It's hard to pin down my thoughts exactly on The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle. The latest chapter in the long-running MMO by ZeniMax Online Studios, High Isle, strives to bring the narrative of ESO back to Nirn. As such, the focus of High Isle is on not some cosmic Daedric threat, but rather one of political upheaval and sedition from within. But can the narrative's focus on the inhabitants of Tamriel, their motivations, and its desire to bring the MMO to its roots break the formulaic shackles that have gripped the MMO now for years?
An Idyllic Paradise
The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle centers on one of the most exciting aspects of the MMO: exploring the unexplored areas of Tamriel. While other chapters and additions have brought us locations not seen since even before the TES III: Morrowind days (such as last year's expansion of Blackwood), the Systres Archipelago in High Isle is wholly new. Only seen on a map in Daggerfall, the dev team at ZeniMax had complete creative freedom to make the isles their own, and boy did they ever.
The idyllic main isle of High Isle delights with its sunflower groves, high castles, and a landscape dotted with the ruins of the Druidic culture native to the isles. But it goes further than that even as the island mirrors the discontent festering underneath Breton – and Tamrielic society at large – with volcanic fissures ready to burst all over the isle.
I once complained in my Summerset review that the setting was a little too "Tolkien-esque," a weird criticism for the likes of me to levy at a title. However, while the high fantastic spires of High Elven society dominated that island felt generic compared to the previous year's Morrowind, here in High Isle, its traditional, European-inspired castles that take up residence, making it feel a little "Martin-esque". This Martin-feeling is only fueled by the political undercurrent running through High Isle. Competing houses vying for power of the isles, knightly orders with their own histories and the mystical magic of the Druids lends such a feeling of history to the Systres.
The jewel of the island, Gonfalon Bay, is also a treat to explore. The Bay's thatched-roof housing, winding and narrow streets that open to a massive bay dominated by a statue that reminds me of the Colossus of Rhodes has become one of my favorite locations in all of ESO.
But the real treat of High Isle is Amenos, the sister island that hides a sinister secret. The island is pivotal to maintaining the idyllic life of High Isles nobles as it serves effectively as their prison. Throw a prisoner, whether they be thief, murderer, or the occasional political rival into the jungle island of Amenos and you'll likely never hear from them again. The untamed jungle runs the length of the island, and the prisoners there have created their own societies in order to survive and have some semblance of civilization. Ruins, pirate coves, and more are there to discover as well, and while much of the focus has been on the main isle, my hope is that Amenos sees even more screen time as the story continues later this year.
However, the visual presentation isn't without its faults. That statue in the middle of Gonfalon Bay would look more imposing if it was more clearly visible, but the MMO's draw distance detail seems to be turned down as low as possible, even running ESO on its maximum settings. This was put in even more focus (or out of focus really) when in a spot in the main story Lady Arabelle directs your attention to a volcano in the distance that looks fuzzy and out of focus. For an MMO that can truly look amazing at times, one area it's always felt lacking was its distant rendering, and these two moments really hammered that home for me again throughout the call-outs in the story.
Speaking of story….
Unfortunately, while the goal was to create a story full of politicking, intrigue, and more, High Isle falls largely flat. Out of the recent chapters from ZeniMax, I truly do appreciate its desire to bring the story back to where it started: the people of Tamriel proper. It was refreshing to deal with the daily struggles and politics instead of having to save the world once again from some giant Daedric or cosmic threat.
The issue with High Isle's story, and even recent ESO quests at large, is that they have become largely predictable. The story of High Isle has you investigating the disappearance of the leaders of Tamriel's three alliances as they were en route to High Isle for peace talks hosted by a noble on the island. The story that ensues sees you uncovering the plot of a "knightly" order hell-bent on overthrowing the alliances themselves, all propped up on the idea that they are serving the people. Helmed by the Ascendant Lord and the spell-wielding Ascendant Magus, my time with the main quest line mainly was okay. It wasn't a bad story by any stretch, but it's entirely predictable.
