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Elden Ring

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree is as sharp as we'd hoped

But the question is, is FromSoftware's boss design bordering on unfair?

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It's still pretty crazy that after the release of FromSoftware's mega-hit, Elden Ring, it took more than two years before we got the first and only expansion for the game. It's easy to imagine that some suits at the top have been pushing for FromSoftware to strike while the iron was hot and release new paid content as soon as possible for the game, which back in February this year had sold over 23 million copies. So why has it taken the developers so long to get an expansion ready? According to a Bandai Namco representative at a preview event I recently attended in Paris, the long development time is partly due to scale - Shadow of the Earth Tree is by far the biggest DLC FromSoftware has ever created - and the developers wanted to make sure it lived up to the beloved and critically acclaimed main game.

Based on the three hours I got to play the expansion, it certainly feels both huge and an excellent extension of the main game. Shadow of the Erdtree is more Elden Ring - for better or worse. For the vast majority, probably all good, but for those hoping for more direct (and dare I say "engaging"?) storytelling or a more accessible difficulty level, I have bad news. Shadow of the Erdtree is at least as obscure as the main game in its approach to storytelling, and The Land of Shadow, where the expansion takes place, is home to some of the most deadly opponents your Tarnished will face. There's a good reason why the expansion can only be accessed after the player has defeated both Starscourge Radahn and Mogh, Lord of Blood in the main game, and why From Software recommends you tackle it as one of the very last things you do in the game.

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It's a pretty ballsy move in itself, FromSoftware locking a huge and extremely hyped expansion behind one of the last and most challenging bosses in a game that already has a reputation for being extremely difficult. Say what you will about that decision, but it demonstrates that FromSoftware continues to refuse to compromise their vision of designing challenging content for their most loyal fans first and foremost, which I, as one of them, have great respect for. However, I have no doubt that some players will be sorely disappointed when they realise they don't meet the expansion's entry requirements or discover that they have accidentally deleted their save data in the two years since the main game's release.

But hopefully the vast majority have understood the entry requirements and prepared themselves accordingly, and for them, a brutal and bleak new area awaits, transported to by touching the withered arm sticking out of the pupa in Mogh's mausoleum. The Land of Shadow is, as the name suggests, a rather bleak area, darkened by what looks like giant curtains in the sky in front of the familiar Earth Tree. There are dead trees, cryptic NPCs trying to track down Malenia's brother Miquella, and not least grotesque monsters that can end your Tarnished with just a few blows.

FromSoftware had prepared three level 150 characters for the demo to choose from: a strength, dexterity or equal parts faith and intelligence orientated character. I chose the latter, not because I prefer magic (in this type of game I usually go with the biggest and heaviest weapon I can get my hands on), but because this character had access to the new martial arts weapons that we glimpsed in the gameplay trailer for the expansion and that the Bandai Namco representative named as his personal favourite.

So I start the demo as this MMA mage, riding across the plains of the Shadowlands on the back of our trusty Torrent. I scout for great castles and other landmarks on the horizon while enjoying FromSoftware's always mesmerising art direction. But the peace doesn't last long, because in the distance I spot the large, burning colossus we've seen in the trailers and I decide to ride towards it. As it spots me, it starts throwing fireballs at me, which I dodge relatively easily with the help of Torrent. I manage to ride into its waist, where I jump off Torrent and start hacking at its ankles. So far, so good, until it stomps into the ground, sending out a shockwave that kills me from full health. Oh well, that'll have to be another time.

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When I come back to life, I ride past the colossus and find myself at a crossroads. Bamco's representative had already briefed us that the road to the left leads to Belurat Castle, home of the lion boss we've seen in the trailers, while the road to the right leads to another castle called Ensis. It comes naturally to me to seek out Belurat, and according to the representative, it's also the easiest area to tackle first.

