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Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree review: A terrifying trove of everything FromSoftware has to offer - lag, lore and lions

Elden Ring's Shadow of the Erdtree DLC brings a huge, dense new area to get lost in - and you will get lost...

Midra, Lord of Frenzied Flame, with the Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree logo and VG247's five star review score.
Image credit: FromSoftware/VG247

Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree managed to get me excited about a tiny golden circle in the corner of a screen. Not an epic boss, beautiful vista or stunning revelation, but the non-combat area icon, suggesting I might get to learn just a little bit more about this dark, vast and scary world.

FromSoftware is Pavlov and I am a tiny rot dog, borking for my lore kibble, as an expressionless man with too many swords bonks me on the head with a newspaper made of horns and fingers, over and over again.

You’ll probably see a lot of takes that this DLC is just more Elden Ring - it is and it isn’t. While on the one (scuttling, spidery) hand, it’s a condensed version of the base game, with an unmatched sense of discovery and accomplishment as you surmount seemingly impossible odds on your way to victory.

But on the other, Shadow of the Erdtree is also a strikingly retro return to the feel of some older games in FromSoftware’s back catalogue, stuffed as it is with trial-and-error trickery and ambushes, regular mobs with mini-boss movesets and “how the heck was I supposed to figure that out” side areas. That’s not to say it feels tired though, because there’s a stronger through-thread and variety which knits these two things together into something that feels like a meaningful progression from the base Elden Ring experience.

The Tarnished entering the Gravesite Plain in Elden Ring's Shadow of the Erdtree DLC for the first time.
Not that dark for a Shadow Realm, is it? | Image credit: FromSoftware/VG247

After a low-key opening where you wander into a field, wonder where to go first, and the game shrugs at you like you just asked your Dad where the house keys are and the football’s on, the first two dungeons lean very heavily into the Demon’s Souls vibe and are, frankly, quite frustrating. At points it felt like a ceaseless procession of a guy hiding around a corner, then a bigger guy with infinite Poise (the stat in Elden Ring which determines how many hits something can take before its attack is interrupted), then another guy hiding around a corner and so on with a few unreachable snipers thrown in for maximum annoyance.

One of my favourite things about Elden Ring originally was how it didn’t feel the need to point and laugh like an adversarial Dungeon Master in D&D, as a perfectly placed and uncharacteristically sentient rat appeared from nowhere to knock you off a cliff for no other reason than it could. It made the Lands Between feel like a more organic world that existed within its own rules, but perhaps the mirror Shadow Realm is placed in opposition to that on purpose?

Once you leave the early-game, though, this ebbs away quite quickly, with a much more expansive and interconnected environment to pick through than it first appears. But there are still a few more moments which threaten to jump the shark. Not just the more incongruent ambushes which break the theming of their areas, but there are some points in how the Shadow Realm unravels that go full Simon’s Quest with gestures and incredibly esoteric and easy-to-miss routes which lead to vitally important areas and bosses.

But despite quibbles with construction, there’s just nothing else like Shadow of the Erdtree in terms of scale, depth and density.

The awakened Divine Beast: Dancing Lion boss in Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree.
Pretty much every boss design is great, both for monsters and humanoid foes | Image credit: FromSoftware/VG247

The DLC closes the stitch on almost every loose lore thread you could wish for an answer on, including the living jars, warring dragons, the origins of the Fingers, the Frenzied Flame, and, of course, the missing Empyrean, Miquella, whose absence looms large over the base game. Shadow of the Erdtree unfolds so naturally, with - and this isn’t cliche - an unexpected revelation around nearly every corner, that your discoveries feel instinctive and exciting; even if you’re following notes left by other players.

It’s a shame that some of this exploration is impaired by poor performance, with consistently appearing slowdown and framerate drops which are definitely significant enough to mention. But it’s a game so thick with absorbing moments that it’s easy to catch yourself mouth breathing as you sit engrossed, grappling with the story implications of whatever fresh hell you’re subjected to.

In that vein, one of the main mechanical switch-ups in Shadow of the Erdtree is a straighter emphasis on horror than even Bloodborne. From the very start of Belurat, Tower Settlement to later on where there are full stealth sections and an area straight from Junji Ito’s nightmares, there are hints of progression in the Souls-like genre FromSoftware pioneered. Unlike the legendarily janky Souls platforming, these sections don’t feel hastily or capriciously constructed, lasting for the perfect amount of time, with appropriate atmosphere and payoff, without coming off as a gimmick.

Before release I was interested to see how the flow of Shadow of the Erdtree would fit within the base game of Elden Ring. With so many promised additions and new weapon types I’d wondered if it would either drown the player in shiny toys or feel like a useless bunch of junk because you’d already settled on your build by this point in your wider adventure.

The answer is neither. Yes, the Rivers of Blood is still pretty OP and you could very happily take it through the whole of the Shadow Realm and beyond, but there are a lot of tempting boss weapons, Ashes of War and unique items to try out from the DLC too. I particularly like the flamboyant Light Greatswords, which take Ashes of War really well, and the slew of new katanas and dual-wielding swords.

That means Shadow of the Erdtree feels like an uber-rich pocket, a full Lands Between-worth of stuff within a Limgrave-sized package, but not one that’s overwhelming in context, even with a 30+ hour run-time.

A Carian Giant casting Glintblade Phalanx in Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree.
There are so many tough mobs and mini-bosses in Shadow of the Erdtree | Image credit: FromSoftware/VG247

It’s like that with the new characters and quests as well. While Shadow of the Erdtree is still more oblique than a traditional mainstream game, this is as forthright a narrative as we’ve got in a FromSoftware Souls-like. If introducing another Roundtable Hold’s worth of NPCs has you worried about undermining the theme of the isolating effects of the pursuit of power in the base game (no spoilers), it, err, doesn’t. That’s alongside a labyrinthine web of character interactions to untangle, with a load of tough, binary choices to make.

So, while the start of Shadow of the Erdtree can come off as a regression, really, the DLC as a whole is FromSoftware flexing all of its creative muscles - including some it hasn’t used in a while and others it might be building up for the future. The depth of storytelling in the Lands of Shadow, as well as the new weapons, spells and items (all of which add to the lore themselves, of course), only better your experience of the Lands Between, and make for a worthy upgrade to what is already an unforgettable adventure.

Reviewed on PS5, code provided by publisher.

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