Shadow Of The Erdtree Renews The Awe And Adventure Of Elden Ring


Elden Ring’s Shadow of the Erdtree DLC is more of the same. Admittedly, this is an uninspiring way to discuss one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2024, but that doesn’t make it any less apt. The important thing to remember is the “same” we’re getting more of is what established Elden Ring as a genre- and generation-defining masterpiece.

Believe it or not, I haven’t stopped playing Elden Ring since it was first released in February 2022. Even with every cave explored, dungeon conquered, and demi-god felled, the quest to become Elden Lord presents new ways to keep me engaged. There’s always a fresh combination of weapons, items, talismans, and magic to experiment with, and each build can change how the game is played in significant ways.

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But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that every new playthrough further diminishes something that is vital to the magic of Elden Ring, and From Software’s games overall: a sense of discovery. At a certain point, the road to becoming Elden Lord becomes well-trodden and familiar, even when the means used to walk it isn’t.

Shadow of the Erdtree’s most exciting feature, then, is its potential to revitalize that sense of discovery by once again enveloping us in a strange, uncharted world that is teeming with role-playing opportunities, hard-fought battles, and narrative revelations, all of which are earned through exploration that places an emphasis on player agency. And based on what I’ve played, the DLC is living up to that potential.

That sense of discovery pervades every facet of Elden Ring and its DLC, and to painstakingly lay out the details of what I saw and experienced would somewhat rob others of that. I will instead focus on explaining some of the important mechanical changes and additions, as well as what the experience felt like.

But before that, a little bit of setup: Shadow of the Erdtree, just as most of From Software’s DLC for its previous games did, aims to contextualize the events of Elden Ring. In this case, Shadow of the Erdtree shifts the narrative to center on Miquella, a key character who is in Elden Ring (in a manner of speaking), but whom the player never meets in any meaningful capacity. Miquella is frequently referenced and adorned with reverence by numerous figures in The Lands Between, but by the time the Tarnished arrive to stake their claim as Elden Lord, he has attempted to grow a new divine tree by watering its seed with his own blood, leaving him in a kind of stasis. He’s then ripped out of his Haligtree by his half-brother Mohg and placed in a cocoon in Mohgwyn Palace, the seat of a new dynasty that Mohg is trying to create under the auspices of an Outer God called The Formless Mother.

For two years now, we’ve been led to believe that the long, emaciated-looking arm that is limply hanging from a crack in the cocoon placed on an altar at Mogwhyn Palace belongs to Miquella. There has been some debate as to whether this is actually the case, given that, despite being depicted as resplendent, Miquella has typically been shown as having a slender frame and being small in stature. And with the introduction of Messmer, the Impaler, another demi-god child of Queen Marika and potential brother to Miquella, the truth becomes even more cloudy. Either way, there weren’t any answers offered in my play session as, after interacting with the arm, I was instantly and abruptly transported to the Land of Shadow. Given that From Software has almost always used some sort of cutscene to transition the player from one major area to the next, or to signal a change in the state of the world, I suspect this is a secret that From Software is choosing to keep until the DLC is available.

Shadow of the Erdtree is significant in size, but I was only given access to a small corner of it. The final version will pit players against 10 new bosses that, like in the main game, don’t all have to be beaten to progress to its conclusion–it’s down to the player to determine how thorough they are in their conquests. It also introduces 100 new weapons and eight new categories of arms to bear. The great news for Elden Ring sickos like me is that all of these can be taken back into The Lands Between, which has huge implications for new builds and further bolsters how replayable the game as a whole is–I imagine we’ll be playing Elden Ring for years more to come.

The space of the Land of Shadow I could explore had three key locations: Three Paths Cross; Castle Ensis; and Beaurat, Castle Settlement. They all fit into the framework of Elden Ring’s dungeons, with Three Paths Cross being an area with caves and small buildings to discover and explore, kind of like the early parts of Limgrave. Castle Ensis, meanwhile, is a medium-sized dungeon akin to Redmane Castle, and Beaurat is a Legacy Dungeon like Lyndell or Stormveil Castle. Connecting them together is a vast open area that I was free to explore to my heart’s content and, for a little bit, I did.

My journey began in what was essentially a gravesite nestled in a dark corner of the Land of Shadow. It was reminiscent of awakening in the Cemetery of Ash in Dark Souls 3, but the DLC quickly reminded me that Elden Ring is a game built on open areas. Emerging from my starting point, I looked out onto a vast landscape layered with details. Directly ahead of me was a field pockmarked with ethereal gravestones, signaling the death that seemingly swept through it in the past. Further out, I could see larger structures awaiting, and, in the distance, a large tree reminiscent of the Erdtree but not quite… right. And draped over it all is a baldachin: an ever-present reminder that this is an enshrouded land and a place where Queen Marika rose to godhood and the Golden Order that governs The Lands Between was born.

