Shadow of the Erdtree shows that modern FromSoft's concept of 'a challenge' relies too heavily on boss fights

Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree dragon boss named Bayle the Dread summoning lightning from the sky in a red and black arena
(Image credit: The Good General / FromSoftware)

It took me 10 hours in the Land of Shadow before I begrudgingly faced the Dancing Lion. That 10 hours was spent exploring the new world as thoroughly as I could, finding all but one map fragment, diving shallowly into various dungeons, and feeling that unique joy that comes with exploring a FromSoft world for the first time. The magnitude of the panorama seen after beating Rellana was lost on me, because I had already discovered that part of the world in reverse. Elsewhere, I had already explored most of Shadow Keep before hitting the back door of the Golden Hippopotamus. If we're to take Elden Ring's bosses as the main course—which I think increasingly they are—then I had basically nibbled around the chocolate chips of the cookie.

Those first 10 hours were the most absorbing 10 hours I've spent with any game this year. By that time I had my scadutree blessing level up to eight, and I had respecced away from a shoddily constructed mage into one of those famously OP blood builds that some true Elden Ring heads look upon with derision. I was having fun. The Land of Shadow is stunning; it's one of those game worlds I can barely believe exists. It may be a cliché to make this comparison, but it really does look like a fantasy paperback cover brought to life. I can't imagine a fantasy game ever looking more inviting than this. 

Then I had to start beating the bosses. Let me be clear: I don't have a problem with Shadow of the Erdtree's difficulty and I find the conversation around it tiring. I agree with Miyazaki when he says that overcoming insurmountable challenges is a huge part of the appeal of his games. But as I entered the yellow mist for my umpteenth attempt at the Dancing Lion, I wasn't feeling challenged: I was feeling bored. I was rolling my eyes. I wondered whether FromSoft has come to rely too heavily on bosses. Can we imagine a FromSoft game with fewer bosses or, dare I say, none at all? 

This is the thing I've been doing in From games since 2011, only the bosses nowadays are blindingly fast and I'm 13 years older.

Grandiose fights against breathtaking foes is a core part of the Soulslike identity, but it's increasingly the weakest link for me. Shadow of the Erdtree brought that into stark relief. Moment-to-moment exploration is an exquisite balance of meditative travel and unutterable stress. Bolting down the Cerulean Coast Torrent-top gave me shivers, and stumbling across the barren Shaman Village was brilliantly perplexing. The giant finger monster jump scares rival any survival horror I've played. Exploring the gaols, slowly penetrating the dungeons, picking away at ruins for lost treasures… this is one of the few games that capture my attention so thoroughly that I won't even pick up my phone. The landscape unfolds so artfully, weaves around and into itself so elegantly: no one makes worlds like FromSoft.

Elden Ring character in Drake Knight armor gesturing in front of Gravesite Plain in Shadow of the Erdtree

(Image credit: FromSoftware)

But it all falls apart with the bosses. Each is a battle of attrition, each requires careful attention to movesets, each has me diving into my inventory for suitable talismans and items. This is the thing I've been doing in From games since 2011, only the bosses nowadays are blindingly fast and I'm 13 years older. I'm not really impressed by the balletic splendour of Messmer: it just makes me sigh and reminds me I need to clean the chicken pen. As for that wretched dancing lion, imagine if I could stay alive long enough to learn its moves. (I summoned, of course: you're a masochist if you don't. Use the game's systems).

It's not the fact that the bosses are super challenging that bothers me, though. It's a) that there are so many of them and b) that the rest of the game is a cakewalk by comparison. This is a weird imbalance that I think has gone unremarked in the discourse around SOTE's difficulty. It wasn't always this way. In SOTE there is no equivalent to, say, Dark Souls' Blighttown, where one's navigation could be thwarted at any moment by poison arrow-shooting undead. Nor anything that comes close to Dark Souls 2's Shrine of Amana, which required even the most confident and blustering player to slow the heck down (that area is famously hated because some players refuse to take the area on its own terms, which are: slow the heck down). Remember when Dark Souls placed those horrible basilisks in the Depths that could halve your health bar until you jumped through many cryptic hoops? That's the shit I'm talking about. I love that. That instils tension and fear. Another giant muscle memory challenge does not. (Also, are you kidding? A golden hippopotamus?) 

There are tough areas in Shadow of the Erdtree, but with the exception of one well-hidden locale—which is an overall highlight of the game in my opinion—you can usually just Torrent away from any stress. The dungeons and gaols are meant to offset this, offering a return to the zen-like, slowly-slowly approach that FromSoft does best, forcing me to check every corner and ceiling twice. But in SOTE they're a little rote, a little predictable, and as a result, not much of a challenge. That is, until you get to the boss at the end, who can one-shot you before you can lock on. The same holds true for the Shadow Keep. While gorgeous, moving through it won't alarm anyone who's played base Elden Ring let alone all the other Soulslikes. The boss at the end, though? We hope you have days to spare.

My contention: FromSoft's approach to challenging design nowadays relies too heavily on increasingly relentless boss fights. If it weren't for them, Shadow of the Erdtree would flounder in the difficulty stakes. Fewer bosses, and more exquisitely cruel ways of applying tension to exploration and dungeon-crawling is what I want. 


Erdtree map fragments: Uncover the Land of Shadow

Scadutree fragments: How to level up in Erdtree

Erdtree bosses: A full hit list for the DLC

Leda quest: Track the Erdtree main quest

Sir Ansbach quest: Help the former servant of Mohg

Hornsent quest: Complete the quest for vengeance

Shaun Prescott

Shaun Prescott is the Australian editor of PC Gamer. With over ten years experience covering the games industry, his work has appeared on GamesRadar+, TechRadar, The Guardian, PLAY Magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald, and more. Specific interests include indie games, obscure Metroidvanias, speedrunning, experimental games and FPSs. He thinks Lulu by Metallica and Lou Reed is an all-time classic that will receive its due critical reappraisal one day.