Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree's NPCs are one of the few flaws in FromSoftware's RPG diamond

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Hornsent
(Image credit: FromSoftware, Bandai Namco)

FromSoftware's unusual approach of NPCs and their accompanying quests is one of the most significant ways its games diverge from roleplaying tradition. These tragic characters talk in riddles and fragments, slowly spinning their poetic tales in a way that makes you work for every sentence. They are as enigmatic as the games in which they reside, eschewing the kind of verboseness and exposition normally so typical of their function.

With Elden Ring, FromSoftware crafted a bounty of new NPCs, peppering them throughout the Lands Between. Compared to its predecessors, it's positively bustling. Their storylines and quests intermingle and are woven throughout the meaty adventure, offering countless diversions and mysteries. But, especially if you're new to the studio's penchant for vagueness, you could be forgiven for not even realising that each of them is the source of a quest with myriad rewards, from precious snippets of lore to powerful additions to your arsenal.

(Image credit: FromSoftware)

I confess I generally prefer the full-fat NPC experience of games like Baldur's Gate 3 or Mass Effect—games rich in chatty companions and fleshed-out characters. This would not suit a FromSoftware game, of course, and one of the reasons why I keep coming back to them, even after countless bruisings, is how committed the studio is to its vision, how every feature and every NPC exists in service to and in lockstep with its dark and unfriendly worlds.

Playing Shadow of the Erdtree, though, I mostly just found myself frustrated. Despite functioning in much the same way as their predecessors, Shadow of the Erdtree is not Elden Ring, and instead of allowing me to follow these character's fascinating storylines, I ended up locked out of them because the expansion's structure is at odds with its NPCs' more linear journeys.

When travelling through the Lands Between, you're gently guided through every region by the sites of grace, and for the most part you have to pass through each of them in a specific order. In the Land of Shadow, however, few sites of grace point you towards a destination, and the world itself draws you in all different directions, so you might intend to explore the eastern portion of the map, but instead end up on a long and winding adventure that deposits you on its southern tip. 

Fleeting friendships

(Image credit: FromSoftware)
Shadow of the Erdtree guides

Elden Ring Shadow of the Erdtree trailer screencap of a red haired character holding fire in their hand

(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

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
Ansbach quest: Help the former servant of Mohg
Hornsent quest: Complete the quest for vengeance

Every second I've spent exploring the expansion has been memorable and full of the dark joys only FromSoftware is capable of eliciting. This is, perhaps, the greatest of all open worlds—full and rich and loaded with so many secrets, but absolutely not bloated. It knows when to overwhelm, but also when to hold back. Unfortunately, my freewheeling adventures have come at a cost, locking me out of a variety of NPC quests seemingly just because I didn't follow a specific, completely invisible sequence. 

See, while Elden Ring's NPCs can be found everywhere, most of Erdtree's are introduced in the first region, and from there they start to go off on their own linear adventures. There is no Land of Shadow version of Roundtable Hold; no kind of hub that allows you to keep track of at least some of them. I've been unable to find one of my NPC buddies since our first meeting, due to an event that simply happens when you reach a certain area, and which doesn't indicate that it has any impact on NPCs. He's connected to another NPC who I haven't even met once, and probably never will, since I did not perform a task for him before a specific point, instead barrelling off in another direction. And I seem to have hit a roadblock in another NPC's quest thanks to, well, I have no idea—it could be any number of things. 

The system has gone from seductively mysterious to simply obtuse. While Elden Ring also makes it so you can be locked out of quests, it gives you a lot more leeway. Changing the state of an NPC or the world itself also usually requires explicit actions. And there are a lot more NPCs. So many, in fact, that you shouldn't expect to do everything in one playthrough. But Erdtree is smaller and nowhere near as busy, so any missed opportunities sting so much more. 

(Image credit: FromSoftware)

What's particularly frustrating is the implication that I've been playing it the wrong way, somehow; that treating it like an exciting but meandering adventure is suboptimal, regardless of how much it encourages you to do exactly this. It creates an unpleasant friction, and now when I veer off what I assume is the critical path, I find myself feeling uneasy, fretting that I am once again going to be hampering myself just because I'm compelled to explore. 

I won't stop, though. Even if I miss out on NPC storylines, I gain a lot more by letting my feet guide me rather than a list of objectives that must be completed in the right order at the right time. If that means making fewer friends, then so be it. At least I'll always have Torrent. 

Fraser Brown
Online Editor

Fraser is the UK online editor and has actually met The Internet in person. With over a decade of experience, he's been around the block a few times, serving as a freelancer, news editor and prolific reviewer. Strategy games have been a 30-year-long obsession, from tiny RTSs to sprawling political sims, and he never turns down the chance to rave about Total War or Crusader Kings. He's also been known to set up shop in the latest MMO and likes to wind down with an endlessly deep, systemic RPG. These days, when he's not editing, he can usually be found writing features that are 1,000 words too long or talking about his dog.