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Let’s get down to brass tacks. Elden Ring’s Shadow of the Erdtree expansion is absolutely, positively more of the same. After three hours noodling around a section of its significant-looking map, I’m satisfied of two things: first, this is no grand reinvention of the wheel – but second, it doesn’t need to be. It’s ultimately building on the foundation of one of the greatest games ever made; more of that is more than good enough.

Or to put it another way, I was exhilarated, gripped, and left desperate for more by this brief hands-on. When I got home, I booted Elden Ring, kicked off New Game Plus, and began to meander through the game to craft a new save ready to boot into the expansion. It sent me tumbling right back into an Elden Ring hole..

To reach the expansion DLC content, you’ll need to have defeated two of Elden Ring’s major bosses: Caelid’s powerful General Radahn and the Machiavellian Omen Mohg. It’s from the boss arena of the latter that you’ll be able to be transported to the ‘Land of Shadow’ through the newly-added invitation to ‘Touch the Withered Arm’. Without too much fanfare, you’re dropped into an all-new area in search of what became of Miquella, one of the key players in The Lands Between who was missing from the main game.

A single arm, dead, falls out of a cracked egg-like shell in the depths of Elden Ring's Lands Between.

Don’t worry, he’s ‘armless. | Image credit: Bandai Namco

In the hands-on, I could experience one chunk of the map – literally, the area as defined by the first map fragment you pick up a few steps into this new adventure. Without collecting more map fragments and seeing truly how much of an explorable area there is it’s difficult to judge, but zooming out and toggling between the discrete Lands of Shadow map and that of The Lands Between, it does appear that FromSoftware boss Hidetaka Miyazaki was broadly right when he compared its size to that of Limgrave, Elden Ring’s opening area. From a glance at an admittedly not-filled-in map, extrapolating its maximum size from the maximum zoom and pan available, The Land of Shadow does look roughly comparable to Limgrave – but that’s including the Weeping Peninsula area to the south, and even perhaps at least a little of Caelid. Point being: this area is big.

But in addition to feeling large, it just has a greater sense of density. That’s a density of stuff, but also of things like biomes, enemies, and so on. A lot is crammed into the zone. The hands-on basically encouraged us to wander towards two different dungeons – the smaller challenge of Castle Ensis, and the larger ‘legacy dungeon’-scale Belurat Castle. I don’t want to get into any spoilers whatsoever, but both obviously have notable bosses – Belurat is home to the ‘Dancing Dragon’ boss that you’ll have spied in trailers, numerous paths and challenges along the way, and a slew of new enemies to face down.

The hands-on build had the character level set to 150 – but despite being so high, the preview was still a challenge. Part of that was in getting used to new weapons and abilities, of course. The expansion will offer eight new categories of weapon and in excess of over 100 new actual weapon items, plus new armor, talismans, and other gear. In this build, I was surprised to see the martial arts hand-to-hand weapon actually equipped by default to a Faith/Intelligence mage-style build, making for a sort of Mystic Master class with magically-imbued physical hits.

A character, backed by a field of flame, poses into an attack in Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree

You’re going to need to be powerful to get ahead in the Realm of Shadow. | Image credit: Bandai Namco

For those who perhaps might enter the DLC a little under-leveled, there’s a new mechanic to help – the Scadutree Blessing. This works a lot like collecting Golden Seeds and the like to power up your healing options in the main game, except this mechanic offers you a permanent buff to your damage dealing and resisting capabilities – but only while in the Lands of Shadow. There’s a similar item that powers up Spirit Ashes, too. Because these items have to be found and then redeemed when resting at a Site of Grace, they’re ultimately optional. For the maximum challenge you can leave these unredeemed; a simple but elegant nod to ensuring this DLC expansion satisfies both those looking for a finger-bleeding endgame challenge and those who want to unravel more of the mysteries of the lore alike.