I immediately summoned my trusty steed, Torrent, and took off through a field of golden reeds, realizing that it evoked the sense of being in an afterlife-like realm. In that moment, I felt something that I hadn’t during the many hours I had played Elden Ring since my first playthrough: overwhelmed. The Lands Between, vicious and uncompromising in its brutality as it is, is like home now. I know exactly where to go and what I’ll find there, so to be in the world of Elden Ring and feel completely out of my depth again was an intoxicating feeling–a world of opportunities awaited once again. I took off and eventually found myself at a Site of Grace, which was somewhat unexpected, given that I presumed that these checkpoints wouldn’t be present since, technically, the events predate the Golden Order and Guidance of Grace that shepard the Tarnished in The Lands Between. They’re here, though, but with a few small changes.

If Shadow of the Erdtree’s quality as a whole is consistent with what I played, From Software is on the cusp of reaffirming Elden Ring as one of the greatest open-world games ever made

Firstly, sitting at a Guidance of Grace now presents a new menu option: Shadow Realm Blessing. This is what has been identified among fans as a new character-progression system that allows the DLC to introduce new power and difficulty curves so that players with hundreds of hours don’t stomp everything in the Land of Shadows from the outset. Your endgame character from the core game won’t be as powerful in the new area, so they’ll need to be upgraded using Scadutree Blessings, which are items that can be found and then offered up for a boost in the damage a character deals and can negate. And there’s also the Revered Spirit Ash Blessings, which bolsters summoned spirits and spectral steed abilities so they also deal and negate more damage. However, both of these don’t have an impact outside of Land of Shadow.

In the trailers for Shadow of the Erdtree, there are what look to be floating runes that represent Miquella, which many assumed would function as the DLC’s version of the Sites of Grace. This is technically true, in as much as they are a replacement for the Guidance of Grace, which tells players which direction to head in through a faint, golden trail of energy that points to key areas. From Software has chosen to take the hands-off approach to directing the player a step further by making the path forward even less defined. In the Land of Shadow, the Tarnished is following in the footsteps of Miquella, tracing his path through to get a better understanding of where he has been, where he is going, and what his motivations are. These crosses, as they are referred to in the game, are a breadcrumb trail that mark places that Miquella has been. When interacting with one, I was met with a message, “I abandon here the first of the flesh of my body,” confirming that Miquella is leaving signs for his followers. As far as I could tell, these crosses didn’t provide any further guidance. Even discovering them is down to the player’s initiative as they weren’t abundant like the Sites of Grace are, so I wasn’t stumbling upon them regularly. I did receive a drawing of where a few more were located, but locating them was down to looking at what was effectively directions on a napkin and trying to match it to the surroundings.

This was the first example of From Software trusting its players to understand what is expected of them and rise to the challenge. What I love about Elden Ring is that it is willing to do the bare minimum to guide the player and trust that curiosity and tenacity will propel them to get where they want and need to go, as well as overcome the significant challenges presented along the way. The even more hands-off approach to signposting progress here was satisfying to me because it meant that I couldn’t help but stumble upon things that I still am thinking about days after getting a taste of the DLC. I narrowly escaped being crushed and set ablaze by the wandering wicker giants filled with burning bodies, accidentally got knocked about by those friendly looking ghost worms from the trailer (they become very unfriendly if you attack them), and discovered a mausoleum housing a Blackgaol Knight that kicked my ass in a way that felt like it was designed to put me in my place and remind me that I am indeed still a lowly Tarnished in these lands.

Although my attempt to defeat him became a bit Edge of Tomorrow-like, it did give me a good chance to experiment with some weapons. One of them was the Keen Milady (don’t laugh), a greatsword that is very light relative to most others in the category. It was interesting to use because the sounds it made as it came crashing down on enemies and collided with architecture gave it the same weighty feel as other greatswords, but it moved much quicker than it should and I was much more nimble while wielding it. There was a strange contrast between what I was hearing, seeing, and feeling. This new category of weapons seems to serve a middle ground that people like me, often pulled between strength and dexterity builds, will appreciate.

