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The environment of Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree
Screenshot by GameSkinny

Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree Review: A Light in the Darkness

Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree offers the best version of the game's core systems and world building while evolving and improving on almost every other aspect. It is phenomenal. Plain and simple.

The conventional wisdom about FromSoftware DLCs has always been that they’re the best version of their respective games. That they refocus and elevate the content that came with the vanilla experience, address concerns, and add the best bosses, weapons, and spells available anywhere in the game. Does Shadow of the Erdtree do all of that for Elden Ring? A huge, emphatic yes.

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At the Heart of It All

The environs around the Shadow Keep in Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree
Screenshot by GameSkinny

Stepping into the Realm of Shadow for the first time creates the same feeling that entering any FromSoftware DLC does: awe. In the distance is the great, bent Scadutree leaking rune-infused sap onto a macabre black keep. In front of you is a vast field of phantom gravestones, both inviting and terrifying. To your left, slightly closer, you can see one of the Furnace Golems, fire-belching automatons that stand several times your height. A second, smaller castle is closer as well. To your right the world fades into a misty forest, and directly east is a small but still notable ruin, begging to be explored.

For that reason, among others, the aptest comparison I can make is to The Old Hunters DLC from Bloodborne. Not only is Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree a slightly more directed experience, but it’s also a much tighter one. Yes, it retains its open-world gameplay and design, but it leans just a hair more into the linearity that defines the studio’s greatest works. To get out of the Graveyard Plain starting area, you must get through Castle Ensis and past Rellana, Twin Moon Knight. Your options prior to doing so are relatively limited.

However, once you reach the Scadu Altus, the world opens up. You can reach every area of the map, fight almost all the bosses, and see almost everything there is to see from this central location, from the volcanic mountains to the east to the shining blue and red flowers to the south and, of course, the black keep itself.

Your task is to follow in the Empyrean Miquella’s footsteps, and he’s left behind crosses throughout the Realm of Shadow chronicling his journey. Each cross is near an important location, either for the DLC’s narrative or to show the way to an important NPC or location. Those who followed Miquella into the Shadow Realm before you are also there to help guide you or offer aid as they can.

Beyond these initial hints and dialogs, at almost no point are you told where you must go or what you are required to do. There are a scant number of story-specific tasks you’ll need to complete, but they are so few and far between that you can easily spend 40 hours or more exploring and discovering new mysteries without once tiptoeing back toward the main story quest.

Improvement by Distillation

A castle and its shadow in Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree
Image via FromSoftware

Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree takes after the base game in that no matter where you go; there’s always something to see or find just around the corner. What sets the DLC apart is how much more variety there is. Gone are the endless bandit camps, (smartly) reused ruin assets, or repetitive catacomb dungeons. In their place are more interesting side locations to visit (and yes, a couple of catacombs), with a different aesthetic and novel exploration gameplay.

Speaking of exploration, the whole world of Shadow of the Erdtree takes a cue from the best location in Elden RingLeyndell, Royal Capital — by putting a massive emphasis on verticality. You’ll spend so much time going up and down in the DLC that getting back horizontal movement can be refreshing. There were several moments where I recalled the first time I made it deep into Leyndell’s sewers or into the underground cities of Nokstella and Nokron.

However, because the Realm of Shadow is by necessity smaller than the Lands Between, all those moments are distilled to their most essential. Sparing a few moments where a wry smile crossed my face when I saw something a bit too familiar, every moment, every environment, and every location was new and fresh. The bosses were almost all unique in design and mechanics. That went for the big story fights like Messmer, The Impaler to the one-off side encounters you’ll stumble upon as you explore.

Fighting each boss is also an entirely different experience. None of the old tricks felt like they worked — circle-strafing to the left, rolling backward at the right time, relying on status effects — everything required a new way of thinking about fighting a boss.

And while I loved every fight in one way or another, there are some freakish difficulty spikes in Shadow of the Erdtree, some you expect and others you might never see coming. Some of these are the result of the new progression system that increases your damage and defenses as you collect specific items. Without engaging with the new system, you will make the DLC infinitely harder for yourself in a way that I’m sure speedrunners won’t like but will find a way around.

New Fit for a New World

A blue, pog-faced worm in Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree
Image via FromSoftware

Some things I think everyone will like are the new weapons and armor sets. Elden Ring already has some amazing gear, and there’s the odd unique option that comes out of left field, but most come down to traditional swords, spears, axes, clothing, and armors.

