Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Review: This Is What Greatness Looks Like

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Review: This Is What Greatness Looks Like

Shadow of the Erdtree is about two things: Answers and balance.

Having completed just about everything in the Erdtree’s Shadow, I think some things will still be left open to speculation. But there are answers, and they are big, and this is the first, last, and only DLC before we potentially hear about a sequel (which I sincerely hope is not called Elden Ring 2, but Elden Rang).

But what of balance? 

After two years of relentless min/maxing in the player base, certain playstyles have curried more favour than others. Shadow of the Erdtree levels the playing field in PvE and PvP, giving myriad options for theorycrafting. Viable and fun build ideas are back, aligning with Elden Ring’s philosophy of enabling player choice.

Of course, balance means that with so much light, there must come darkness. Power and peace are often built on a foundation of atrocities. History is written by the victor, while sin is hidden in Shadow.

The base game mainly covered the lead-up to the Shattering, another of George R. R. Martin’s War of the Roses yarns, but Shadow of the Erdtree holds the origins of the game’s entire mythos.

You’re not the first one to seek answers here. Miquella, the prodigy, always displayed that rarest of qualities — to see through the BS of one’s own tribe — and has set off ahead of you, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for Shadow of the Erdtree players to follow.

In The Shadow of the Erdtree

Touching Miquella’s outstretched hand teleports you to the Upside Down of the Lands Between. You’re in the shadow of the Erdtree (hey, that’s the title!), and Miquella believes there’s some empire-shattering truth here. Your goal is to follow in his path and discern his purpose.

All the classics are here. Castles with breathtaking architecture, intricate caves and catacombs, the Duke’s Archives 4.0, and yes… a poison swamp.

Imagine a junction with three paths, and two of them just… don’t terminate, branching off into their own paths, splintering and splintering to the point where you can no longer keep track of it all. 

That’s when I started to feel awe. It feels a bit like being overwhelmed but in a good way. 

This applies not only to dungeons but also to the map as a whole.

It’s a big map, y’all. I’m eyeballing here, but… it’s maybe the size of Limgrave and Liurnia put together.

There are quotes floating around of Miyazaki downplaying the size. Don’t listen to him. He is a master of expectation management. Where other developers promise the world, Miyazaki consistently underpromises and over-delivers.

Yeah. That. Except now there’s a whole new dimension to consider – the map is actually much larger than it appears because there are two or three Limgraves stacked on top of each other.

Remember that whole saga about the map prior to Elden Ring’s release? It looked like it was only going to be Limgrave until it got bigger, and bigger, and bigger, until it was mind-blowing. 

Shadow of the Erdtree’s zones are partitioned through verticality. Consider the fall distance it takes to die, and this is your “wall” – albeit one you can see through. 

With this principle of “walling” established, the Shadow Realm stacks several, often overlapping, zones on top of each other. Though it denies access, it doesn’t deny you sightlines (though some areas are intentionally foggy). The next zone is always so close, but you still have to puzzle out how to get there.

Your map doesn’t accurately display your actual environment, so you’re forced to rely on your eyes and ears. I think this makes for a more immersive and novel experience, but your personal mileage may vary on that one.

SoulsBorneRing fans will be familiar with From’s technique of using items, rooms, or sounds to let players know there’s a secret close by. There’ll be a room you can peek into but not access, and you’ll store that in your mind to search for before the dungeon is finished.

You can now apply that to the world as a whole. You can see points of interest, either on the map or the horizon, and you’ll have to either explore or deduce how to get there. It’s a clever way of mixing zones, teasing what’s next.

It has a little bit of that intertwining world property the original Dark Souls had. Perhaps this is the open-world interpretation of that—most areas have multiple entrances, and everything is on top of everything else, with lots of secret passageways between.

An open world can’t be quite as intertwined as Dark Souls – we traded that away for Elden Ring’s vast geography, which brings mounted combat, stealth, and the ability to “nope” out of any encounter. But Shadow of the Erdtree presents perhaps the closest open-world equivalent of the oft-praised element of Dark Souls that that series never managed to replicate.

So, how long will it take you to get through it?

I’ve spent 65 hours scouring the map for every little secret. I’ve beaten every boss and pretty much exhausted the Shadow Realm. 

There’s one mystery I haven’t solved yet. It’s my one known unknown. And to be honest, it seems big. But who knows? Maybe it doubles the size of the DLC, or maybe it’s a giant red herring. Miyazaki really do be like that sometimes.

