The world of Elden Ring is at once sprawling and dense. Each of the game’s main areas is packed with places to explore, small details that help you better understand the game’s world, and godforsaken monstrosities to sprint away from in a blind panic. But while most of the areas have this in common, a huge amount of care has gone into creating distinct looks, peculiarities, and overall atmospheres for each region. This helps the game world feel even bigger than it already is, and keeps things interesting and engaging right up until the very end.
Of course, a side effect of this level of variety in regions is that most people will prefer some areas over others. This ranking is completely subjective, and comes from me being unable to stop thinking about this game all the time. I’m playing a bit fast and loose with what counts as a region in this piece – the rule of thumb I’m following is that if it feels different from the surrounding areas, it’s a separate region.
This piece will also spoil the existence of certain in-game areas. Exploration and discovery were a huge part of my enjoyment of Elden Ring, and it only worked as well as it did because I went in blind. Consider yourself warned.
14. Crumbling Farum Azula
I don’t like dragon-type enemies. I don’t like beast-type enemies. Unfortunately, this area features both these types in abundance. As you will see later in this list, I’m willing to forgive a lot if I think the atmosphere of the level is great. Crumbling Farum Azula’s eeriness isn’t enough to offset the numerous annoyances this level has to offer. An ever-crumbling floating temple in the sky is a really cool concept; but it also means you’re going to fall into the void a lot. According to the lore, this area is home to many beings of the Lands Between that were exiled. And after getting through this area, I can see why the wider world didn’t want any of them around. One of the greatest moments I had in this level was when I realized that the fragments of ruins I’d seen in Limgrave and Liurnia came from here. That’s my only fond memory associated with this area.
13. Mountaintops of the Giants
A common complaint that’s emerging about Elden Ring is that there’s a drop-off in quality towards the end of the game. I’m inclined to agree somewhat; the bottom of this ranking is mostly areas you encounter post-Leyndell. Having said that, I don’t hate Mountaintops of the Giants at all. I don’t think it’s a bad area, but I do think it’s lackluster.
There just isn’t as much to do over here as there was in previous areas, but it’s still sprawling. It feels sparser compared to previous areas. From a worldbuilding perspective, this makes total sense. This area is meant to be a graveyard for the entire race of giants, and is meant to be immensely difficult to reach. The desolateness of this area does make it feel like you’re at the end of the known world. Ghostly trees, small animals and birds dot the landscape, giving it a surreal feel. It’s got a great atmosphere, for sure. But from a gameplay perspective, its sparseness meant that I mostly drifted through this area.
12. Lake of Rot
I feel a little bad for placing this above Mountaintops of the Giants, but whereas that level didn’t leave much of an impression on me, Lake of Rot provoked intense feelings of annoyance and then dread, and I respect it for that. This area looks like no other in the game. Just one look at the expansive red sludge that seems to spread forever, the omnipresent hazy red mist, and the distant foreboding structures is enough for you to know that this is a place of great evil.
Crossing the lake isn’t as bad as it looks. Yes, the few platforms that grant you respite are spaced just far enough apart that you will probably contract the rot status effect. But if you have enough healing flasks, you should be able to make it to the next checkpoint. The next area, the Grand Cloister isn’t very challenging to traverse, but I think it’s one of the creepiest areas in the game. I used the ledges to farm the insectoid enemies an even though I logically knew I was safe, I couldn’t shake off that feeling of unease and dread. Needless to say, I abandoned this farming spot pretty quickly. I think the small size of the area prevents it from overstaying its welcome, which is why I have perversely fond memories of making it through this area.
11. Altus Plateau
It is cruel of me to place this area so low, because it’s sandwiched between two much more interesting areas; and I don’t think I can count it as part of either of those since it is clearly distinct from them. I think that this in-betweenness is what ultimately brings this area down, since it doesn’t have a ‘thing’ that ties the area together like most of the other areas of the game does, nor does it do anything interesting with its lack of focus. Liurnia has its magic, Caelid has rot, Farum Azula has annoyance, but what does the Altus Plateau have?
