Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree preview – unmapped bliss

Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree preview – unmapped bliss
Tom Bardwell Updated on by

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Like, I imagine, most who’ve put themselves through the punishment of Elden Ring, my expectations for Shadow of the Erdtree are, put conservatively, stratospheric. Coming off of three hours with the expansion encased in a Parisian chapel decked out for the occasion, I’m nursing mixed emotions. Not about the quality of the offering. Nor whether FromSoft has teed up yet another glut of curated locales for us to anatomise for months to come. But, about how weak-kneed I already am about FromSoft’s latest show of polygonal magic. I didn’t expect to feel as ruffled when I put the controller down for the day.

The time between loading in and receiving a courteous shoulder tap to pluck me out of my souls-sy focus state felt like a snap of the finger. I’d done so little, yet so much. I’d explored, taken on a handful of bosses, traipsed through two legacy dungeons, and got a bit too accustomed to the afterimage of the ‘You Died’ font. Did I try the right weapons? Was a dex build the right choice? I didn’t get up to that ridge. Maybe I should have given that boss another go. These are nice problems to have, but the pressure does get to you.

Shadow of the Erdtree’s setup is typical Elden Ring fare. You navigate a winding, rising path that opens into a vista of gently rolling grasslands sandwiched between steep cliffs on either side. This isn’t Limgrave and it’s balmy sunshine, though the fabric of that ‘oh damn’ moment is the same. Spectral graves dot the place. Corpses sway from knurled trees. It’s oppressive and bleak, the sun battling to glisten deep orange on the grass.

Though this is only Shadow of the Erdtree’s starting zone, plenty draws the eye. Spectres prowl a set of crumbling ruins and a hulking brasier on legs trudges about. A sunken lake off in the distance looks too calm for my liking. There’s a crypt off to one side with an ominous fog cloud that only means one thing in FromSoft speak – a boss. You can just about track the faint trailed glint of a site of grace over yonder. NPCs spew cryptic riddles, and there are opaque yet always flavourful item descriptions. It’s all so familiar, yet unmapped and untouched. No time to gawk, though, as trotting on Torrent any further draws the interest of pesky armoured birds.

For this preview, there was the choice of three preset level 150 builds with tuned stats and gear – strength, dexterity, and magic. I went with dex to more-or-less match the samurai I’d dragged through to NG+2. But also because of a weapon dubbed the Backhand Blade and its nifty Blind Spot skill that sees your tarnished bound from side-to-side to find an opening, then hit with a saucy finishing swipe.

A selection of class-appropriate weapons to try out were stacked up in the inventory, though expect to earn these the hard way in the full release. Particular favourites were an obnoxiously long katana and a sword that unleashed Malenia-like flourishes. Though you can still level using runes, you’ll also get Scadutree Blessing. These are little glistening nuggets found here and there that boost damage and damage negation. Jump back to the Lands Between, and they go dormant.

After getting my early hubris checked by the brasier chap, I came to a legacy dungeon called Belurat. Perched on a hill, this fallen fortress city was draped in a similarly lavish, pointed architecture as Leyndell but more compact and stifling. Muddy waters flowed from buildings. Deadly horned knights hit with health-sapping combos, and spectres bolted out from behind corners. In contrast to the freedom of the grasslands, it was a gingerly ascent, helped at times by signature FromSoft shortcuts. About halfway up, I used a key to access a sewer system. It led to a toxic moat guarded by a tendrilled, ulcerated monster spewing caustic filth. As delightful as that little cocktail sounded, I opted to give poisoned waters and toxic attacks a miss.

Once I reached the top, I met the first of the expansion’s ten major bosses. And, well, I was more than a little humbled, both by the skill check and the design. This was a gnarled take on a dancing dragon puppet – a lion with human limbs, two sets of chompers, tattered rags, and knurled horns. I didn’t quite manage to beat it despite a lot of lip-biting due to the nagging need to explore. But, it truly danced. It snaked and twirled across the arena in oddly timed plunges and a maelstrom of elemental attacks. It felt like the kind of fight only FromSoft can cook up – tense, exhilarating, and beautiful.

Back in the grasslands, the lake needed investigating. It turned out to be more of a stagnant swamp, a tame one at that. But, at the back, a cave mouth beckoned. I expected one of those bite-sized networks typical of the base game that ends in a boss. Instead, it was huge. There were these great chambers, bottomless pits, composure-testing platforming sections, and what I’d describe as exploding organs (the bodily kind) with legs. The remains of not-so-living jars littered the place. Hundreds of them piled up. A resting place or something more sinister? It wasn’t clear. Manage to survive all this, and you’ll reach the cave’s mini-boss, a demi-human-come-ninja that bounds about the claustrophobic arena.

To the northeast loomed Castle Ensis, my next stop and the preview’s second legacy dungeon. The path to the castle has you ascend a long sloping bridge. It’s majestic. But a giant guarding the path up soon pelted me with whistling projectiles. It’s a hesitant climb punctuated by sketchy hops to rocky balconies and stabby humanoid enemies wielding bigger and fiercer weapons. Once I’d base-camped at a couple of sites of grace, I reached the boss. She was fast and aggressive, a nimble fencer who strung together sword combos with silly reach. After chipping her down to half health, she switched to two swords – one coated in ice and the other in flames – with these arena-spanning swipes that all I could do was tank and hope for the best. With only a few minutes left, I whittled her down to a sliver of health, but greed got the better of me.

With that, the preview came to an end. What strikes me is that though Shadow of the Erdtree is fundamentally just more Elden Ring, it still feels fresh, still excellent, and still capable of eliciting that visceral sense of triumph. I was all wry smiles whenever a hidden enemy bludgeoned me to death, I found a shortcut, or triggered the heightened hostility of a new boss phase. It’s nothing new, but it never feels trite.

All of us at the preview had access to the same limited chunk of game for the same three hours, but our stories were all so different. Elden Ring’s most impressive feat was giving every player the freedom to forge their own adventure. Shadow of the Erdtree looks to be doing the same. It wants you to explore, though the pace and trajectory are once again up to you.

The preview area we lucky few trialled was sold as a sample of something much more expansive. Though we were under strict guidance not to explore beyond the borders of the starting area, the omens were there. The Erdtree loomed above, its base tangling down to a spot you couldn’t make out. The map’s fog teased areas that seemed to stretch much further north. Though we’ll have to wait for firm confirmation later this month, Shadow of the Ertdree feels large enough to be a game in its own right. After a little taste, I’m braced for more, so much more, free of that impending shoulder tap telling me to pack it in.