Hands-On: Shadow Of The Erdtree Promises To Solve Elden Ring’s Biggest Mystery

Hands-On: Shadow Of The Erdtree Promises To Solve Elden Ring’s Biggest Mystery

Elden Ring is full of mysteries. It successfully married the cryptic, deep lore From achieved in the Souls games with a massive open world, filling every cranny (and some nooks!) with the puzzle pieces to paint the lore of the Lands Between. For two years, we’ve assembled that jigsaw, and still some questions remain unanswered. 

What of the outer gods? What of the Crucible? What of Hoarah Loux’s time in the badlands? Most of all, what’s the deal with Miquella?

Elden Ring is full of mysteries, and Shadow of the Erdtree is full of answers.

Or at least, that’s what it looks like after the three hours of playtime I was allowed. The first steps into these shadow lands promise revelations about Marika’s earlier days, the Omen, Miquella’s mission, and perhaps even the Crucible and the Gloam-Eyed Queen.

On top of that, From has said that Shadow of the Erdtree will be the only DLC for Elden Ring, so we’re right to expect this to be more about closure than mere progress. Any threads left open after June 21st are intentional loose ends.

So, let’s dive in. And a fair warning – I’m going to be talking about lore, which might be considered spoilers if you haven’t played Elden Ring

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Image: Kotaku Australia
Image: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Walking in Miquella’s Path

Miquella has high-tailed it to the Land of Shadow, and you’re off to find out why. 

Riding out into the DLC area Shadow of the Erdtree carves out, you’re first confronted with the Gravesite Plains, a wide open field full of ghostly tombstones, extending as far as you can see. It’s quite reminiscent of the Altus Plateau in that something huge has clearly gone down here. Something that doesn’t just wash away. You’re Frodo in the Dead Marshes, as ignorant of its history as its peril.

Somewhere in this land resides Messmer the Impaler, a faithful follower of Marika on the same level of power and divinity as Radahn, Morgott, Malenia, and the others. 

Another thing you notice quickly is even the Erdtree appears covered in Marika’s veils.

This land, and Messmer himself, aren’t spoken of. They’re like Warhammer 40K’s II and XI legions – you don’t ask about it, and those with knowledge don’t talk about it, because it’s clear some bad, bad stuff went down here.

If From’s habit of using the final enemy as box art and collectible statue is anything to go by, Messmer is also potentially the last and/or most challenging Shadow of the Erdtree boss, just as you gleefully unwrapped that Malenia statue only to have her introduce herself to you after every death. But I digress (and speculate).

This plain of tombstones is quite beautiful, and all throughout, there’s a lighting trick where the ground seems darker than it should be while the sky has a muted golden glow. There are rays of light that never quite seem to catch on anything.

This theme of light and dark is mentioned more than once by NPCs, specifically that the light exists because of the dark – as though what happened here was necessary for Marika to have her godly power. 

Could this land be the equivalent of The Time Machine’s race of Morlocks? Forever suffering so the Lands Between can enjoy relative ease?

You’re quickly introduced to two things that’ll help you as you solve the mystery: NPCs on the same quest, and the Scadutree Fragments.

Aside from sounding like the Scatman’s new single, the Scadutree Fragment is a straightforward system to make Shadow of the Erdtree easier. Used at the bonfire site of lost grace, each fragment makes you take less damage, and deal more of it. The effects are permanent but have no effect outside the Land of Shadow. 

I’ve written before about how Elden Ring put the whole Hard Mode debate to rest, and here’s one more system in the same vein. This is From acknowledging its DLCs are typically brutal, and giving you a no-nonsense crutch to use or not use as you see fit.

Several NPCs offer their services as well, and the political dividing lines are interesting here. There are former followers of Mohg, and Radahn, and others, now with a new quest to follow Miquella.

NPCs native to the land haven’t forgotten Marika’s betrayal. They see you as in league with her; the tarnished, or depending on your playthrough, full-blown Elden Lord. But if you’re walking the path of Miquella, they’ll put aside even this most ancient of grudges to help you.

It’s kind of a powerful way to set up Miquella’s charm. We knew he was a prodigy, loved by all. But for these strong characters to put aside allegiances and injuries to follow Miquella shows that he’s special, even for an Empyrean.

From what lore I could glean in the playthrough, I gleaned that Miquella seems to have transcended the politics and religions of the Lands Between, finding some kind of deeper truth. One spirit in the Gravesite Plains referred to someone seeking “greater godhood,” and it sure felt like he was talking about Miquella. But who knows. Maybe Messmer?

