Elden Ring looks a bit nice, doesn’t it? After years of waiting for the Souls-meets-Game of Thrones title to show its face, we saw it in all its Gothic glory during the opening keynote of the Summer Games Fest, pre-E3 2021.
The trouble is, I’m rubbish at so-called ‘Soulsborne’ games. But Elden Ring might have a trick up its sleeve to win me over and strengthen my resolve: its lovely horse.
With an open world to explore, a steed to mount and all the spooky wonder we’ve come to expect from Hidetaka Miyazaki’s development team at FromSoftware, could this finally be the ‘Souls’ game for me? And could it be down to the influence of a classic PS2-era title?
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My lovely horse
I’m a sucker for an in-game horse. Since Epona first rode over the horizon to the sound of my woodwind tune in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I’ve been willing to restart whole games if anything happened to my trusty steed.
Red Dead Redemption 2 was a great example of this. I’d spent hours tracking down a White Arabian, the game’s best wild horse, among the snowy peaks of the Grizzlies. Slowly trailing, calming and capturing my mount over a period of what felt like hours, ol’ Whitey became my best buddy in the game, joining me on escapades of derring do and roguish lawlessness.
That was, of course, until I unceremoniously rode her over a cliff during a meaningless random world event. An auto-save quirk saw her disappear to the great prairie in the sky, which resulted in me throwing down my controller in a sulk and boycotting the game for a week. (I wore all black for a month in a period of mourning. RIP Whitey.)
Which brings me to perhaps my key point here. Elden Ring, from its aesthetic to its mare, seems to be taking key inspiration from an all-time great horse game – Shadow of the Colossus. And, for someone that’s bounced off Souls games in the past, it could be the reason I’ll stick around through the inevitable deaths till the credits roll.
Where are you going with your fetlocks blowing in the wind?
The Soulsborne games (that’s Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and their many imitators), of which Elden Ring is an evolution, revel in a challenge. They pit players against enemies of incredible strength, forcing you to muster the patience to learn from your mistakes and overcome adversity. People love the sense of achievement that comes from this brutal loop.
But honestly, I haven’t got time for it.
As a greying gamer, time is neither on my side nor particularly abundant, so my windows for gaming need to come with a sense of progression. If I’m stuck on the same bridge, tackling the same bloody dragon for two weeks, I start questioning my life choices.
The same goes for the feeling of isolation these games present. There is the odd opportunity to have a friend join your journey, but for the most part, it’s a lonely individual’s battle against the unrelenting forces of darkness. It can all feel a bit demoralizing.
And that’s where Elden Ring’s horse comes in, and its seeming similarities with Shadow of the Colossus.
The twice-remastered PS2 game had a wonderful double act in hero Wander and his horse Agro. Always ready to join your side with a quick call, Shadow of the Colossus made Agro an integral part of the journey – with a desolate semi-open world to explore and giant beasts to encounter, Agro was a companion to the player in its quieter moments. When the going got tough, Agro was there for you, delivering emotional beats to a story almost entirely devoid of human contact, and offering moments of reflection during the long treks between the game’s dozen-or-so intense battles.
Elden Ring will undoubtedly be more action packed than the contemplative Shadow of the Colossus – the Summer Game Fest reveal trailer suggests as much. But the introduction of the horse and open world setting, new to Miyazaki’s games, suggests a different cadence to the action than previous Soulsborne games.
As well as adding an extra dimension to combat with horseback fighting, the inclusion of an equine companion suggests that the game will have large expanses to cover in its open world. This is key for me – the unrelenting sense of danger in Souls games makes me anxious as I play them, to the point I can only manage short sessions and never build up the combat flow I need to attain mastery. But if Elden Ring offers moments of exploration, offering a breather and a moment to soak up the world without constantly avoiding a crushing death, my stamina for the punishing nature of the game may increase.
Having an animal friend along for the ride could also add another dimension to the way you view the world. With a friendly beast at your side, you get a contrasting view of the creatures out to eat you – that not all life in the world is hell bent on chowing down on your soul. While it’s unclear yet if the horse can die, you’ll definitely feel a need to protect it – especially if keeping it in good health gives you an advantage in-game.
And then there’s the sense of scale. You’ll naturally feel more powerful with your horse charging into battle against smaller foes. But as the Elden Ring trailer showed, just like Shadow of the Colossus, there will be huge, hulking creatures exploring the world too. Horses are awesome creatures in the real world, and impressive in the flesh. But seeing them dwarfed by dinosaur-sized demons puts into perspective how vulnerable you are, and how otherworldly the domain you’re exploring is.
But, more than anything, I just want a friend. Shadow of the Colossus’s solitary safari was made immeasurably more memorable by the presence of Agro. And if Elden Ring’s inspiration was found where I believe it was, I might finally be prepared to die.