I also experimented with the Dryleaf Arts, which are the hand-to-hand combat techniques new to the DLC. Those who have played Sekiro and remember the Senpou Temple monks will be familiar with the basics of this fighting style, which is suited to close-quarters combat where fists and feet can fly. This style felt better suited to one-on-one engagements, save for a special whirlwind kick that did help against mobs of enemies. I will be the first to throw my hands up and say I almost certainly wasn’t using it well, but I quickly decided that this was a style I’d explore once I was more familiar with the lay of the land–I needed the safety of a very long, very heavy sword until then. Claw-based weaponry behaved similarly, but with the added bonus of being able to inflict bleed damage. The bear-claw that I wielded felt a little more capable of crowd control but, again, I wasn’t confident enough to stick with it. It’s basic, but I stuck with my greatsword that I could launch a fire projectile from and then follow-up with elemental strikes.

That greatsword helped me hold my own as I ventured into Beaurat, Castle Settlement, which felt like a town under a spell. Its atmosphere was heavy, with distant groans and the foreboding, slow sounds of footsteps—though they could have just been in my head. A waterfall of contaminated sewage was prominently visible, showing how decrepit it had become. Mages positioned on overhead bridges fired off spiraling magical projectiles that tracked me as I attempted to rush past them to safety, and warriors that fought in crusades of yesteryear emerged unexpectedly to push back my progress. Knights that shrugged off my sweeping, heavy attacks (clearly they’re all about the poise stat) pressured me as I fought to make it to the next Site of Grace, where the boss awaited.

What struck me along the way were the little touches that show how, before Marika and Messmer’s war, there was a culture in the Land of Shadows that lived in peace–thrived, even. I saw echoes of people living ordinary lives at one point and found the spirits of denizens mourning their losses and cursing Messmer for destroying their peaceful way of life. There was a noticeably sorrowful tone to what I played, with various key NPC characters expressing their disdain for Marika, her progeny, and their actions in service of snatching power. Many of these characters reference connections to figures that we’ve met in The Lands Between, creating a tangible connection between the narrative threads in a way that will be rich material for the lore-hunting community to mine.

As I approached Castle Ensis, I was besieged by a troll, except instead of pulling a carriage like in The Lands Between, it was garbed in a regal cape, indicating that perhaps they held a higher stature at one point. Inside the castle, I was met with a barrage of glintstone magic from sorcerers who seemed to be the same as those representing the Olivinus and Karolos Conspectus’ in the Academy of Raya Lucaria. This treacherous endeavor took me along snaking pathways and through dimly lit caverns, with a decent amount of precarious platforming necessary to make progress. At times it felt like I was infiltrating using stealth–that is until I unwittingly pulled a bunch of enemies in my direction and the jig was up. And, once again, awaiting me in an arena at the end of the road was a boss that had a name I’m intentionally omitting because of what it could mean. I want the lore-obsessives to have the same “oh snap!” moment that I did.

I will say this boss absolutely mopped the floor with me–repeatedly. In fact, I didn’t manage to beat a single boss or mini-boss. I came painfully close on multiple occasions but never sealed the deal on any of them. This is partly because of time pressure that meant I couldn’t take the time necessary to get a strategy down and execute it, but also because they are just straight-up difficult. The dancing dragon boss that has been prominently featured in trailers is incredibly aggressive and surprisingly difficult to hit, despite how large it is, mainly because it stays mobile and has a number of elemental attacks that forced me to disengage and create distance between us. There was a majesty to the way it moved that reminded me of Dark Souls 3’s Dancer of the Boreal Valley, but with unexpected, chaotic motions replacing her elegant, dreamlike movement. Needless to say, every skirmish was thrilling even if I was bested each time.

Elden Ring
Elden Ring

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Beyond all this, From Software has also made a couple of quality-of-life changes, too. Most notably, there is now a “Recent Items” tab in the inventory and newly acquired items are denoted with an exclamation point, so no more fumbling around trying to find that one item you just picked up. This addition will also carry over to the base game and I don’t know what it says about me, but this was genuinely one of the things I got most excited about.

I wasn’t able to get a good grasp of just how big the complete DLC experience is going to be, but it seems considerable. I was gated from progressing into a larger landmass, and Spirit Springs (which you now have to unlock by looking for stacks of stones to interact with) were referenced, so there’s clearly going to be a sizable landmass to explore.

So, yes, Shadow of the Erdtree is more of the same Elden Ring gameplay you know with new weapons, items, and areas to enjoy. But that is something that no other game has offered and no other developer has delivered. If Shadow of the Erdtree’s quality as a whole is consistent with what I played, From Software is on the cusp of reaffirming Elden Ring as one of the greatest open-world games ever made.



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