My hands-on with Shadow of the Erdtree was just what I wanted: more Elden Ring

My first steps into Elden Ring’s new Shadow of the Erdtree expansion feel like coming home again. After traveling there, by touching a withered arm, I step out into a grassy plain, and see a crumbling giant tree in the distance. The land is pocked with intangible gravestones and spirit-world versions of enemies I’ve faced before: dogs and wandering nobles. But it isn’t long until I face something terrifying in this new region, the Land of Shadow, in the form of a giant walking iron brazier filled with embers and burning prisoners.

As I try to slash at that hundred-foot monstrosity, I learn pretty quickly that even the highly leveled, generously equipped knight I’ve been given to play as part of a three-hour preview of the DLC is no match for the thing. It kicks huge, unavoidable piles of flaming debris at me as I try to run away. A handful of other unfamiliar monsters — Gravebirds, smaller cousins of the Death Rite Birds from Elden Ring, and lithe ash-skinned humanoids armed with twin circular blades — pile on and thrash my poor knight.

Even at a high level, I’m underprepared for what awaits in the Land of Shadow. But there’s a new kind of power-up scattered around the Gravesite Plain and in dungeons nearby: Scadutree Fragments. These new consumable items are splinters from this world’s version of the Erdtree. They bestow Scadutree Blessing on my knight, boosting virtually all of his stats. Shadow of the Erdtree players will need to hunt these fragments down to contend with the powerful enemies here. In my three hours of playtime, I found a half-dozen of them with relative ease. I also found plenty of the DLC’s other new power-up, Revered Spirit Ash, an item that makes my Spirit Ashes and my steed, Torrent, stronger.

Scadutree Fragments and Revered Spirit Ashes can be used at sites of grace in the Land of Shadow to become stronger, similar to how players use Golden Seeds and Sacred Tears to empower their flasks in Elden Ring. The blessings provided by those new power-ups are immediately apparent, but they only supercharge my character while he’s in the Land of Shadow. (While in that land, you’ll see your stats are boosted with the color yellow. Back in the Lands Between, they revert to white.)

A Tarnished holds out a light greatsword at her side as she faces down an armored enemy knight on horseback in a screenshot from Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

Getting to the Land of Shadow requires two major accomplishments in Elden Ring. You must defeat Starscourge Radahn at Redmane Castle and Mohg, Lord of Blood at Mohgwyn Palace. Once you do, you’ll be able to transport to this strange new land with the aid of a knight, one of Miquella’s many followers that you’ll meet in Shadow of the Erdtree’s adventure.

Meeting the followers of Miquella, all of whom refer to the mysterious brother of the swordswoman Malenia as “kindly” or “tender,” I was struck by another difference here in the Land of Shadow: a sense of hope. Unlike the despair that permeates the Lands Between in the main story of Elden Ring, the people you meet in the Land of Shadow all seem content.

I met a handful of Miquella’s followers at stations known as Three-Path Crosses, said to represent Miqeulla’s footprints on his journey through this land. At these gold, glowing crosses, I met new NPCs and merchants, some of whom gave me items to use or quests to undertake. One, named Freyja, said she was a former ally of General Radahn. Another claimed to be a servant of Mohg. One Miquella devotee, Moore, was a simple-minded merchant. Unlike many of the confused and downtrodden NPCs typical of FromSoftware’s games, the followers of Miquella all seem unusually happy. They all appear to support you on your mission here, despite your status as a Tarnished. (Why they object to that isn’t quite clear, based on my playtime.)

One of Miquella’s followers stands with arms folded in a grassy field, with a tower far in the distance in a screenshot from Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

Beyond the Gravesite Plain is a handful of legacy dungeons, catacombs, and strongholds. The largest that I saw was Belurat, a massive castle settlement with labyrinthine pathways patrolled by new types of enemies. I fought scorpions of pretty big and terrifyingly big sizes, annoying spellcasters, and humanoid giants.