My other major issue with this story has to do with its pacing. While the Chapter is but one part of an overall story threat that encompasses the whole year, the big expansion-like Chapter is the major focal point for many people. While the story leaves off on a cliffhanger, it is obviously intended to get you to come back for more later this year. However, it still felt rather unsatisfying to take out the big bad and hold a massive party for your accomplishments, knowing the danger wasn't gone. This wasn't the first time an ESO story left me audibly saying to my party "That’s it?” when the final quest finished.
Thankfully, the Ascendant Order does make for some compelling villains. Knights (using the term loosely here if we’re going by the definition in Breton society) who are using the angst and uncertainty of the people to take power for themselves is a nice change of pace from “Daedric prince has designs on this realm, let’s stop him.” Unfortunately, because the story was so predictable it really undermines some of the major reveals throughout the story.
This isn’t helped by the underwhelming voice acting by many of the main characters you meet throughout the chapter. High Isle’s main new character, Lady Arabelle Davaux, is one of my favorite new additions to Elder Scrolls Online, but I have to say her tired voice acting did get…well…tiresome after a while. And while I love Billy Boyd as a resident Fool-of-a-Took fan, his performance left a bit to be desired as the card-slinging Brahgas.
Funnily enough, the character who sounded tired and disinterested the whole time, King Emeric, was one of my favorites. So maybe when that is the direction of the character it works? I also love the earnestness that Laura Bailey brings with the knightly companion Isobel Veloise.
The shame too is that the story, like others in the past, is well written. Dialogue from each character brings such personality to each NPC – there is a reason it’s a delight to see old NPCs like Jakarn make a return with each chapter. The character building by the ZeniMax team is outstanding. I just wish the voice acting could always match it in the end.
Tell me a tale…
Some ESO chapters bring with it a new class while others bring something to the experience other than new quests such as Greymoor’s Indiana Jones-esque Antiquities system. This time around, ZeniMax has created a tavern game, bringing a new resource-gathering card game to the MMO.
Its inclusion is a welcome addition to the MMORPG as Tales of Tribute isn’t simply a side activity you can do when you get bored of combat or questing. It is that for sure, but it’s so much more. The team has built out an activity that can be done both as a PvE activity and PvP. I had a ton of fun running up to players and challenging them to a match, seeing who was better.
Tribute isn’t that complicated, at least at first glance. A game where you and your opponent share a deck and attempt to build up resources to generate the game-winning Prestige. Each player takes turns accumulating gold in order to buy cards from the communal Tavern in the middle of the board. From there, cards are reshuffled back into your library as you use them, meaning you’ll never deck yourself like can happen in other card games like Magic: The Gathering.
Four Patrons you can spend resources to gain their favor by flanking the board itself. Gain all four Patron’s favor and you win, regardless of who has more Prestige. You can also cast Agent cards which act as barriers to your opponent accumulating Prestige, meaning they’ll need to have a solution to your Agent before carrying out their game-winning strategy.
It looks daunting at first, but Tales of Tribute isn’t all that complicated when sitting down for a game. However, playing a round has a hidden complexity and nuance, especially against a real person.
It’s a refreshing activity that lends some character to the world in a way that ESO’s added activities haven’t really in past years. There are deck fragments to collect as quest rewards and drops as well, meaning completionists have a reason to explore and collect as well. Given that Tales of Tribute also has a tournament ladder, daily quests and much a leaderboard, there is much to do for those willing to put in the time.
All too familiar…
In my review in progress, I lamented that The Elder Scrolls Online had started to become a bit too formulaic. Often when describing the MMO to friends I’ll use the phrase that “ZeniMax knows what works well and they stick to that to the letter.” But is that necessarily a good thing?
While I’ll admit it didn’t use to bother me as much early on, around Elsweyr I started to get a little Chapter fatigue. Three Chapters later that fatigue has only increased.
The fatigue doesn’t come from bad content, either. Each Chapter has been good in its own right, telling stories and providing hours of content throughout the years. But while they may have brought new activities and a new class each time around, such as the Necromancer in Elsweyr or the Companion system in Blackwood.
