Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree Review – Where To Now?

Elden Ring is over. At the time of writing, there are no plans for more. It does not feel real, I have been following content creators, creating challenges for myself, and making up theories about it for over two years. I knew something more was coming, another piece to add to the puzzle. Another hit of what ended up becoming sort of an obsession with The Lands Between. No more.

Sixty hours over five days, one of the best pieces of downloadable content of all time, and the formula stretched to its limit. Undoubtedly, a resounding success. Shadow of the Erdtree has its issues, but just like the base game, I find it hard to think of a world this size that is more packed with such excellent content. Except, well, the base game.

A giant, flaming basket peeking through the woods
I remember after the first Elden Ring trailer, the first time I imagined how cool giant, roaming FromSoftware enemies would be. Glad to say they are still delivering on that

The biggest enemy of this DLC is the game it is attached to—even though the areas are smaller and I would make the case that the distance between points of interest and enemies is roughly the same, there are about half a dozen corners that are inexcusably empty. In the base game, you would find a graveyard with souls to level up, one of the merchants with a new crafting cookbook, or a boss that only spawns at night.

In their stead, the Land of Shadows adapts a more “go big or go home” kind of design. Each named location, while smaller in scale, leaves a stronger impression. Each new weapon feels like it introduces something special. Enemies hide the new upgrade materials in the form of Scadutree Fragments (percentage boosts to damage and defense) and Revered Spirit Ashes (the equivalent for summons and your spectral steed).

A red skybox
Time of day changes skyboxes drastically in the Land of Shadows, creating consistently exciting sights

Enemies shower the player in stones to upgrade their newly acquired weapons, and larval tears for redistributing stats shine brightly at night, ready for picking with no threat or any long search required. A short trip around the Land of Shadows opens a plethora of new possibilities. I often hear the complaint about Elden Ring’s overabundance of dungeons, something I found baffling given their quality relative to other games its size, but this map has opened my eyes to the possibilities a mini-world like this opens up.

Serene rides on Torrent across the Liurnia lakes is one of my favorite parts of each replay, so the lack of similar serenity threw me for a loop at the start, and yet FromSoftware managed to communicate the same sense of scale while using half the size. I would still get lost and find myself with two or three enormous areas ready to explore at any given time. Though the DLC feels somewhat hectic moment-to-moment, it undoubtedly also showcases the very best of every core Soulslike concept.

A giant dragon in the distance, below
See that dragon? You can climb it.

The dungeons, often the size of a catacomb back in the Lands Between, retain all of FromSoftware’s visual storytelling and level design prowess. From throwbacks to brand new gimmicks, unconventional traversal goodness abound, keys and alternate paths culminating in what is possibly my single favorite location they ever put together. Among all these miniature dungeons, one kept surprising for what felt like an eternity. Even after beating the final boss, I found out about yet another path inside it, leading to yet another insane encounter.

The quality of the dungeons is matched by their conclusions. Bosses, the majority of which jumped in to fill the top spots among my Elden Ring rankings, are all spectacular. Shadow of the Erdtree features all my favorite guys: little ones, large ones, cosmic horror ones, “just a human until they pull out their crazy attack” ones, lanky ones, and the plump sort. Aside from one dud and a couple of reused overworld bosses with an upped health bar, this is the most exciting and the most difficult collection of bosses for my standard mode of play.

Standing in front of a mist gate, leading to a boss
Few moments more exciting than this

Each day I played started and ended at something utterly ridiculous. Something I did not think was doable with what I had or something that rubbed me the wrong way. I think for the first time since I began playing Soulslikes, I felt like I was playing an RPG rather than an action game when it came to systems. Whether it was the upped damage resistances or the huge boss health pools in New Game+, I found myself using a total of over 10 different weapons. This is more than I used throughout the Dark Souls trilogy and Bloodborne combined.

But while this kind of variety, overwhelming quality and difficulty are all extremely exciting to a player like me, I think the way they were achieved is quite concerning. Truth be told, a large reason for the difficulty is not just the moveset, but the mechanics, which are struggling to match the intensity of the end result. Visual clutter obfuscates attacks, making it unnecessarily difficult to learn the timings, all the while the camera falls flat on its head trying to follow enemies that fly off into parts unknown and spin around you during their combos.

A giant horned, lion head peeking through the stone
Some may say that my new, gigantic headpiece coupled with my two colossal weapons may be one of the reasons why I cannot see enemy moves. To those people I say: yes

During the hardest fights, I kept wondering how much more the Soulslike system take under FromSoft’s ever-increasing ambitions. The truth is we have long passed this barrier. The lock-on is failing, the camera is failing. The tight hitboxes turn some fights into a comical collection of whiffs, making enemies look like machines. There are moments where there is still innovation to be found, where an attack clicks perfectly with the lock-on or lock-off style of play, but for each one, there are two that just feel ridiculous.

Once again, the biggest enemy of Shadow of the Erdtree is the fact that it cannot change its base systems. It is a DLC after all. The level-up system unique to it is little more than just “number go up.” Bosses are leaving the player behind to perform cool moves. New options in the form of tears and talismans are great, but the FromSoft Soulslike is in drastic need of innovation if it is to keep up with whatever the team has been cooking up for it.

A character of another player, dressed in a red bear suit, called "God" stands in front of my player character in front of a boss gate
It’s easy to forget sometimes just how much the multiplayer in this game offers on top of everything else

The same one is found in the DLC’s story. A fresh take on how to twist expectations and tie the classic, individual, cryptic NPC stories into beautiful setpieces, all in real-time, without the need for cutscenes, face, or motion capture. It always amazes me how much of Elden Ring is missable, how much of it relies purely on your determination to reach some form of truth, and yet it can still have moments of this transcendental beauty. I think with Shadow of the Erdtree they managed to sneak these primal emotions into its story. You may not fully get it, but you will surely feel it.

Primal is how I’d describe a lot of what is found here. It is a return to basics which many fell in love with. Traversal has inventive connections between areas, gimmicks, shortcuts, and skips. Combat feels insurmountably difficult once more. The feeling of companionship stays strong through messages, summons, and NPC storylines. The ingenuity of not just the creators, but also the community formed around this game never fails to amaze me.

A gray look into the Scadutree: the Shadow Land's version of the Erdtree
The main game was one of the most colorful open worlds of all time, and this DLC takes it up another level with tons of changes depending on the weather and time of day

So although I may be at my wits’ end with the basics, Shadow of the Erdtree is the single best reminder of why it all just works. You can feel the years of evolution, but also the limits of ambition. This is perhaps the third time when I doubted that their formula could provide yet another experience of such high quality, and the third time they proved me wrong. No matter how many fights seem no longer compatible, the open-world formula allows for so many distractions from the few issues, and the impressive elements are overwhelming. A fantastic DLC to add to an increasingly unbelievable repertoire of worlds and stories.

But where to now? Will the studio responsible for shifting the direction of the industry simply find new ways to compensate for its shortcomings; will they stifle their own ambitions which keep creating ever-crazier fights; or will they be able to create and implement something that will allow them to flourish without a creeping shadow of negativity at their footsteps? Only time will tell.

Mateusz played Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree on PC with his own bought copy.

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