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The RPG Files: Finding the RPG in Elder Scrolls Legends

By Christopher Coke on July 29, 2016 | Columns | Comments

Finding the RPG in Elder Scrolls Legends

The NDA for The Elder Scrolls Legends has officially dropped, which means we can finally share our thoughts. So far on the site, we’ve had an excellent preview article and video preview from Mike Bitton and TheHiveLeader. Today, I’m going to look at the game from an RPG player’s perspective and see what the game offers to Elder Scrolls fans who may not be sold on the CCG concept -- or, dare I suggest it, see the game as a Hearthstone clone.

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I say that with a tongue firmly planted in my cheek. With all respect to Bethesda, it would be hard to see The Elder Scrolls Legends as anything more than a cash-in on the Hearthstone craze before you’ve played it for yourself. At first blush, the games look incredibly similar, and with Hearthstone already a mainstay in so many player’s gaming rotations, why bother with a reskin of a game you already own? That was exactly what I thought when the game was announced at E3. It registered as the merest blip on my radar, and I promptly forgot about it until I was offered the chance to try it for myself. After spending the week diving into single player, I can tell you that this is far more than a reskin.

Bethesda does a lot of clever things with TESL, but one of the biggest is keeping its surface darn close to Hearthstone. It’s a double-edged sword because, yes, the game looks and feels a lot like Blizzard’s CCG for most of the first two hours, but when it opens up, you start to realize Legends’ deeper potential. In this case, having similar mechanics acts as the perfect stepping stone to get players into the game with an easy learning curve, even while it simultaneously may keep some from trying it.

But I didn’t know any of this or much at all about the game before this week. What convinced me to try it was the opportunity to write about the game’s RPG features and PvE. Wait, what?

Sure enough, Elder Scrolls Legends has a complete campaign that allows you to play as your own character. When you first begin, you’ll choose from one of the ten classic Elder Scrolls races, each with their own racial bonus allowing them to collect certain types of cards faster (Imperials get cards that help them build armies, Dark Elves that draw power from fallen creatures, Redguards get more weapon cards, etc). There is no character creator, but you can choose one of two portraits for each sex and select a character name.

From there you experience your first cutscene, where a narrator explains how the Aldmeri Dominion has taken over the Imperial City and how a lone hero changes the world (that would be you). These cutscenes are told like a campfire story but the individual missions throw you into each scene in card-based battles. The whole experience is fully voiced, and as you play characters pipe up and talk to one another making these matches feel much more like scenes in a story than isolated card games. Even though the first act is dedicated to learning the game’s systems, it was still a solid introduction to the story, and never fell into the bland monotony of most video game tutorials.

The game also allows you to make choices at many different points in the story. Do you execute the enemy or let him live? Do you take in the wolf puppy or send him away? Your choices reward you with new cards for your deck themed after your decision. Likewise, as you encounter new factions, you acquire their decks, indicating that they’ve come alongside you, and giving you a step-up into the competitive game later on.

Since the experience is wound in The Elder Scrolls’ RPG trappings, I found it incredibly easy to imagine RPG battles playing out, even as I assessed my lanes and laid down cards. Without being an RPG, it still struck the same chord as the battles in those old SNES and PSOne classics.

As the story continues, it does fall off the RPG wavelength a bit, as story beats become very clear excuses for yet another immediate battle. Even still, I appreciated that I could experience a story in the Elder Scrolls universe this way. Legends dedicates a solid 2-3 hours to a story campaign, which is short, but that it is included at all is admirable in this market.

The game also features a prominent attribute and class system. Mike does a good job of explaining this in some depth, but in essence, “attribute” refers to a color code system for cards/decks. Agility, Endurance, Intelligence, Strength, and Willpower all correlate to cards with particular strengths. Agility cards focus on movement and speed. Intelligence focuses on magic and causing chaos. Willpower allows you to summon many small creatures. Within your deck, you can combine two attributes to form one of ten classes, or just focus on one (but no more than two).

It’s cool and novel to think about playing a certain “class” in a CCG, but in essence, titles are just shorthand. If you see an Assassin, you know he’s using an Agility (Green) and Intelligence (Blue) deck, a Crusader, Stength (Red) and Willpower (Yellow). It’s a concession to playability but also an acknowledgement of the type of game Legends is grounded in and the mindset Bethesda wants players to have as they play.

There is much more to the game, enough to fill several columns, but since we discuss RPGs here, we’ll stop there. My wider spanning colleagues can fill you in on the rest. I’ll leave you with this, as a player who enjoyed Hearthstone, Elder Scrolls Legends resonates with me as an RPG fan far more than Hearthstone ever did. I appreciate the RPG-trapped story. I enjoy all of the terms it uses that make it feel connected to the roleplaying games. I like that versus matches load with blurbs of lore, and I like that, when the time comes, I can compete in the arena against AI and still earn rewards. It works, and it has me wanting more.

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.