I, Dragonslayer

Admittedly, I may have been a bit overleveled when I faced the dragon Agheel on the lake of the same name. From Software had already had me run into walls on two or three bosses. i didn’t want to leave the successful “first try” to chance, at least this time.

Elden Ring is the first Soulsborne I’ve played in its peak of the hype. This hype, like the Souls games themselves, is an emotional roller coaster. While reviews gush and state the obvious (it’s really hard, you know?), tips and tricks run the range from no-shit-sherlock to thank-you-for-spoilers.

“How to beat Flying Dragon Agheel” was strongly offered to me on YouTube, but my inner spoiler firewall was already out of beta. I knew this was a dragon I wanted to slay on my own. And there I was. In this swamp-like lake that didn’t seem to be really deep at any point. My knight on a horse, a shield in his left hand, a sword in his right. A fire-breathing dragon. A knight. A lake. A horse. A sword. Something smelled strongly of songs about Siegfried, Kriemhild, and Hagen.

Speaking of stating the obvious: Dark Fantasy is just fantasy, too. Elden Ring, for many the long-awaited modern fusion of all the FromSoft hits of the last two decades, is an oldschool narrative. Where it doesn’t directly read Dark Souls, it unmistakably hijacks Breath of the Wild, and that’s already a back-to-roots plagiarism of its own 1986 original, at least in terms of the idea of interactively narrating an adventure journey without getting in the way of playful curiosity.

Even the world and its story are kind of “old.” It’s about gods and mages, swords, shields, torches, monks, faith, with old language, gracefully cryptic and told in pluralis majestatis. As is the way with medieval fantasy settings. Most of the movements are understandably ponderous, after all everything is big and bulky and driven by muscle power or divine will. Of all things, Elden Ring wants to throw the party of the year for modern game design with … this?

As Agheel flew toward the lake, landing with a crash and a screech, my lock-on grabbed, and I rode toward the giant on my steed with my sword raised, I could only conclude: Not only is it the best party, the most awesome people are invited and the buffet is more than plentiful. Before I could finish thinking about this analogy, the beast opened its giant mouth and turned the surface of the water into a conflagration, which I escaped as skillfully as if I had done nothing else for months.

While the music rose in dramatic chorales, the dragon hissed, flew up and down, hurled itself at me, wanting nothing more than to see me dead. But my constant switching between running and ducking, gaining and shortening distance, dogde-rolling, riding, firing magic arrows, and jumping attacks clearly showed who was the human and who was the AI here.

After five epic minutes, Agheel’s life bar was a thing of the past and the winged giant dissolved into smoke and runes with a final scream. The music fell silent. A calm spread over the lake. I was still on my mount. I wanted to applaud, but not myself, but the staging of the play and how it had led me to star in this performance without rehearsal.

Maybe that’s what some analyses try to express in many words when they want to capture Soulsbornes and Soulslikes. From Software gives us, the people at the controller, the starring role. Not its CGI cutscenes, not its hair physics, not even the story imposes itself in a big way – on the contrary, you have to search for it in small pieces like a puzzle. What I never have to look for is the gigantic stage, complete with ensemble and extras, for my own personal heroic story. One that only I can experience. Every failure and every success, every bit of decoding of lore and mechanics are another page of my adventure saga. Siegfried and Hagen are a joke compared to that.

Elden Ring, released in 2022, is the most extensive work to date from Dark Souls creators From Software. It’s its own beast, combining many learnings from From Software’s own titles and also, strikingly, from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and, if you will, Skyrim. Critics are enthusiastic, and the polarized debate over the game’s difficulty, accessibility, and cryptic nature will continue for years to come, as it did with the Dark Souls series before it.

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