Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Is More Interested In High Fantasy Than Power Fantasies

The recent debate about Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree's difficulty exposes the things that ultimately make this game so great.

Shadow of the Erdtree
Photo: Bandai Namco

Not long after Elden Ring: Shadows of the Erdtree’s release, the online conversations about the game became dominated by debates about the DLC’s difficulty. The repetition of such debates is beginning to feel symptomatic of online insanity.

FromSoftware has been very open about the difficulty of their games and why they make them that way. Yet, the release of one of their Soulsborne titles remains a starting pistol that sends internet folk everywhere off to the races to argue about that aspect of them above everything else. What meaningful insight could be provided by such discussions is often drowned out by reactionary yells spewed forth by YouTube thumbnail talking heads everywhere. 

However, there is a slight wrinkle to this particular debate that admittedly makes it more interesting than previous versions of this conversation. This time around, the most vocal critics of Shadow of the Erdtree’s difficulty sometimes seem to be those hardcore players who once shouted the rallying cry “Git Gud” from atop the towers of the gamer gates that protected the festering marshes of toxicity they called home. Steam reviews, forum posts, and declarations from Twitch-enabled incel icons suggest that FromSoftware has finally gone too far.

Don’t get me wrong. Shadow of the Erdtree (Elden Ring’s first and only DLC expansion) is incredibly challenging. Your journey across the Land of Shadow in pursuit of the mysterious Miquella will see you face seemingly minor creatures with the raw power of Elden Ring bosses. The game’s actual bosses, meanwhile, regularly turn their arenas into the kinds of death zones rarely seen outside of the bullet hell games that populate the smoky rooms of an Akihabara arcade. That is to say nothing of the countless traps, ambushes, pitfalls, and those times when you will find yourself hopelessly lost. 

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Developer FromSoftware has made a habit of reserving their toughest challenges for DLC expansions, and Shadow of the Erdtree may just be the most diabolical example of that tradition yet. There is no shame in finding the game difficult. That is a simple fact. If you previously found this style of FromSoftware game too challenging for you to enjoy, Shadow of the Erdtree will not change your mind. There’s nothing wrong with that, and many who do play this game will sometimes wonder if it veers a bit too close to being cheap. Hey, there are reasons why the game just got a balance update designed to make it slightly easier.

It seems telling, though, that the biggest thing some veteran players are complaining about is the game’s opening hours. See, it doesn’t really matter how powerful your base Elden Ring character is heading into the DLC. They will likely be destroyed by one of Shadow of the Erdtree’s first foes in just a few hits. Actually, those who pursued “overpowered” characters via Elden Ring’s New Game+ mode will find an ever tougher version of Shadow of the Erdtree waiting for them due to the way the DLC’s difficulty scaling system works. 

FromSoftware warned players it would be this way. They made it clear that players would need to use every trick at their disposal and hunt down new items called Scadutree Fragments just to survive the DLC’s challenges. Hilariously, Bandai Namco even tweeted out a reminder of that mechanic in response to the initial difficulty concerns. Any customer service representative who has ever spoken extra calmly to stealthy infuriate an entitled caller may draw more from that response than was likely intended. 

The people who seem to be most mad about all that are also those who expected to waltz into the DLC as walking gods who don’t need to use summons, power boosts, consumables, or any of the other tools they associate with “lesser” players. After spending years tying their personalities into their performance in these games, they expected Shadow of the Erdtree to treat them like VIPs. When they weren’t catered to, they asked to speak to the manager. 

It’s a fascinating reaction that reveals the fault in that often tribalistic difficulty debate. Though early Souls fans rightfully championed these titles when they were seen by many as masochistic novelties, some of them have clearly succumbed to the corruption of power that is so prominent in the narrative themes of these titles. Their joy in playing these games is often proportional to their ability to tell everyone else just how easy it was for them to do so. When the tables are turned and their backs are put against the wall, their reaction is not to overcome as they have professed to have done in the past but rather to cry out “unfair.” 

