The Elder Scrolls: Blades is now in early access and exudes the telltale fantasy atmosphere and superficial touches the series is renowned for, but is designed from the ground up to take advantage of the mobile platform it makes its debut on. It's not perfect, but is a solid and entertaining foundation out of the gate.
Players begin as a former Blade who discovers their hometown destroyed after the Bloodfall Queen, an Imperial vassal named Urzoga gra-Batul who rules this portion of the realm, had sent mercenaries to collect taxes. One destroyed a statue and inadvertently triggered a devastating fire. That mystery -- and threat -- forms the basis of the story and gameplay.
This mobile game is necessarily a streamlined version of the PC and console games that have preceded it and that impact is evident in every aspect of this title. The character creation tool to begin with has no sliders for tweaking but does have multiple presets for every feature that still allow decent customization options. And typical character classes are available to choose from.
The world itself whether indoors or out actually is impressive with detailed textures, a wide color palette, smooth animations and particle effects, and varied ambient sounds. These are accompanied by the kind of score, sound effects, dialog and voice acting gamers associate with the franchise. In this way the overall atmosphere fits well in the Scrolls legacy.
On the road is where the mobile game starts to diverge more widely from traditional Scrolls titles, with linear paths presenting sequential challenges or scripted moments. And although there was at least one wilderness quest early on, I've since experienced only dungeon crawl settings regardless of choosing main story quests or odd jobs.
Thankfully, these settings do vary in appearance, including tombs, halls, castles, forts, etc. As such some will be relatively barren stone corridors separated by small rooms, whereas others might have corridors connected with large halls, and some could have cages or cells, and others a variety of furnishings. In all, various lighting wonderfully illuminates and casts impressive shadows.
These will be populated by enemies such as bandits, goblins, skeletons, skeevers, spiders or crypt wights, at least early on, and variations thereof such as a berserker goblin, if I recall (which are just more heavily armored or strong). Spriggans are an additional outdoor enemy. Related quests typically involve searching for items for someone or to further another goal, or towns people that have been taken captive.
The quests will be given by towns people who either need materials or need to find someone who's gone missing. And in general they follow a predictable pattern of mostly linear exploration and intermittent combat with enemies along the path. Along the way, players will acquire loot via urns, enemies or chests (or whatever's out in the open).
The combat itself is one area that surpassed by expectations compared with the E3 demo as it's a deeper and more satisfying experience. On the surface, it's a simple mechanic of defend (by pressing the shield icon) or attack by pressing elsewhere on the screen. But these include different gameplay options, not to mention that there are icons for spell casting.
I'd noticed the shield is deployed high or low but only read today that it's first held high than lowers over time. When high, it defends against overhead attacks but also can stun an attacking opponent. So it pays to time its deployment to block an incoming attack. When the shield is not wielded, players can attack with a melee weapon or spell.
There are a variety of both, including swords, axes, hammers, maces, and longer versions. Spells can involve elemental attacks such as fireballs, bolts and ice spikes. Melee attacks happen when players press the screen to reveal a circle; if players release when a light inside the circle reaches its edge, they can connect with a more powerful and possibly critical hit.
Spell casting involves pressing the respective icon to wield the spell, which takes a moment to be cast at an opponent. If an enemy strikes before it is cast, the spell will engulf the player instead. Thankfully, simply switching to the shield or weapon cancels the spell, though players will have to wait until their magic meter refills before casting again.
Other skills such as perks and abilities (including dodge, bash, quick strike, poison, combat focus, etc.) also can influence combat. Taken together, the streamlined fighting at one's fingertips still allows a degree of depth and related strategy that makes such encounters more interesting, especially when facing higher threats (represented by a quest's number of skulls).
The actual combat mechanic is well implemented with satisfying targeting and hit detection, practically no lag that I've noticed thus far in the early going, fluid animations and overall responsive controls. Given the importance of combat in such a game, it is a relief that it works as well as it does, especially despite the more robust options on other platforms.
(It's worth noting that my character Yuriqqa -- pronounced EUREKA, because I'm that dopey -- is a level 6 Imperial as of this writing, using iron armor and mainly a shield and E3 Watcher's Blade combo, with fireball and lightning bolt spells; perks of elemental protection, augmented flames and load bearer; and no abilities selected.)
Navigation in general works well, however, there is a measure of annoyance and even frustration here that is not present in combat, which involves no movement apart from attacking or defending. While locomotion is simple in general, with a press of the screen dictating where one moves to, looking around and landscape mode introduce challenges.
Sometimes just looking around, i.e. pressing down on the screen and moving one's finger, can result in changing position. This is especially bothersome in landscape mode, which uses virtual joysticks, that I have since disabled; and when surveying an area with enemies prior to combat. It's also easy to sometimes overshoot one's target location, or move when one intends to just pickup loot.
Thankfully these aren't too common, and hopefully disabling virtual joysticks in landscape mode will help. And that said, there are some cool elements to navigation, such as being able to look around while moving to one's target location, or one's character circumventing obstacles to get to the target location that one selected.
