elden ring shadow

Elden Ring: Shadow Of The Erdtree Review – An Impeccable Final Course

A sublime follow-up.

How do you follow up your magnum opus? It’s a question that permeated my anticipation for Elden Ring’s first and only expansion. One that promises to explore untouched corners of the Lands Between and the characters that reside within the penumbra cast by its monolithic namesake. It sounds simple enough, but is made more complex by Elden Ring’s own nature. It’s arguably FROMSOFTWARE’s greatest achievement, its sheer scale and density rivalled only by its ambition and unwavering commitment to a vision that most would dismiss at first glance.

Shadow of the Erdtree isn’t just more Elden Ring. It’s a fundamental expansion of the world and character dynamics of the base game, iterating upon its free-flowing gameplay loop as to implore you to venture into its myriad depths. It occupies a space entirely different to that of the Elden Ring, offering an experience that doubles down on the best parts of the Lands Between in a world that feels introspective and left behind in the wake of great cataclysm. It stands alongside the likes of The Old Hunters and The Ringed City, and in a lot of ways, surpasses them.

After defeating Mohg, Lord of Blood, interacting with the cocoon in Mohgwyn Dynasty Mausoleum will whisk the Tarnished away to the Realm of Shadow. A forgotten land veiled by the shadow of the Erdtree in all its grandeur, one that holds the missing god Miquella after being stolen away by Mohg. You’ll quickly be greeted by Leda and her allies, unified in their search for Miquella as they trace his footsteps throughout the realm in hope of ascertaining the fate of the long-lost Empyrean.

If you’re familiar with Elden Ring’s lore, I don’t need to explain why this setup is immediately engrossing. Miquella’s place in the Lands Between is unlike the other Shardbearers. He’s separated from them in the way that compassion and kindness are his guiding qualities in a world brimming with conflict and tension. It’s fascinating to learn what Miquella has been up to since the Shattering, and it paints a richer portrait of dynamics and character motivations when it comes to the Golden Order.

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The spotlight isn’t solely on Miquella, though. Many familiar and unfamiliar facets of the world are explored in Shadow of the Erdtree. The real star of the show is the Realm of Shadow itself. It emanates an encroaching loneliness in the way that the Lands Between don’t. The Realm of Shadow is scarred by the relentless crusade of Messmer the Impaler and his loyal subjects, leaving you to wander the wastes left in the wake of his destruction. It’s a reminder that even when separated from the Lands Between, the fallout from the Shattering is inescapable.

Despite this, surviving denizens of the Realm of Shadow can be found throughout, each expanding the new region, its place within the broader world, and the big players of the core narrative as it unfolds. FROMSOFTWARE also nails the side content again, offering many memorable characters and quest lines that often culminate in jaw-dropping boss fights that only FROMSOFTWARE would have the gall to make optional. Their willingness to accept that every player won’t experience everything continues to bolster the organic nature of exploration.

In fact, this rings true for many elements of Shadow of the Erdtree. The map itself is quite large, roughly the size of the first two areas of the base game if you put them together. If you only follow the golden path, though, you won’t get to see large chunks of it, most of which house smaller dungeons and boss fights that are worth unearthing. I’ve spent a little over 20 hours in the Realm of Shadow and have yet to explore two smaller areas of the map, and I’m eager to see what secrets they may hold.

While you can argue that Elden Ring is somewhat overbearing in the sheer number of things there are to do, Shadows of the Erdtree feels more approachable in its scale. It’s overall, a more digestible experience that’s still densely packed with worthwhile content and experiences. In fact, I think the smaller size leans more into FROMSOFTWARE’s ability to fine tune each area and what it offers. There’s far less repetition in the way of things like catacombs and caves, opting to instead focus on secret boss fights and areas.

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Even though there’s a healthy amount of optional stuff in Shadow of the Erdtree, there’s still quite a bit jammed into the main progression. You’ll see a decent number of the new boss fights, and all three of the new Legacy Dungeons. The first of which is the Belurat Tower Settlement, a vertically inclined town densely packed with houses that’s become riddled with plague and disease over time. The Shadow Keep is the second Legacy Dungeon you’ll venture through, with more traditional FROMSOFTWARE level design that segues into a tower with a confrontation awaiting you at the top.

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While I won’t spoil the third and final Legacy Dungeon in Shadow of the Erdtree, it continues the trends set by the previous two in its own way, offering a distinct colour palette and aesthetic, all of which culminate in a thematically resonant boss fight that lore junkies will adore. Instead of resting on the laurels of the base game, Shadow of the Erdtree fills in the gaps left by the Lands Between, constantly finding new and striking visual motifs that we’ve yet to see in this world and combining it with FROMSOFTWARE’s impeccable level design.

