It’s been a few months since a chosen few were able to take their first steps into Elden Ring – thanks to From Software’s Closed Network Test – and explore just a small fragment of the open world that was teeming with mini dungeons, roaming field bosses, and plenty of secrets. With the release date looming large just a few short weeks away, I was given one last chance to explore as far as I could in the Lands Between. This time there were no barriers to stop me — just a lot of incredibly tough adversaries waiting to kick my ass.

Rather than trying to solely progress through Elden Ring’s “main path” that led through incredibly grueling “Legacy Dungeons”, I decided to spend my precious six hours finding out exactly how the open world really works, and there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

The Open Road

The first thing I learned after creating a brand new character for my short adventure was how absolutely essential the Lands Between is as a stepping stone to your journey to become an Elden Lord. In truth, there’s nothing stopping you from running straight from the tutorial cave to the first main dungeon that houses one of several demigods you’re tasked to defeat. But like trying to race right to Ganon from the start in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, there’s a good chance the enemies in Stormveil Castle will wipe the floor with you. Even brimming with confidence from my time in the Closed Network Test, I was swiftly put into my place by the first boss fight just trying to get into the dungeon proper, and I realized the previous beta may have given players a lot of powerful toys to play with much earlier than you’re going to find them now. Odds are if you thought the Network Test was too easy, you’re in for a rude awakening.

In that sense, the early regions serve as a proving ground not only to test your mettle against various types of enemies big and small, but also as a veritable treasure trove of rewards hiding all over the place. Like most FromSoft titles, Elden Ring encourages and rewards exploration – and now has much more room for creativity than simply giving you more than one corridor in a castle to check out. This is even more apparent when taking in the sights of Elden Ring’s gorgeous vistas. Seeing the ever-present swirling fog of Stormveil fade away to reveal the large flooded valley of the region known as Liurnia of the Lakes made me almost forget I was being chased by wolves as I stopped to take it all in. Later, I found a secret lift that took me deep down into an underground ruin with its own rivers and forests, illuminated by glimmering lights embedded in the rocks far above. If not for the faint outlines of the cavern ceiling, I might have thought I was looking directly into the cosmos.

Odds are if you thought the Network Test was too easy, you’re in for a rude awakening.

Exploring these vast regions reminded me of how many times we’ve seen glimpses of the larger worlds that FromSoft has crafted in their past titles — only now I actually had the opportunity to explore the breadth of what I was being shown. Mere seconds after taking in the stunning views of these places, I was already zeroing in on bustling enemy camps, distant bridges to forlorn islands, and broken churches that had my curiosity going into overdrive. Each time I was rewarded with enticing gear and items, lone merchants, or incredibly dangerous and terrifying looking enemies (and often all of the above).

Not once was I ever remotely instructed to visit most of these places, and the joys of discovery only grew greater and greater. In fact, I soon realized there was nothing stopping me from bypassing Elden Ring’s main legacy dungeons entirely. With a little bit of trial and error while exploring, I was able to slink past not only Stormveil Castle, but later the Academy of Raya Lucaria, which loomed tall over the second region like some evil Hogwarts. It made me wonder just how far into the world I could get without ever having to face down one of the mighty demigods that ruled each domain. It was a great feeling to know that unlike Dark Souls, where I had to beat my head against a troublesome boss if I wanted to progress, I was free to delve deeper and deeper into the Lands Between if I felt stuck against a certain encounter.

It’s Like Dark Souls, But Bigger

Over the course of my six-hour adventure to explore as much as I could, my mind kept coming back to one question: “What exactly are you supposed to do in Elden Ring’s open world?” This isn’t the first time a developer has taken the plunge to try their hand at an open world game, and it’s safe to say that results have varied. Some of the first forays into open worlds have produced barren landscapes for the sake of size alone, or inundating you with hundreds of map markers for side quests, activities, and minigames to try and keep your attention. So far, Elden Ring has proved to be vast – but not so much that areas feel overwhelming, thanks to a multitude of checkpoints (called Sites of Grace) and large well-traveled roads that often connect to new areas. That said, it is still a lonely and unforgiving world to traverse. You’ll find very few friendly faces and many enemies can prove relentless even if you’re on horseback.

Where side attractions are concerned, FromSoft seems determined to provide more of what they do best: a variety of challenging enemies, hiding important items and characters off the beaten path, and serving up mysteries and secrets in every corner of the land. It may sound a bit simplistic, and in a way it is. Arguably Elden Ring’s most open world-y addition is a crafting system that allows you to gather resources and materials by harvesting plants and killing creatures, but even this has been given the FromSoft treatment in a way, as you’ll have to hunt down various recipe books to learn how to craft important tools and consumables that ranged from different types of bombs to a type of “faux sorcery” that allows characters not well-versed in magic arts to detonate mini magical attacks.