Loot grinding during quests is another area of Blades that is handled well despite being a watered down version of what franchise fans are used to. Players can find food or alchemy ingredients out in the open or in chests; coins, crafting or building materials in urns; weapons, armor or coins from fallen foes; and all, including rare items, in different chests.
The variety, while not that deep, still provides enough variation to be helpful early on. And the local smithy has some for purchase (as well as crafting/tempering/repairing services). The problem is with gems and chests, the former of which are rare yet necessary to bypass time limitations, and the latter of which are timed for opening and can only open one at a time.
It doesn't help that chests can be prime sources for gems, though sometimes certain quests will payout a number of gems. This can lead to scenarios where a gold chest might take six hours to open, preventing all other chests from opening, and leading to too many unopened chests so that players can't acquire any more while on quests.
Likewise, without enough gems, the process for opening chests, building up one's town, or having the smithy craft/temper weapons or equipment grinds to a halt. That puts the player in the position of stopping and waiting, or shelling out real world money to advance the game in a more timely fashion.
Hopefully accumulating gems becomes easier as the game progresses so these scenarios can be avoided. And of course players can continue playing even while other processes are ongoing, but it does risk bypassing loot in the meantime, though one's character can still level up and acquire more skills.
It's worth noting that the game's menus are all well designed and allow easy access. The main menu features the Town, Abyss, Arena and Store, plus a link to chests or another menu with selections of Character (Skills, Stats, Equipment, Potions, Misc), Quests (Quests, Jobs, Challenges), Chests (Golden, Silver or Wooden) and Store.
Abyss is a mode where players last as long as they can, accumulating loot and XP in the process. Arena is a PvP area that is still locked for me, either because I haven't met the criteria to unlock it or because it's unavailable in general. Players should visit the store everyday, as I believe there is a daily reward for doing so, such as a coin bag.
I believe I've covered the main elements worth noting thus far. Time will tell if The Elder Scrolls: Blades has staying power as a well-designed mobile experience overall. In the meantime, it so far has been an entertaining and ultimately satisfying variation on the Scrolls formula that effectively brings the series to mobile devices.
My hope for the game going forward is that players can enjoy it without any pay to play elements (and that with time there will be more gems and fewer time-consuming chests), and that the game is available on more devices (I played on an iPhone, but my iPad, with the requisite iOS update, couldn't play the beta; I have yet to try the early access version on it.).
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Valley is a contradiction, and that's a good thing. Much of the action takes place high above the titular valley instead of deep within, and the game rewards those taking a slower, more deliberate journey despite encouraging a quick pace. Even the highly touted sprinting and leaping mechanic becomes a means to an end instead of an end in and of itself -- albeit an impressive one.
Blue Isle Studios has crafted an experience that overall is well designed and thoughtful. What begins as an adventure game involving an archaeologist searching the Canadian Rockies for a powerful artifact called the Lifeseed, soon becomes a desperate quest to discover the truth behind the object and the fate of those who became obsessed with it.
Aiding in the journey is the discovery of a Pathfinder's L.E.A.F. suit that enables breathtaking sprints and leaps, as well as miraculous life-giving -- and life-taking -- capabilities that impact the environment. The wearer can restore life to flora and fauna in the valley, or take life to replenish the energy that their suit consumes. In fact the suit and its abilities are central to gameplay and the story.
Players will use the suit to explore the valley. The game excels at establishing time and place with nicely designed environments including forests, lakes, hills, rock formations, ancient ruins, scientific and military installations, and subterranean passageways. Textures are less detailed than in major releases, but the art design crafts varied settings that are beautifully realized.
This applies to the landscapes and facilities. Fields, bushes and trees are well designed and animated, whether lush or dead versions depending on how one's game unfolds. The color palette is vibrant, even when applied to artificial interiors. Dynamic lighting adds realism to every setting, including rays through branches or ruins, moonlight, interior lighting and shadows.
Fauna includes rabbits, deer and birds. Peculiar forest sprites also appear. Ambient noises related to birds, waterfalls, lakes, wind and footsteps (which vary depending on the surface) help immerse players. The sound of players slicing through air and branches or bushes while sprinting/leaping creates a palpable and thrilling sensation of speed, as does quick, fluid movements.
The score features solid compositions that match the gameplay such as nature themes during contemplative moments or fast-paced music to accentuate quick platforming segments. The musical accompaniment never intruded or otherwise felt out of place, and in general provides a good example of a well integrated score that complements the game and its atmosphere.
Gameplay itself features controls on the Nintendo Switch that are relatively simple: Movement is controlled by the left stick, looking by the right, jumping by the B button, interaction by X, running by the left trigger, giving a life by the right, and taking a life by the right shoulder button. Controls generally work well especially for casual movement and while exploring the environment.
However, I found that looking with the right stick could be problematic as it tended to swing widely. Adjusting the sensitivity lower wasn't really an option either as you sometimes need to turn quickly when traversing the environment or during combat. This wasn't too disruptive but did impede gameplay from time to time. But at worst it was annoying instead of frustrating.