It's not all bad though. I think this area has a subtle atmosphere of wrongness that permeates everything. The main colour here is gold, from the grass to the sky, but it's not the pure gold of the Erdtree and Sites of Grace. Famously there’s the Midsommar-ish Windmill Village to the north full of oblivious dancing women and piles of bodies, but there’s some other examples too, like the Minor Erdtree in the area being guarded not by an Erdtree Avatar as usual, but some kind of horrifying giant worm-faced creature and the ghostly banners scattered across a battlefield that’s at odds with the deceptively lush golden landscape. This area is also where you first meet the Goldmask, which helps start one of the most interesting questlines in the game, so it’s definitely not all bad.
10. Consecrated Snowfield
Mountaintops of the Giants done right. It’s essentially a secret side-area to the Mountaintops, but a combination of size, backstory and explorable areas gives it a different, better feel. It’s smaller than Mountaintops, and is probably still as sparse as that area, but I think it better conveys the same atmosphere without overstaying its welcome. The backstory for this area is great too, being the path the unwanted and persecuted took to reach the sanctuary of Miquella’s Haligtree. The nigh-penetrable fog and ghostly enemies help obscure how small this area is, and put you in the feet of the people who took this path. Admittedly, the puzzle of Ordina, Liturgical Town is a repeat of the same in Sellia, Town of Sorcery with added obstacles, and the Erdtree Avatar fight further ahead is literallyjust two Avatars at once. But the vibes here…the vibes here are good so I can forgive this.
9. Deeproot Depths
I love all the underground areas in Elden Ring. Discovering each of them elicited some sort of physical reaction. Deeproot Depths was no different, especially when I made the connection that these are the literal roots of the Erdtree. On paper, this level has so much going for it in terms of atmosphere: the weird white sap-like substance everywhere, a third Eternal City that’s unnamed, the gigantic living-yet-dead body of Godwyn the Golden who is now the Prince of Death. But the more I think about it in terms of lore, I feel like there was a waste of potential. I understand the symbolism of having the disgusting and previously-encountered ant enemies in this area of insignificance, but it also makes the area feel more mundane than it should. And while I wouldn’t want a massive lore dump, it would be nice to have any information at all on why there are the remains of a previous civilization in the roots of the Erdtree. What happened there? The unused potential of this area hurts me.
8. Leyndell, Royal Capital
Reaching the capital city at long last is a milestone moment in the game, and the reward is one of the most unique environments in the game. It’s just the right mix of open-world exploration and legacy dungeon-linearity. It’s also got excellent atmosphere, and is just as narratively significant as it’s been built up to be. My favourite moment in Leyndell is wandering into the Fortified Manor, and slowly realizing that it’s the real-world, decrepit version of Roundtable Hold. Verticality really comes into play here, as the safest way across initially is jumping from rooftop to rooftop and then later you climb a dragon’s wing and then Erdtree roots to get closer and closer to the throne room at the base of the Erdtree. As you climb higher, the level starts becoming more linear, creating a sense of tension. But if it’s so great, then why is it only the eighth-best area in Elden Ring?
The answer lies under the city, in the Subterranean Shunning Grounds. It is the city’s sewer area and dumping ground for both animate and inanimate waste. It is pitch dark, filled with labyrinthine tight corridors, falls into bottomless pits that you can see coming, falls into bottomless pits that you can’t see coming, and some truly difficult and annoying enemies. The worst instance of all this coming into play is an unexpected hole in the pipe maze that drops you in a pitch-black room with a revenant, possibly the most hated enemy in the game. After a few hours of trying to make sense of this area, I gave up on it. It’s the only area I haven’t seen all the way through and I have no regrets.
7. Nokron, Eternal City/Siofra River
For many people, me included, stumbling across the Siofra river elevator near the Minor Erdtree in Limgrave was an early jaw-dropper moment. At first, you think the lift is going to take you down to a run-of-the-mill dungeon, but then you realise that the lift keeps going, and keeps going, and keeps going, and you know that this is no ordinary area. Finally, the wall gives way and you are greeted to the sight of a sprawling city underneath a deep purple sky dotted in stars. It's utterly breathtaking.