There’s possibly a lot more waiting in the Lands Between beyond the regions I explored, but here’s just a sample of what I found waiting for me in Elden Ring’s open world:

Stumbled upon even more small dungeons than were in the Network Test. Some of these have obvious entrances or nearby statues pointing you toward them, but many have openings built into narrow cliff walls and can easily be missed.Assaulted enemy encampments where soldiers had dug in fortifications and lined the entrances with guards – including those that would sound horns with alarm, and send every foe running at me if I wasn’t careful.Tiptoed around giant and imposing field bosses, then tried to ride in horseback to score some quick hits – and was promptly flattened in a single strike.Followed the guidance of light created from checkpoints to point me towards the next major dungeon. Interestingly enough, you can have multiple guidances across different regions – and one of them was pointing me to a large fort; bigger than one of the mini dungeons, but smaller than a legacy dungeon.Discovered lonely NPCs – each with a story to tell. Some remained to sell me items or spells, and others showed up later at a secret hub unlocked a few hours into my playthrough known as the Roundtable Hold, where I met even more characters who were hesitant to share their secrets.Bounded up and down cliffs on my spectral steed to find alternate routes to bypass legacy dungeons and difficult chokepoints.Opened a seemingly innocuous chest, and was suddenly transported somewhere else entirely.Expanded the map by locating fragments guarded by fearsome enemies, giving me more clues on where to travel next. I was excited and slightly terrified to find that Elden Ring kept its secrets close to its chest by never showing me the full scope of the open world, as each fragment slowly increased the map’s maximum size.Found a pretty painting in an abandoned shack (thankfully did not lead to a painted world). Rather, I recognized the vista portrayed and journeyed to the site to find a ghostly visage and a very quirky helmet as a reward.Uncovered secrets aplenty, including barriers that were only unlocked by finding specific keys, and permanently embedding them into nearby imp statues. Some seemed to unlock optional boss fights, or rooms full of treasure – like one where I found an assassin’s crossbow that could be used to snipe down the sights, or held in the off-hand like I was playing Bloodborne.

Choose Your Tarnished

For those who played or saw the Closed Network Test, I have some bad news and good news. The bad news is that several of the class archetypes featured don’t actually exist anymore (RIP Bloody Wolf). The good news is that you’ll now have ten different classes to choose from when creating your character in Elden Ring, from the sword and bow Samurai, to the strange dexterous spell-slinging Prisoner – complete with a wacky iron mask. And yes, if you need nothing but a loincloth and a club, the Wretch is ready to fill your blank slate needs. You can see a breakdown of every starting classes’ attributes on our Elden Ring Wiki.

Skills That Kill

FromSoftware’s boss Hidetaka Miyazaki recently remarked that they haven’t “intentionally tried to lower the game’s difficulty,” but expect more people to beat Elden Ring than their previous titles. After spending a few hours in the Lands Between, I think I’m starting to understand why.

Excluding Sekiro, each of their action rpgs have let you choose between several class archetypes, and Elden Ring’s ten starting classes are no exception. And yet, sometimes even with the ability to level up and invest in the attributes you find more important, I felt like there were limited options to experiment once I’d invested in certain weapons and attributes. Elden Ring’s customizable weapon skills – called Ashes of War – seems to aim to change that. In just six hours, I had already amassed quite a collection – finding them in chests, recovered from bosses, and even sold from a self proclaimed Warmaster. Each of these could be applied to different types of armaments depending on the skill, as well as potential scaling depending on what attributes I was building up.

There’s way more forgiveness to find out what works best for you without having to spend time grinding.

This allows for a whole new level of customization not only to find what skill works best for you, but to swap out skills to experiment with new tactics without having to waste resources to do it. Coupled with the ability to use your focus points either on spells, skills, throwing magic tools, or summoning a variety of different spirits to assist you in combat, there’s way more forgiveness to find out what works best for you without having to spend time grinding for more levels to spend on attributes. One of more interesting examples I found was the ability to possibly apply the parry skill to things other than shields, and even to apply “no skill” to shields so that you could make use of your main weapon’s skill without having to switch to two hands.

All of these discoveries made me realize six hours was far too little time to scratch the surface of what else is waiting to be discovered. Can I bypass every major dungeon right to the end? Are there more secret regions hiding just out of sight? Where’s my complimentary open world fishing minigame? Thankfully, I won’t have long to wait to find out.

Brendan Graeber is a guides editor at IGN, and wrote walkthroughs for Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro. Ask him your Elden Ring questions on Twitter @Ragga_Fragga

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