Scaling in the Erdtree’s Shadow

So here’s the thing about the Scadutree Fragments.

Found regularly throughout the DLC, these items reduce the damage you take, increase the damage you deal, and only apply within the Shadow Realm.

At first glance, it seems like it just makes the DLC easier. And… It does. But more than that, it’s targeting a specific experience – a precise difficulty curve.

I personally believe the goal of the Scadutree Fragments is to scale the DLC to have a similar difficulty arc as the base game, despite the fact that you might be level 150ish.

Imagine the “feeling” you had going through the base game. That sense of starting out weak, growing stronger, and ending up needing to be really strong for the endgame challenges. Level 150s will feel like level 10s all over again, but through exploration, you’ll find Fragments and feel stronger.

With that in mind, I say go ahead and use the Fragments. That goes for hardcore enthusiasts, too, at least on their first run. I mean, you do you, but I say use them. Fragments are a core scaling element rather than a tacked-on Easy Mode, and you can always do a no-Fragment run later if you’re nuts (I plan to try one soon.)

On top of these Fragments, there are more situational tools to soften the sharp edges of particular encounters. It’s not as blatant as Mohg’s Shackle, but it’s in the same universe.

In true Elden Ring style, all this is left up to you, picking and choosing your Subway sandwich of difficulty in the moment, without any menus or quitting out. Stealth can be a strong option, and there are new items to make mounted combat quite appealing. Spirit Ashes come thick and fast. 

The one element that didn’t help was NPC summons. I’m not the only one who experienced an NPC who slacked off during boss fights. They’re a little too comfortable hanging around the edges of the fight, rolling from invisible attacks, letting you soak the aggro.

Summoning an NPC cooperator outside the fog gate scales the boss’ health bar up. Now imagine a fight where the boss’ health bar was already Scadutree-scaled, and then scaled up again due to your rot-for-brains teammate. It can feel like you super-scaled the boss for nothing – but if you want to progress the NPC questlines, that’s something you’ll have to deal with.

I’m betting this is primarily an AI fix, but I do also wonder if From got the numbers right on this double-scaling formula. Try summoning an NPC or friend in your first boss fight in Shadow of the Erdtree, and watch how little damage your +25 does. Quite the “oh shit” moment.

In the Footsteps of Miquella

Locking the Shadow Realm behind one of the harder optional bosses has caused some complaints. Oh, sweet summer children, ye who never had to go through the labyrinthine process of finding Dark Souls’ DLC. I digress. I get the objection, but overall, I’m still for it.

My reasons for being in the Pro camp are mainly lore-based, but when it comes to items, I’m conflicted. It’d be great to have access to these new playstyles early in a playthrough. Why not give me the beast claws, the backhanded blades, the martial arts moves right at the start?

On the other hand, there are some scaled-up items that we probably shouldn’t be able to speedrun. New versions of the resistance talismans, crafting books for super rare items… Maybe it’s good that these things are behind a barrier.

Once you’re there, just about everything is at least spoiler-adjacent. Run-of-the-mill item descriptions hold revelatory secrets about the Omen, the Crucible, the Two Fingers, the Frenzied Flame, and on and on.

So, with that in mind, we’ll talk about it without talking about it, shall we?

Early on, you’re introduced to several NPCs on the same quest. These are folks who have grudges against you and each other, but in the name of Miquella the Kind, they’re putting aside the animosity and teaming up. How lovely.

On the other hand, we know from the base game that Miquella is a charming bastard. What wasn’t so clear was if his powers were truly supernatural in nature or if he was just “captain of the debate team” persuasive. The existence of items like the Bewitching Branch suggests the former.

So, how many in this team of superfriends are really dedicated to Miquella? What happens if that charm fades?

On the way, you’ll uncover secrets the Empyreans hid from the Lands Between. War crimes of the ruling class, incompetence. Real Wikileaks shit. 

There are a few returning ideas here from the Souls series, but what else is new? I’m sidestepping spoilers again, but there will be the occasional boss or zone that will make veteran Souls players lift an eyebrow, fully aware of the moment’s genealogy.

More than a penchant for poison pits, these are straight-up remixes of older ideas. They appear in the same way Bloodborne’s One Reborn aped Demon’s SoulsTower Knight fight or how DS2’s Looking Glass Knight was a refined version of Demon’s SoulsOld Monk.

