Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree Hands-On Preview – A New Leaf

In returning to Elden Ring, FromSoftware reimagines its epic fantasy journey once again.

As my extensive three-hour session with Elden Ring’s forthcoming Shadow of the Erdtree expansion came to an end, a representative from Bandai Namco’s European office asked me how I found it. Instinctively, I replied, “Yeah good- I mean, it’s more Elden Ring”. It’s true, but it was a phrasing I kept turning over in my head as I left the preview and began to sort through my serial killer’s scribbles worth of notes.

Shadow of the Erdtree is more Elden Ring after all, a game that I can confidently skip giving you the briefing on because of its enormity and cultural penetration. But I think in that success, it’s easy to, even unintentionally, become numb to the craft displayed by developer FromSoftware. Few studios have had such meteoric rises and with that comes an expectation of quality that can sometimes dilute the responses to its inevitable arrival. Call it the Tears of the Kingdom effect, but the idea of more of a perfect thing* in this medium can wreak havoc on appreciating the minor miracle of actually having more of a perfect thing*.

Accessing Shadow of the Erdtree is a simple affair. Players will need to have bested Starscourge Radahn and Mohg, Lord of Blood before being whisked away from Mohg’s palace. FromSoftware is loosely recommending player level be at 150, though the expansion uses Scadutree Fragments, found by following in the footsteps of Miquella’s golden path, to boost viability within the DLC. These fragments give a flat stat boost to damage dealt and health, requiring one Fragment for one level, two for two, and so on. Similar fragments can be used to level-boost your Spirit Ashes for good measure.

Shadow of the Erdtree frontloads a new ensemble cast of characters, one of whom will quickly give you a literal map to finding more fragments, using crude sketches to match to your overworld map and begin your quest for power. It gives things a nice tactile nudge and serves double time to introduce you to the miserable little merry gang of despots you’ll be travelling the lands with. Best discovered for yourself, I’ll still say I found myself instantly enamoured with this group, their despondency and faith as compelling as their sicko armour sets and cryptic jabs.  

The machinations that get you to the Land of Shadow will be unspooled in time but on arrival, there is an immediate and pervasively thrilling redefinition of Elden Ring’s scale and spectacle. Elden Ring often made you feel small, but even between its colossal map and late-game locales, “small” remained somewhat relative. In Shadow of the Erdtree, I felt as if I had trespassed on a forbidden land of giants. There are spaces where this feels quite literal as doors and halls tower over your Tarnished in exaggerated heights, but less quantifiably, there’s something wrong in the Land of Shadows.


Granted, there was plenty wrong in the Lands Between too but here FromSoftware has escalated the sickness, everything from soil to stone to flesh feeling distinctly rotted. Like the unique sweetness of overripe fruit on the edge of spoiling, Shadow of the Erdtree is curdled decadence, the footprints of Miquella’s golden path, and subsequent rising sigils left behind, blooming in contrast.

Much ado has been made of the Plateau moment in modern open-world games, the instance where the player emerges into the world and is subsumed by a vast, playable distance that instils both a sense of adventure and a typically subtextual foreboding. Here, that moment is borderline alien, the pastel greens and fields of Limgrave replaced by muted earth tones and repellent towering cliffsides. I’m lingering on the feeling of this new map because Elden Ring’s primary language is feelings, the way it deploys waves of it like the tide to guide the player through the emotional journey of its otherwise knotted narrative and worldbuilding.

Though arguably Elden Ring’s greatest triumph of feeling is its refined combat loop and it won’t surprise you to learn that Shadow of the Erdtree picks up right where we left off. Packing triple digits worth of new weapons, spells, and gear into the expansion, half the joy of the early hours is stumbling upon unfamiliar swords and fabrics, that small part in the recesses of your monkey brain firing off because shiny new thing. There’s a world in which FromSoftware rests on its laurels here, the bones of Elden Ring’s combat being strong enough to hold up a new adventure with just a few minor additions to weapon skins and the odd incantation.

Shadow of the Erdtree has more on its mind though, not content with being iterative it instead toys with innovation with the introduction of Dryleaf Arts. Kicking the age-old adage that these games are best played without shields into the stratosphere, Dryleaf Arts enables a full-tilt melee build. The initial trailer for the DLC caused an excited uproar among fans when it showed a glimpse of what looked to be a high kick– the full set of moves will make you combust. Difficult to fully master but revolutionary once your feet find the rhythm, Dryleaf Arts fundamentally change the shape of Elden Ring, something I didn’t imagine possible having sunk over two hundred hours into the base game.