But while these additions have brought new systems and new things to do, the rest of the formula feels stagnant. The volcanic fissures this time around act as stand-in for the familiar Dark Anchors from years past, much like the Abyssal Geysers, Dragons and even Harrowstorms of the most recent chapters. The landscape is dotted with the familiar roster of world bosses and delves, complete with the two public dungeons that you’ll run through. It didn’t help this time around a bug seemed to plague these activities, meaning I was having to do them twice to get credit for completing them even once.
It's a situation where I know exactly what I’m getting before I even boot the Chapter up the first time. Nothing groundbreaking or genre-bending is going on, unlike ESO’s early years when the team felt willing to take some risks. One Tamriel was a huge, fundamental change to how the MMO itself worked. The addition of the yearly chapter brought a stable, predictable release cadence, but it also brought a formula that has stuck around for six years now.
And while there isn’t anything intrinsically bad about what ZeniMax is building here, I have to admit there were multiple moments in my review playthrough were I was just simply bored. It felt routine like I was just going through the motions to finish this activity on my checklist and move onto the next. It’s not helped either by a story that felt predictable the whole way through.
And it’s a shame it felt this way because there are some truly awesome things about High Isle. I enjoyed a few quests that saw me helping the Druids or the Knightly Orders. And while my favorite quest ended in what I feel is the worst way possible, it was so fun I did it three more times on different characters because the dungeon was so weird.
Amenos is my favorite part of this Chapter, and much of the reason is I feel The Elder Scrolls is at its best when it is weird and different. Moving away from the idyllic, maybe a little vanilla Breton playground to the dark, twisted jungle of Amenos was such a nice change of pace. I’m really hoping for more of that in the future.
Altogether though, I’m hoping for a complete shake-up of how these Chapters are built. Bring the weird. Bring us the unexpected. Do something different and take the risks that the studio once did with One Tamriel. The current formula works, sure, and it probably helps the team pump out yearly content like this. But I’m not sure players would mind too much of ZeniMax took a year and revamped how they did Chapter expansions. I know I wouldn’t, especially if it meant we got something that felt new and as original as some of the stories Tamriel can tell.
The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle is a chapter I enjoyed overall. It had its moments where its predictability elicited feelings of boredom, but by and large I did enjoy my time in Tamriel. The Systres Archipelago really gave the ZeniMax team creative freedom to build something completely unseen in an Elder Scrolls game, and I think the setting largely worked. Sure, some might find the Medieval society of High Isle and the Bretons a little boring, but I enjoyed learning more about the knightly orders and the mystical Druids that make up much of the island’s inhabitants.
While the main story thread was predictable, it was still good. Still, in the end, it felt a bit unsatisfying. Though I understand the reason for its ending is to set up the rest of the story to be released as more DLC later this year.
Tales of Tribute is a fantastic addition, and it’s one I hope the ZeniMax team adds to over time. I would love to see the card game evolve with new mechanics, new themed decks, and more with each update, much like we’re seeing continued support for the Companion system and Antiquities.
However, the biggest issue that I can’t shake is formula fatigue. The fact that ESO now feels too routine and predictable makes me feel a bit tired of playing the MMO. And it’s shame, The Elder Scrolls Online has been one of my favorite games for almost a decade. While new additions to the MMO in the form of a tavern game might bring new ideas to the table and give me something else to do, the core of what High Isle is built upon is a checklist of features rather than a team taking risks. I want to see something truly new brought to the way these Chapters are built. Don’t be afraid to drop the Dark Anchor mechanic for something completely new, for example.
I guess I’m looking for the risks that the team took with One Tamriel all those years ago. If it means skipping a year, I’m alright with that if the end result is something truly transformative for the MMO.
The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle brings with it many great moments, and the landscape of the Systres is a joy to explore, especially the jungle prison of Amenos. While its story is predictable, I’m not uninterested as I look forward to the rest of the year’s content drops. In the end, it's this formulaic malaise that keeps The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle from being truly great.
Full Disclosure: A copy of High Isle on PC was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.