Those who have treated the difficulty of these games as a point of pride meant to be lorded over others have long belittled its true purpose. These games were never great because they were difficult; they are great because FromSoftware uses that difficulty as the basis for deeper design concepts that are often hard to find in other games.

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So far as that goes, Shadow of the Erdtree may just be their masterpiece. The relative necessity of seeking out those Scardutree upgrades (you can technically beat the game without them) doubles as a reminder that these games are meant to be explored rather than simply completed. That exploration reveals a collection of new weapons, quests, and locations that stand proudly among the very best creations from a studio that has rarely disappointed in any of those areas.

That said, Shadow of the Erdtree still relies a bit too much on repeated enemies relative to both itself and the base game. It’s less of an issue in terms of the game’s lesser enemies and more of a problem when it comes to its bosses. While Shadow of the Erdtree thankfully features fewer dungeons but a greater vareity of them, the team sadly didn’t utilize that philosophy for its various boss fights. The fights themselves are often well done, but that repetition doesn’t feel representative of the creativity of the rest of the experience.

Said creativity is on full display in the brilliant layout of the game’s world. It’s technically smaller than the base Elden Ring map, but it is far more “dense.” More importantly, it’s gated by fewer progression roadblocks than we saw in Elden Ring (and far fewer roadblocks than we see in most other open-world games). 

You’ll be amazed by how quickly you can technically reach the game’s final bosses or areas that seem impossible to get to at a glance. The trick is to remain constantly curious and trust in the game’s tendency to reward curiosity and punish boldness (and sometimes, the other way around) in relatively equal measure.

Whereas Elden Ring was rightfully praised for accommodating a variety of strategies that made most character builds viable and worthwhile in combat, Shadow of the Erdtree deserves as much praise for making a greater number of paths through its world viable and worthwhile.

A spiritual series once famous for encouraging you to bang your head against brick walls until they crumble continues to question the boundaries that have quietly made many video game open worlds more linear than they’d like you to realize they are. The result is a high fantasy world that shines in its art direction and narrative but is elevated by the underlying commitment to making every step in that world feel like the first step in a journey of a thousand miles.

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Shadow of the Erdtree is not perfect, nor is it perfectly balanced. What it is, though, is a DLC release to a blockbuster game that is rightfully treated as a blank check chance to grow, test boundaries, and explore new directions rather than as a way to justify some bloated pre-order season pass.

Money aside, the cost of such an experience is the same as it has ever been. An adventure without obstacles is hardly an adventure, and few modern studios have been as fearless in implementing obstacles as FromSoftware has. They’ve upped the ante in Shadow of the Erdtree, but these games have never been power fantasies. Not even veteran players get a pass based on what they’ve previously accomplished. 

Mind you, there’s nothing inherently wrong with power fantasy games that make us feel like deities. It’s just that there is a disproportionate number of them out there these days, especially on the Triple-A scene. At a time when companies like EA trivialize the concept of feeling a sense of accomplishment from uncovering and overcoming a game, titles like Elden Ring and Baldur’s Gate 3 have become blockbusters because their developers genuinely believe in the value of that idea. They ask a lot and they give more. They are, at the very least, the necessary counterpart to the modern power fantasy gaming experience. 

Funnily enough, I think the growing legions of fans who came to this spiritual series through Elden Ring may appreciate that concept better than the hardcore. They expect to die in these games. They’re not above turning to help wherever help may come from, and they’re less committed to the idea that they’ve already figured everything out and that anything that challenges their theories is an affront to their core beliefs. They may not 100% the game, but 100% of the enemies they beat, the items they find, and the discoveries they make will feel like the adventures and accomplishments they were always meant to be.

Elden Ring‘s creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki, has said that he doesn’t know whether he’d love to be able to “self-induce amnesia” to play and blindly enjoy his vision of the perfect game or if it would make him want to “break the controller.” I think a lot of players feel that way right now. Perhaps for all of us, there is a kind of comfort to be found in the idea that the game that constantly tests our limits was made by a team that still isn’t afraid of testing theirs.