The other big thing you’ll see when riding through the DLC’s first area is the giant, fiery brazier monster seen in the trailer. This thing is scary – not just because it’s full of freakin’ people, and wearing the faces of fire giants on its belt, but because I struck it with a fully upgraded weapon with 80 strength, after using the Scadutree Fragment, and I didn’t even see the health bar move.

Sometimes, in a strictly monitored three-hour play session, you just need to know when to move on.

That brings us to very first castle of Shadow of the Erdtree

Castle Belurat

There are three main dungeons (that I know of) in the starting area. Castle Belurat and Castle Ensis have gateways to further areas that we couldn’t enter in this play session. There’s also the Lava Forge, which I’ll talk about later.

Once you find Belurat, you’re treated to some of that beautifully large architecture that From is so great at. Huge staircases and doors give Belurat a momentous feeling, an atmosphere of awe.

Enjoy it while you can because everyone inside is trying to kill you.

One thing I noticed about the enemies here is there’s an intentional effort to counter the Soulsey playstyle of strafing around your enemy while blocking. There’s a tall, high-poise knight with more than one block-breaking animation specifically targeting its back-left and back-right areas. 

Elsewhere, an NPC invader with a rapier had such high tracking that strafing was useless. Ol’ faithful, the classic circle strafe, you served us well but no longer. Those Scadutree Fragments are looking better than ever.

I’m always impressed at how From uses level design to tell its story, and Belurat is full of this. A courtyard with a statue of two trees intertwining, the curtains on the floor reminiscent of Marika’s bedroom… I knew the revelations behind this symbolism would be made clear later, if I looked for it.

There were also some dead ends, disappointing detours with enemies protecting nothing, but I put this down to it being a pre-release play session. Our pre-made characters were stacked with a large number of new weapons, fully upgraded, so we could try them out within the allotted time. I think these empty areas are where the new weapons would normally be found.

At the end of Belurat is the dancing lion boss you may have seen in the trailer. It’s actually three extremely well-coordinated people in a lion suit, similar to what you’d see in Chinese New Year celebrations. A clever idea for a boss, given its “joints” offer new opportunities for animations to psych out the player.

It’s beautiful to look at, when the camera manages to actually look at it. As is a little too common in these games, when the boss gets airborne and slams down on you, the camera can get wacky. 

That doesn’t stop it from being very fun, and very hard. It’s visually striking, especially later when it brings out the frost and lightning spells, spinning through the air. I have no idea how I’m going to avoid those attacks as a level 1 later. But with the help of a pre-loaded DLC spirit ash, and a healthy dose of Scadutree jazz magic, the lion fell.

My reward? A giant lion head I can wear for the rest of the game. Hmm. I wonder if that could have any use when talking to NPCs…

The Lava Forge

With little time left, I didn’t have the confidence to attempt a full run at Castle Ensis, so I headed to the Lava Forge. This is a dungeon with no boss, but I’ve seen this type of thing change between a pre-release version and launch, so your mileage may vary.

Following a winding path away from Ensis I found a typical No Horses Allowed hole in the wall, leading down to glowing red pools of liquid-hot “magma.”

The enemies here were trolls made of stone with jewels in their backside marking their weakpoints. So very Zelda of you, Miyazaki. It also put me in mind of the mines from Demon’s Souls, as this was definitely the area to pick up some smithing stones if you were short.

It’s easy to miss some things here, and this area had a few hidden levers. A couple of weapon pickups are the highlight – notably, the Anvil Hammer at the end, which you pull out of a forge. 

It’s literally an anvil on a stick, functioning as a hammer. The perfect strength weapon. I saw VaatiVidya get it next to me, and I had to have it.

My premade character had 80 strength, so this was going to be my weapon for the rest of the run. I equipped it, and… it required over 20 Faith. Bummer.

New Weapons and Styles

You don’t have to do any more selling to get me on board with an Anvil Hammer. I’m a simple man with simple interests.

But as I slowly collected more and more weapons, talismans, and other gear in the Land of Shadow, what stuck out was how much thought has gone into the playstyles these items enable.

There are eight new weapon categories in Shadow of the Erdtree, which is awesome in itself but not the full story. Almost everything you pick up will make you think “Oh dang… This could combine with A-B-C from the base game to make X-Y-Z playstyle more feasible.”

