Okay, I just hit level 68. Not sure how many hours I've put into this game, but I just made it to Volcano Manor yesterday. I also crossed over from Altus Plateau to Mt. Gelmir and stumbled upon the Shaded Castle. I think I'm about halfway through that area, but I needed to take a break because I patiently whittled down three tough enemies by isolating them as much as possible and patiently took them out one by one, only to get sloppy when the last one was down to his last molecule of HP and got myself stun-locked and killed for absolutely no reason at all other than impatience.
I'm getting more confident by the day that this is my new favorite game of all time. I just can't get over how well-constructed this world is and how well-constructed some of the individual "levels" are, like Stormveil, the Academy, this castle I'm in, some of the tunnels I've explored, and so on. I need to add the disclaimer that I am a huge fan of the Souls franchise, so maybe it's not shocking that I really, really like this game. But Elden Ring is pretty much exactly what I wanted from "Dark Souls, only open world instead of semi-linear." This game is stellar.
You can look at the map and just tell where interesting things are likely to be hidden. And you can figure out how to get where you want to go without the game putting a little waypoint in your face.
I watched a video a few days ago of a guy riding his horse from the starting area of the game all the way to Volcano Manor without fighting anything. It is mindblowing that you can do that in a game like this. I mean, this map is absolutely huge, and it doesn't feel like even a square inch of it is just filler. It's all there for a reason.
How did the developers know that I would be just the right level when I hit Mt.Gelmir to find this castle fun and challenging? As opposed to finding it too easy or overwhelming? I just encountered it kind of randomly but it feels like it was placed in the game for me specifically. That is top-shelf game design.