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Elden Ring Shadow Of The Erdtree hollows out everything you loved about Elden Ring, and it's brilliant

Three hours with Elden Ring's upcoming expansion reveal a jarful of horrible secrets

A maggot-faced, cloaked individual crosses his arms as Elden Ring Shadow Of The Erdtree's Lands Of Shadow stretch behind him.
Image credit: Bandai Namco

If you're SPOILER sensitive, please do not read this article. Just don't do it. I'll be talking about a bunch of stuff that's SPOILERY. But I'll obviously try and not be too spoilery for those who've decided to keep reading this, and hence, probably aren't as SPOILER sensitive. Right, onwards.

Life In Jars is this YouTuber I've followed for a while. He makes videos that might involve, say, scooping up some puddle water, leaving it in a sealed jar for a while, then coming back to it a few months later. He'll report on the results, which are often tremendous. Look at the LIFE in that jar! The little wriggly lads just wriggling around. The blobs whose job is to float and squidge indiscriminately. A lovely bit of fauna sloshing about there, like a forest dwelling for those who implement the five-second rule. It's a reminder that bog water is rather beautiful, actually.

Having spent three hours with Elden Ring expansion Shadow Of The Erdtree's opening area, I can't help but think of Life In Jars. What resides in the shadowy dome of the Big Tree is horrendous! Miserable! The forgotten creatures and their crumbling homes are grim. But oh my word, the shadows have spawned a beautiful disasterpiece. Just, errr, those other jars? The fun guys with the scoopy arms and little legs? Yeah. I have bad news.

A duel about to erupt between a cloaked tarnished and a black knight on horseback in Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree.
Image credit: Bandai Namco

The preview began in Mohg's throne room (I recommend reading our how to start the DLC guide if you need a refresher on who this is and why it's important), staring at a cracked cocoon and a withered arm. A quick word from Leda, an armoured lady who I'm sure said something like, "Cocoon, cocoon, COCOON, COCOON", as I then proceeded to touch it.

A quick fade to black and a wander up some steps and blam: the bit from the first Erdtree promo art. Black earth and auburn grass. Spectral gravestones. A fog that extended across a vast plain, drawing your eye upwards towards jagged spires, a bridge, a colossal wickered man with his head aflame. Below, the landscape sank downwards to leaning altars and lakes sandwiched between great columns of earth. The Erdtree rose above it all, weeping a golden sap and wearing a veil of darkness that billowed into the clouds.

A tarnished hoists a spear at some gravebirds while on Torrentback in Elden Ring Shadow Of The Erdtree.
In the Land Of Shadow you'll encounter some very important new things: Crosses, Scadutree Fragments, and Revered Spirit Ashes. Crosses are said to be "the steps of Miquella" and Maggot Face in the header image wants you to find as many as you can, handing you inspectable maps with their locations. They seem to act as beacons to draw you places and seemingly, to find Scadutree Fragments. These fragments are optional consumables at Graces (like shards to increase your flask potency) that buff your stats. Revered Spirit Ashes are essentially the same as the Fragments, but just buff your summonable pals. | Image credit: Bandai Namco

Immediately, this first DLC area presented itself as grittier than anything in the base game. Sure, Caelid was a land blighted by scarlet rot and Crumbling Farum Azula was a bunch of ruins whipped up into a frenzied tornado, but the light still gave them some semblance of life. In the Graveyard Plains, everything has been scorched by shadow and left to decay. Honestly, stepping into the plains is what I'd imagine it's like to be shrunk, then sent to fight some bug kingdom hidden under a big rock in a garden.

There were certainly bugs in store, but before I got to them I explored an opening carved into the rock, ignoring the two obvious tracks that led to: 1) a menacing fortress and 2) a menacing castle. I thought it might take me to a small cavern, maybe a mine. No, it was a ghostly dungeon home to jars big and small. Jars collecting dust in corners. Hundreds of discarded jars forming a claustrophobic maze. Jars hanging off chains, presenting themselves as a treacherous platforming challenge. Downwards and downwards I went, only to be met by what can only be described as flayed humans whose backs were enormous tumours shaped like hearts. They'd sprint at me, sometimes wearing jars or producing fleshy tendrils to swipe me from afar. It quickly dawned on me that these were pot people. Like, proto-pot people. A small cavern had led me into a factory of body horror.

Later, I turned my attention to Belurat, a tower settlement that lay under the veil of the leaky Erdtree. It was then that the horrible bugs came, as I creaked open a beautiful metal door adorned with hundreds of figures and was instantly attacked by scuttling scorpions. Belurat is one of From's forgotten relics of a long-gone civilisation, a big temple adorned with various iconography of worshippers and the beast they revere. Incense burners float on stagnant water and if you stand on its rooftops, many of the towers rising out of the mist resemble the dome-shaped monuments of Buddhist stupas. I snaked up a staircase flanked by kneeling child figures of brilliant brass who held candles in the palms of their hands and thought, "I can't predict anything here".

