Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Review

This review contains very minor early game spoilers — story elements have been omitted to preserve the experience for players.

Folks, I’m not gonna bury the lede here: Shadow of the Erdtree is a 10/10. I cannot pick apart any one thing that would knock this down a point for me, nor can I find enough tiny things that add up to any sort of demerit. I encourage you to read my review in full, but if you’re simply looking for validation scores, there you have it. Now, on to the review.

Since DLC was announced for Elden Ring, I’ve wondered how exactly FromSoftware would follow up what is, arguably, a major touchstone in gaming. Elden Ring was a culmination of every Souls and Souls-like game before, a game so popular that it cracked 20 million units sold in its first year and recently hit 25 million units total.

As I waited for the installation to finish, a lingering doubt in my mind haunted me — “What if the DLC isn’t that good?” FromSoftware’s developers are human, middling DLC does happen to good games from time to time. It’s not unheard of. I’m sure some people remember the Ashes of Ariandel or Crown of the Ivory King expansions, as some less-than-stellar examples.

Well, I’m more than happy to report that Shadow of the Erdtree not only kicks ass, it kicks so much ass that I’d call it my favorite expansion content that FromSoftware has ever made. It’s rare for a game to make me feel the range of emotions that Shadow of the Erdtree did, from scared to frustrated, from laughing to tearing up, to being completely and utterly disgusted.

As Alex pointed out in his preview, you travel with a cast of characters while you follow the trail of Miquella, who has been casting bits and pieces of his body and soul off throughout the Realm of Shadow. Over the course of the expansion, you really do get to know these characters on a deeper level as you meet them repeatedly throughout your adventure — and not just in the overworld, but also in dungeons. Compared to some of the Roundtable Hold cast, it’s a welcome and liberating change. Dryleaf Dane gang for life.

It helps that you'll encounter these characters considerably more often, too, likely due to the condensed space of the game map. The Realm of Shadow requires a lot more vertical traveling and is filled with much fewer obvious routes towards wherever you want to go. I like to think I was being pretty thorough, but it took me the better part of a day to find the final route towards an optional area, just as an example. There’s no shortage of exploration to be had.

The tone is set from the get-go as well: you load into the Realm of Shadow, step out into the Graveyard Plains, a spooky, somber terrain filled with spectral gravestones, mount Torrent, make your way toward the map marker…and immediately get murdered by a dancing horned enemy. I waltzed in with a level 120 character, optimized for Pyromancy and using the Blasphemous Blade (hey, don’t judge) and I got floored pretty much immediately. If there was any doubt that you were in for a wild ride, the game dispels that doubt right away.

That’s not to say that the entire trip was that intense. There’s no shortage of goons and mook-type enemies for you to mow down — a combination of old favorites and new terrors populate the entire realm for you to curtail. And if you were wondering, yes: Fingercreepers are back and even worse than before. Though honestly, it’s not that bad compared to some of the new enemies.

To make your trip around Scadutree more exciting, there’s a slew of new weapons and spells for you to discover and make use of. My favorite, conceptually at least, are “smithscript” weapons. These weapons have scaling off four stats, with some being more Strength-oriented while others are Dexterity, but what makes them interesting is their unique ability — you can throw them and they will return to your hand instantly. This means that you have an unlimited ranged option for melee, something you previously had to specialize in magic, incantations, or bows for. The jury is still out on whether these weapons are actually “good” or not, as I didn’t test any of them much, but the concept is cool.

Many of these Smithscript weapons are tucked away in new optional dungeons, known as “Forges.” These Forges are populated with incredibly resilient Forge Golems, and these locations act as shorter adventures compared to many of the main game’s catacombs. In fact, I could only find two or three new Catacomb dungeons, as most of the optional dungeons were either caves, Forges, or Pot Gaols. The variety helped to reduce side-dungeon fatigue, something I suffered from in the base game (because let's be real, when you've seen one gargoyle catacomb you've seen them all).

This helps to sell the idea that exploration is more necessary than ever — I can’t describe it without spoilers, but just know that accessing all of the regions of the map will require very, very thorough exploration of certain areas. A cursory look at your map won’t be enough to indicate where you should go half the time, so definitely keep your head on a swivel as you travel.

If you’re curious about the challenge aspect, while I did skate by with Blasphemous Blade and Taker’s Flame (and Mimic Tear) for half of the DLC, I will say that this trick stopped being effective sooner rather than later. Magic users will find plenty of enemies that are more than resistant to magic, faith users will be mortified to learn that there is no shortage of lightning-resistant enemies, and so on. There's a challenge baked in for each build, but you can’t go wrong with going Strength and swinging around a massive hammer.

I want to specifically talk about sound design for a second. Elden Ring has already had some incredible ambiance coupled with a fantastic, chilling musical score. Plenty of zones open up with a very specific sting to let you know the gravity of the situation you’re in. Bosses all open with unique tracks, and dynamic battle music triggers anytime you get into combat — it’s more of what I loved in the base game, but amplified.

Legacy Dungeon design has also improved immensely. Belurat Settlement, the first Legacy Dungeon you will likely encounter, has excellent design with regards to optional paths, eye-catching scenery, and yes, corners for enemies to jump you from. The boss, Dancing Lion, is also a very unique first “boss”, as it’s somewhat different from any other Soulslike boss I’ve seen before in terms of attack variety. I can’t talk about the other Legacy Dungeons much, but I will say that a later dungeon is so massive, that there are five or six entrances/exits to it.

For lorefiends, I can only say that you will enjoy written detail. Again, there’s too much for me to risk spoiling, so I won’t say anything, but several lingering questions were answered — and a few more were left open-ended. There’s a healthy mixture of old and new stories to learn about, and adventuring with the Needle Knight gang exposes you to a huge chunk of it organically. As with exploration, keep your eyes open and examine anything and everything that looks interesting to you — you never know what’s hidden behind an illusory wall.

I unfortunately did not get to enjoy any jolly cooperation — I did drop my sign multiple times during my playthrough, and kept myself open to summons/invasions the entire playthrough, but never once got invaded or summoned. I was hovering around level 160 the bulk of the playthrough, give or take a few levels, so I don’t think I was out of range, but it’s entirely possible that I was. Which is fine — I prefer tackling bosses solo anyways, so I “got good”.

If it sounds like I’m praising the DLC for expanding on what it’s already succeeded at, well, I am, but I want to stress that there are a lot of new design philosophies at play as well. Most, if not all, of these game design choices appear in the later half of the DLC, so unfortunately I can’t say much, but you’ll know it when you see it. One zone, in particular, had me on edge in a way that I hadn’t felt since the original Dark Souls back in the day.

I have one final piece of knowledge for you, and it is the most minor of spoilers, so if you do not wish to know it, thank you for reading. Your first Scadutree Fragment is to the east of your first Site of Grace, and your first “NPC invader” is to the south, in the forest. Consider that a gift of knowledge from me to you, and safe travels as you explore the Realm of Shadow. For the rest of you: during the final encounter, get grabbed twice. Nothing else to say, just do it.

Shadow of the Erdree is an excellent expansion to Elden Ring. Even when I was frustrated trying to find the hidden paths toward new zones, I was still exploring and discovering completely new things instead — there is almost no wasted space, and the game never feels like it was wasting my time. It's the perfect ending for a nearly perfect game.