Elder Scrolls: Blades - A Golden Goose with a Lead Dollar Bill Round Its Neck
As we continue the slow, excruciating wait for Elder Scrolls 6 it’s easy to feel like Bethesda have left us out on a limb when it comes to our desperation to delve back into Tamriel. That is, of course, if you forget the very accessible and captivating Elder Scrolls Legends CCG, and, perhaps more evident, The Elder Scrolls Online; the latter of which is about to drop its newest expansion into the Khajit homeland of Elsweyr. If for some reason all that isn’t tickling your biscuit, Elder Scrolls: Blades has now entered Early Access and is available to part of the player base that have signed up for it.
Announced at E3 in 2018, and originally scheduled for a pre-Christmas 2018 release, Elder Scrolls Blades brings the magic of The Elder Scrolls into the palm of your hand. The premise is that you are a member of the Blades, the Emperor’s elite bodyguard that have been forced into exile. Your character has returned home after the Blades have been dissolved only to find that wrong ‘uns have burned it to the ground, and we can’t have that now, can we? After a brief preamble and a few introductory missions, you’re presented with the three modes of Blades; Town, Abyss, and Arena.
Town is the mode you’ll probably end up spending the most time in, with a central hub that can be rebuilt and upgraded through rewards earned in quests. Early on, I was given a quest to rebuild the blacksmith’s forge so I could then purchase weapons and armour to help me on my adventure. As you progress through the game, you’ll have the opportunity to build houses to increase your population, an alchemist lab, an enchanting tower to unlock more vendors and there’s an upgrade system for the entire settlement to further your prestige and unlock better gear. Exploring around you’ll find NPCs to give you quests and a job board that’ll provide you with daily activities that will eat away hours of your day. The Town as a central hub for all your activities is a nice touch, all too often in mobile games my home feels like the options menu before I dive into yet another mindless map. Prestige will eventually unlock more construction options for your town, so there’s a scale for long term investment in the game.
The Abyss mode is a rogue-like arcade mode of an endless dungeon that gets harder the further you descend into it. It’s not open right at the start of the game but once it gets going it’s a fun challenge mode with some well-designed, varied environments and enemies that will remind the player of dungeon locations in previous Elder Scrolls games. Arena currently isn’t available in Early Access, but seems to be an interesting mode of play provided your data connection remains strong and stable.
Blades takes a slightly different approach to quests than the main line of Elder Scrolls games. Since Arena, Tamriel has been provided to us as an open world feast to gorge ourselves on. Blades takes a different approach with each quest being launched from your quest journal; there’s no open world roaming here. The player is dropped into a somewhat linear environment with a clear end goal. You could be trawling through dungeons fighting goblins or battling spriggans to rescue the local lumberers. The missions aren’t terribly varied, this is a mobile game after all, but the different environments as well as the variation in enemies and their abilities is another welcome change from the dingy top down rogue likes that have plagued the RPG genre on mobile.
The combat and movement require a little bit of coordination between your two hands as you play. To move you tap the ground to where you want to go, and to look in any direction just drag your finger across the screen. Moving the camera can be a little finicky at first as it’s sensitivity can be generously described as ‘varied’, and you’ll spend the first hour spinning in circles, looking at the ground or accidentally wandering into some scenery that can be troublesome to extricate yourself from. Combat plays out statically. Your enemy appears in front of you, then you hold down the attack indicator on screen and then release when it turns gold to inflict damage. Enemies won’t just stand there and take it; their animation cycle means that you can miss even if the indicator is right on top of them and some will even block your attacks with shields. The shield mechanic is implemented soundly, reducing incoming damage by holding down the icon.
