Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Review: Faith, Meet Futility


One of the first landmarks you’ll come across in Shadow of the Erdtree is a tall, brilliantly shining cross. Intersected at its peak by a thin crescent — most likely a representation of the Golden Order, the dark fantasy world’s ruling theocracy — it feels bluntly referential to saints and prophets and resurrections.

Shadow of the Erdtree, an expansion to the commercially successful, critically adored and deviously demanding action role-playing game Elden Ring, wants to know whose faith matters. And whether having the kind of blind faith required to follow a mysterious lord into unknown lands is a good thing after all.

Expansions to FromSoftware games tend to be steep-walled gantlets, meant to provide a heightened challenge for experienced players. Shadow of the Erdtree is no different. You will be tested. Your faith in your abilities, your belief in yourself, will be stretched to its limit.

You will need to trust, against facts and experiences, that you can take on tough enemies who would readily stomp you, that you can persevere against this new crop of knights, monsters and freaks, most of whom far exceed in rigor even the most demanding of Elden Ring’s late-game enemies.

The big bag of tricks I had gathered in Elden Ring felt largely useless against this new tier of adversaries, who casually shrugged off my fully upgraded spear tips and carefully honed sword edges. Collecting Scadutree fragments, an expansion-specific resource, grants you a much-needed boost in power.

There is a tension at the heart of most FromSoftware games, ever since Demon’s Souls. We are offered beautiful, awe-inspiring worlds, full of scenes of tenderness and melancholy. But these worlds also happen to be dreadful and largely inhospitable. We are trespassers in them and we must bite and claw our way to each breathtaking vista, to look out onto the misty valleys and craggy peaks ahead, doubtlessly full of terrifying nightmares all ready to tear us to bits.

As interlocutors to this grim spectacle, we must weigh our faith in ourselves — in our desire to see things through to the end — against the faith of a fresh cast of characters, all devoted to some extent to their newfound saint Miquella. Because of our past forays, these knights have long been vassals without lords.

In Christ-like fashion, Miquella has given up his own living form and ascended to a more heavenly position. The crosses throughout a bizarre realm wreathed in shadow mark sites where he has shed his corporeal flesh. But rather than commune with Marika, his deified mother, Miquella wants to escape the strictures and expectations of her Golden Order.

Shadow of the Erdtree inserts emotional nuance by implicating the player more forcefully than FromSoftware usually does. It doesn’t feel that righteous, after all, to barrel into an undiscovered place and lay waste to its noble, magical creatures or even its largely sympathetic villains. It feels like even more of a disturbance to tear your way through this sad and beautiful shadowland, full of characters who have fled the ravaging oppression of the Golden Order in search of some safety and meaning.

And beautiful it certainly is. Though you start out on the relatively moribund Gravesite Plains, illuminated faintly by a sickly green-yellow light cast from the shadowy Scadutree looming in the dark sky, traveling in any direction quickly diversifies the aesthetic palette.

There’s the satisfying meat and potatoes of exploration at Castle Ensis, with vertiginous balustrades and winding ramparts that cross over and under themselves in impossible architectural configurations. Further out, there’s the gothic, imposing keep of the lord Messmer, who wages constant war against the residents of the Shadow Realm.

Beyond these series staples are far-flung and exotic locations rich with flavor. Coastal meadows are layered densely with bright and colorful flowers. To the east, towering and craggy peaks swarm with dragons and crack with lightning. Impossibly deep caves in somber velvets and blues are rimmed with massive coffin ships of unknown origin.

Shadow of the Erdtree naturally carries over many of the things that made Elden Ring such a hit: a profound sense of scale and depth; remarkable challenges that make exploration feel tense and exciting; and stunning visual arrangements of architecture and nature.

But this expansion also has something the original game lacked. While still very much an open world, with fields to gallop across and deep canyons and caves to plunge into, Shadow of the Erdtree bends toward the layer-cake-like level design of the original Dark Souls. Elden Ring’s boundaries felt nearly endless, with each map segment revealing a huge undiscovered land mass. Shadow of the Erdtree covers a significant stretch of land but feels much tighter, more thoroughly honeycombed through.

What might seem like a regular hill, green with shrubbery, stones and moss, is quickly revealed to be the very top layer of a mazelike ruin dug deep into the earth. A bottomless and impassable canyon is rarely how it first appears.

The hunt for secrets can feel overwhelming. More than a few locations in the Shadow Realm, places that contain important story beats and powerful items, can be discovered only with a frustratingly obtuse progression of steps. One memorable area involves finding your way through previously flooded districts, past hidden doors and beyond unassuming statues. It can feel more like the spatial puzzle game Myst than a hack-and-slash adventure.

That being said, Shadow of the Erdtree is full of violent conflict. The boss fights are often magnificent and quite memorable, especially in their inevitable second stages. You’ll be aided, more often than not, by one of the Miquella faithful, who often add a nice narrative layer to the battle by dropping angry lines before courageously rushing forward.

The prickly foes include the Dancing Lion, with strange human limbs poking out from beneath a flowing costume and a refreshing mix of tragedy and lighthearted comedy. High up in the jagged peak, Balor is a nice evolution of Elden Ring’s well-trodden dragon design. It takes on the mannerisms of a snarling bulldog and will quickly rush you with all the intensity of one. Along with a number of the other late-game bosses, Balor can require a significant restructuring of strategy and gear.

This is where Shadow of the Erdtree hits a familiar bottleneck, narrowing into a grueling ordeal of bosses. The healing flasks and armor you once used to soak up blows begin falling short during this crescendo of difficulty. You’ll need more than a hope or a prayer.

This is where my faith in my ability to make it to the end was tested. As an expansion, Shadow of the Erdtree wants to make things challenging enough for the fiercely dedicated fan base, the kinds of people who will spend hours analyzing perfect builds or figuring out how many frames of invincibility you get based on the weight of armor.

If you’re the agnostic type, if you’re just here to take in the sights, it will probably be a long time before you’re ready to enter that final arena. Luckily there are plenty of other things to see first. New spirit springs are locked by hidden stone cairns, which I’ve wasted an embarrassing amount of time trying to root out.

Maybe you won’t want to match your faith against Miquella’s after all. Maybe you’ll see the tests laid out ahead and think better of it. That’s fine too. There is nothing wrong with leaving the faithful to their devotion while moving on to greener, less shadowed pastures.

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree, which releases on Friday, was reviewed on the PlayStation 5. It will also be available on the PC, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.


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