Initially though, you’re only limited to the Siofra River area which is below the Eternal City of Nokron. That initial sense of wonder never left, but considering what you were shown, there isn’t all that much to do here. Later on in the game, the actual city can be reached, and I found traversing the area to be very enjoyable. The city has a very ethereal feel to it thanks to the distinctive visual style, and enemies that you don’t see above-ground. Moghwyn’s Palace is forever out of reach and always within sight as a temptation, and I knew I’d be going there soon, which kept me interested in the area long after I should have been over it. The palace area itself, I found to be a let-down. I didn’t think it was as fun to get through, and I think the area’s boss Mohg’s arena was too small. But it doesn’t take away from how visually stunning and atmospheric this area is.
In the early days of my Elden Ring playthrough, when I thought that Limgrave and Liurnia constituted the majority of the game world, I would sometimes see screenshots online from Caelid, and I thought it was the endgame area. And could you blame me? Caelid looks absolutely hellish with the deadened landscape overrun with zombified dog-T-Rex hybrids, monstrous vultures with oddly human faces that make me shudder just thinking about them, and giant birds with multiple rows of teeth, and a hellish red colour palette that even the sky isn’t immune too. The visuals do an excellent job of making it crystal clear that this is a dangerous place where bad things have happened, and will keep happening. It makes everything seem scarier than it actually probably is. Even if they designed those mutant vultures to go down in one hit, I still wouldn’t pick a fight with them, that’s how terrifying and revolting I think they are. If I’m being honest, I tackled this level by taking on its iconic boss General Radahn much earlier than I should have (pre-nerf, might I add!) and then exploring and clearing out the rest of the areas once I was at a level suitable for mid-to-late game. I really needed the security blanket of being over-levelled. And I still just ran away from most overworld enemies. Caelid is meant to have a very specific kind of atmosphere, and the game gets it across perfectly. I never want to go back there again.
5. Nokstella, Eternal City/Ainsel River
It shouldn’t have been as much of a surprise to discover this area after Nokron, but it was. It’s smaller than Nokron, but I like every bit of it. I think the grey-green colour palette gives it a deeper sense of mystery, I think the giant-ant-riding enemies are fun, I think the huge swarms of mimic enemies that slowly amble towards you are funny and I especially think that the giant balls that chase you around and that can be damaged like normal enemies are hilarious. Its proximity to the Lake of Rot is great storytelling in and of itself too. The red mist in the area of the elevator that takes you to the Lake of Rot alone tells you a lot about what probably happened here. Ainsel River is a very creepy area to explore, with the giant ants jumpscaring you in the dark probably being one of the least scary things about the place. Through item descriptions, you can learn that the people who lived in these underground cities were up to some pretty suspicious goings-on, but Nokstella and the Ainsel River areas were able to convey this through atmosphere alone.
4. Mount Gelmir
Right off the bat, the ominous visuals of this area should tell you that this is not a good place. Even when you get to Volcano Manor, which is supposed to be a safe, no-combat area, the feeling of dread and tension keeps building. The reason this area is so high up is that it absolutely delivers on these initial promises. There’s a lot of excellent environmental storytelling, and between the look and positioning of the enemies, the placement of items, and the item descriptions, piecing together the story of Volcano manner is both easy and engaging. As you descend into the depths of Volcano Manor, you can see the horrors that have been inflicted on the innocent, and the bottomless cruelty the people here have shown.
Having said that, I find myself weirdly fond of the characters despite their cruelty and depravity. By all accounts, it seems that Tanith and Rykard have a loving marriage. Tanith is also a loving mother to her adoptive daughter, Rya who is an overall nice character in her own right. Unlike several other quests, the people at Volcano Manor are nice enough to mark quest locations on your map, even if those quests involve you hunting down and killing your own kin. When you beat Rykard, they hold true to their principals and are exactly the same to you as before. Rykard et. al., while not as connected to the overall plot as other villains, are part of a well-formed, creepy, atmospheric narrative, while also being oddly endearing. It also helps that the lava doesn’t hurt as much as you think it might.
