High Isle is the next chapter in The Elder Scrolls Online, bringing players to the island archipelago of the Systres. The two main islands you’ll explore, the eponymous High Isle and Amenos, transport players to the high feudal society of the Bretons. This is a place where Breton culture has been able to thrive and endure. High Isle itself is place where the medieval code of Chivalry and duty to one’s noble house are paramount.
It’s also a land home to mystical forces that predate even the magic of the Bretons and an island that hides a powerful force underneath.
And a card game.
I sat down in the gaming hall of Gonfalon Bay, ready to learn the new tavern game coming to the next chapter of The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle. As someone who has spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours playing Magic: The Gathering, the idea of an in-game card game is intriguing to me.
And thankfully, once the basic rules are grasped, it’s pretty fun.
Tales of Tribute is a new activity that the team at ZeniMax Online is adding to the MMORPG, and it’s part of their attempt to continue fully flesh out the world. And when you think about it, the idea of tavern games makes total sense.
Since the launch of ESO eight years ago, we’ve been able to explore taverns and more in pretty much every major city in Tamriel. There’s been lively music in the form of bards playing for coin and a place to buy a Tamrielic brew and settle down after an adventure. But there really hasn’t been anything to do.
It’s not a new concept either for the ESO team to add in a mini-game or side activity to accompany the main meat and potatoes of the chapter expansion. Most recently, Antiquities gave players the chance to explore and learn more about Tamriel, while getting some rewards at the same time.
However, there hasn’t been anything you can really do with your friends. And this is, after all, an MMO.
This is something Creative Director Rich Lambert said was at the front of the team’s mind when coming up with Tales of Tribute. In fact, Lambert states that the team has been pitching ideas for tavern games since 2009.
“This is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Rich Lambert tells MMORPG. “I remember as early as 2009 pitching ideas of tavern games and what they could be, and what do people do when they’re not questing and killing or waiting for somebody to come and give them a quest. So it’s something that we’ve always wanted to do. And it made sense to do it.”
Looking at the other activities that the team has built in the past, Tales of Tribute takes on a totally different role in Tamriel. There is not just a PvE quest chain and such to work through, but this is truly a game that will be social. You can challenge friends, participate in tournaments in-game when they happen, and even battle on a leaderboard. There will be rewards for players who participate, so there isn’t anything really lost in your time spent sitting at a tavern, dealing cards with the best of them.
How does it work? It’s simple but has some striking depth. Tribute is a resource-building game, with both players bring decks to the table and mix the two. The goal is to obtain a certain number of prestige.
You do this by buying cards from the tavern - the center row between both players - which then add these cards to your deck. Each turn you’ll draw a new hand, and when you run out of cards you will simply shuffle them back together and draw from the pool again.
Some cards have effects like giving players gold to spend on tavern cards. Others, like The Armory, give both gold and a resource called Power. Power accumulates throughout your turn based on the cards you play, and when you pass the turn that power flips over into prestige.
There are also four Patrons the two players choose at the game's outset. These Patrons can augment and help you (or potentially hinder your opponent), giving whomever the Patron favors a bonus should they choose to activate them. For example, one of the Patrons gives those he Favors the ability to draw an extra card at the cost of some power. Another might turn the gold you accumulate on a turn into power, which can then be converted in to prestige on turn’s end.
As I mentioned before, you win the game by getting more prestige than your opponent, but you can also win simply by having the four Patrons favor you. So there is going to be a constant tug of war between you and your opponent for their favor, in addition to what’s happening on the board in front of you.
It’s a fun little side-activity, though I could see myself wasting hours playing this much like I do Triple Triad and even Gwent. But it’s not the only thing High Isle is bringing players.
Return to roots
The Elder Scrolls Online, at its outset, was a story about Tamriel politics. Sure, Daedric forces might be pulling some strings here and there, but the overarching war that can be seen in all corners of Tamriel really have been at the heart of ESO since its launch. The Three Banners War has ravaged the land for years, pitting the alliances against each other.
However, expansions in the last few years have seemingly moved away from the day-to-day struggles of those who are involved in the war and instead have focused inordinately on the supernatural. It’s not hard to see why, either. The Elder Scrolls series is full of some fantastic Daedric Princes who deserve the time of their own to really shine and explore.
However, the outside cosmic struggle can start to feel a bit samey to both players and developers alike.