The lore is delivered by a new cast of characters, as seen in the trailers. Knights, servants, and followers of Miquella are tracing the Empyrean’s footsteps across the Land of Shadow. Each new character is unique with their own background and story; one knight, Freyja, once fought alongside Radahn. Another served Mohg. They’re assisted by a twitchy, nervous Merchant. All are in this mysterious land because they wish to locate and follow in the footsteps of Miquella. There’s an air of the allies you meet in Roundtable Hold about this motley band of warriors. Some are more friendly than others, of course. They congregate around ‘Miquella’s Crosses’, shining waypoints that appear to mark places that Miquella let go of some part or another of their being.

The Land of Shadow exists as some sort of twisted version of The Lands Between, but it’s not quite an inversion. The Erdtree looms, but shattered and broken. The map’s geography is entirely different. But hints of the connection between these worlds abound and tickle at my inner lore goblin.

In one quiet corner I discover a place of worship, the ‘Church of Consolation’, which has the familiar shape of a Church of Marika from The Lands Between. It’s guarded by a single knight, and the statue at the head of the church sits headless. I soon after stumble upon a location called the ‘Suppressing Pillar’, with an inscription that reads “The very center of The Lands Between. All manners of Death wash up here, only to be suppressed.” My interest is thoroughly piqued. After the event, I ask PR if my favorite Souls lore YouTuber will also be playing this build. I need a two-hour video on that pillar, stat.

An enemy attacks the protagonist in Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree.

What secrets lurk within the shadows, the margins, and the item descriptions? | Image credit: Bandai Namco

When battling the Dancing Dragon at the end of the Belurat dungeon, what makes Shadow of the Erdtree so exciting hits me like one of the bolts of lightning the boss charges and batters you with. The realization is simple: for my money, the best sorts of expansions and DLCs do one of two things. They either subvert and surprise with something new and unexpected… or they showcase a developer finally divorced from the various difficulties and always-shifting elements of ongoing game development, able to develop with their feet on the most solid ground. This allows them to stretch the confines of their game’s design to its maximum – or sometimes even expand those boundaries.

It’s difficult to tell based on just three hours of play, but Shadow of the Erdtree appears to be the latter. It’s FromSoftware doing a victory lap. It’ll stretch, it’ll poke, it’ll expand, as the official use of the term expansion (rather than DLC) suggests – but it won’t reinvent the wheel. Belurat Castle feels like a natural evolution of a place like Stormveil, for instance, similar in size and style but differing in the nature of its challenge.

The Dancing Dragon is likewise a boss that appears to gleefully toy with player expectation defined by the main game – a wildly unpredictable encounter against an enemy that flails and shudders as it shifts elements, its elemental attacks proving deadly. Not everybody at the preview event managed to beat the boss; when I did, it was by the skin of my teeth. “So close it made me feel sick,” my notebook scribbles say of my victory.

What I play in the three hours is just a fraction of what Shadow of the Erdtree will offer. It retains Elden Ring’s open-ended structure, too – so the choice I had between ‘three paths’ and two sizable dungeons (plus some smaller distractions) in a small defined area is not truly representative. Indeed, I could’ve wandered off the beaten path, but had Bandai Namco reps ready to haul the controller from my grip if I ventured outside of the confines of the preview. But the point is: there’s clearly a lot here. This new map is clearly very dense. You can just tell.

A character holds a spear aloft, ready to pierce a flying enemy in Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree.

This is just the tip of the… spear. | Image credit: Bandai Namco

Honestly, I’m just so ready for it. There’ve been a lot of great games released in the two years since Elden Ring landed – but this expansion is likely to serve as the perfect ‘full stop’ on a game that offers an industry-defining design thesis. Sometimes, less is more. Sometimes, however, more is more. Sometimes you can’t quite get enough. After two years, it turns out that more Elden Ring is exactly what I wanted. I can’t wait for the full thing – and lucky enough, it’s not that long a wait.

Shadow of the Erdtree is the massive $40 Elden Ring expansion, and it’s the only one the game will be getting. It arrives June 21 on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S, and requires owning a copy of the base game.

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