Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Review: Massive, Menacing, And Magnificent

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Review: Massive, Menacing, And Magnificent

Hours into playing Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree, the massive, singular expansion for FromSoftware’s award-winning 2022 action RPG, I realize it’s paralleling my real life.

Until Elden Ring, I avoided Soulslikes. Their punishing difficulty and rigid boundaries frustrated me immensely: I hit a wall in Dark Souls: Remastered and gave up, barely touched Bloodborne, and avoided Sekiro like it was a poison swamp. In the real world, I have mostly avoided the ire of homophobes and misogynists in the games industry, writing an article that temporarily shakes them up before fading into relative obscurity once Reddit refreshes. But now, I am willingly subjecting myself to arduous adventure, running headfirst into a proverbial wall just to shake it off, back up, and run into it again. Outside of the Lands Between and the Shadow Realm, I have spent nearly four months as the subject of a near-endless harassment campaign. It feels, at times, like logging on for a day of work is akin to walking through a boss door over and over again.

Read More: PSA: There Are Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree Spoilers Out There

Before I even make that connection between my real world and FromSoft’s game world, I subconsciously attack Shadow of the Erdtree with dogged determination, as if besting a boss would bleed into my every day and imbue me with a higher tier of self-confidence. Much like how it feels to receive near-endless hate comments from anonymous accounts or angry middle-aged men, I face Shadow of the Erdtree entirely alone—no multiplayer summons would work for me in early access, a feature I relied on in the base game. So I faced it solo and, after almost 20 hours, came out, as Rennala says, born anew.

There is so much in Shadow of the Erdtree—from new equipment and enemies, to stunning vistas, to an unparalleled lore dump that bears the fingerprints of George R.R. Martin—that I’m confident anyone who plays it will walk away changed.

Screenshot: FromSoftware / Kotaku

Welcome to the Realm of Shadow

After touching the withered hand of Miquella in the Mohgwyn Palace Mausoleum, I am transported to the Realm of Shadow. I walk up a small, narrow path before emerging into a massive open plain. In the distance, the Haligtree (created by the star of this DLC, Miquella, in an attempt to cure his sister Malenia of Scarlet Rot) bleeds golden sap from a fork in its gnarled trunk. A giant, diaphanous veil drapes over it and the surrounding lands. Between myself and the Haligtree stands one of the massive Furnace Golems we saw last month in the DLC trailer, its hulking body slowly stalking through a field. To my left is a collection of ruins, to my right a crumbling castle. I can see a much larger castle on the horizon; it looms over the Golem below it.

The sheer size of this initial area floors me—and it’s only the beginning. I find map fragments for this new realm during my playthrough and realize just how huge the shadow lands are, how much it dwarfs any other piece of FromSoft DLC. Though one demerit for this smaller but still densely packed world is the legibility of the map—without an underground toggle like the one for the Lands Between, it can be tough to understand where the hell you are, or what path you need to take to get somewhere.

As I work my way through both new and familiar enemies and terrain, it swiftly becomes clear that Shadow of the Erdtree is a super-condensed version of Elden Ring, a hyper-strong essence you’d dilute in water to make it last longer. If this expansion launched in 2022 instead of the incredible, award-winning game we got, we’d still be tickled pink—it’s that dense, that demanding, that deep in terms of gameplay systems, features, weapons, and more. Nearly every enemy type from the base game is represented here, from the grave birds to the little jar guys, the beastmen of Farum Azula to the Tibia Mariner boatmen of Liurnia of the Lakes, and those goddamn ankle-biting dogs. The areas you discover will remind you of places in the Lands Between: poisonous swamps, crumbling magic castles, dank dungeons, and creepy caves.

Yet there is also so much in Erdtree that’s novel, like the Cerulean Coast in the south, a sea of glowing blue flowers delineating that what was once ocean water has since retreated further out; or the altar sitting in the shadow of a gargantuan dragon corpse underneath a blood-red sky that’s occasionally cut through by streaks of fiery orange lightning. And this massive new world doesn’t just span an impressive surface area, but offers multiple layers to explore, from the skyscraping peaks of the Jagged Peak mountain to the deep, fog-filled valleys tucked between cliffs. You may see the icon for a map fragment nestled in a corner of the map, but good luck reaching it—the varying altitudes will require you to double and triple back over previously trodden areas as you search for a way up or down.

Screenshot: FromSoftware / Kotaku

Just when you think you’ve got a feeling of how large this expansion is, when you’re certain you’ve got the lay of the land, something surprises you—a new spirit spring jettisons you and Torrent up hundreds of feet onto a stone battlement, or a tiny crevasse spits you out in the middle of a battle between a dragon and Messmer’s footsoldiers. “There’s more?!” I frequently wonder.

And then there’s the lore, which you had to go searching for in Elden Ring but is far more readily available (dare I say, in-your-face) in Shadow of the Erdtree. If you are a lorehead, Erdtree will satiate you, as it expands and expounds upon the drip-feed of story we got in the base game. It’s clear that Hidetaka Miyazaki wants you to know more about his magnum opus’ world, that he hopes you walk away from the DLC with a better understanding of the gods ruling this strange land; their machinations, their mistakes.

