Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Review – An Emphatic Exclamation Point

Following up Elden Ring is a gargantuan task. It’s one of my favorite games of all time, and the base adventure isn’t lacking for content, intrigue, or surprises. Shadow of the Erdtree doesn’t outclass the primary campaign but expands it, adding a fun and fascinating new zone in the Realm of Shadow. With entertaining new dungeons, a challenging fresh slate of bosses, and a smart new form of progression, Shadow of the Erdtree gives Elden Ring fans more of everything that worked in the main game and is a fantastic excuse to endure its many dangers once more. 

From Software expansions are notorious for being exceptionally more difficult than the base game. Shadow of the Erdtree is overall harder, but the degree of which will, of course, vary based on the character you’re bringing into it. Since defeating Radahn and Mohg is the only prerequisite for beginning the expansion, and because Shadow of the Erdtree requires owning the base game, players are likely using late-game or New Game + characters. For context, I began the expansion using my endgame (level 165), single playthrough character who proved to be more than ready to handle the new threats – at least for a while. 

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Because of these circumstances, your character likely requires an exorbitant amount of runes to level up. From Software clearly considered this and introduced smart new progression items called Scadutree Fragments and Reverned Ash Fragments. Scattered all over the map, spending these items at checkpoints improves overall damage output and resistance: Scadutree for yourself and Reverned Ash for your Spirit Ashes (though the effect only applies in the expansion). This is a great, streamlined method of strengthening your character, and I love not relying solely on grinding to gather tens of thousands of runes just to level up once. This is also great for bolstering maxed-out Spirit Ashes, letting me roll with my favorite(s) after they peaked in the base game. These fragments won’t suddenly turn your Tarnished into an unstoppable juggernaut, but it is a noticeable, if small, difference that doesn’t throw off the game’s balancing.   

Without getting too specific, Shadow of the Erdtree also goes out of its way to provide a surplus of smithing stones to upgrade the expansion’s plethora of new weapons (which you can use in the base game). This offers a strong argument to retire old favorites in favor of using something new. During the early hours, I stubbornly clung to the loadout that brought me success in the main game. Eventually, I discovered numerous cool and powerful weapons, armor sets, spells, enchantments, and charms that compelled me to finally create new, potent loadouts. Shadow of the Erdtree encourages experimentation as much as the main game, if not more so, thanks to its roster of intimidating, grotesque, and, in some cases, outright bizarre new enemies.

Needless to say, Shadow of the Erdtree isn’t a walk in the park. An imposing new class of armored adversaries that would probably be considered mini-bosses in the base game now roam the map as normal enemy types. They’re tough enough that I was shocked to see them respawn after spending a good amount of time and effort defeating them once. Basket-like fire giants stomping around the map may as well be wearing signs saying “Mess around and find out” due to how obscenely powerful and sturdy they are. Creative new boss encounters offer fresh – and infuriating – trials that had me yelling in agony at defeat and jumping for joy upon victory. I won’t spoil any of them, but a couple of particular foes may rival Malenia in difficulty. They’re all fun to topple, and, like the main game, the sting of defeat can often be remedied by simply moving on to someplace else. 

The Realm of Shadow may be smaller overall, but it’s still huge and sports several postcard-worthy locales, several of which are tricky to even reach. Don’t be surprised to go dozens of hours before un-fogging the map due to how well From Software uses the Realm of Shadow’s verticality to hide layers of crucial routes and openings. I appreciate how this layered-cake approach to world design makes exploring the Realm of Shadow feel distinctly different from roaming The Lands Between. Trekking up or down is usually the answer to most navigational conundrums, with the former often offering gorgeous views of the landscape and the latter taking players through underground pathways, revealing hidden ruins, villages, and more. Despite the increased challenge of finding where to go next, the thrill of discovery remains a powerful motivator after 40-plus hours of play, and my curiosity was usually rewarded with a cool location, a useful item, or a terrifying foe. 

The new dungeons, including repeatable ones like smelting forges and underground gaols, beg to be thoroughly explored thanks to some clever and devious secrets, presenting more great examples of From’s exceptional level design. While it’s tough to beat mind-boggling discoveries like the underground cities in the main game, a few points of interest gave me pause to admire them and have unique visual identities. Meeting the strange and questionably trustworthy faces occupying these zones is its own treat. Even if you don’t totally understand (or care) what’s going on with Miquella and his followers, characters like a shady sorcerer soliciting favors or engaging with weirdly charitable bug warriors contribute to the expansion’s head-tilting but alluring charm. 

The boring but ultimately correct shorthand to summarize Shadow of the Erdtree is that it’s more Elden Ring. The incredible sense of discovery, fantastic dungeon design, entertainingly deep combat, and intriguing lore and characters that defined From Software’s 2022 masterpiece all apply to this expansion. From Software didn’t drop the ball and make Elden Ring worse, nor do I believe it wholly topped what it had achieved before. Shadow of the Erdtree maintains a sky-high status quo, even if it loses a little magic from being a known quantity this time instead of a complete surprise. Still, Shadow of the Erdtree is one hell of a mic drop that further cements this adventure as one of the finest ever crafted.

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