At the end of my trip through Belurat, I encountered the Divine Beast Dancing Lion, a mess of human limbs, fabric, and a lion’s head, previously seen in Shadow of the Erdtree’s first trailer. The Dancing Lion attacked with a chaotic rhythm, deploying freezing and lightning-based attacks as I tried to keep up with its frenzied dance. My powerful pre-built knight and a pair of summons — two of Miquella’s followers — made the battle relatively easy (it certainly won’t be that easy with my Elden Ring character). After killing it, the Dancing Lion dropped its own head, which I then proceeded to wear as a comically oversized helmet. That new piece of armor amplified my knight’s strength and dexterity, but lowered the effectiveness of my flasks.

Before my trip to the castle of Belurat, I stumbled upon a gaol underneath it, where I discovered the most horrible thing I’ve seen in Elden Ring yet. The Belurat gaol, a catacombs-style dungeon, is full of Living Jars who reside there. But here’s the bad part: The scraps of meat that players typically get from smashing those jars is, in this place, still very much alive. For the first time, we get to see what lives inside the jars: a glistening, tumorous monstrosity that will attack you with their own guts and launch themselves to pin you down. Disgusting though they may be, these jar-meat-people still manage to adhere to Elden Ring director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s famous quote about not relying on “the gross factor” to unnerve players. They’re both repulsive and sad to look upon.

A large heavily armored enemy soldier stands with a greatsword slung over his shoulder outside of Castle Belurat in a screenshot from Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

The other region available during my hands-on time with the expansion is known as Castle Ensis. It’s a mid-scale legacy dungeon guarded by a new type of giant troll; this one can use magic, a herald of what’s to come (i.e., a lot of sorcerers). While exploring Castle Ensis, I encountered a knight with a giant hammer who, in the process of beating me to death with that hammer, signaled that I wasn’t ready to face him. Reps from Bandai Namco suggested to those in attendance that if we were to face such a challenge, we should seek out additional Scadutree Fragments to become competitive.

I declined that advice and took the other option in Elden Ring: run past everything. By sprinting through Ensis, I successfully made my way to its boss, Rellana, Twin Moon Knight. She’s a former Carian princess and the younger sister of Elden Ring boss Rennala, Queen of the Full Moon. Like Rennala, Rellana can throw magical moons at you while also dual-wielding a pair of long blades that deal magic and fire damage. Like the Dancing Lion, I managed to defeat her, but only with the aid of multiple summoned allies who helped me break her poise and stagger her multiple times.

My victory can also be credited to a brand-new weapon in the game: my speedy but powerful, poise-breaking light greatsword named — of all things — Milady. Light greatsword is a new class of weapon in Shadow of the Erdtree. Other new additions include the Backhand Blade, a curved sword held at a backward angle that delivers thrust attacks and slashes to enemies’ flanks; Dryleaf Arts, one of the new martial arts weapons that’s not really a weapon, but a style of hand-to-hand combat; and the Red Bear’s Claw, an actual severed bear paw modified with steel claws.

A Tarnished warrior throws an explosive perfume concoction at a pair of enemies in a screenshot from Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

New weapon types I didn’t really get to spend much time with are the previously revealed thrusting shields, which are shields that have pointy ends; throwing blades, a variation on the existing throwing knives that can be equipped as a primary weapon; perfume bottles, also now a primary weapon option; and the great katana, which is, well, a larger version of a standard katana. Bandai Namco and FromSoftware promise 100 new weapons in Shadow of the Erdtree, with the handful of new additions I tested already feeling like fun new variations on existing fighting styles.

During my three hours with the game, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Shadow of the Erdtree will add to Elden Ring. I’ve already spotted some fascinating new characters and lore, intimidating new challenges, and intriguing vibes. Whether the hopeful tenor of Miquella’s followers is authentic or some sort of misdirect before things go terribly south, we’ll all have to discover when Shadow of the Erdtree is released on June 21.

[Disclosure: This article is based on an Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree preview event held by publisher Bandai Namco in Los Angeles on May 24. Bandai Namco provided Polygon’s travel and accommodations for the event. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.]