From Software’s games have always had a certain niche audience, but with the release of Elden Ring, the size of that audience seems to have exploded. The Soulsborne formula works exceptionally well when applied to the open-world template, it turns out. In fact, one could argue that it’s exploration of a strange and vast world, rather than the usual Souls-style difficulties and mechanics, that makes Elden Ring so entertaining.
The open-world genre is quite extensive, and as with big winners before it, like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games or Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the Elden Ring is sure to leave its mark on the playing field. The question is, what should the rest of the open world genre learn from Elden Ring?
While there’s a lot to like about Elden Ring (as well as some things to fret about), there’s one element that developers of other open-world games should consider and use liberally, as it changes the overall feel and scope of these games: the field boss.
Field bosses in Elden Ring are bosses you encounter while simply wandering the world, outside of dungeons. They’re bosses, but you know, out in the field. They’re not a huge change to open-world design per se – games like Horizon Forbidden West have monster robotic creatures like Thunderjaw or Tremortusk that just wander through their world, and you might even get a similar boss fight scenario in Breath of the Wild with its tough Lynel enemies scattered across the world. The difference is how Elden Ring handles such encounters, how many there are, and what they mean for the world at large.
In many open-world games, the actual gameplay is all about objectives. Especially with the rise of the Ubisoft model following the popularity of titles like Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry 3, you’re constantly being taken to a certain place. You may pass something interesting and distracting along the way, a shack or a statue or a treasure chest, but most of the time the interesting gameplay still revolves around the place you’re going.
Part of what makes Elden Ring so popular with players is the lack of direction as to where to go, making many paths equally viable. Quests and important goals are only vaguely hinted at, either by characters or by the “grace” that guides you through the game. You can follow these paths of grace to a quest objective (or rather, a boss to kill), but you still only have a general idea of where you’re going and no way of really knowing how to get there. The game places a strong emphasis on exploration, which makes it feel freer and its world more interesting than many other open-world titles.
Still, the idea of not giving much direction in Elden Ring isn’t what makes it good. Many open-world games leave you to your own devices, but often their worlds feel empty and it can still seem like you’re only going a long way to getting to the fun. What makes the world of Elden Ring work isn’t the freedom to go anywhere or figure out paths – it’s the unexpected surprises along the way.
When I first made it to the Altus Plateau, I traveled through an underground tunnel and then climbed scaffolding and ladders through an old mining camp. The journey culminated in a boss fight before I emerged in the new area. It was a cool journey, but ultimately a pretty standard dungeon adventure that made sense as a transition to a new section of the game. However, as I began riding up the hill to the plateau proper, the really exciting thing happened: a giant dragon swooped down in front of me and landed in my path, showering the land with ridiculous bolts of orange lightning. And soon realizing I couldn’t win, I jumped onto Torrent and galloped from there, desperately trying to dodge the lightning bolts that landed on the road around me, and white-knuckled struggled up the road where Hoping to escape with my life my runes.
This experience is what makes Elden Ring so good. Perhaps you have a destination in mind as you make your way across the shallow lakes of Liurnia or the rolling, plagued fields of Caelid, but you don’t know what you’ll encounter along the way. And not just in the sense of a game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, where a fortress or a cave might distract you and lead you to something you weren’t expecting. A giant creature might leap off a cliff, swoop in from the shore, or rise from the graveyard beneath your feet, and you never really know when to expect it.
Because of this, the journey to where you are going is just as important as where you want to go. Field bosses appear as obstacles, suddenly throwing you into tough fights you might not have expected, and drastically changing the dynamic of an area just by their existence. Think of the Tree Sentinel, the mounted golden knight that patrols right next to the first Place of Grace you encounter after exiting the game’s tutorial. You walk up to this guy and he instantly destroys you. You’ll learn a lesson right away – the land itself is hostile, you may not be able to face every threat at once, and you must find ways to circumvent and defeat them. The Tree Warden’s gravity changes the entire area, forcing you to explore new paths, watch its movements, face an uphill battle, or find ways to dodge one.
These battles also feel fundamentally different than simply encountering something huge and scary in the world. Tyrannosaurus-like Terrorjaws in Horizon are scary, but if you come across one, you don’t really have to deal with it. If you want the special crafting items that Terrorjaws drop, you can fight them – but for the most part you’ll avoid these encounters, as they’re time-consuming, difficult, and distract from your real objective. If you see a Terrorjaw roaming through an area, move around, but even if you attack it, the combat isn’t all that different from battling any of Horizon’s other robotic dinosaurs in the wild. This robotic dinosaur is just bigger and takes longer to kill.
Compare that to a field boss in Elden Ring. When you encounter one of these bosses, the game treats them like any other boss fight. A huge life bar appears on the screen and the music changes dramatically. The game indicates that this is an event; this is no ordinary monster enemy. It weighs the same as any boss you encounter when going through a fog gate.
It also shows that these battles are worth taking on, even though they are optional and present a daunting challenge. The change in presentation shows that this is a big deal, and the way Elden Ring handles bosses also lets you know this fight will be worth it. One of the early field bosses in Limgrave is the Night’s Cavalry, a member of a group of cavalry knights who only appear when it’s dark. Like the Tree Sentinel, he’s tough to take on – but your reward is the boss’s excellent flail, a weapon you can use for the rest of the game. Going up against the Cavalry of the Night is optional, and you can avoid it if you feel you’re not up to the challenge, or never discover it was even there, but the boss that appears in your journey changes they fundamentally, no matter what . You may have been heading to Castle Morne to complete a story quest, but the story of how you got there and what you experienced becomes just as important as what you found when you arrived.
Field bosses are a summary of what sets Elden Ring apart from similar games – even the most similar ones like Breath of the Wild. While this game evokes many of the same feelings as Elden Ring, particularly in the freedom that comes from simply surveying the world and finding interesting things to travel to and investigate, what you discover doesn’t feel always rewarding. You can go to the top of a mountain to see some strange statues you’ve spotted from miles away, but that doesn’t guarantee there’s still something to see when you arrive. But with Elden Ring, chances are the journey was worth it for what you discover (and fight and kill) along the way, even if little awaits you in the strange place you’ve chosen .
The way Elden Ring handles field bosses embodies a design ethos that makes the world of Elden Ring feel important – as if it’s big for a reason and wasn’t made expansive just to make room between to create the locations. The freedom to explore is paid off by the gameplay you discover along the way, in the form of boss fights and rewards worth taking on that gameplay, rather than something you’re likely to pass up on the path to something better . In Elden Ring, the field bosses give a sense that the whole world matters and not just the places you are supposed to go in the game. They make the journey as meaningful as the destination, and that’s a feeling every open-world game should aspire to.