This was always going to be high up on the list. As an opening area meant to introduce the open-world conceit and gameplay mechanics to the player, you couldn’t ask for a better start. This area bursts at the seams with all the different types of dungeons, enemy types and NPCs it wants to introduce to you. You could spend the first 20-30 hours in Limgrave alone without seeing all there is to see. It’s probably the densest region in the entire game.
It’s also interesting how my perception of Limgrave changed through my playthrough. Initially, it was as challenging and intimidating as I would find any of the later enemies, and most of the encounters did feel difficult. But as I progressed through the game, it was nice to come back to Limgrave to see just how strong I’d gotten (and to finally put down the Tree Sentinel). It remains incredibly cathartic to clear the encampment at the Gatefront Ruins in memory of the high stress I experienced trying to clear the area as a Level 10 Astrologer. This sense of relative comfort is also conveyed through the level designed. When I came back to Limgrave after exploring some of the other areas, I noticed just how lush and pretty it was compared to the other environments. Flora and fauna seem to be growing naturally and normally here, with the exception of some dragon-burnt trees and gigantic poisonous plants. Even counting the Tree Sentinel, Limgrave is a warm and friendly opening to the game.
2. Miquella’s Haligtree
Before I get into why I love this level, I must acknowledge that it is incredibly difficult to traverse this area. It’s populated by some of the most challenging enemies in the game, and it’s like the developers went out of their way to throw in every annoying level hazard they could: ranged enemies spamming attacks, disgusting giant ants that inflict rot damage, narrow branches hanging over bottomless pits, a rot swamp that you wade through extremely slowly while getting harassed by small pesky enemies…I know all this is there. And I still love this area.
I love what this area represents. It’s a failed attempt at creating another Erdtree by Miquella, the most enigmatic demigod in the game. It’s meant to be a refuge for all the exiled creatures that are persecuted by the Golden Order, which I think makes the player slaughtering their way through it a moral transgression and a tragedy. There’s some excellent environment storytelling going on here, as well. You begin the area on one of the outer branches of the Haligtree, which looks like no other area in the game, and you slowly (and painfully) make your way through the treetop settlements which also look beautiful until you finally reach Elphael, an imposing castle area packed with Cleanrot Knights, the most difficult knights to fight in the game. Once you make it past this area into the actual Haligree, you encounter a rot swamp, symbolizing the failed promise and decay of the Haligtree. It’s haunting and tragic. At the roots of the Haligtree, you fight Malenia, the twin of Miquella and originator of most of the rot you have seen thus far in the game. It’s the toughest fight in the game, but also my favourite fight, for the music, the visuals and the theme. It’s horrifying, tragic and beautiful all at once, a lot like the Haligtree itself, and it’s a combination I’ve rarely encountered in media, let alone something executed this well.
1. Liurnia of the Lakes
I first reached this area very early into my playthrough, when I accidentally stumbled into the side-route that allows you to bypass Stormveil Castle. At this point I was already familiar with my overall objective, collect Great Runes from the demigods, so when I reached the Lake-Facing cliffs and saw the sprawling vista pictured above, I assumed that each Minor Erdtree was the location of a Shardbearer and that I would have to make my way to each of them before I could gain entry to the capital for the final fight. The slow realization that it actually wasn’t going to be like that, that Liurnia was just one area of many in the game is probably my favourite experience associated with Elden Ring.
Liurnia is the quintessential area of Elden Ring. It’s a huge area, but it feels as dense and vibrant as Limgrave; there’s something worth checking out almost everywhere you look. It has a very distinctive blue colour palette that not only gives the area an air of mystique, but primes you well for your encounters with Ranni the Witch and the area’s legacy dungeon, Raya Lucaria. It’s home to some of my favourite parts of the game. Discovering how the Four Belfries worked was a very memorable moment. I stumbled onto the creepy but eventually tragic Village of the Albinaurics in a failed attempt to reach the plateau it was built beneath (finally reaching that plateau several hours later was a very satisfying moment), and of course, it’s home to my favourite NPC in Elden Ring, Miriel.
Liurnia is Elden Ring firing on all cylinders. It’s enticing, challenging, mysterious, tragic, intriguing, and awe-inspiring all at once. It’s the very best of what Elden Ring has to offer.
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