How Elden Ring's Reinforcement System Undermines Ashes of War

In FromSoftware's Elden Ring there is an extensive weapon customization system called "Ashes of War." This system allows you to change a weapon's special skill, and it's also linked with the infusion system that lets you change its damage properties. However, not all weapons can have Ashes of War applied to them, typically because they have unique skills. These weapons usually upgrade with Somber Smithing Stones instead of regular Smithing Stones. In other words, it's generally correct to say that weapons that upgrade with regular Smithing Stones can have Ashes of War applied to them, while weapons that upgrade with Somber Smithing Stones cannot.

This all makes sense. It's cool to have unique weapons with unique skills in the game, as Souls games have traditionally had, and to have those unique weapons upgrade with their own material, again, as Souls games have traditionally done. This format works well, since it means regular weapons aren't competing as heavily with unique weapons for upgrading resources—while they both require currency to upgrade, that's a trivial resource to acquire compared to the materials themselves.

However, there's a problem with the actual implementation in Elden Ring. This problem stems from a few factors, not all of which are bad on their own; rather, it's how they combine together that creates this problem.

First, weapons that require Somber Smithing Stones to upgrade are fairly abundant and quite diverse. This is a good thing! It means that almost every build will be able to find at least one, probably several, unique weapons it wants to use. However, it also means that it isn't particularly difficult to find a cool weapon that you want to use that upgrades with Somber Smithing Stones.

Second, weapons that upgrade using Somber Smithing Stones simply require fewer total stones to upgrade, requiring only a total of ten stones, one for each of ten tiers, as weapons that upgrade with Somber Smithing Stones cap out at +10 (e.g. Sword of Night and Flame +10). In contrast, Regular Smithing Stone weapons have twenty-five tiers (e.g. Longsword +25). The first twenty-four are broken up into groups of three that require a total of twelve of a particular tier of Smithing Stone to progress through. (For example, you need two Smithing Stone [1] to upgrade to +1, four to upgrade to +2, then six to upgrade to +3, at which point you repeat the process with Smithing Stone [2] stones for +4, +5, +6, etc.) The final +25 upgrade level requires one stone to achieve. In total, this means a weapon that upgrades with regular Smithing Stones needs 97 total stones to upgrade in addition to Rune (currency) costs for twenty-five levels, as opposed to ten Somber Stones and Rune costs for those ten levels. Note that this isn't by itself a problem, either. It all depends on what the availability of these two types of stones is like.

Third, Somber Smithing Stones are only slightly rarer than regular Smithing Stones. In truth, they are a good bit less common on average, but given how many fewer you need for the next tier of stone (one vs. twelve), they can quickly begin to feel less rare, not more. They only become truly scarce at Somber Smithing Stone [8] and up in my experience, but Smithing Stone [7] and up feel comparably rare for the most part (there are limited quantities of the final Ancient Dragon tier of stones, and more regular ones are available per playthrough than Somber Ancient Dragon Smithing Stones). Given the huge difference in material requirements, this can make achieving +25 on a regular weapon feel more difficult than getting to +10 on a Somber Smithing Stone weapon; or, at least +24 being harder to achieve than +9.

The end result of the combination of these three factors is that it feels far more practical to focus on upgrading Somber Smithing Stone weapons than regular weapons, especially on repeat playthroughs when you know where the Somber Smithing Stones and the weapons that use them are. As a result, while I've typically wanted to use a regular weapon, I've often found myself relying on Somber weapons instead simply because of the power difference that occurs due to how much easier it is to upgrade a Somber weapon than a regular one thanks to the greater ease of finding enough Somber Stones needed for upgrading. Thus, I've found myself not really able to make as much use of the Ashes of War system as I would like because my primary weapons are typically not able to use it.

And that is how Elden Ring's reinforcement system undermines its Ashes of War system: by making it easier to upgrade weapons that use Somber Smithing Stones, and thus weapons that don't use Ashes of War, players will often find themselves unable to use the Ashes of War system.

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