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Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree review: yeah, it's basically a sequel

... but I'm glad it's finally over

A heavily armoured character waves from a ruinous area in Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

I'd been in Paris to see open world action-RPG Shadow Of The Erdtree early and when I got back, Edwin messaged me. He asked whether I thought it was big enough to consider the DLC a pseudo-sequel, and at the time I said something along the lines of, "It's hefty, but I think that's probably pushing it".

I was wrong. The Land Of Shadow may not be as expansive as the base game's Lands Between, but it's knottier, denser, more of a twisting mass that burrows into the earth and soars into the skies. For this reason I think it produces some of Elden Ring's finest moments, as exploration leads to a truer sense of discovery reminiscent of old Souls. But I also think its sheer density exposes more chinks in its open world format, where its interconnected sprawl leads to even greater recollection paralysis.

A heavily armoured player with Guts' greatsword chats to Leda in Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

Shadow Of The Erdtree isn't for newcomers, as you can't enter the DLC without having tackled much of the base game and beaten two of its trickiest encounters: Radahn and Mohg. Once you've downed Mohg, touching a nearby withered arm will whisk you to the Lands Of Shadow and all of its new 'delights'. Erdtree is an endgame addition, so I don't see any problem with FromSoft forcing its players to reach a certain aptitude before diving in.

Erdtree, you see, is nails. The map may look titchy in comparison to the Lands Between, but it's home to more fuckery per capita. Where base game dungeons might've popped you back to their entrance, or Caelid branched naturally off Limgrave, the average Elden Ring-enjoyer likely won't find the majority of Erdtree's most interesting zones without consulting help. The DLC is perhaps the greatest test of my sense of direction ever - moreso than playing passenger princess/navigator on a two week road trip through Albania - as the routes aren't anywhere near as signposted as the base game's sites of Grace and their windswept arrows. Honestly, there will be no greater task in this life than trying to describe to someone down the pub where the Hinterland is from start to finish.

Hopping into a coffin in Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree.
You can return to the base game's Lands Between by opening up your map, switching to it, then fast travelling to a site of Grace. Easy. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

What this density means is that exploration demands from you even greater patience and memory recall than before. The glintiest loot is located in or on structures that'll make you go "how the fu-" so often, you know FromSoft's designers placed them there with a cackle. Dungeons are more spiral-y now, many home to levels above and below ground that'll have you going up elevators or opening doors or climbing ladders and going, "where the fu-". Some will find unravelling this intertwined architecture an even greater joy than the Land Between's offerings, but I think some could find it frustrating, or at worst - paralysing. Did you get thrubbed by a boss? Looking to level up elsewhere for a bit? Yeah, clearing some of those fogs of war is an ordeal, to the point where you may never quite figure out how to get to certain spots. Heck, I know I've got a place or two unticked that I simply don't have the energy to revisit.

What's nice, though, is that in-between many of these dungeons is a bit of a space to breathe in the delightful rotten air on Torrent-back, whether that's clopping past mummified fly people as you descend towards the pit of a waterfall, or cruising past a skeletal dragon battling numerous knights like you're passing through Downtown LA on a Monday morning. Riding around on horseback doesn't feel like it does in the base game, where sometimes it's as if you're ping-ponging around a tectonic plate-sized petri dish of ghouls. Instead, Erdtree's open areas feel a bit more considered, with trimmer paths, closer points of interest, and platforming puzzles that get your steed's hooves involved just as much as your own legs.

Sneaking up on an enemy in Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree.
One boss fight brought back memories of the 'beloved' Dark Souls 2 gank squad. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

And for all of Erdtree's knottiness, it's home to some of my favourite spaces in the game. I'm fond of how places swing from disturbing and grotty, to crumbling ancient civilisations that leak sand from the sky like magnificent hourglasses. Paralysing they might be at times, but there is without a doubt a greater sense of discovery to be had if you're diligent, too. Drop down a ledge and what you think will be a quick loot grab can turn into a multi-part descent into some catacombs, out the other side, and into a cold woodland where Torrent can't be summoned because he's legitimately "too frightened" (while I respect the other stealth gimmick I won't spoil in this area, it is slightly piss). Perhaps the map's greatest achievement, though, is how it'll bolster a sense of community in folks coming together to decipher its nuances and help people reach certain spots.

