*Area & boss spoilers*
Fromsoft have always weaved foreshadowing into their level design. The outer walls of Anor Londo loom over the early portions of Dark Souls, and we can even look up from the Undead Parish to see the Duke’s Archives towering over the gameworld. Later, in Dark Souls 3, the camera draws back as we look for passage over to the Undead Settlement, giving us a glimpse of almost every area in the game, with the spires of Anor Londo itself even peeking through the clouds in the distance. Elden Ring’s open-world design approaches this same concept in a different way, exemplified by the omniscient perspective granted to us by the Birdseye Telescopes dotted around the world map. As we look at the world around us we see not only the path ahead, but any number of paths, all of our own choosing.
Still, old habits die hard. In the underground portions of The Lands Between, vast enough to warrant their own separate map that sits below the normal world map, the levels are more strategically ordered, much like Fromsoft games of old. One of the first areas of this type that many of us will visit is the southern part of Ainsel River, accessible from Liurnia of the Lakes. First encountering the Ainsel River Well that transports us here is a mindblowing moment. There we are, traversing the countryside, mopping up loot and encountering new enemies, when a clearly man-made structure, one of few still intact in the region, emerges upon the cliffside. Walking inside to see what secrets it may hold soon sees us taking a downward lift that just keeps going and going. Finally, it nestles down deep in an expansive tunnel system infested with giant ants.
Waiting for us at the end of this section in a vast, enigmatic arena is the Dragonkin Soldier of Nokstella, a fitting climax to this unexpected subterranean jaunt. But keen-eyed players will notice that this isn’t the end. Far from it. Look up and you’ll see paths that we will traverse much later on in our playthrough cutting around the edge of this wide chamber. Even more ominous than that, though, is another striking sight. Hitch a left before the boss arena, past some familiar Basilisks, and the cave opens up onto a vantage point overlooking a hellish scene: a cavernous expanse, the floor of which is lined with a festering, blood red lake of standing water stretching far into the distance. Flashbacks of Blighttown and Lost Izalith abound, but it’s not lava, and it’s not poison – what fresh hell is this? This, my Tarnished compatriots, is Rot, poison’s nastier older brother. It’s the same substance that you’ll find turning Caelid into a Beksiński-esque wasteland, only here Torrent cannot aid in keeping you safely clear of its toxic surface.
Many of us won’t venture into the Lake of Rot for a good while yet, of course. Long enough that the striking first image of that hellish expanse will have since faded into the recesses of our mind. When you do eventually first descend the rocky outcrop at the northern edge of the lake and gaze across its treacherous surface once again, the despair quickly returns. But the great strength of these games is that no matter how frequently they hit you with these dreadful realisations, your resolve is only strengthened by them. When you’re starting out, each new immovable obstacle feels like a kick to the teeth, but once you’ve bested a few, they become something to delight in overcoming. Much as we might put off venturing into areas like Caelid or tackling that one pesky boss who always gives us trouble, overcoming them is what makes these games rewarding. Despite the bleak worlds and difficult gameplay, Soulsborne games are still a power fantasy, even if that power only derives from finally overcoming something that was routinely curb-stomping you earlier that same day.
And as it turns out, the Lake of Rot is not all that bad. It’s doable with a decent stockpile of Preserving Boluses and a lot of healing, and it’s even easier if you pick up the Mushroom Set from Seethewater Cave and put on Flame, Cleanse Me for some extra rot alleviation (this Incantation requires just 12 Faith, which should be doable even for the tankiest of Strength builds thanks to the Two Fingers Heirloom talisman). Swap your weapon for the Beast-Repellent Torch and even the Basilisks won’t bother you. After you’ve run around finding the switches that make large stone platforms emerge from out of the lake, the only real remaining challenge is another Dragonkin Soldier that awaits in the lake’s centre. You’ve done this fight before and it shouldn’t give you much trouble – but take in an upgraded Mimic Tear Ashes and you’ll barely have to lift a finger.
In the scope of Fromsoftware’s oeuvre, Lake of Rot is not the most deadly location there is, though it’s up there with the most inhospitable. It is certainly one of the most arresting visual images – an entire cavern bathed in that demonic red, furnished with crumbling stone and dead trees. The map fragment reveals that this may be the land in which the divine essence of an outer god is sealed away, and the logical candidate for any lore connection to such a Rot-strewn abyss would be Malenia, but the Scorpion’s Stinger weapon found in the adjoining Grand Cloister is “crafted from the relic of a sealed outer god,” according to the item description. Could this be the same sealed outer god described in the Blue Dancer Charm item description as “a god that was Rot itself”?
We’ll let you answer that question for yourselves, but until then, keep moving, heal up, and make sure you grab the Mushroom Crown.
Words: George Parr
Previous entries of The Tarnished Diaries can be read here.