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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