There is a trap at the start of Elden Ring that I think a lot of new players fall into. In a puff of smoke, you are transported from the fields of Limgrave to a claustrophobic crystal cavern. The enemies here are brutal. Running past them to find the cave exit, you emerge into a hellscape of heavy metal – all lakes of blood and colossal skulls embedded in the mountainsides.
It’s easy to think you’ve been thrown around the world, an early high in Elden Ring’s nightmarish endgame. But in the full extent of The Lands Between, you’ve barely walked the road.
The world of Elden Ring is vast, but not revolutionary. Monsters notwithstanding, a hike through The Lands Between wouldn’t take you as long as a jaunt across the United States of Red Dead Redemption 2, one of the recent Assassin’s Creeds, or even (do not say it) Breath of the Hyrule of nature. But somehow, Elden Ring manages to feel as big (if not bigger) than all of the above, and it all depends on how From Software arranges that scale.
When you first emerge into the open fields of Limgrave, your map is empty. If you follow the main road, you’ll soon find a piece of map revealing the whole area – an area impressive enough in itself that you could waste dozens of hours exploring.
But then you’re teleported to Caelid, or exploring further south in the peninsula, and something strange happens. The map UI itself grows up. Suddenly, the possibility of what this world might hold explodes. Liunia adds a huge northward sprawl to the map, and for a good 30 hours I felt that was as far north as we would go – that the map would line up with some land to the east, may be. Then you discover the Altus board, and the map doubles in height – and not even for the last time.
The biggest shock for most people, however, is when they come across a small hut in the Mistwood. There’s an elevator inside that descends and continues to descend, far beyond any point of reason, until you emerge into a vast underworld. Opening the map reveals a new hotkey for changing map layers, and suddenly you’re struck by the realization that there’s a whole second world lurking beneath the surface of Elden Ring.
Importantly, Elden Ring doesn’t tell you any of this at first. The map screen doesn’t reveal a second layer on a new character, nor does it allow you to doodle on foggy terrain. You start the game not knowing where The Lands Between will go or where it will end, which makes each new region even more exciting.
But Elden Ring’s scale is further aided by the fact that you can’t just walk from one end to the other. Dark Souls games have always been nestled in secret worlds, mountain temples hidden in paintings, puzzles hidden in descriptions of objects that take you to ancient castles.
I mentioned one earlier, the long drive up the Siofra River hidden in a wooded temple. But that sense of discovery lasts long in the game, with vast swaths of the map available only to those willing to put down roots. Last night I stumbled out of the way in an endgame area into what seemed like a dead end, only to find that lying down appealed to me. out of time in one of the most visually arresting boss fights I’ve ever seen.
An endgame region, itself enclosed behind an easy-to-miss quest item, leads to two further hidden areas, one of which is even denser with labyrinthine complexity, and arguably the toughest boss fight ever designed by From Software. Elden Ring is vast, but it retains the sense of an interlocking world set in Dark Souls 1, with areas frequently connecting to each other in unexpected ways.
Elden Ring isn’t shy about recontextualizing areas you’ve already visited, either. Some of them are small, with enemies leaving a major early location based on quest progress. But a very late development sees an area completely transformed in such a way that it practically becomes a whole new area.
See, I don’t play too many open-world games these days. Criticisms on checklists and seamless design around the “Ubisoft” model of open worlds aside, I often find myself giving up as soon as an open world game becomes known. The moment I saw where the borders are, and I know exactly what’s on the other side of the hill.
But at 100 hours, Elden Ring is still a game full of mystery. I’m on the doorstep of the final boss, and idle backtracking always reveals whole new corners of the map. There are still towers that I haven’t figured out how to unlock, ruins that require lateral thinking to solve. And that’s not even mentioning the NPC questlines I missed, many of which I’m sure follow their own leads.
Elden Ring may not be the biggest square footage game. But its world is carefully crafted never to reveal all of its secrets, and the game retains that sense of fantasy adventure until its final hours. I’ll finish Elden Ring within the week, but it’ll be a long time before I exhaust its world.