While the Lands Between certainly had its magic moments, it was a bit guilty of recycling the same enemy types and bosses. But no, Erdtree's carbon footprint is high and is all the better for it. Half-naked feral guys who stroll around forests flexing their claws (someone tell your dad dinner's ready). Curled Hornsent warriors who carve you up using the forbidden Beyblade technique. Bloated trolls who take after Mohg, with their big bellies bursting with blood. And the surprises are great (awful), too, when remixes of familiar foes rear their heads: the gargoyles in the catacombs have developed explosive tastes and the crucible knights a frightening affinity for nature.

The bosses! The bosses are cruel, cruel beasts. The savage lion dancer I fought in the preview being just one of the DLC's earliest examples. All of them are of an endgame variety, meaning they're all tuned to make your dodge reflexes twitch a little too early, with staggered attacks that'll somehow lead into more attacks. Lots of bosses love a big swing, a crash into the earth, then a delayed area-of-effect rupture that'll send you sailing into the air. I wouldn't say any had me think all too differently about how I'd fight them, besides learning their attack patterns better or beefing myself up statwise. That's probably a good thing, though, as none of them are reliant on dumb gimmicks.

Fending off a mechanical bird in Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree.
Hiding in some bushes in Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco
Collecting some Revered Spirit Ashes in Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

A minor gripe lies in the final boss of the main story path, who I won't spoil here of course. Loads of the story bosses in general have elaborate cutscenes or moments of pure cinema, where you wander into a hall and an NPC's stood there, their voice echoing across a large chamber and making you think "...wait, no". It's just, that final boss fight didn't feel all that final to me? Yes, they were outrageously difficult but I was surprised to learn that they were indeed the final fight having consulted our Treehouse guides team.

While these enemies and bosses feel difficult, I'd say everything seems fair and balanced as someone who rocked up in NG+1 with a shoddy Big Lad With Big Sword build. That's with help from Erdtree's bespoke levelling system, where Scadutree Fragments and Revered Spirit Ashes you collect can be redeemed at Graces for buffs to your stats and your summonable pals respectively. A level does make a noticeable difference to your power and I like how it's fairly simple: more fragments more gooder. Much like FromSoft and Elden Ring character stat pages, though, don't expect the true extent of those stat boosts to ever be understandable unless you watch some graph sicko break it down over the course of 27 minutes on YouTube. They are numbers, they go up if you so choose.

As for powering up with iron, there are plenty of interesting weapons that have entered Elden Ring's arsenal, many of which sate folks like me who want to swing a giant slab of something. There's this one greatsword that coats enemies in dark licks of flame that I adore, as well as an enormous hammer that lets you twirl it like you're Qui-Gon Jinn, before you unleash its full force once it's slipped back into your waiting hands. Greater, wackier variety is on offer, too, if you're someone who actually plays with finesse. Bear claws let you rage with mad swipes, handwraps let you go full flying monk, while the Rakshasa Blade performs an interesting sweeping motion like you're sickling grass, but instead of grass, it's likely some goblin's kneecaps.

A player in Elden Ring holds the sword Milady out to the side while on a clifftop in the Ruins Of Rauh.
There's too much to talk about in this review, but just know that there's plenty of armour sets. Plenty of new charms and crafting recipes and whatever else. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

Depending on how you take to FromSoft's veiled storytelling, you'll either relish the tale of the Erdtree and its golden goblin kneecaps, or you'll just go along with whatever the NPCs bang on about and assume it's about golden goblin kneecaps (it isn't). Again then, Erdtree doesn't exactly make things any easier for the average story-enjoyer as it's very easy to 1) not understand what anyone is saying and 2) miss important conversations with people who've tucked themselves into corners, then subsequently miss out on quests. Same old, same old: I'll just watch a video.

Whether you do or don't care about the story, it's an undeniable fact that Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree is a brilliant expansion. It swung around at just the right time for me personally, as someone who reached the Elden Ring exhaustion point thanks to its vastness. Erdtree is closer to Souls of old, with a more focused interlocking map and locales that seem more adventurous, bleaker, weirder. I do think its sheer density makes it frustrating at times, as seeking out optional areas to level up means seeking out routes you never would've fathomed. Then again, this is what most Souls fan will want! More! Tougher! Denser!

Me? I loved this expansion, I really did. But I'm happy Elden Ring is done and it's a reminder that I'd like FromSoftware to move Souls in a different direction. An even trimmer direction, perhaps. I can recall Bloodborne and Dark Souls as neat packages of horror, but Elden Ring and Erdtree? I'm unsure whether they'll stick with me quite the same.

This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the developer.

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