Progression requires opening passageways, and there are multiple means of doing this. Acorns from revived trees can open some ancient doors. Reviving trees swarmed by fireflies opens others. Medallions grant access to areas such as pyramid chambers. Some sealed areas can be accessed by sprinting, falling or leaping through barriers, pressing buttons or powering generators.
When entering new areas, your character's observations appear as text. Text also will appear when your cursor hovers over items such as documents or files (unfortunately if standing too close, the text won't fit on screen). And the option to open a container will show on screen when the cursor is hovering over objects such as crates.
Audiotapes, memos, journals and other files provide the backstory. (Scripted audiotapes will play in certain locations.) Such notes are interesting and provide context and a variety of perspectives about the unusual goings-on. The dialog is well written and voice acting is well done. The narrative actually builds into an interesting story that involves anthropology, mythology, science and war.
In fact, the setting and science-fiction storyline are well conceived. They have a basis in reality but spin a fictional history from that foundation, calling to mind games like those in the BioShock franchise. That comparison is reinforced with a retro design to the fictional artifacts, which reflect the circa 1940s/1950s backdrop for the story set in the World War II era and beyond.
The L.E.A.F. suit allows players to explore this setting. It's powered by amrita energy from orbs, generators, or flora/fauna the player kills (though I rarely had to resort to that). Found upgrades allow a double-jump, swinging or catapulting with a grappling hook, wall-walking/running via magnets (a la Prey), water-surface sprinting, and greater energy capacity with capacitor upgrades.
Settings in the wilderness and at facilities (indoor and outdoor) are thoughtfully designed to pose navigation challenges that involve traversal across horizontal and vertical distances where falling too far or into water is fatal. Such environmental puzzles prove satisfying despite their simplicity thanks to platforming that features varied options, fluid movement, speed and a solid framerate.
The penalty for dying is that part of the environment dies too in order to revive your character, symbolized by a branch with disappearing leaves. If all the leaves disappear, you return to the beginning of the level. But you can replenish them by reviving foliage/fauna with stored energy, which is finite but can be found or upgraded. While I died periodically, it really was never an issue.
Progression through the valley and story allows for increasingly dynamic and fluid gameplay as suit upgrades increase player options for navigation. Exploring treetops, subterranean rails (that add boost) or natural landmarks such as precarious rock formations makes for exhilarating platforming sequences. However, such gameplay on occasion could be problematic.
The first person perspective can make gauging some jumps more complicated, the distance for triggering grappling options seems inconsistent, and the checkpoint system can be less than forgiving. This can result in trial and error gameplay that sometimes infrequent checkpoints can penalize. One problem jump is fairly easy but only after experimentation to learn the precise mechanics.
Combat is actually easier as it involves enemies including amrita swarms or daemons protecting facilities. When players are detected, enemies will rush and fire projectiles. Higher level foes are faster and will dematerialize/materialize. The patterns aren't difficult to learn, and if spotted from afar foes easily can be picked off. It's simple but does vary gameplay and adds an extra dimension to exploration.
SPOILER: The climax does include a boss fight that is telegraphed with various allusions in memos or scripted moments. And while it offers a slight change of pace including a different attack, it is somewhat anticlimactic as the attack is familiar and overall the battle doesn't last very long. Some have suggested the combat in general is an afterthought, but I welcomed the gameplay variation.
A side note about the climax relates to how the story unfolds. Most of the time audiotapes play and memos can be read with one's undivided attention. But there was one instance where I missed a principal revelation because I was attacked during an audiotape playback. It reminds me of games like Bayonetta where battles can happen during important conversations.
One issue worth noting is that the presentation sometimes takes a hit during frenetic gameplay. One sequence triggered high contrast so colors were off, lighting too bright and text difficult to read until the game reverted after sitting idle for awhile. In another, leaping into a building exposed a subsurface layer of rock that impacted movement until the actual interior surfaces eventually loaded.
Speaking of the presentation, playing with the Switch docked was my preferred means of experiencing Valley. As a handheld portable game, Valley in fact is playable but the more limited visuals certainly make platforming and reading on-screen text more of a challenge than viewing on a TV screen or large monitor. At least the controls work well in either state.
An interesting aspect of the game is length. At least some reviewers complain about how short it is. In fact, one can race through the game and, to an extent, it's designed for that kind of experience. However, there's a lot more content than a quick play-through allows for. I highly recommend a slower pace to enjoy all that the game provides.
Indeed, the fact that the game allows such a fast completion is a disservice to the depth of material that exists in the game. And even though I took my time I still wonder about areas that I did race through. For instance, I forgot to open the pyramid chambers with my collected medallions! Thankfully, players can return to explore unlocked areas at any time, increasing its replay value.
Valley turned out to have a great deal more content than its marketing lead me to believe. The core gameplay in general is solid, entertaining and fun (despite occasional issues that can momentarily mar the experience), but there's so much beneath the surface that players should do themselves a favor and check it out, especially at the bargain price of $19.99 including on Nintendo Switch.
(This review is based on a review code of Valley for the Nintendo Switch. The game released March 7 on this console.)
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