As with any Elder Scrolls game there are several ways you can play. As Blades is a mobile game, it’s a little more restricted with three basic skills trees; Spells, Perks, and Abilities. Spells and Abilities draw from your magicka and stamina pool respectively and actions can be purchased with skill points during the level up process. Each unlocked ability takes it’s place on your screen and can be cast or used with a quick tap that drains the pool but for some reason also seems to have an internal cool down to prevent skill spamming. It’s a minor annoyance to put something in like that, but it’s forgiven by the icon that appears when your resource pool is getting low to auto-drink a potion from your inventory.
Blades is full of little quality of life touches. From the menu you can automatically see your attack and armour rating, your gold, experience level, free inventory space and more. It’s so refreshing to find the development has thought “Right, you’re on a small screen and you need as much information to hand as possible”. Menus are easily navigable; skill trees and the inventory are both colourful and intuitive to use and build your character. The quest, job and challenge diaries are simple yet effective (we’ve come a long way from Morrowind’s snake pit of random journal entries) and the overall aesthetic is Elder Scrolls. For long time fans, Blades feels like a condensed version of Oblivion in places, the menus especially, and the somewhat old school but familiar combat system that hasn’t aged particularly well on PC but when transferred to a touch screen is surprisingly fluid.
Perhaps one of the biggest USPs for Blades was that it could be played both landscape and portrait on your mobile device. Despite my initial misgivings about having a portrait window into the world, it works surprisingly well and true to the Bethesda spiel playing with a single hand becomes relatively easy with a little practice. If you’re playing on an iPad or Android tablet landscape will probably be the best option but for those of us on the morning commute having a game in portrait mode is one of those things that’ll make you wonder “Why aren’t they all doing this?”
So, let’s talk about the daedroth in room. The spicy microtransactions. There’s a second currency aside from gold in game, little shiny green gems. These act as the game’s microtransaction currency. You’ll get a smattering of these gems as you play the game, but never enough to do anything with, which seems to be the standard for mobile games. Blades will every now and again drop you a chest in a quest or as a reward. When you first start the game, you can open them straight away but as the game and quality of the chests progress you will need to use the in-game currency to unlock them or wait for a timer to count down so you can open them for free.. So continues the cycle of aggressive microtransactions in game. This is strange because while The Elder Scrolls Online store’s Crown system is wallet-tighteningly expensive I never found Fallout Shelter, Bethesda’s other mobile game, to be unfair on bang for your buck with the lunch boxes (the equivalent of chests).
What perhaps is most exasperating is that these chests are found as secrets, mission rewards and just hanging around in dungeons, yet you need the microtransaction currency to access the rewards that the game gives you. It doesn’t help that the storage you have for these is pitifully small, but it’s okay because you can buy increased storage with more gems!
So, the currency to unlock chests is a total waste of time. However, the actual store itself goes from a waste of time to a total kick in the balls. Pay to win is alive and well in Blades, with the highest tier chests promising at least one legendary item along with a smattering of rarer and epic loot as well. Added to this, you can buy individual legendary artifacts for around £10 of in game money that really become tempting when the game makes a punishing difficulty leap relatively early on. The cosmetic ‘specials’ that appear as decorations for your town instance almost seem like an afterthought and certainly don’t feel like they’re the focus of the store.
Elder Scrolls Blades has the potential to be a leading light in the mobile game sector. As someone who despises mobile games with a passion, Blades has provided the exception to the rule and created a gorgeous and immersive little pocket of Tamriel that keeps me coming back for more. There’s enough charm, grind and shine to keep a casual player invested in Town Mode, while Abyss will keep dungeons delvers happy forever and provided Arena is stable there’s potential for a vibrant PvP scene. It’s just a shame this golden goose has a lead weight in the shape of a dollar bill around its neck.
SCORE: 7.5 / 10
- Looks great
- Elder Scrolls!
- Fun combat
- Grind incentive is appealing
- Microtransactions provide a pay-to-win option
- Quest rewards are locked behind microtransactions
- Movement & combat can be tricky to get used to
- Will eat your battery
Elder Scrolls Blades will be available in 2019 on iOS, Android and Microsoft Windows.