Elden Ring’s popularity has changed the whole difficulty conversation for the DLC

It wouldn’t be a FromSoftware release without some perennial discourse over difficulty, and while Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree follows suit, this time, there’s a twist. Players aren’t debating whether or not FromSoftware’s notoriously difficult games should offer an easy mode or better accessibility options, nor is the community sneering and telling people they should simply “git gud” (derogatory). This time, we’re seeing hardcore fans bemoan the grueling nature of the new DLC, if not saying that game director Hidetaka Miyazaki has gone too far.

Shadow of the Erdtree employs an unusual mechanic that attempts to mitigate the likelihood of players jumping into the DLC with overleveled characters. While you still retain your base stats when entering the Land of Shadow, the DLC-specific location has new upgrades — Scadutree Fragments and Revered Spirit Ashes — that dictate how much damage you can deal and withstand while in this new realm. The more of these upgrades you have, in other words, the better you’ll do; the game has also recently been updated to make these upgrades even stronger. This system also means that players who have likely spent hours building and optimizing their characters are, in some ways, being forced to start from scratch. Without these new embellishments, run-of-the-mill enemies can and will destroy your character if you’re not careful. The developers warned this would be the case before Shadow of the Erdtree came out, with Miyazaki outright stating he believed the team had “pushed the envelope” of what could be “withstood” by players.

Reviews for the expansion were also published ahead of its actual release, and while many critics wrote about the DLC’s difficulty, as a whole, Shadow of the Erdtree was well received. Right now, Elden Ring’s expansion is sitting on a 95 on Metacritic, which the grading system deems to be “universal acclaim.” Despite this, a Eurogamer review that gave the expansion three stars out of five caused a fan outcry. According to these fans, who again were reading this review before playing the DLC themselves, the critic had made the mistake of saying that the game seemed too difficult this time. Worse, the critic wasn’t sure if they had the motivation to try and trudge through certain parts of it.

A screenshot of Bayle the Dread attacking a Tarnished warrior from Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

“This, however, feels like difficulty for difficulty’s sake, turned up to eleven, perhaps because with the added expectations of a DLC having something extra-absurd to conquer even though it technically doesn’t require finishing the core game,” the reviewer wrote of one particularly egregious optional boss fight. “I go through dozens of deaths over a period of several days, and despite taking breaks to go off and do other things and explore other areas, I realise that I just don’t want to do this anymore.”

This admission was not well received by some fans, especially given the larger, ongoing stereotype that game journalists are bad at games and therefore not fit to judge a series where part of the point is to suffer (“Prepare to die” was an official tagline for the first Dark Souls, after all). Replies to Eurogamer’s post on X (formerly Twitter) linking the review often chastised or tried to humiliate the reviewer for the perceived crime of believing the difficulty had not been well tuned. As of this writing, top responses say things like “It was to hawd fow you?”, “Perhaps stick to something like Mario it might be more your speed,” and of course, the obligatory “get good.”

The irony here is that the review spends a good chunk of its word count expressing frustration with how much the expansion tries to hand-hold the player. Specifically, the reviewer felt that the expansion doesn’t seem to trust the player to figure out what they should do, often signposting in an unusually overt way. This, the reviewer suggests, robs the player from earning a sense of discovery and worse, makes some of the unique obstacles trivial. As an example, the review mentions that the game outright tells the player to not let specific enemies see them, so the reviewer equipped an item that made sneaking around easier.

A dying Erdtree looms over a misty, ghostly landscape. In the foreground, a person with long blond hair rides a horned beast across the fields Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

Ultimately, though, 3 out of 5 is not a bad score — and again, as a whole, Shadow of the Erdtree has been reviewed well. But for some fans, this didn’t matter. Social media posts questioning the credentials of the reviewer went viral despite the fact that many of these people clearly didn’t read the full review. Then, once players finally got their hands on the DLC, karma reared its judicious head.

On Steam, the Shadow of the Erdtree DLC dropped down to a “mixed” rating, which is a harsher verdict than the expansion’s Metacritic score. Some of these reviewers simply aren’t happy with Shadow of the Erdtree’s poor performance on their PCs. But an unusual number of the negative reviews on the DLC’s store page admit that for them, the expansion was unfairly brutal. “Filled to the brim with uninspired, unfun boss fights that rely on incredibly annoying features to make them ‘difficult,’” one negative review reads. “I dont mind learning how to fight hard bosses but if you’re simply murdered half the time for missing a roll I think some of the numbers should be re-evaluated,” another states. “Well this game isn’t just hard, it’s artificially hard,” another claims.

The frustration with Shadow of the Erdtree’s bosses spans beyond Steam players. On Google, negative reviews also cite the outrageous difficulty. “The scaling is ridiculous, every enemy does insane damage whilst you do relatively little damage,” states a one-star review. The top review on that platform deems the DLC to be 8/10, which, while a positive score, also begins with the judgment that the developers “overdid the difficulty.”

The most visible repudiation of Shadow of the Erdtree comes from an unexpected source, however: influencers who play games for a living. “I think the DLC is too hard to be fun,” said popular Twitch streamer Asmongold. Notably, Asmongold is an influencer who has such a fraught relationship with gaming journalists, he’s built a community that often takes pleasure in pointing out when a critic has trouble with a video game — including FromSoft titles.

