Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree is a gift for the faithful

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree is a humbling experience, one that will remind you of your early days — and early defeats — in Elden Ring.

FromSoftware’s expansion to its 2022 open-world RPG will hit you harder and faster than anything in the base game did, regardless of how strong you’ve become over the course of Elden Ring. But for players with patience and perseverance, Shadow of the Erdtree features some of the most rewarding game content in all of Elden Ring. The roughly 40-hour expansion is a true test of skill, but with dozens of new weapons, spells, and magical items at your disposal, players have a wider, more interesting breadth of battle techniques to draw upon.

Even accessing Shadow of the Erdtree is a challenge. Players can’t dive into it by selecting a menu item, the way they would for most DLC expansions. Instead, they’ll need to have already beaten two relatively challenging bosses from the main game: Starscourge Radahn and Mohg, Lord of Blood. This is FromSoft tradition; the developer had similar roadblocks in place in expansions for Dark Souls and Bloodborne. But with only a fraction of Elden Ring players having already met the requirements for Shadow of the Erdtree, the DLC is clearly aimed at its most dedicated and persistent players.

Like the base game, Shadow of the Erdtree starts by setting players’ expectations with powerful new enemies. Take the Furnace Golem. This giant walking brazier is one of the first awe-inspiring sights you’ll see when venturing into the new region, the Land of Shadow. Facing it early likely means certain death for newcomers in this land, as the golem will spew fireballs, kick flaming embers at you, or stomp you with its blazing feet. Like everything else in the expansion, the Furnace Golem is stronger and more deadly than anything you’ve met in Elden Ring.

A Tarnished warrior readies to throw a spear at two Grave Birds in a screenshot from Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

To compensate for these new extreme challenges, you will meet with new allies who will help you on your journey. Like you, there are other warriors searching for the demigod Miquella — and for Miquella’s sworn enemy, Messmer the Impaler, who brought devastation to this shadowy land. At new campsites marked by golden crosses, Miquella’s followers will act as guides, quest givers, and merchants. You’ll follow them and their stories throughout the expansion, as they provide a mostly straightforward narrative throughline.

Shadow of the Erdtree introduces a new leveling system that’s unique to the region. Scattered throughout the land are splinters of the giant, decaying tree that looms over the shadow realm, much like the giant golden Erdtree of the Lands Between. These Scadutree Fragments will magically boost your stats, helping you to meet the level of challenge in the DLC. I highly recommend hunting each and every one down.

As with the original Elden Ring, the excessive challenge of some enemies and boss encounters is intended as an indication that you may not be ready to face them yet. Go, explore, and find more Scadutree Fragments, as your repeated deaths will remind you. And there’s a huge swath of land to explore in the shadow realm; Shadow of the Erdtree feels much bigger than its creators promised, with circuitous routes and secrets that lead to even more secrets.

A Tarnished warrior lights the altar in a forge in a screenshot from Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

The journey across the Land of Shadow can feel oppressive and lonelier than the original Elden Ring. The shadow realm is a dark and gloomy place, appropriately, and the sheer landmass can feel barren at times. There are diversions to discover, like catacombs, mausoleums, and new underground areas called forges, but huge portions of the shadow realm feel surprisingly empty. There are fewer interesting encounters and side characters to meet here, and an absence of merchants.

Elsewhere, there are densely packed castles and keeps, including a massive, mazelike region known as Shadow Keep. This towering research facility is unlike anything else in Elden Ring, serving as a hub to puzzle your way through; no less than five exits from the keep lead to important destinations in the Land of Shadow, yet these paths can only be discovered by thoroughly exploring the keep’s confusing architecture. And while you’ll spend plenty of time unearthing the keep’s secrets, the places it takes you are wildly diverse, ranging from ancient moss-covered ruins to hinterlands covered in flowers to wastelands filled with the bodies of Furnace Golems.

There’s some repetition throughout the expansion. You’ll still be fighting many of the same enemies from the original Elden Ring; not every creature you fight is brand-new. Certain parts of the geography are refreshingly original, including a region that evokes Bloodborne-like horror, with skulking enemies that can’t be killed but can only be avoided as you creep through fog-drenched swamplands.

A Winter Lantern enemy walks through the darkened fog of the Abyssal Woods in a screenshot from Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

There’s a huge amount of variety when it comes to combat, thanks to dozens of new weapons spread across multiple new styles. I gravitated toward the new light greatsword class of melee weapon, specifically favoring a sword called the Milady that enables fanciful twirling slashes and is reliable for staggering enemies. I wound up respeccing my character a few times, testing new great katanas for their hard-hitting power and new martial arts fighting styles to unleash flurries of kicks and punches. It seems that wherever there was previously a gap in Elden Ring’s available fighting styles, such as between light and heavy swords, or in weapon types that weren’t ideal for a particular character build, FromSoftware has filled in those spaces with new ideas and fighting styles in the DLC.

Again, even with all the new swords and sorceries, new types of Crystal Tears and Talismans, new recipes and crafting items, there’s still an incredible level of challenge in the new DLC. None of the new content will make you a god. If some bosses felt like brick walls in the original Elden Ring, the bosses of Shadow of the Erdtree feel like rebar-reinforced solid concrete. Early-game bosses like the Divine Beast Dancing Lion and Rellana, Twin Moon Knight throw flurries of attacks at you, shift their elemental damage to keep you guessing, and give no quarter. Everything in the DLC is some form of relentless, and if base Elden Ring was too challenging for you, you’ll only find harder challenges here.

But there’s more to experiment with, and so much more to explore in Shadow of the Erdtree, that the challenges can always wait until you’re ready for them. Even 40-plus hours in, I’m still figuring out how to tackle a particularly nasty dragon. And despite cursing all the bosses I’ve felled so far, as they’ve beaten me into submission dozens of times, I’m looking forward to going back and starting it all over at some point, ready to take on the challenge again.

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree will be released June 21 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a download code provided by Bandai Namco Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.