I can happily say that the equipment you find in Shadow of the Erdtree ups both the fashion game and mechanical complexity in some new and exciting ways. From some very neat new spells and spell mechanics to entirely new weapon archetypes and element types, I cannot wait for the buildcrafters to get their hands on the DLC. There is so much here that evolves what makes an Elden Ring loadout work, and much more I’m sure I haven’t found despite almost 70 hours across two playthroughs.

Even better, all that is true without sacrificing the core of what makes Elden Ring work. The boss fights, as unique as they are, remain the boss fights. The skills you built in the base game carry over, from how you learn to dodge attacks, master fights by experimentation and failure, and how you can leave an encounter and come back stronger — all of it’s here. And the best part is, there’s no weakness on the backend. You won’t find the comparatively uninspired Mountaintops of the Giants or the forced linearity that is Faram Azula and the Capital of Ash.

Yes, there is an endgame in Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree, and once you reach it, you’ll have to make a choice about how to proceed, but there was never a moment where I wondered where the game would end. What did surprise me was the scale of the Realm of Shadow. Optional areas are pretty clearly optional, but they just keep going.

I would say the same about the DLC’s Legacy Dungeons, the mega structures where story bosses and the juiciest lore rest. I kept waiting for them to reach a conclusion that felt like it was never going to come. On and on they went, taking up resources between Sites of Grace as I (giddily) looked for the next way forward. And true to FromSoftware fashion, their level design all loops back on itself with shortcuts and clever drop downs or other returns to previous areas. I could write whole articles on just the Legacy Dungeons themselves, but I won’t for a number of reasons.

Closing the Greatest Chapter

Forested ruins in Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree
Image via FromSoftware

Shadow of the Erdtree had what amounts to an impossible task: not just follow up on Elden Ring, the biggest game of 2022, but expand it, improve on it, and somehow add yet more mysteries and amazing sights to behold. More than two years after its release, Elden Ring remains one of the top 10 most-played games on the Steam Deck, has sold a staggering 25 million copies, and is still played by hundreds of thousands of players every day.

Somehow more impressive in the current market, Elden Ring is successful entirely on the merits of its core experience. It isn’t a live-service game, has no long-term monetization strategy, and hasn’t received significant updates in almost a year. Yet hundreds of thousands of viewers tuned in to mega-hit streamer Kai Cenat’s first playthrough, helping reignite the fever.

Now, the Shadow of the Erdtree is here, and the craze can begin again. And like the base game, it asks nothing additional of its players than to go out and explore. There are no microtransactions giving you early access to weapons and armor. You won’t find any seasons or content roadmaps. What you get instead is a 30 to 50-hour experience that eclipses every other open-world DLC ever to grace the gaming world save The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood and Wine. Besides being open-world games and having an industry-defining commitment to quality, they have very little in common.

Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree — The Bottom Line

Pros

  • A huge, amazing new world to explore
  • Several boss fights that put Malenia to shame
  • Some many amazing new weapons, spells, and gear
  • Moments that tug on your heartstrings

Cons

  • A few wild difficulty spikes that come out of nowhere
  • Some areas are much less populated than others
  • A few reused boss fights

All that is to say that if you like Elden Ring even a little bit, even after hundreds of hours or a single playthrough, you should get Shadow of the Erdtree. It takes everything that worked about the main game, improves it, and addresses some of the main complaints players had. It’s still very much more Elden Ring, but also the best version of Elden Ring, free of much of the bloat massive open worlds require, reimagined as a focused experience with a distinct narrative throughline and plenty of smaller but no less important side stories worth enjoying. Shadow of the Erdtree is the complete package, bigger and better built than most full games, and the only way to end the story of Elden Ring is on the highest note imaginable.

Gameplay tested on PC via Steam. Review code provided by FromSoftware.

10
Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree Review: A Light in the Darkness
Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree offers the best version of the game's core systems and world building while evolving and improving on almost every other aspect. It is phenomenal. Plain and simple.

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Author
Image of John Schutt
John Schutt
John Schutt has been playing games for almost 25 years, starting with Super Mario 64 and progressing to every genre under the sun. He spent almost 4 years writing for strategy and satire site TopTierTactics under the moniker Xiant, and somehow managed to find time to get an MFA in Creative Writing in between all the gaming. His specialty is action games, but his first love will always be the RPG. Oh, and his avatar is, was, and will always be a squirrel, a trend he's carried as long as he's had a Steam account, and for some time before that.