Elden Ring Closed Network Test - Hands-on Impressions

FromSoft's most ambitious and accessible Soulsborne game yet

Elden Ring

By Paul Hunter

The moment I've been waiting for finally arrived: This past weekend I got to spend over 20 hours playing Elden Ring during an exclusive Closed Network Test media preview on PlayStation and Xbox (I chose to play on PS5). It's been two years since the game was first announced and as a huge, huge FromSoftware fan I've literally been counting down the days until the Network Test.

Given the pedigree of FromSoft combined with just how amazing the pre-release trailers and gameplay overview videos have been, Elden Ring being an "incredible" experience was practically a given. I mean, this is the studio that gave us Bloodborne, Dark Souls, Demon's Souls and Sekiro—some of the finest gaming ever created. But in many ways, Elden Ring has potential to be their greatest offering yet. I could tell during my weekend playthrough that FromSoft has taken the best elements from their previous games and elevated them to the next level, plus in a bold move, is expanding their Soulsborne legacy with the first ever open world adventure. And the risk has paid off in spades. Innovative, thrilling, expansive, stunning and incredible, these were just some of the words that came to mind as I dug deep into this phenomenal Network Test preview.

A Richly Detailed World

Right from the opening character selection screen Elden Ring gives you a visual treat with five character classes to choose from—Warrior, Enchanted Knight, Prophet, Champion, Bloody Wolf—all with distinctive looks. You don't actually get to see their starting stats, equipment or spells so the choice has to be made based on appearance alone. My two choices came down to the Enchanted Knight in full armour and sorcerer wand, and the Prophet dressed in a cloak, wielding a club and having an usual wooden wheel around his neck. I ended up going with the Prophet as I suspected this class is heavily magic based and I've always been a big fan of spells in games like Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. You're also given the choice between two body types before heading out on your adventure.

The Closed Network Test begins in the Cave of Knowledge, a tutorial area where you'll learn about various systems starting with Sites of Grace, Elden Ring's version of bonfires or lamps. The cave gets you accustomed to the numerous dark and foreboding catacombs, caves and mini dungeons you'll encounter as you traverse the rather large open world accessible in the Test. After battling my way through some rather easy-to-killed corrupted cave dwellers, I rode a huge lift and knelt down to open up a stone door. Behind the door was the beautiful realm of Limgrave spanning the southern plains of the Lands Between. This moment was absolute eye candy: Limgrave is bright with golden yellow and leafy green hues, plus it had a huge glowing Erd Tree off to the distance to my right and smaller Erd Trees in other far-off spots. Having just replayed Bloodborne with its blackened medieval setting, Elden Ring felt like a vibrant 180-degree shift.

As far as I can gather, the Lands Between, which is the main setting for Elden Ring, is comprised of six regions and Limgrave is first and southern most one in the game. But being just 1/6 of total game map I was astounded by how many different biomes and points of interest I encountered. There are sandy beaches where large grotesque tentacled creatures live, there's a murky swap home to the fire-breathing Flying Dragon Agheel, there's a blizzard mountain with low visibility and evil lurking within the snow, there's a mysterious and decayed Dragon shine island in the lower western region, and there's the monstrously imposing Stormveil Castle where you'll face the Network Test's deadliest boss, the formidable magic user Margit the Fell Omen.

Graphically every area was richly detailed but also steeped in lore, like you'd expect in a FromSoft game. Monuments would be destroyed making you wonder and think about the wars that must have taken place on this very land in ages past. I discovered four different caves and catacombs where aggressive creatures—both alive and undead—have taken up residence. Many of these challenge dungeons are small but contains enemies, traps and a boss fight that can reward you with valuable items like Runes (used to level up your hero and to purchase items) along with Crystal Tears used to customize your rejuvenating Flask of Wondrous Physick. Coming out of my play test I couldn't help but crave to know more about these creatures and the land like it's various factions, lore and war-torned history.

Most Accessible FromSoft Game Yet

Back in June, the game's director Hidetaka Miyazaki was quoted as saying that Elden Ring will have a "more manageable" level of difficulty compared to previous FromSoft games and that's exactly how I felt playing the Network Test. There are many new and streamlined systems in Elden Ring to customize the difficulty, plus overall I thought the bosses were tough but fair. Of the seven bosses I fought and beat, four of them were fairly simple to beat after one or two tries. The other three—the Flying Dragon Agheel, Margit the Fell Omen and the Holy Tree Knight—were more challenging but still around the "medium" difficulty level for a FromSoft game, roughly equal in challenge to Bloodborne's Cleric Beast or Demon's Souls Tower Knight. In other words, challenging but manageable after a few tries.