I’ll try to give a few examples without making this a wiki page.

Castle Belurat’s enemies commonly use storm attacks, much like Stormveil Castle, and more than one gear pickup enhances these. The lion head mentioned above increases storm effects while reducing focus and flask heals. I feel like storm builds are something From wanted people to play with more but we never really saw them outside of niche PvP builds, and these items will coax more airbenders into PvE.

The Shriek of Sorrow is an ash of war that yells, stunning nearby enemies and buffing damage if you’re below a health threshold. This presumably combines with Roar buffs. 

More importantly, the Red-Feathered Branchsword (and indeed, every Red Tearstone item since DS1) was nowhere near as powerful as the original Red Tearstone. That kind of had to be the case, since Elden Ring’s multiplicative stacking of buffs is already so powerful, enabling some Youtubers to one-shot bosses even as a level 1. But combining Shriek of Sorrow with the Red-Feathered Branchsword is an intriguing option for glass cannon builds.

I saw another ash of war that causes poison and rot, conjuring spikes from the ground, and causing massive damage to the enemy if they’re already afflicted with poison or rot. This “build poison and explode it” style was toyed with in the base game – mainly with Poison Moth Flight – but never really took off, so I’m keen to see if they nailed it this time. 

Perhaps most interestingly, I’m told by VaatiVidya that he’s heard of a Cracked Tear that enables perfect parries that don’t cost stamina. Both of our eyes lit up at the possibility of doing Sekiro-like counters in Elden Ring. To my mind, this opens up the possibility of a low stamina shield build, if you back yourself to hit the timings.

Vaati was also the first person in the world to beat the Castle Ensis boss, and he picked up an item that increased damage after holding a stance for a certain amount of time. I really like the thinking there – it rewards starting the stance right after an exchange, which will look and feel badass. When you’re aligning the optimal playstyle with what feels and looks the coolest, that’s good design.

It’s also a fun bit of additional risk/reward. Case in point, the Milady is one of the weapons in the new Light Greatsword category, with an L2 stance that holds the Milady out to the side for a special moveset.

Even without trying to hold the stance for a buff, I got caught out a few times just trying to react to enemy attacks. There’s a bit of animation time to account for before your poise-destroying hurtbox is activated. A reward for holding the stance is just the right kind of interesting mid-combat decision that makes everything more fun.

We also came across a two-handed hammer with an R2 that threw the hammer away and had it return like Mjolnir. I used this to get a bit of range with my Strength build against the dancing lion boss. At one point it felt like I even hit him as the hammer was on the return path, but I couldn’t be sure. It was a lot of fun to have range as an option in an otherwise melee-only build.

Thrown weapons with unlimited ammo are also on the cards, as well as perfume bottles, and thrusting shields meant for attacking as well as blocking. There were “beast claw” weapons which acted like more scratchy fist weapons, great katanas, reverse-hand swords, and handwraps that acted as enablers for martial arts moves. 

Adam Mathew, writing for IGN, spent our entire Shadow of the Erdtree preview session with the martial arts moveset. He’s my hero. It looked incredibly difficult to get the hang of, but by the end, his Tekken combos had a small crowd gathered around his screen to watch. I imagine his preview will be live now on IGN, and I’ll be keen to read his thoughts.

Final Thoughts

Is Shadow of the Erdtree more of the same? Sure, but in the best way possible, and with plenty of switch-ups and surprises to keep you on your toes. Especially if you were a circle-strafer.

From’s DLCs are historically where some of its most brutal boss fights live, and a lot of decisions seem tailor-made to get your out of your comfort zone. But true to form, there are also powerful new options to deal with these threats, and the freedom to alter your difficulty mid-stream. 

Even as a gamer who’s focused on dynamics and systems, the aesthetics of the Land of Shadow are incredibly unique and impressive. Equally compelling is this mysterious figure of Miquella, who we’ve heard about all through the base game. 

Why did he “[strip] himself of his flesh and his Golden lineage” before coming here? Is he playing both sides? Is he ascending further? Is Mohg a pedo? What truth is the prodigy seeking, and how does it affect the Elden Lord? 

I’ll be playing Shadow of the Erdtree for these answers as much as for the impeccable boss fights, excited for communal sleuthing, and everyone coming together to solve the mystery. There’s a section of the jigsaw puzzle we hadn’t noticed before, hidden in shadow, and it’s time to shed some golden light on it.

It’s time to walk the path of Miquella.

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