This piece contains spoilers for a few Elden Ring bosses.
For the first few hours of Elden Ring, I was miserable. I'd embarked on my journey into the Lands Between with a preconceived notion in my head: that I would be a serious swordswoman, sticking to the straight and narrow with my fighting style. I would use my powers of dodging, rolling and occasionally landing a hit to grind down my enemies' health bars. Nothing fancy, just good old-fashioned, no-nonsense melee combat. That's the way you're supposed to play a Souls game, right?
After repeatedly butting my head against the game's first few bosses, I began to despair. My sword-and-shield combination wasn't getting me anywhere, and it felt like I'd never walk through the gates of Stormveil Castle. As a hardened Sekiro player, this felt like some sort of personal failing. I trudged out into the wilderness, in search of something, anything, that could turn my fortunes around. And I did, with the help of a rather unexpected item. I found a whip.
I'd never intended to play Elden Ring as medieval Indiana Jones, but after discovering that the whip could stun enemies, it quickly became an essential part of my toolkit. Groups of enemies were no longer a problem, with a simple crack of the whip keeping them all at bay. Boss enemies, at long last, began to fall before me. Leonine Misbegotten, previously a near-impossible fight, became a cakewalk when I summoned three wolves and effectively stun-locked the boss with my whip. Emboldened by my victories, I started messing around with new techniques in other battles. I decimated Tibia Mariner with some ridiculously aggressive horse-riding, circling and slicing the poor boatman to the point where I wondered if I'd broken the game. It felt absurd. It felt almost like I was cheating.
In many ways, this is one of the defining feelings of playing a FromSoftware game, and it's particularly noticeable in Elden Ring. Feeling like you've gotten one over on the game's designers - that you've somehow found a secret way to break the combat system - is one of the game's great joys. Yet look more closely, and you'll realise that FromSoftware actually gave you all the required tools to "cheese" a boss fight, and you start to question whether you've actually cheesed anything at all. Did you exploit a flaw in the game design? Or did you go down a route FromSoftware deliberately left open to those who experimented and used their heads?
Clearly, I'm not alone in feeling this strange mixture of glee and guilt. The Elden Ring subreddit is full of players who feel a little sheepish about how they've managed to defeat enemies. Some have admitted to using the jellyfish spirit summon in every boss battle as a tank. One player, rather ingeniously, managed to get a miniboss stuck on a lift - and I've seen another who dragged an enemy into some poisonous plants. Others, meanwhile, merely side-quested and overleveled to the point where they could overwhelm Margit with magic even while taking heavy hits.
Many have expressed guilt for not defeating bosses in what's considered the "proper" way. In other words, painstakingly memorising attack patterns and becoming a dodging master through continuous trial and error. There's a perception that any technique that deviates from this playstyle is somehow less valid. The term cheese, in itself, is associated with a less valuable way of playing - essentially skipping the hard work and taking a shortcut to victory.
The way I now think about so-called cheesing techniques is this: if you had to strategise to defeat a boss, or explore the world to prepare for a fight, then you have actually put the work in. You simply took a different approach to someone who perfected their dodging. For that reason, you shouldn't feel guilty for using all the tools you have in a battle. The jellyfish summon, for instance, is only unlocked after repeated conversations with a character - a reward for curiosity and engaging with the world around you. Using the game's environment to your advantage is a smart tactic that should be rewarded (particularly as you, the player, can quite easily die to fall damage - it only seems fair). Many of these 'cheeses' do actually require skill, not only to find the vulnerability, but to actually execute the technique. Take a look at this tactic for the Tree Sentinel, which requires some careful timing to get the perfect spin.
In Elden Ring, with its vast open world and myriad combat styles, it feels more than ever like FromSoftware wants players to use all the tools at their disposal. You can grind away at bosses using only the basics, if you're determined to have a real struggle. Yet by deliberately making the early boss battles so tough, Elden Ring encourages players to explore its open world in search of new tools and techniques. When a player later returns to a boss with new ideas, the game rewards them for it. For this reason, it feels like any and all combat methods are acceptable in Elden Ring. There is no one 'legitimate' or 'correct' way to defeat a boss, merely different paths to the same destination. As all routes are equally valid, I'd argue there's no such thing as an Elden Ring cheese.
Of course, players will likely discover methods that really weren't intended by the developer. FromSoftware might even feel that a particular method is a little too generous, and close the door with a patch. Even in these cases, if you've discovered a way to kill a boss that wasn't intended, you've still displayed creativity and smart thinking to find that vulnerability. Do I regret killing Sekiro's Snake Eyes Shirahagi by baiting her into a swamp and watching her get slowly poisoned to death? Absolutely not. I felt like a genius.
Ultimately, while a cheeky technique might work on one boss, it's unlikely to work with the next. I know full well that my whip build will need adjusting when I encounter the game's later bosses. The key to enjoying Elden Ring, in my view, is to embrace the chaos and mess around with different combat styles. Repeatedly attempting the game's main bosses is one way to play, but you'll miss out on the potential to find a wacky new playstyle that could bring you more creativity and joy. Once I abandoned the idea that I needed to prove myself by defeating bosses purely with dodges and timing, I let loose and started actually having fun. So don't be afraid to get weird with Elden Ring's combat, or search for alternative ways to defeat your enemies. After all, it's what the developer intended. Most of the time.