Even Elden Ring’s game director knows Erdtree is too hard

As I work my way through Shadow of the Erdtree, the new DLC for Elden Ring, I can’t help but think that game director Hidetaka Miyazaki is trolling the shit outta me.

Speaking with him at Summer Game Fest two weeks ago, Miyazaki said that Erdtree is “by far the biggest in scale in volume” than any other FromSoftware DLC before it. But he also said Erdtree is “about the same volume as the Limgrave part of the base game,” the starting area of Elden Ring, containing “slightly more content.” 

I don’t buy it. While it’s impossible to accurately compare scale in game, I’ve played the game for 30 hours and have already found the new areas in the DLC to be more expansive than Limgrave. Not only is the map itself large, it’s layered, with huge areas propped up on plateaus above, in deep valleys below, and on islands that take some creative platforming to reach.

I’d say it’s far, far larger than Limgrave, with plenty more to do as well. Shadow of the Erdtree honestly feels like it’s big enough to be its own game with its own story — one that was originally intended for Elden Ring but wound up being cut for time before being added back as DLC content.

Erdtree follows the story arc of Miquella, brother of uber boss Malenia and one of the demigods important to Elden Ring lore. To focus on Miquella was, Miyazaki told me, born of the desire to honor George R. R. Martin’s contributions to the game. “[He] gave us all this great mythology to work with,” Miyazaki said. Packaging Miquella’s story as a standalone DLC was essentially “closing the loop” on Martin’s involvement in the game. “It’s really about completing Elden Ring’s circle,” he said.

But understating the size of Shadow of the Erdtree is just one of the ways it feels like Miyazaki is misleading me. I know he’s trolling me when it comes to difficulty.

I cannot beat Rellana, Twin Moon Knight, the boss ensconced in Castle Enis that players can face five or 50 hours in depending on their exploration choices. (I met her after about 15.) None of my strategies nor any of the game’s built in assistance features — using Mimic Tear Ashes, summoning help from an NPC, changing my weapons or spells, inflicting damaging status effects — seem to work. My best attempt got her down to half of her health and I cannot seem to progress further. And she’s only major boss number two.

According to Miyazaki, this is by design. He said that Erdtree contains “10 plus boss encounters” — honestly, another hilariously absurd understatement, I’ve seen estimates of 55 bosses and up to 80. Thankfully only a small handful of those bosses are necessary to progress the story, while the rest are optional.

“And the ones that [are optional] are especially difficult,” Miyazaki said.

Whenever a new FromSoftware game releases, there’s nearly always a discussion of difficulty. With the DLC, other reviewers have suggested that its difficulty is too extreme. “It’s true that this distinct type of FromSoft-engineered frustration is an indispensable part of the Souls experience,” wrote Alexis Ong in Eurogamer. “This, however, feels like difficulty for difficulty’s sake, turned up to eleven.”

I agree. But while I think Shadow of the Erdtree could better straddle the line between pleasantly challenging and frustratingly impossible, the game was tuned to Miyazaki’s intentions, representing the lessons the development team learned from the original game’s feedback.

“Traditionally we’ve always liked the higher difficulty curve type of games and experiences, but I think that nature in and of itself alienates a good portion of the game playing audience,” he said. 

A contradictory thing to say considering his comments in a recent interview with The Guardian: “If we really wanted the whole world to play the game, we could just crank the difficulty down more and more, but that wasn’t the right approach. Turning down difficulty would strip the game of that joy, which, in my eyes, would break the game itself.”

He’s not wrong. Elden Ring ceases to be the game of the year it was if it lacks the kind of difficulty FromSoftware is known for. So Erdtree must be hard, but not so hard that it’ll turn players off. But it also can’t be too easy because that will break the game. What to do? The answer, according to Miyazaki, is freedom.

“The amount of freedom that we give players helps offset that difficulty curve and makes the game more accessible and engaging,” he told me.

I think that worked for Elden Ring, less so for this DLC. In the base game, difficulty could be circumvented with leveling up — the player freedom, as it were. But with the addition of the new DLC-exclusive consumables that increase your attack and defense, becoming more powerful is now dependent on your ability to find those scarce items. As a result, I’ve often found myself fearful of the simplest enemies as encountering more than one at a time will kill me outright. 

“I try to imagine different ways I would want to die as a player or be killed.”

In addition to ensuring that players die a lot, Miyazaki also said that how players die is just as important.

“I try to imagine different ways I would want to die as a player or be killed,” he said, explaining that those thoughts manifested in Elden Ring and in other FromSoftware games as his signature poison swamps. But for Erdtree, he confessed to cutting back on that indulgence — “In the original Elden Ring, I went a little too far.”

There are still poison swamps in Erdtree, “but in other parts of gameplay, there are still many ways to die.”

One of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s signature poison swamps in Shadow of the Erdtree.
Image: FromSoftware / Ash Parrish

Too many it seems. I’ve been bludgeoned, exsanguinated, frostbitten, and burned. I’ve fallen off cliffs, had cliffs fall on me — beware the fiery rocks the Furnace Golems spew — and I’ve even accidentally killed myself eating an item that refilled my HP while also inflicting poison. 

Despite my tribulations, Miyazaki, like a benevolent god, has faith in me and his players, only giving us trials he believes we can bear.

“We’ve really pushed the envelope in terms of what we think can be withstood by the player,” Miyazaki said. 

He clarified that one of the biggest lessons brought forward from Elden Ring into Erdtree was what the audience found fun over what was stressful. “ We tried to make that the foundation of the boss encounters of the DLC, so hopefully players will find it much more engaging and fun,” he said.

“But if that is not the case,” he added. “Then I’m sorry.”

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