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This also extends to the broader open world, which, while much smaller than the Lands Between, still feels enormous and complex given Shadow of the Erdtree’s nature as an expansion. The Ancient Ruins of Rauh offer verdant fields and dense foliage that feels natural and untouched by Messmer’s wrath, where the Cerulean Coast juxtaposes the dream-like blue glow of its fauna against ominous colossal coffins that litter the landscape. A favourite of mine is the Abyssal Woods, where frenzy has a stranglehold over the area, sucking the life out of what would’ve been a dense forest and turning it into a maze of death and paranoia.

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Your reasons for exploring these locations aren’t all intrinsic, either. Like the base game, Shadow of the Erdtree rewards you for exploring and uncovering its secrets. From the many new weapons, spells, Ashes of War, Spirit Ashes, and more, there’s always something to find around the corner. The new weapon types in particular are a bunch of fun to play around with (especially the unarmed weapon), and some of the new Ashes of War are way too cool not to use. Brand new to Shadow of the Erdtree are two new items that open up Shadow Realm Blessings – Scadutree Fragments, and Revered Spirit Ash.

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The former are fragments dropped from the Scadutree, a withered and decrepit version of the Erdtree itself in the Realm of Shadow. Much like the golden monolith, the Scadutree can be seen from many parts of the map, draping the land in the veils that hide it from the Lands Between. These fragments can be used at Sites of Grace to permanently reduce the damage you take and deal in your journey. The latter are also used at Sites of Grace to bolster the strength of your Spirit Ashes, allowing them to scale into the expansion with you.

It’s important to note that the Shadow Realm Blessings are entirely optional. It’s a nice way to make some of Shadow of the Erdtree’s more challenging moments more approachable through exploration. Much like the base game, you can leave any area or fight you struggle with in search of these upgrades and other boss fights to come back stronger through these blessings and new character levels. It’s also a nice way to ensure you don’t need to grind levels before venturing into the Realm of Shadow.

Speaking of difficulty, FROMSOFTWARE don’t hold back when it comes to challenge. My character was a little over level 100 before heading into the Realm of Shadow, which I found to be a suitable level of difficulty in combination with the Shadow Realm Blessings. I still got stuck by a few bosses and had to change up my equipment and approach in order to best them, but it was always satisfying. Enemy design is similarly challenging, leaning more into the beast-like chimeras of Bloodborne that are a bit more on the crazy side than the base game.

There’s some real highlights here when it comes to bosses. Messmer the Impaler is one that’s been marketed quite a bit, but his frenetic and frenzied combination of fire magic and his mid-rage spear attacks make for a thrilling and fast-paced showdown. An early fight with Rennala’s younger sister, Rellana, is another highlight. Her dual swords become separately infused with moon magic and fire magic, echoing one of Dark Souls III’s best fights in Pontiff Sulyvahn.

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My only real issue with some of the boss fights, is that half of the battle ends up being with the camera. It’s something that’s always been a problem in Souls games, but it feels especially egregious here as certain attacks can lead to death given the late-game nature of Shadow of the Erdtree. Some of these bosses move so quickly in their fights that it’s hard to keep track of when to lock on, and when not to so you can avoid getting lost in all the chaos. The reuse of main bosses in the overworld is also still a thing here, which can lessen the impact of those original encounters.

It should go without saying based on my previous comments that Shadow of the Erdtree has incredible visual direction. It explores so many settings and motifs not found in the base game, lending the Realm of Shadow an ethereal and otherworldly feeling of intangibility. Each area is punctuated by sweeping vistas, no matter how haunting they may be, most of which feature the withered Scadutree that towers above. It’s a true encapsulation of the environments found in Elden Ring, and then some, always offering up a feast for the eyes at every turn of the corner.

It’ll also come at no surprise when I say that the soundtrack here simply elevates everything Shadow of the Erdtree does. Whether it’s the calm and introspective overworld themes, or the heightened tension of boss tracks that get the blood pumping, this expansion always delivers on its big moments through the adept use of musical storytelling. The final boss track is simply phenomenal, and so many other encounters feature compositions that are hard to get out of your head until it’s supplanted by the next.

It’s going to shock no one that Shadow of the Erdtree is as high quality as it is. At this point, FROMSOFTWARE has a track record that goes unrivalled in the genre, and perhaps even the industry at large. Shadow of the Erdtree is more than a doubling down of what makes Elden Ring so special, it’s an exploration of what new elements can bolster that which makes it strong. It’s a worthy expansion to a beloved world and set of characters that seemed so impossible to follow-up, but FROMSOFTWARE have done it again. Just like they always do.

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Conclusion
Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree is yet another masterpiece by FROMSOFTWARE. It doubles down on all of the best parts of Elden Ring and bolsters them through an inviting new world, an engaging story, and a ridiculously moreish gameplay loop. It won't change your mind on Elden Ring if it never clicked for you, but will undoubtedly wow you if it did.
Positives
Fascinating expansion on Elden Ring's story
Shadow Realm is another masterclass open world
Fantastic new Legacy Dungeons
Challenging and gripping boss fights
Unique visual motifs and score
Negatives
Camera issues are still a pain point
Reuse of some bosses lessens their impact
10