions, and observing the world. The most crucial stories are told by Dark Souls' unforgettable boss fights.
This process is not straightforward, but that makes it all the more rewarding when a player is able to unravel the story. In order to properly tell this story, the creators had to give players a path to follow. Barring a few optional areas, this method is the easiest way for players to comprehend the storytelling elements of the environment, as well as subtly increasing the difficulty and challenge in each area. This not only progresses the story, it allows the player to see how much stronger they have become.
Open-world environments can also achieve this, but not without blocking off higher-level areas through story progression or level caps. The Soulsborne games have perfected the art of convoluted, linear storytelling, and their design is what allowed a game like Elden Ring to carve its own unique path.
What Makes Elden Ring’s Open World Work
The challenge with Elden Ring was to fit the Dark Souls experience into an open world. This is no small feat considering the method of progressing in Dark Souls games is to beat an area boss and move on to the next one. Elden Ring gives players the option to explore just about the entire map from start, so instead of being strung along a set path, players are free to go about Elden Ring's story, bosses, and side quests at their own pace, with few limitations.
However, the game still plays exactly as a Dark Souls game should: enemies are challenging, and there are plenty of uniquely awe-inspiring bosses. The difference is that no playthrough will be the exact same, and players have more freedom to choose how and when they want to tackle any particular area, so the story can be progressed at the player's discretion.
This story is not much different from other Soulsborne games. The main path can be followed, complete with legacy dungeons that work similar to traditional boss dungeons from previous games. However, there are an almost endless amount of side-stories and dungeons that are all optional, but allow the player to explore and learn more of the lore deeply rooted within the world.
Many of these stories grant the player access to Elden Ring's six different endings, as opposed to the two or three endings that have been in previous games. Though a few of the endings are available simply by playing the main story, just having the option to find different endings and meet new characters is an enticing reason to explore.
Both Styles Fit FromSoftware’s Games
Both the Dark Souls series and Elden Ring have achieved astounding feats, and the two will surely continue to set a standard for RPGs. But being linear or open-world is not what makes any of these games great alone. They all have outstanding qualities in design and storytelling that play perfectly into each.
FromSoftware has created a lot of beautiful, unique worlds, and will surely continue creating games similar to Dark Souls and Elden Ring. Though many games are creating open worlds like Elden Ring, there is still a need for concise and linear gameplay. Even with Elden Ring’s success, FromSoftware used the Dark Souls formula to lay its groundwork.
Another open-world game from FromSoftware would be welcomed, but part of the beauty of the smaller, linear games that FromSoftware produces is how all of them offer slight variations from the last. These tweaks and adjustments to the story, gameplay, and setting ultimately allowed the developer to create its open-world game. The success of Elden Ring shows FromSoftware can create open-world games, but it also demonstrates how the developer has perfected the art of linear storytelling and design. Ideally, it should never stray too far from its roots.
Elden Ring is available now for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.
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