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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Elden Ring’s half-assed mouse and keyboard controls could be so much better with a few fixes

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It’s 2022, and for some reason a game is asking me to take my hand off the mouse to use the arrow keys to switch items. You know, the arrow keys? The ones we used to move around in Wolfenstein 3D back in 1992, before WASD took over? After a full decade of releasing its games on PC and selling millions of copies, FromSoftware is still putting out games with bizarre and barebones mouse and keyboard controls, and in some ways Elden Ring is actually a step backwards.

But it’s not a total disaster, which is what makes Elden Ring’s shortcomings especially frustrating. Being outright good is even within reach! FromSoftware’s biggest game ever deserves better on PC, and some small changes would go a very long way.

It’s been a long road to decent mouse and keyboard controls

Since FromSoftware started releasing its games on PC, the developers have clearly been trying to improve their mouse and keyboard controls from game to game. The original Dark Souls’ mouse input was unusably jittery without a mod, and some of the default keybindings were so esoteric it was hard to believe they were chosen by someone who’d ever used a keyboard. Those bindings changed with Dark Souls 2 and again with Dark Souls 3, at which point everything at least functioned smoothly despite some strange keyboard layout choices

It somehow took until 2019’s Sekiro for us to get the option to show keyboard prompts in the UI. The implication has always been that the mouse and keyboard options only exist as a last resort alternative for those who don’t (or can’t) use a controller.

FromSoftware’s games are designed around controllers: They’ve essentially been using the same layout since Demon’s Souls in 2009. If FromSoftware hadn’t recently made Sekiro, a fast-paced combat game starring a superhumanly athletic ninja, I doubt Elden Ring would even have a jump button—it’s the single biggest change in years. Otherwise, you still use the D-pad to swap between weapons and items, still use the shoulder buttons to attack with whatever’s in your left or right hand, still use the same face buttons to drink a potion and two-hand a weapon.

Those controls must have carved permanent neural pathways into the brains of every FromSoftware designer at this point, which would explain why the PC layout seems to be trying to replicate the controller experience, rather than adapting it to the keyboard’s strengths.

Elden Ring won’t let you rebind two major keys

This is a strange regression from all of the Dark Souls games on PC: there are some functions Elden Ring simply does not let you change. The key binding options don’t include an entry for how you access the main menu (Start on a controller): It’s hard-bound to Esc. It also doesn’t include an option for the map, which is hard-bound to G (“View” button on Xbox, touchpad on PlayStation).

What a strange omission. Even Dark Souls 1 let you change the menu key!

Letting us rebind those options is an obvious first step, but more important is divorcing how they work on a controller from how they work on a keyboard. Because Esc is used to bring up the menu in-game—which totally makes sense for a controller’s Start button!—it can’t be used on the keyboard to back out of options screens. That’s the Esc key’s whole purpose in life! On a PC Esc should always be able to back out of menus, even if you wouldn’t do the same with a Start button. It makes sense as a literal translation of the controller function to the keyboard but not a practical one, which is also the case for how Elden Ring deals with your inventory. 

Elden Ring really needs to let us bind inventory items to individual hotkeys

I can see why Elden Ring’s designers chose to map its D-pad controls to the arrow keys, because it really does seem like a logical fit. You’ve got a perfect up-down-left-right input method for swapping weapons in each hand and cycling through items and spells. But the placement of the arrow keys mean you have to fully take your hand off the mouse to make those changes, while on a controller you can slide your thumb off a joystick to make a quick swap; the layout just doesn’t work on a keyboard at all.

Elden Ring guides

Elden Ring guide: Conquer the Lands Between
Elden Ring bosses: How to beat them
Elden Ring dungeons: How to defeat them
Elden Ring paintings: Solutions and locations
Elden Ring map fragments: Reveal the world
Elden Ring co-op: How to squad up online

The game almost gets it right here, though. You can at least rebind the arrow keys however you want, and you can even use the mouse wheel as a secondary way to swap weapons. But it really falls apart when you pull up the pouch, which is meant to provide quick access to four items of your choice. On a controller this makes sense for the D-pad, but on a keyboard, it’s silly that we can’t simply bind each item to its own individual shortcut.

PC games have been doing this for ages. Many shooters let you swap between weapons with the mouse wheel, hold down a key to bring up a visual quick-swap wheel, and press an individual number key to swap directly to a particular weapon. Souls diehards might argue that having to frantically scroll through your equipped items mid-fight is an intentional part of the experience, but Elden Ring could at least allow for hotkeys for each quick access pouch item while keeping the spirit of the original design intact. 

I think FromSoftware should go further and let us bind individual spell slots to keys, too, which has already been added to the game with a mod called the Enhanced Moveset Utility. With more real estate on the keyboard, other actions that require multiple presses on a controller, like two-handing a weapon, could easily get their own keys. Again you could argue that’s counter to how Elden Ring was designed, but Capcom added similar flexible shortcuts to Monster Hunter World when it released Iceborne, and removing a couple unnecessary key presses didn’t break the game. Options are great. 

The double keybindings could be better

Good job, Elden Ring, for letting us bind actions to both the keyboard and the mouse! Duplicate keybinds are great. Unfortunately the implementation here is again limited: For accessibility reasons you should be allowed to bind movement like forward/backward to mouse buttons, but those commands are disabled in the keybind options.

And while Elden Ring does allow you to duplicate bindings on the mouse and keyboard, if you have your extra mouse buttons set to input keyboard commands in Windows, Elden Ring won’t recognize them as mouse buttons. Secondary keybind options that aren’t restricted to input type just work better.

Most PC games today can auto-detect control input

FromSoftware finally added the option to show mouse and keyboard prompts instead of controller options with Sekiro, its fourth modern PC game. That option carries over to Elden Ring, and yet it still feels like a bare minimum implementation of something other games have been doing better for many years.

Most games I play today that support controllers will automatically switch their icons based on whatever you pressed last. That’s the standard on PC now. Heck, indie developer Supergiant did it with Transistor in 2014!

A ‘lock mouse cursor to screen’ option needs to become standard in DX12 games

In DirectX 12, there’s no such thing as exclusive fullscreen anymore: everything is borderless windowed. Elden Ring is a DX12 game, which means Elden Ring is lying to you when it says “fullscreen” in the video mode options. This leads to a minor problem in Elden Ring and other borderless-only games: You can fling the mouse cursor right out of the game onto a secondary monitor, even if that monitor’s turned off.

It’s not a big problem in Elden Ring because it’ll only happen in menus—while controlling your character, the cursor disappears. But it can still be frustrating. More DX12-only games need to implement a menu option to lock the cursor to the screen. Lost Ark is an example of a recent game with just such a setting, even though it’s not DX12 exclusive.

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