Perhaps the biggest way Elden Ring makes overcoming dungeons and defeating bosses more approachable is the streamlined multiplayer mechanics. For starters, you've now got a "Multiplayer" menu section with clear descriptions of the various multiplayer items used to start a co-operative sessions (or invade in PvP, if you prefer). In addition to putting co-op gold symbols on the ground, which other players will see in their world and are used to summon you, Elden Ring's Limgrave area also has numerous Effigy of Martyr summoning pool spots. These are essentially multiplayer "hub" zones that allow players to easily and quickly find partners to squad up with. The items used to initiate multiplayer can also be crafted, meaning a little resource farming is all you need to do to craft more co-op items—certainly much easier than in past FromSoft games.

Another way to make difficult zones easier to beat are the many Rebirth Monuments where you can summon spirits with your Spirit-Caller's Bell. You need to collect spirit items in order to summon them, and by the end of my weekend playthrough I had acquired five spirits. These ranged from a floating jellyfish-type creature, to an army of five weaker corrupted townsfolks, to an incredibly powerful armoured warrior that tanked damage and also was a heavy hitter. All you need to summon these helpers is to be near a Rebirth Monument and spend a bit of your FP gauge (a.k.a. Focus Points). Summoning is very similar to summoning NPC helpers in previous FromSoft games, only in Elden Ring the Rebirth Monuments are plentiful, including in some boss areas, so you can recruit helpers quite frequently if you choose.

Another significant way Elden Ring makes exploring easier compared to other FromSoft games are the new gameplay mechanics, particularly the stealth mechanic to avoid enemy detection. I was surprised at just how stealthy you could be: most enemies won't notice or hear you if you creep up behind them, letting you unleash a charged-up stealth critical hit that does tremendous damage and sometimes outright killing them. There was an entire enemy encampment with armoured soldiers that I took out one by one using stealth, with the exception of one warrior that was flanked by two guard dogs that sniffed out my scent.

Another new gameplay mechanic that can work to your advantage is jumping. Previous FromSoft games allowed jumping after running for a second or two, but Elden Ring has a jump button that makes some enemy fights a whole lot simpler. You can jump to high ground and quickly leap back down for a powerful jump attack. I also discovered that the Holy Tree Knight (normally a very powerful boss) can't jump, so I leapt onto a toppled stone wall and beat him easily using magic without him able to reach me.

One final way you're able to make challenging boss fight more manageable is through magic. Past FromSoft games like Demon's Souls and Dark Souls also had magic, but a lot of the powerful spells you'd acquire more towards the mid- or end-game. Not so with Elden Ring. My Prophet started with a powerful beast claw spell that ripped through enemies dealing 150+ damage, enough to kill most common enemies and seriously harm bosses. The rate at which I acquired spells was also pretty fast, within six hours I had gained a fireball, a close-range fire burst, a mid-range fire barrage, a holy magic blast, a knockback spell and a dragon roar that lowers enemy attack. Most of these spells I found easily by purchasing from vendors or killing these peculiar rolling glowing enemies that dropped precious items. I also found an "incantation" spell that I wasn't able to use (because my stat wasn't high enough yet), which is another type of magic similar to how Dark Souls has Sorceries, Miracles and Pyromancies.

Speaking of spells, many equipment items you get (like your swords or shields) come with skills that can have similar effects to spells. My Prophet started out with shield that could create a healing aura the proved invaluable when fighting bosses. You can also discover special items that can imbue your weapons with magic, such as fire or holy. When I combined spellcasting with skills and weapon imbuing, my character was a total wrecking machine—and this happened all within the first ten hours or less. It makes me very excited to see what magic and skills await further into the game.

Ultimately what I discovered when playing the Elden Ring Network Test is there are simply more ways to customize the difficulty and approach combat situations compared to previous FromSoft titles. If you want a harder challenge: avoid using co-op, don't summon NPC helpers, don't use magic or skills, don't use stealth and minimize your jumping. You can play the game using traditional Dark Souls mechanics like blocks, parries and solo close-combat boss fights, if a steep challenge is more your cup of tea. Elden Ring doesn't force you in one direction or another, it simply gives you options.

The Verdict

The Elden Ring Network Test was a sheer joy to play and even from this small chunk of content I can already tell it's shaping up to be one of the best game of the entire gen. I can't wait to revisit the game during the next test and be sure to stay tuned to my Twitter where I'll be sharing even more updates. Elden Ring definitely has potential to be FromSoft's best game yet, which is saying a lot given this studio's impressive history.

Elden Ring details

Platform: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Developer: FromSoftware Inc.
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment America
Genre: Action RPG
Modes: Single-player, Multiplayer
ESRB Rating: RP (Rating Pending)

A key was provided by the publisher.