A combination of nimble weaving and powerful focused strikes, this build uses a flurry of kicks, punches, and an all-timer Weapon Art to deftly handle both crowds and armoured single foes. There’s also the Red Bear’s Claw, a kind of boxer remix to Dryleaf’s Wuxia style flow, but both push situational awareness and stamina management to new heights. You’re also free to wield these techniques in one hand and deploy magic, weapons, or a shield in the other, but the sense of momentum and freedom granted from leaning in is unparalleled. It’s lacking a proper backstab animation and you can’t apply elemental buffs to your fists (boo), but as I danced across a lakebed with the rotting corpse of a dragon and punched it in the face, I knew they had done something tremendous here.  

Elsewhere, the Smithscript Daggers were a surprise delight; essentially magical throwing knives that replenish through a fancy little puff of smoke, these can be whipped out rapidly or charged for a stronger hit, though range is fairly limited. Switching between these and the Dryleaf Arts made for the exact kind of power fantasy you’d imagine. If you’re looking for a more traditional means of engagement though, sword purists will rejoice in the Backhand Blade, a curved sword wielded backhanded that allows for speedy flourishes and comes packed with a Weapon Art that swooshes the player behind a foe for easier backstabs.

I also had the chance to dabble in some new Sorceries and Incantations, the small selection I had on offer ranging from the ethereal (weaving silver strands into reality before they splinter into projectile blades) to the gnarly (the Tarnished convulsing before expelling tendrils from their back to whip and slash at foes). Unsurprisingly, Shadow of the Erdtree imbues all of this with thematic weight and relevance; weapons inlaid with crimson gems signalling the rot and spread of Mesmir (the new big bad) and his flame, or the Shriek of Sorrow harnessing resentment to boost your attack power as the Tarnished wails on the battlefield.

It’s FromSoftware at its best, seeping tone into lore, storytelling into minute detail, a subconscious journey as much as an explicit one. Our few hours in the Land of Shadows began at the plains of the Three Path Crossing, a sprawling graveyard that led to the decrypted Belurat Castle Settlement and the looming Castle Ensis. These spaces are spectacular in a muted way, with immaculate detailing and vibes subdued by ambient weather effects and a prevailing sense of death. This land dwarfs you, the verticality and scale of the main game heightened as to make you feel infinitesimally small but, in following Miquella’s light, never insignificant.

The land is of course peppered with discoverable dungeons and caves, turn one corner and find an automatic crossbow-wielding knight guarding a tomb, turn another and lose yourself in a sprawling system of above-ground waterways. Belurat Castle Settlement is an overwhelming monument to decay, a sprawling city and manor that hides multiple pathways to its beastly guardian boss. The enemy design here is especially wild, with bizarre hybrid creatures and engorged insects emerging from cracks in the ceiling, the collision of the absurd and the fantastical more akin to Dark Souls II than anything else in FromSoftware’s catalogue.  

Meanwhile, Castle Ensis is a smaller but far denser legacy dungeon, dotted with embattled soldier camps and erstwhile Raya Lucaria scholars. Its more traditional fantasy architecture belies the expansion’s renewed interest in platforming and verticality with a back entrance to the heavily guarded fortress tucked away among cliffsides and an honest to god climbable waterfall. Again, it’s impossible to explore Shadow of the Erdtree and not see FromSoftware firing on all cylinders, the organic bleeding of oppressive environmental storytelling into rewarding systemic play is a constant joy.  

Both landmark locations house their requisite boss encounters too, to somewhat mixed results. Belurat’s lord, a deformed and deranged lion creature with a jaw that makes giga-Chad’s look rounded, leans hard into one of Elden Ring’s few contentious points– Big Guy. Typically adorned with stunning art direction but frustrating mechanics, this boss archetype has developed a less-than-stellar relationship with the Souls community as issues around hitboxes, camera speed, and erratic move sets surround these encounters. It’s a shame, especially contrasted with Castle Ensis’ regal sorcerer knight, a towering but refined foe more akin to Elden Ring’s considered design ethos.

Mileage has always varied on boss meta and will continue to do so here, others in my sessions besting the Lion with apparent relative ease, others still bordering on profanities. But it’s not what I take away from Shadow of the Erdtree. Instead, my mind is still racing considering the implications of a painting I found in a cave, “The Sacred Tower – last moments of death” scribbled below the frame. The sledgehammer use of metaphorical imagery as a creature with a uterus for a head jumped me from a field of golden grass. The huge blue worm dudes who we all assumed would be our friends transforming into… nah, you can see that for yourself.

For now, as if there were any doubt, just know that Shadow of the Erdtree is decadent, mean, and perhaps most importantly, it’s more Elden Ring.

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree launches on June 21st and you can pre-order a physical copy including the base game here.