Throughout my nearly 20 hours with Shadow of the Erdtree, I learn about the horrifying origins of the jars that will turn the cute little guys into objects of revulsion in your mind, the legacy of Placidusax (the dragon you fight in Crumbling Farum Azula), the religious teachings of the messianac Miquella (commonly referred to as “tender” and “kindly” by NPCs), and the ramifications of devoting oneself to those teachings. At one point, an NPC tells me, “Miquella the Kind is a monster. Pure and radiant, he wields love to shrive clean the hearts of men. There is nothing more terrifying.” I learn who Messmer truly is about 10 hours into my playthrough. If you have lingering lore questions after playing through Shadow of the Erdtree, you weren’t paying attention.

Screenshot: FromSoftware / Kotaku

Shadow of the Erdtree: Elden Ring distilled

We knew ahead of Shadow of the Erdtree’s launch that FromSoftware would adjust progression and difficulty so you couldn’t simply over-level your character before heading into the DLC and wipe the floor with everyone. In practice, many of the enemies in Erdtree feel fairly squishy, but dole out an immense amount of damage. I put most of my leveling into my HP and have the highest-level health talisman equipped (which you’ll find in the Realm of Shadow), and I still struggle and die at the hands of low-level birds and piles of goo. The first boss I encounter is just steps away from the DLC’s first site of grace—the Blackgaol Knight, who hits me with an auto-crossbow the moment I cross through the boss door and wipes me out before I can get my bearings. I still can’t beat him.

Throughout your travels, you’ll find Scadutree Blessings and Revered Spirit Ash Blessings, new items which will strengthen your build only in the Realm of Shadows.This means you can more generally level up your character to fight harder bosses in the DLC, as Scadutree Blessings increase your attack power and decrease your damage taken, while the Revered Spirit Ash Blessings will increase the power of the Spirit Ash NPCs you summon in fights. It’s a simple and nifty way to ensure you scale up for the expansion but don’t go back into the base game and demolish everyone with one fell swoop.

Screenshot: FromSoftware / Kotaku

During my playthrough of the base game, I relied heavily on glintstone and gravity magic, as well as my Moonveil Katana, but it’s clear that Shadow of the Erdtree wants me to flex outside of my comfort zone—respec my Tarnished, level a new weapon, try out a new Ash of War, etc. Certain enemies, like the aforementioned Furnace Golems, are virtually untouchable without a special item you have to craft (the Hefty Furnace Pot, whose ingredients I finally found about 19 hours in). I discover quite a few worthy weapons early on, including a greatsword called Milady, the Dryleaf Arts which allows for hand-to-hand combat, and the Carian Sorcery Sword, which lets you use your special attack to cast spells without equipping a staff. I try them all out, but nothing feels quite right, and it’s not until I struggle through a particular boss fight that I admit my build needs to drastically change.

It takes nearly three straight hours of the Golden Hippopotamus boss, of dying at nearly the same point every time, of beginning a descent into madness, before I decide to try a new approach. It’s late, my eyes are bleary, my reaction time is slow, and my patience is thinner than the veil separating these two worlds. I remember I recently defeated Rellana the Twin Moon Knight, who dualwields magic swords that conjure fire and moon power and who also beat my ass for several hours. I decide to head back to the Roundtable Hold and use her remembrance (the item major bosses drop that allow you to obtain a piece of their kit or one of their spells) with the merchant there. I want her swords, as they feel like the perfect update to my magic/Moonveil build. Naturally, they require me to respec, so I head to Rennala (yes, the names are similar, do with that information what you will), to be born anew.

Screenshot: FromSoftware / Kotaku

With Rellana’s swords in-hand, the hippo goes down on my third attempt. I rejoice, letting out a loud whoop and standing up off the couch so fast I nearly upend the coffee table, which sends the most skittish of my cats sprinting into the bedroom. The uniquely FromSoft feeling of elation after intense tribulation overtakes me, and I’m ready for more of what the Shadow Realm has to offer.

I am humbled, fairly quickly, by the soldiers who come immediately after the hippo, the same ones who guard big bad Messmer’s castle. They’re a part of a section that feels the most typically Dark Souls-y: make your way up to the top of a castle, fight through several high-difficulty enemies, avoid falling off the ledge. I drop back into the cycle: Live, die, repeat, like that Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow if it was full of freaky little guys and rotting carcasses.

But that flickering firelight memory of beating the damn hippo urges me forward, filling me with hope. This is going to be hard, but I can do this. I will carry that mantra long after I leave the Realm of Shadow. This is going to be hard, but I can do this.

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree is nothing short of magnificent. It is both an expansion to and a distillation of what makes the original game so special, offering you a chance to try out new weapons and builds while learning far more about the Lands Between than you might have expected. It will delight you in one breath and devastate you the next, forcing you to question your approach, to fortify your spirit.

Reviewing it in such a short period of time (I received code midway through the day on June 12) was both incredibly challenging and endlessly rewarding. Because only industry folks had access to Shadow of the Erdtree, I’d read what few notes were left behind and wonder “do I know the person who left that?” It was a unique FromSoft experience I’ll probably never enjoy again. I learned a lot about myself streaking through the shadow realm of the Lands Between, and I think you will too.

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree

Type of game: FromSoft action RPG

Liked: Incredible world, fascinating lore, engaging new enemies, everything you want from Elden Ring and then some.

Disliked: Map can be confusing, and I’d love more boss cutscenes

Developer: FromSoftware

Platforms: Xbox Series X/S, PS5, PC

Release Date: June 21, 2024

Played:~ 20 hours
Image: FromSoftware

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