#98: Soul of a hero

There's nothing quite like a new FromSoftware game — and there's nothing like reviewing one, either.

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If I’ve got my dates right, Elden Ring reviews land today. I’m writing this first thing in the morning so don’t know how well it’s gone over (edit: holy crap!); I’m reviewing it, but for a certain esteemed print organ, so I will keep my feelings to myself until the mag is published next month. That also means I’ve got a little longer with the game than the online outlets, who’ve had barely a week to play the thing and write it all up. If any of them have finished it, they will only have done so by playing every hour that god sends, and likely a few more besides. There’s a whole other Hit Points to be written about review lead times, and how game companies are effectively mandating an unhealthy culture of overwork on journalists — and their games are likely getting worse scores as a result — but let’s leave that for another day. Hidetaka Miyazaki’s games are a class apart, and reviewing them is unlike reviewing anything else.

I should know: Elden Ring is my fifth review of a Soulskiroborne, or whatever we’re calling them this week. For one thing, you’re trying to sprint headlong through a game that is designed to be played at a walk (and in Elden Ring’s case, frequently involves running as fast as you can in the opposite direction). The servers either aren’t up or are sparsely populated with reviewers who are too busy in their own save file to drop summon signs, so if you’re struggling with a boss fight all you can do is keep trying.

And of course, if you get lost or stuck, there’s no running to Reddit, YouTube or a wiki. There are no build guides, routes to helpful items or boss cheese strategies, unless you can find them yourself. You’re on your own. And there is magic to that, don’t get me wrong. It is an honour and a privilege, however bloody, to do this work. You are an explorer, a pioneer, taking on one of gaming’s great challenges alone; when you beat a boss your chest puffs out, and you stand a little straighter (and if you’re me, you also swear so loudly you scare the dog). And while the review process often casts games in their least flattering light, to play a Souls game in this way, alone and blind and in the dark, is to see Miyazaki’s vision at its purest. But it’s also incredibly lonely, enormously difficult, and at times has you questioning your career choices.

I have a few stories I like to tell about reviewing Souls games, but the best of the lot happened to someone else — though it almost feels like my story, because it was being played over my shoulder in the Edge office. To those that do not know, in the Souls games, you can get ‘cursed’ if you inhale a noxious gas spewed by froglike creatures called basilisks. In Dark Souls, you lose 50% of your maximum health until you cleanse the curse with a specific item.

While it was patched soon after release, in the review version of Dark Souls, curses stacked. Our reviewer got cursed three times. And so he spent a solid day and night running around one of the most punishingly difficult and beguilingly designed worlds that videogames had ever seen, looking for an item that could be anywhere, with a health bar one-eighth its normal size. Just about everything in the game could one-shot him. You think Souls games are hard? Yeesh. Try reviewing them.

By comparison, my stories are quite tame. Getting lost for two hours while looking for something that I would later find four feet from where I started (this happened this morning with Elden Ring). Spending two full workdays stuck on a boss (shout outs to Rom The Vacuous Spider, the prick, among others). I got so lost late on in Dark Souls II that I had to ask Namco UK PR to ask its central EU PR to ask US PR to ask Japan PR to ask FromSoft where I was supposed to go next, which in addition to being a damning indictment of the way multinational videogame companies structure their communications is a pretty perfect metaphor for Souls games in general. I never got an answer, that I can remember anyway, and brute-forced the solution by fast-travelling to every available bonfire on the map one by one, only moving on when I was satisfied I’d picked an area clean. Good times.

You are never, in fairness, entirely alone. You are joined by a tiny community of fellow explorers; other reviewers who are bashing their heads against the same walls you are. I am friends with Matt Gilman, then a writer on GamesMaster magazine, in large part because of our morning debriefs spent swapping tips, sharing secrets and offering moral support as we each worked our way through Dark Souls II and Bloodborne. The original Dark Souls was so big, so alien and so challenging that reviewers in the UK and US formed a sort of email support group. Dubbed ‘The Chain Of Pain’ by The Guardian’s Keza MacDonald, there’s a chapter on it in the excellent Dark Souls book You Died, written by Keza and my former Edge colleague Jason Killingsworth (and recently republished with a stunning layout from Edge design demigod Andrew Hind). Let us end with a quote from that.

“One of the other unique aspects of our experience with the game is that we all had the spectre of copy deadlines hanging over our heads. As a reviewer you hope to complete the game in its entirety before writing your piece so that you have the most informed opinion possible. Nobody wants to grind their wheels on a mid-game boss for several days and then simply have to give up progressing in order to bash out a review that deftly conceals one’s failure. We all wanted to finish. Almost nobody did, as I recall, but that time pressure made the experience even more fraught. You were progressing through a world of indeterminate — but clearly enormous — size, wondering how to gauge if you were on track to finish in time.”

Good Lord, that hit me right in the chest. I suppose I had better get on with it.


  • Here’s your first look at PlayStation VR 2 hardware. Sony says the design “was inspired by the look of the PS5 family of products,” but it’s nowhere near that bad, thankfully.
  • Square Enix president Yosuke Matsuda says that Crystal Dynamics’ jolly nice Guardians Of The Galaxy tie-in “undershot our initial expectations”, which I think says more about Square Enix’s expectations than it does the game’s quality. I thought the marketing failed to play up to the game’s strengths, focusing more on its lukewarm combat than the witty interplay between its characters. And I doubt the  fact that Square Enix games tend to plummet in price within weeks of release helped much, either. Ho hum.
  • There will be no mainline Call Of Duty release next year, Bloomberg reckons, though a free-to-play game will launch in its stead. Supposedly the decision was taken before the Microsoft acquisition, but as I’ve said before, I’d be surprised if this sort of thing didn’t become more common once the deal completes.
  • Bethesda’s PC launcher is shutting down, with all the publisher’s titles moving over to Steam. One assumes Battlenet will go the same way before long, once the antitrust bods have waved the deal through.
  • Tencent has bought Inflexion Games, the studio set up by former BioWare GM Aaryn Flynn, from Improbable, maker of the cloud-computing platform SpatialOS. The latter announced a shift away from internal game development last month, apparently; not sure how I missed that since it seems quite significant, though far from surprising. Inflexion’s debut game, a fantasy-survival jobber titled Nightingale, began its move away from SpatialOS last summer.
  • Apple has been hit with five separate $5.7m fines by regulators in the Netherlands over its failure to allow the use of thirdparty payment systems, flouting an order from the nation’s Authority for Consumers and Markers.

There we go! I will now go and see if I can finally kill [REDACTED]. Have yourselves a fine couple of days, do the things with the buttons below, and I’ll see you on Friday unless I hit another Miyazaki-shaped wall in the meantime.