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Shadow of the Erdtree is an almost perfect expansion, but one thing keeps bothering me

Yes, the Elden Ring expansion is incredible - but it's missing something other top-tier DLCs like Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty do very, very well.

Melina stands over a slightly desaturated version of the Erdtree in the Lands of Shadow.
Image credit: VG247

Elden Ring’s Shadow of the Erdtree expansion has a tall legacy to live up to. It is, after all, building on the basis of one of the greatest games of all time. As I said in my preview and James reiterates in his review, ‘more of the same’ isn’t so bad when ‘the same’ is a true all-timer.

The new adventure across the DLC’s Land of Shadow isn’t all entirely ‘the same’, of course. There’s new bosses, new weapons, and a new feeling - the structure of the new map feels a little different, a higher degree of density leading to what certainly feels like it forces the player into more lateral thinking and navigational puzzle solving, particularly to unlock and fully explore all five segments of the shadowy realm that makes up the expansion’s map.

Honestly, it’s pretty close to perfect, as expansions go. And yet… there are elements of it that left me feeling just a tiny bit hollow as I watched the DLC’s final boss fall beneath my blade. In honesty, that might very well be the feeling FromSoftware was going for - if any developer is good at hollowing players out, it’s them - but it’s curious.

The Tarnished entering the Gravesite Plain in Elden Ring's Shadow of the Erdtree DLC for the first time.
It's all a bit... grave. | Image credit: FromSoftware/VG247

None of this, really, is about how the DLC plays. This is one of my favorite types of DLC - developers of a massive game turning everything up to eleven, using all of the tricks of the trade they’d learned in the arduous years of development on the core game to craft something new, from scratch. That means it surprises and delights by doing things the developers hadn’t thought themselves able to do the first time around. It also means the whole thing has the whiff of a greatest hits package. Shadow of the Erdtree is that gig where a band plays an incredible medley of its greatest hits from its break-out album to a packed mega-stadium of screaming fans.

That greatest hits element is probably where some of my frustration comes from, though. From a narrative perspective, I feel like Shadow of the Erdtree is enticing, interesting, and (in true FromSoftware fashion) raises as many new interesting questions as it answers. But I also feel like it ends up ringing a little hollow.

I think a great degree of this is down to have truly separated Shadow of the Erdtree is from the rest of the story. Once the DLC is downloaded and installed, one of its key new NPCs appears in The Lands Between right at the teleport point that takes you to the Land of Shadow, strategically placed to give the player a little push. And then… well, it’s all separate.

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree key art of a person with long, blonde hair riding on a horse-like creature in a field of wheat filled with ghostly graves.
The lands, they are a-changing. | Image credit: FromSoftware

I started a new game plus run in order to have maiden Melina present, because I thought she’d inevitably have something to say. She doesn’t. Back at Roundtable Hold, good old all-knowing Gideon is not interested in increasing his knowledge; no dialogue is added to his menus. Surely the Finger Crone is interested that I’m handing her the Boss Remembrance of [REDACTED], and what that means for the world’s entire belief system?! Not a line is uttered.

I’m told by those that are intimately familiar with FromSoftware’s technology, engine, and game construction that this is, likely, largely technical. Inserting new events into Elden Ring’s story as it exists would be hugely complicated and risk breaking tenuously-scripted events. Many games have narrative scripting that is basically held together with chewing gum. I also personally know how easily Elden Ring’s story scripting can shatter into a million pieces under the remotest strain from woes with the pre-release review build. I get it. At the same time, however, I can’t help but feel disappointed.

In the case of Melina, in particular, it feels bizarre to me that there’s not even a line or two for players who enter the Land of Shadow with her still in tow to address her absence thereafter. A line at the first Site of Grace you visit, where she says, “I cannot accompany you here” or whatever, would be enough. It’d sell the connection between the two worlds. As it stands, it feels like there is no connection. It feels like this could’ve been released as a stand-alone DLC story; the tale of a different character.

Melina in Elden Ring.
Nothing to say? | Image credit: VG247/FromSoftware

All of this is made slightly stranger by the way the DLC is structured. New equipment and skills gained in the Land of Shadow can be taken back to The Lands Between. In fact, players are encouraged to criss-cross the worlds, as you’ll be expected to head back to Roundtable Hold in order to upgrade gear, deal with Remembrances, and so on. This combines with the fact that Shadow of the Erdtree engages in an aggressive box-ticking exercise of answering major fan questions about the lore and backstory of Elden Ring to make it feel a bit strange: you learn things that change everything about everything, slay legends and myths - and there’s generally no acknowledgement of it, not even an extra line of dialogue.

There’s food for thought here in how DLC content like this integrates into the sprawl of massive existing adventures - and how I think it’s becoming a necessity to have your world react at least a little. Back in the 360 era, BioWare’s Mass Effect DLCs always had little repercussions, even if they were just new conversations with your crew. Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty is possibly the gold standard for this, with quests that weave in and out of the main game’s landmass in a really satisfying way.

I’m not saying DLC can’t be discrete and separate, either - but it really needs to be built that way. The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine has next to nothing to do with the main game, and is entirely siloed off - but that feels right. That’s a story about Geralt going on a little excursion, after all. A holiday. Shadow of the Erdtree is not that; it’s packed with revelation about the Lands Between and many of its key figures - but it feels impossibly distant.

Shadow of the Erdtree is still without a doubt one of the best games of the year. I had a blast playing it. But this shows that even the most mighty developers can’t get it all 100% right all of the time. And that’s fine - if anything, it makes me even more excited for their next game. A more reactive world next time, perhaps?

Shadow of the Erdtree is the massive $40 Elden Ring expansion, and it’s the only one the game will be getting. It arrives June 21 on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S, and requires owning a copy of the base game.

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