A perfumer coats Messmer's soldiers with fire in Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree.
A tarnished calls forth multiple balls of flame to wreak havoc on an ogre in Elden Ring Shadow Of The Erdtree.
Image credit: Bandai Namco
Belurat, a tower settlement from Elden Ring Shadow Of The Erdtree.
Image credit: Bandai Namco

Having fought off mummified creatures who sprouted insectoid wings, lanky shades with cleavers, and spinny lads who danced with circular saws, I reached my first major fog door. Someone's Bristolian nan called me a "strumpet" from the shadows as they then roused a slumbering, horned beast that looked like an evil version of those mythical Chinese lions (was this the beast these people revered?). And like a skilled lion dancer, the nan puppeteered the beast so it twisted and whirled through the air, making it both a spectacle and a nightmare to read its attacks. I won't spoil much more, but I will say that it was very much in its, ahem, element.

I managed to defeat the beast after some emotional toil and with the help of some bear claws, an Erdtree-exclusive strength weapon that lets you mimic the attacks of a raging ball of fluff. Go two-handed and it's glorious, launching you into the fray with downward strikes and a flurry of swipes that bleed into one another. But just be wary of hitting that attack button too rapidly, as overeager strikes can lock you into a string of animations you won't be able to break free from.

After my fight with the lion, I scoured more of the Graveyard Plains, finding myself lost in a mine where lava flowed and stone sentries guarded precious crafting materials. At one point I lowered an enormous pipe that let me cross a pool of lava, which then led to a massive anvil. Inside the anvil? A new colossal warhammer that was basically like carrying said anvil on a big stick.

Thinking I should investigate the foggy depths of the plains, I walked straight into a slumbering skeletal ghost dragon in a lake and proceeded to club it to death with my big hammer. Following this, I realised that my time with the preview was running out. There were plenty more ridges and pathways I could see but couldn't quite figure out how to get to, so I made a beeline for the menacing castle I mentioned earlier - Castle Ensis.

Now, the route to Castle Ensis is typical of Elden Ring: a grand drawbridge where you stare down the barrel of a guy on a massive ballista. Cross the bridge unscathed and you'll encounter Messmer's legion, who have set up tents on either side, all ripe for looting if you can survive the towering black knights standing guard. Being on the clock, I decided to sprint past instead and see as much of the castle as possible. The castle itself felt very different to Belurat, like Stormveil going through an emo phase - dense with alternate routes and dark passageways.

A tarnished reaches out to an enormous forge in Elden Ring Shadow Of The Erdtree.
Strength was mainly me for the demo, as I adopted the Edders Build: A honking great hammer and a honking greatsword (both Erdtree-exclusive, too). I also tried out some Dexterity-based fists that turned me into a martial artist, capable of stunlocking enemies with spinny kicks and quick strikes. They were great for mobs but lacked bite for boss fights. | Image credit: Bandai Namco

Having rushed to the level's conclusion, I met a non-story boss (doesn't have a cutscene, still a nightmare) whose name I forgot to jot down - the key thing to know is that she's a knight who wields a sword of arcane and a sword of flame and who's incredibly lithe and twirly. For a mini-boss of sorts, she was absolute nails and a stern test for dodgers: parrying her was very tricky, and she'd shrug off successful parries sharpish. I managed to beat her eventually, namely by shattering her poise with successive hammerblows like some gravity hammer-wielding brute who didn't care much for ballet.

It's too early to say for sure, but I do think there's a little of Dark Souls 2's almost level-based world design to Shadow Of The Erdtree: I felt like I bounced between a number of unpredictable, contained universes. Especially towards the end of my travelogue, where I went from Belurat's South Asian influence, to a traditional murky castle, to themes of lava and dragons. Dark Souls 2 has a similar spirit, with little in the way of cohesion between areas and a need to carve out colour from the gloom. The Land Of Shadow is more cohesive but similarly playful in how it joins together concepts, while also surprising returning players with new themes and new weirdos, not least those horrible, horrible proto-jars.

Oh, and that Eurogamer interview Miyazaki gave about the Lands Of Shadow being "larger even than Limgrave in the base game"?. In my preview I wasn't allowed past certain bounds, but I am dead certain Miyazaki's vastly underselling Shadow Of The Erdtree's size. I think we're in for a large one but, crucially, one that probably doesn't play it as safe as you might think. Much like those pots of abberrant bogwater I mentioned in the intro, it's a spawning ground for a whole new species of Elden Ring.

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