But before that, I dismount at a small camp of NPCs, including a formidable looking knight named Freya. They all talk cryptically about Miquella, and if I had any idea what it all meant, I would happily share it with you. It's also where I'm introduced to a new kind of collectible item that I've unfortunately forgotten the name of, but it's hard to miss. This is only found in The Land of Shadow and it increases your damage while reducing the amount of damage you receive. It's inspired by Sekiro's upgrade system and only has an effect on your character inside The Land of Shadow. As I said, my man was level 150, and based on the overall challenge of the demo, I think you'll need these upgrades unless you jump into the expansion as a high level character.

Belurat is a massive castle with a focus on vertical design that feels equal parts golden and dark and a bit oriental in its inspirations. The primary enemy here is a kind of spirit that struck me as slightly uninspiring in design, but is offset by a creepy cross between scorpions and spiders, mini versions of the "Death Rite Birds" from the main game, and not least a terrible new type of Omen knight that seems to attack incessantly with its two one-handed swords, has endless amounts of poise, and of course kills you in two or three hits.

I myself attack with fists and flying kicks that look like something straight out of Sekiro. It feels great and does a surprising amount of damage, but has terrible range. I also have a handful of new spells at my disposal, including a new "roar" type where I roar through a bear head and gradually build up damage to all surrounding enemies. Another favourite is a new sorcery spell that allows me to flash into and out of enemies at lightning speed, which I imagine will be quite toxic in PvP.

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Several of us soon realise that banging our heads against the wall at a few enemies that don't count as real bosses is not the best use of our time, so we start running and rolling our way frantically through the castle. With an army of enemies at our heels, we find a Site of Grace by a golden wall at the top of the castle, and it is here that the lion boss is located.

With limited time on my hands, I'm not ashamed to call for help, so I ring the bell and get a new spirit ash knight named Andreas to assist me in the fight. But even with his help, I'm repeatedly beaten by the lion, who dances around the arena, clawing, biting, spitting and causing thunder and snowstorms. And I'm clearly not the only one - all around the screens there are sighs, groans, curses and cries of "noooo!" when you get close to beating the boss and then fuck up.

To see as much of the demo as possible, I teleport away and head to Ensis Castle. As far as I can tell, unlike Belurat, this is not a new legacy dungeon, but rather a medium-sized dungeon that bridges two areas. It's Carian-themed and taken to extremes - teleporting mages, knights with colossal magic hammers and a Carian Knight NPC with a two-handed sword that will finish you off in basically a single blow.

It's also here that I realise my backpack is full of other new and maximally upgraded weapons. A few favourites include a bear claw that allows me to play as Wolverine, a golden halberd that has the terrible Crucible Knights' air attacks as weapon art, and a great katana whose weapon art is more or less Sekiro's ichimonji three times in a row. But even with these powerful weapons at my disposal and the knight Andreas at my back, I fall short against the castle's boss - a towering woman in knight armour who swings two swords mercilessly, fires one magical projectile after another, and in the second phase of the battle enchants her weapons and summons falling comets whose shockwaves you can only avoid by jumping. Although I get scarily close, I unfortunately don't manage to defeat her, but I share in the joy of my team-mate who manages to do so, and who is subsequently told by a representative that he is not allowed to proceed.

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Before time runs out, I also get to see a bit of a mini-dungeon. Yes, catacombs and similar side content are back, but based on what I saw here, it's my impression that there's more soul and creativity put into them this time around. This particular mini-dungeon featured some platforming and had a strong Bloodborne vibe to it. I won't reveal in what way, but I can tell you that it has to do with the so-called "Living Jars" a la Alexander from the main game.

I left the Parisian church eager to get my hands on the entire expansion. In keeping with FromSoftware's DLC tradition, it looks like we're getting top-notch level design, art direction and enemy design, as well as cool and creative new weapons and spells that will give the main game even more replay value. My only concern is the bosses. I already thought the last third of Elden Ring came close to crossing the line of fair boss design, and based on the two bosses I saw here (which are definitely not the hardest in the expansion), it seems that From Software is going even more all in on designing merciless bosses with unlimited mobility, massive damage and uninterrupted attack patterns. But I'm up for the challenge, and my own level 150 frost knight is camped out in front of the pupa in Mogh's mausoleum, ready to explore every corner of The Land of Shadow later this month.

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