The Shadow Keep in front of the Scadutree from Elden Ring’s DLC, Shadow of the Erdtree. Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco via Johnny Yu

For some, all of this will come off as a case of people getting a taste of their own medicine; after years of looking down on players who felt defeated by FromSoftware games, these elitist players are finally finding themselves in the same boat. At the same time, much of this phenomenon is transpiring during a pivotal moment for FromSoftware games as a whole. Elden Ring is by far the Japanese studio’s best-selling game, by orders of magnitude compared to its other titles. Arguably, it’s the game that’s brought the genre to the mainstream; even celebrities like The Weeknd and Travis Scott were excited for Shadow of the Erdtree.

Those in the know are aware that FromSoftware games have been hugely influential to the video game industry as a whole, but for a long time, these have been relatively niche games. This means that Elden Ring is likely now being played by a huge group of people who don’t have any of the experience, memories, or baggage that come with the genre and its notorious difficulty. These are fresh faces who haven’t grown tired of arguing over whether or not the games should be this harsh, and they’ve certainly not been privy to judgments from fanatics who have strict ideas about how the games should be played.

As a series that’s built a name for its unforgiving nature, FromSoftware games have attracted a fandom that prides itself on overcoming challenges. Sadly, some of that attitude has gotten warped over time, leading some players to add even more stipulations for what is and isn’t considered admirable. In the case of Elden Ring, conservative players have considered specific play styles less valid than others. Things like using summons, which are NPCs who can help the player during specific moments, or spirit ashes, which are ghostly buddies that can also help the player with certain designated battles and boss fights, have often been deemed as “easy mode” by players who have spent years beating FromSoftware games without additional help. Many FromSoftware games — including Elden Ring — also have a system for summoning other players to help with various in-game challenges. Again, according to the most intense subsection of FromSoftware fans, using these in-game tools is an admission of weakness.

Characters sit around a campfire in Dark Souls Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

In a way, this restrictive attitude has been implicitly reinforced following the popularity of Twitch streams. In order to stand out, Twitch streamers often make up challenges to beat FromSoftware games. There are players who beat games like Elden Ring at low levels and with basic gear, or with unexpected tools like musical instruments, dance pads, and even brain waves. Twitch streamers who feel pressure to entertain their audiences therefore have a stake in having the games present a challenge, but not one that is so insurmountable that it leads to an unsatisfying viewing experience.

Players who review games on Steam or Google because they’re dissatisfied, or streamers who play games for a living, are hardly representative of a community composed of 25 million people and counting. When you look at discussions about Elden Ring outside of these highly specific contexts, the evolution of the community and its attitude is palpable. It’s practically become a meme that players are relying on things like spirit ashes to help them survive the Land of Shadow, especially the Mimic Tear, which creates a copy of the player to take on foes. The Mimic Tear has all of the abilities that the player does, but with fewer weaknesses: It can withstand multiple attacks that would normally kill the player.

Even if it’s provided by the game and therefore meant to be used, longtime FromSoftware fans still clearly feel justified in calling spirit ashes “broken.” Despite this, the much larger current community for Elden Ring doesn’t seem to think less of people who use spirit ashes; if anything, the player base seems to be bonding over it. On Reddit, some of the most popular and common threads are jokes about the seemingly universal reliance on spirit ashes. Rather than looking down on it or ridiculing it, using tools like the Mimic Tear is now outright encouraged by most players.

Even the much-reviled “get good” attitude seems to have shifted. In a video by the popular YouTuber penguinz0, he doles out some tough love for players who dislike Shadow of the Erdtree’s difficulty. He tells people to get good. At one point, this phrase would undoubtedly reflect a toxic, gatekeeping attitude about who gets to enjoy FromSoftware games. Here, it’s merely encouragement to put aside your pride and use the tools at your disposal. “Get good” now means getting familiar with those tools over trying to brute force your way through a game without any aids.

“Every Souls game has always been a series where it’s as difficult as you make it,” he says. “There are broken builds that you can use… There are full-blown mechanics that are there to help you through difficult challenges. With summoning, you can just use a Mimic Tear to help you go through a boss.”

An Elden Ring player character looks up at the Erdtree Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco via Polygon

Most of the time, when a niche series breaks through to the mainstream, it’s because something about the latest game has become more accessible. Compared to older games, Elden Ring appears to fit that bill. The shift to open-world mechanics means that, unlike in some prior FromSoftware games, you don’t have to repeatedly bash your head against a wall if you’re stuck. You can go and take on something simpler, get stronger, and then come back to that initial challenging section and perhaps overcome it. But rather than doubling down on what made Elden Ring so approachable in the name of catering to these fans, FromSoftware has tried to thread the needle. While Shadow of the Erdtree is, as mentioned by the Eurogamer review, more explicit about where to go or what to do, overall, the DLC is much more punishing on the player, especially when it comes to bosses. Sure, you can hop into a battle with both an in-game summon and your Mimic Tear at the same time, but the foe waiting on the other side of the fog mist still packs a wild multi-hit combo that can one-shot you.

The emphasis on challenge is so pronounced this time that it has encouraged the now larger player base to be softer with one another. Rather than defining this larger community, the vocal assholes are now far more outnumbered and seen for exactly what they are. FromSoftware, meanwhile, gets to enjoy the successes of creating a blockbuster without having to compromise the vision that built the genre in the first place.

“If we really wanted the whole world to play the game, we could just crank the difficulty down more and more. But that wasn’t the right approach,” Miyazaki told The Guardian in an interview. “Had we taken that approach, I don’t think the game would have done what it did, because the sense of achievement that players gain from overcoming these hurdles is such a fundamental part of the experience. Turning down difficulty would strip the game of that joy – which, in my eyes, would break the game itself.”