Another example is Messmer’s fire, which contains the same properties as the bloodflame in Mohg’s boss fight. There’s the initial hit, then a delay, then an explosion. With two attacks spaced out, it creates new challenges for timing your roll or picking a moment to guard counter.

Messmer is a core character in this DLC, and his faithful followers ain’t frugal with fire. This is an army that burned anything and everything deemed impure, pretty much defined as anything that wasn’t them.

As such, many attacks have that hidden second strike, and it’s not limited to Messmer’s flame. It like an idea that From really wanted to play with. Yet another technique to bait you into a preemptive punish and catch you with the sneaky follow-up.

If it’s any consolation, you’ll also collect more and more gear using Messmer’s flame, turning the tables on the Impaler and the rest of the Shadow Realm. 

I’m keen to see how that stuff goes in PvP. But in PvE, things stay pretty challenging because no matter what exciting new gear you get, it’s never going above that +25 balance ceiling.

Perfectly Balanced, As All Things Should Be

Another scale to balance is that of viable playstyles. 

Shortly after every patch, both PvE and PvP settle into a “solved” state, which is workable and still fun, but it’d be nice if some of the more “fun” playstyles were viable.

There’s no way of knowing which builds will rise to the top, but From is throwing so many styles into the mix, we’ll be swimming in a healthy pool of top-tier optimised playstyles. I like this strategy – not only will it be a joy to experiment with all of these options, but widening the pool of viable builds will generally keep PvP fresh for longer. 

From also seems to have a great grasp of aligning fun playstyles with effective builds. 

I talked about this before with the Milady, one of the DLC’s new Light Greatsword weapons. It has a stance that holds the sword out to the side, enabling a new moveset that has some startup time in the animation but packs a big punch. 

There’s inherent risk/reward in using that stance, but now combine it with Rellana’s Cameo, which boosts damage if you hold the stance for a set time. Now you’ve got even more risk/reward decisions mid-fight, and it’s fun to master as you constantly look for opportunities.

The big example here is the Sekiro playstyle. I mentioned in the preview that there’s an item that enables a last-minute block that uses negligible stamina and enhances your guard counter. That item is available in the very first area. Shadow of the Erdtree effectively brings Sekiro gameplay to Elden Ring.

This was genius. People love Sekiro, it’s a battle-tested playstyle, and the guard counter twist makes it viable here for two-handers or shield builds.

The timing is easier than a parry (without the lead-up animation) but harder than a normal block, so you can choose which attacks you’ll risk it on – perhaps erring on the side of normal block, since the other side leads to pain.

Again, this is an example of matching a fun playstyle with an effective one. The fun way to play should always be the optimal way to play. Otherwise, you’ll get min/maxers who are bored and just-for-fun players who are punished.

Light Greatswords also have a new feature whereby the R2’s weave seamlessly into the R1’s. The Backhand Blades have a feature where you can endlessly perform running R1s without coming to a stop.

I could go on with the examples, but I’ll leave it with this point: It’s not just the new weapons that nail this principle. Shadow of the Erdtree makes a clear effort to boost Elden Ring’s unloved builds that people thought would be cool but didn’t get high enough numbers. 

A Big Game Casts a Large Shadow

I have a note in my review journal that just says, “I feel gratitude.” 

And I do. I feel appreciation. Not just because the DLC is amazing, which it is, but for Elden Ring as a whole. 

Riding through the Realm of Shadow, I feel gratitude for the whole Elden Ring project. There’s only one first time you get to experience new Elden Ring content, and there’s only one period when the community comes together to puzzle out the lore. This is it, folks. Enjoy the next few weeks.

I’m also grateful we have this bastion of pure gaming, unaffected by microtransaction mania and predatory gambling systems. Much like the feeling many report having in The Witcher 3 or Baldur’s Gate 3. This is what gaming should be. 

Shadow of the Erdtree, like the base game, is somehow both massive and jam-packed, giving us answers and a deeper look into its mythos, bringing new playstyles that make us want to try new builds, keeping PvP fresh, and at least two highly challenging boss fights that’ll terrorise your challenge runs.

Hot damn if that isn’t the perfect DLC.

Image: From Software, Kotaku Australia

The Cheapest NBN 1000 Plans

Looking to bump up your internet connection and save a few bucks? Here are the cheapest plans available.

At Kotaku, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *