Just under twelve hours before the official launch, I received access to the English localization of Skyrim’s most impressive mod, Enderal: The Shards of Order. Enderal is more than your average mod; it’s what is referred to as a TCM, or Total Conversion Mod. In essence, what the small 12-person team at SureAI has done is create a whole new game on the back of Skyrim. The results are astounding.
To get this out of the way first, it’s early days for me with Enderal. I’ve put a good amount of hours in, but this is a full-fledged RPG, and one the developers estimate featuring 30-100 hours of playtime. That’s a wide span, but as anyone who has played vanilla Skyrim knows, it’s not unusual. So consider this a first impressions piece with more to come down the line.
Before discovering Enderal, I had never played a true Total Conversion Mod before, and my experiences with player-made quests were mostly disappointing. Some were good but the rest were obviously amateur, especially when it came to voice acting. Enderal has its quirks here too; at times lines are read flatly or you’ll get some german text that hasn’t been localized yet, but it is mostly excellent. The same is true elsewhere, like the creepy puppet laugh animation in the first few minutes, or odd, slightly unnatural dialogue. But believe me when I say that Enderal is a cut above what any reasonable person would expect it to be. With just a little more polish, this could easily rival DLCs released from big studio, paid developers. Remember, this is a free mod from a tiny team, which makes what they’ve accomplished all the more impressive.
Enderal’s world is smaller than Skyrim’s but the story is immediately more compelling. You begin as a child with the simple task of talking to your daddy. The idyllic backyard does away with the muted color palette of Skyrim, its vibrancy adding a richness that instantly makes the game feel unique. As you ascend to the cottage, things turn dark. Enderal’s first moments are unsettling -- did you murder your family? Are you haunted?
That darkness permeates the larger picture of the world as well. Enderal was originally ruled by the Lightborn, a group of spellcasters that became worshipped as gods until they were overthrown leaving the world in chaos. Within that setting, SureAI has made a world that is both darker and more mature than Skyrim’s. Crucified skeletons dot the roadways, people kill before giving the benefit of the doubt, and the dead don’t want to stay that way. It’s not exactly groundbreaking, and is often more linear than Skyrim, but is certainly interesting and features a huge cast of characters and innumerable sidelines from the main quest path. Experiencing this story is like playing a grimmer, grittier expansion pack; the quests and dialogue trees are all cut from the same cloth as Skyrim but trim the systems to suit the story they want to tell.
The same is true of the game’s mechanics and it’s here that Enderal becomes its own game instead of just an extension of Skyrim. Skills no longer improve because you use them. Instead, SureAI has fit in a more traditional experience and level up system, supported by skill books scattered throughout the world. Quests and enemies do not scale with you, so you’ll have to level up by completing appropriate quests or grinding out dungeons. When you level up, you gain skill points toward new abilities that have to be chosen on a special island accessed with your Meditation ability. The choices are more limited while still being rich, but you’re essentially locked into tank, damage, and rogue roles.
Being a mage is a much trickier proposition in Enderal which has the side effect of making the entire game more challenging. Using or even being around magic gives your character a fever that, unchecked, can be fatal. You can slow these effects by drinking Ambrosia potions, but Arcane Fever succeeds in making magic a last-ditch option if there is anything else at your disposal. Since healing in combat can only be done with potions and spells, casting Heal is more necessary than ever, but it is also much less effective. On top of that, potions found in the wild are often spoiled and don’t work very well, meaning that it’s far easier to get yourself into a bad situation that you can’t escape from. Even when you’re not fighting, health can only be restored by eating food or resting in an actual bed. Easy regens were left behind in Skyrim; Enderal is about being prepared.
Which, ultimately, makes Enderal feel like an older style of RPG. It’s not as convenient or as accessible as RPGs tend to be these days, and that’s a good thing. It’s this very character, and the rich world-building, that makes Enderal feel so considerately designed. There are times when you are reminded that you’re playing a mod, but they are sparing. Instead, the greater impression I’m left with is utter impress. That such a small team could produce something so rich and well done is just astounding. It’s enough to make you wonder what other “professional” studios are doing wrong.
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