As Friday approaches, there is an electric anticipation in the gaming world.

Last month, the Weeknd said he chose “Elden Ring” to prepare for a new chapter. He was speaking today with the world’s most subscribed Twitch streamer, Kai Cenat, whose recent 200-hour Elden Ring marathon helped fuel that flame. Travis Scott is also developing his own image.

Everyone is gearing up for the summer gaming event Shadow of the Erdtree, the final chapter of Elden Ring, which launches on PlayStation 5, Xbox and PC on Friday. And like the 2022 release, which sold 25 million copies, it’s once again bigger than you’d expect.

The Elden Ring told the story of the Lands Between, a world torn apart by the warring demigod children of its god Marika. One child, Miquella Kind, cursed with eternal youth, was absent from the original game, but she left traces and clues everywhere. Erdtree is mostly a mystery story: what is the true nature of the world Miquella is escaping from, and what is she doing there?

The answers are terrifying, magical, and incredibly hard to find. Game director Hidetaka Miyazaki, who wrote the story with “Game of Thrones” author George RR Martin, interviews that the world of this new chapter, the Shadowlands, is the size of Limgrave, the starting region of the original game. He is a liar. Shadow of the Erdtree feels 75 percent the size of Elden Ring, which is already larger than most games. Developer FromSoftware basically continued.

The small size of the world means a more careful world design than the original game, with regions that follow one another and branch off from each other, much like the classic dungeon design philosophy of Dark Souls that spans continents. It’s the biggest improvement from the original game, which was so big that it often felt tedious. In this new world, I thought I had a good understanding of its geography, its most important places, and the places I should go. I was very wrong. The world continued to develop itself like origami, revealing new regions unseen in the landscape. As I was sightseeing, each new area often left me frozen in awe. Some of these areas are scary, while others are awe-inspiring.

The dungeons, like the original game, are a highlight. In particular, the castle that first appears on the horizon called Shadow Keep is one of the best, most complex dungeons FromSoftware has ever created. It feels like an evolution of the best Zelda temples, with multiple exits and places that connect as gateways to other areas. It is a work of architectural genius.

Make no mistake, this is more of an “Elden Ring”. If that enormous experience has left you exhausted or turned away, here is something bigger, more exhausting, and even more difficult. I entered this world as a Level 713 character, the maximum power level achieved over two years and hundreds of hours. The first enemy I fought was a man wearing nothing but his underwear. I hit him with my strongest attack and he barely dodged. He punched me twice (hand to hand is just one of the eight new weapon types) and I died. “Shadow of the Erdtree” features its own unique leveling system, forcing players to find fragments that apply a flat percentage buff to your damage and damage negation. Finding these fragments will become a key part of your journey, as survival without them seems impossible.

The mood of the original game was a post-apocalyptic world with wizards and dragons. Miyazaki’s adventures often fail. But the Shadow Country’s ominous name belies its true nature as a thriving world teeming with life. After years of bleak landscapes littered with dead trees and rotting corpses, these beautiful but hard-to-find regions feel as restorative as finally taking a hot bath after ten years of trekking through mud and mountains.

So is the mystery story good? It’s attractive, but only if you can find it. Miyazaki tells his stories through deliberate play and a patchwork of broken thoughts and ideas fed to the audience. It was inspired by his early years of trying to read fantasy books like The Lord of the Rings with a limited understanding of the English language – which made the stories seem more interesting and mysterious to him – and he tries to recreate them through this creative exercise. Video games.

Hints at the truth behind the actions and motivations of the kind Miquella are scattered throughout the original game, but in Erdtree it’s the main focus. It is told through the lens of seven devoted devotees of Miquella, each with their own specialty and history. I found them all over the Shadowland, but there were a lot of parallel stories, and “Erdtree” is a more difficult story than “Elden Ring”. Martin introduced the history and lore of the games, which gave a solid structure to follow in “Elden Ring.” Most of the story here is about hidden passages, obscure puzzles, and cryptic clues.

Somehow, despite this detached nature, I was still amazed by what I discovered. But I note the word tiring often because The Elden Ring demands so much of its audience, whether it’s the skill required, the mental acuity to handle the challenges, or the literary sensibility to understand the non-linear narrative logic. Some of the most important areas of the game to understand the story are hidden in dark passages and require a keen eye and good spatial awareness. I had to ask my colleagues at gaming news site IGN and YouTube creator Fighting cowboy to find these places. Maybe it’s a good thing that big and complex games like Elden Ring are rare. If Miyazaki’s games are special moments in time, and indeed they are, it’s a good thing we’re not trapped in it like the immortal souls of Shadowland.

“The Shadow of the Erdtree” offers terrifying and unexpected answers to 2022’s biggest mysteries. This is a huge result of what many believe to be the greatest video game of the 2020s. Many parts of it exceed the quality of the main game. It’s more of an “Elden Ring” that defies expectations.