“It comes down to ultimately, if as a player if you play the same thing, or [devs] keep building the same similar kind of thing over and over and over, you get a little bit bored,” Rich told us. “So this was a way for us and the team to kind of stretch [our] creative muscles. It is very different trying to tell a more grounded story than it is telling a story about a 100-foot-tall red demon that is going to destroy the world.”
The story centers on peace talks that have begun in secret on the island of High Isle. The three leaders of the alliances are meeting up with a society that is, as Rich describes it, effectively like the Tamriel arm of the Red Cross, the Society of the Steadfast, to try to broker a lasting peace.
However, as the trailer released earlier this year shows, the boats didn’t necessarily make it to their destinations. Players will need to unravel who is behind trying to stonewall the peace talks, as well as uncover some of the mysteries behind the magical forces on High Isle.
Like all ESO chapters, characters from across the tales told thus far make their way back into the mix, like the Breton Rogue Jakarn or the Khajiit ship captain Za'Ji. New characters are also introduced, such as the intelligent investigator Lady Arabelle as well as Lord Vacarro, the leader and benefactor of the Society of the Steadfast.
Opposing you are the Ascendant Order - - an Order of Knights who use subterfuge and underhanded attacks to achieve their goals of throwing off what they deem are the shackles of the Alliances themselves - led by the mysterious Ascendant Lord and Ascendant Magus. Uncovering the motivations and machinations of the Ascendant Order is central to the plot, as they aim to threaten the peace talks.
The setting is very high fantasy, yet also takes cues from early Celtic, Welsh and the rest of the British Isles. It’s a very Arthurian-style setting where the different noble houses dictate what happens on the Isle. Knights joust and uphold knightly virtues associated with Chivalry, the people of High Isle live in what could be cities and towns reminiscent of Arthurian legend.
Stepping into the courtyard of Castle Navine made me feel like I was at Avalon: large, stone buildings surrounded by turrets and curtain walls dominated my view. The main city of Gonfalon Bay sees stonework walls and cobblestone streets lined with waddle and daub houses and thatch roofs. It’s very Tolkien-esque and reflects a highly feudal society that the Bretons have cultivated and cared for in relative seclusion from their High Rock brethren.
Outside the cities, you’re met, at least on the main island, with rolling green hills complete with ruins and stonehenges, the latter central to the Druids and their culture that inhabit High Isle. This was an interesting find for me, as I normally forget that Celtic Druidic traditions can be found all throughout the original Arthurian legends before they became Normanized.
Amenos is a different story. A dense jungle covers the island acting as a natural prison for murderers, thieves, and even political dissidents that the continent and High Isle proper simply don’t want to deal with anymore. It’s a nice change of pace and gives more to explore than just a samey-landscape, no matter how pretty that landscape might be.
As someone who plays mostly Breton characters, it’s been fun exploring the island and interacting with the culture that, for the most part, is left unexplored in the history of The Elder Scrolls. Funnily enough, one of the characters of High Isle shamed me a bit as well, so much so that I made a whole new preview character to explore the Chapter with afterwards.
One of the characters, a mage, complained about the Breton’s focus on the martial aspects of the court, focusing more on the sword and shield instead of what makes Bretons so unique: the mixture of Elven blood in their veins. As a result, all Bretons have some affinity for magic - and as someone who has played characters mostly associated with Stamina builds (even my Necromancer is a Stam Necro), I immediately rolled a Breton Magicka Sorcerer to rectify this.
I’m enjoying the political intrigue behind the main story of the island as well. Uncovering the true motivations and identities of the Ascendant Order has felt much like solving a mystery. While many of the delves and encounters play out like they typically do in ESO fashion, uncovering clues and unraveling the story has been a blast.
And it is a nice change of pace, too. Before the reasoning behind everything was bit more clear cut: we really don’t want a Vampire Lord to take over the world, or that 100-foot-tall red demon that somehow is breaking out of the Deadlands to lay waste to Tamriel.
But what if the sympathies of the Ascendant Order appeal to you? What if they appeal to the characters around you? It’s an intriguing thought, and given ESO’s reliance player choice as a driving motivation for some quest decisions, it could open up some possibilities as the story continues through the end of the year.
As it stands right now, High Isle might be my most anticipated Chapters in recent Elder Scrolls Online memory. The idea of taking part in a mystery that affects the denizens of Tamriel on a more personal, down-to-Nirn level is appealing, especially after years of celestial influence dominating the storytelling. The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle is set to release this June on PC, Stadia, Mac, PlayStation and Xbox consoles.