The Elder Scrolls: Blades
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Genre: Action role-playing game
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows
In 2015 Bethesda released Fallout Shelter for smartphones in a surprise announcement at the end of their E3 presentations that year. This was their first big step in the world of mobile gaming, and it paid off practically immediately, with Fallout Shelter topping the iTunes charts pretty much right away, and remaining near the top for the first 6 months of its release. Bethesda is on record saying more players had played Fallout Shelter than all of the other Fallout games combined. There is, of course, a caveat to this statement. Bethesda counts individual downloads as players, so anyone who downloaded the app, played five minutes, and then uninstalled it from their phone, counted as a player, despite being more of a sampler than anything else. That of course doesn’t mean Fallout Shelter was a success. Thanks to its smart use of microtransactions, meaning they were completely optional, Fallout Shelter won the hearts of hardcore gamers everywhere, all while getting casual players attached to the franchise. So of course, the next logical step was to bring Elder Scrolls to phones everywhere.
The Elder Scrolls: Blades was announced at E3 2018 with mild optimism from the crowd. It seemed like a novel idea that warranted further exploration from developers, but players were generally meh on the announcement. Elder Scrolls fans weren’t left in the dark though, as there was a brief title card shown for the upcoming Elder Scrolls VI. (This is the exact opposite of what happened to another storied PC franchise looking to expand to mobile audiences, Diablo.)
This week, probably coordinating around PAX East in Boston, Bethesda released The Elder Scrolls: Blades in an Early Access state to a small selection of players who signed up on Bethesda.net or through their phones app stores. If the early access build is any indication, Bethesda might have another great mobile experience coming your way.
Like all other Elder Scrolls games, you get full blown character creation right from the get go, with all of the fan favorite Elder Scrolls races available right away. Customization options are there, but you won’t get a full blown face molder like you do with say Fallout 76. Once you set up your character you are dropped into a small valley with a couple of bandits to fight, serving as a tutorial.
You attack by holding down on the screen, then releasing once a circle fills up under your finger, almost like a reverse Elite Beat Agents. By timing you attacks in succession, you can do additional combo damage, but finding that timing differs depending on what kind of weapon you have equipped. To pull up your shield and block attacks, a little button appears on the center of the screen. If you pull up your shield at the right moment, you can cause your opponent to be knocked back a bit, giving you an opening for a free hit.
Once you level up, you gain access to skill trees, unlocking magicka and stamina based abilities. These abilities are added to the bottom of the screen with their own buttons. Unlike the standard attack abilities though, there is no timing required, just press the button, and hope the enemy doesn’t hit you and interrupt the cast. Stamina based abilities are the same, just hit the button and watch the attack unfold.
Unfortunately, Blades ditches the series staple of leveling up by doing things, and instead uses a more traditional XP system to control player power levels. This mean no more spamming fireball to level up your destruction magicks, or crawling through dungeons picking goblins and the like off from a far. In fact, as far as I can tell, stealth, lockpicking and other rogue-like options don’t exsist in the game. You walk up to an enemy, engage in one-on-one combat, and then maybe another enemy approaches from your flank. Blades is a great experience for people who want to play as a warrior type class with a little bit of magic, but if you want to sit down with Blades and chase your dreams of being a high wizard, you are going to be disappointed. Heck, you can’t even dual wield weapons, so sword and board is your only option.
All that being said, this is an Early Access title. I am assuming that Bethesda will be adding more freedom in character builds in the future. Sadly, I don’t see the XP system adapting a more standard Elder Scrolls style, but in the context of a mobile game, I am actually okay with that. Sometimes you just need a straight up number to measure power instead of a complicated skill tree system that makes you a god in one aspect of the game, and absolute crap in another. For something meant to be played in bite size play sessions, this works incredibly well.
Once you complete the tutorial you are tasked with rebuilding a city, starting with a blacksmith to help upgrade and maintain your gear. This is where most of the gold sinking comes in, because you can start building things like swellings and homes for people to live in, similar to how you would build a village in other mobile titles like Clash of Clans or Animal Crossing. Your town has a level too, unlocking fancier and better structures the more money you put into it.
Let’s talk about that last bit: Money. A big issue a lot of hardcore gamers have with mobile games is that games feel very pay to win. The Elder Scrolls: Blades is of course going to be a ‘free’ game with microtransactions built into the game, and honestly that is kind of what I expected. What I didn’t expect is how reasonable everything is as far as implementation to the main games goes. As you progress through dungeons you start to accumulate chests that you find on your adventures. Some of these chests, like the basic wooden chests, take 5 seconds to open. Bigger and better chests take longer to open, usually measuring in the hours, and can contain more spoils. You can only have one chest unlocking at a time, but because the main game is so detailed and offers so much to do, it never feels like a hassle. You don’t just open the screen and watch the timer count down, you can actually progress and do things as the chests are unlocked. The premium currency of the game is gems and you can use them to open chests immediately, for a cost, or complete a building in your town.
This main mode offers some cool things for traditional Elder Scrolls fans, but the coolest addition by far is the Abyss mode. Abyss mode is ripped straight out of Diablo. You start on the first level of an infinite level dungeon and the further you progress, the more rewards you unlock. To make things even cooler, as you start your descent you might be in a simple looking dungeon, but the second level might be a grove infested with elementals. Having everything be randomized like this means you can just keep going until you die. This is great for quick little mobile play sessions too, because you can just lock your phone and then BOOM, be right back at it when you turn your phone back on.
By far the coolest part about The Elder Scrolls: Blades though? You can play it, in full, in either horizontal or vertical mode. Most mobile games restrict you to one or the other, but Blades lets you play your way. Don’t wanna turn your phone sideways and intently focus on the game? Play vertical and use tap to move to explore to your content. Wanna sit down for a closer to console experience? Horizontal mode offers traditional virtual joysticks to control both movement and looking at the same time. This versatility is great and allows all players to get what they want out of their game without alienating others by forcing a complex control scheme.
Try it, but be realistic about your expectations. Honestly, I was kind of skeptical about The Elder Scrolls coming to mobile platforms because it is such a grandiose experience. By watering down certain elements, and bringing smart design insights to others, Elder Scrolls is looking to step to mobile in a big way. Once some additional features like dual wielding and stealth mechanics get added in eventual patches, The Elder Scrolls: Blades will feel like a great iteration in the franchise, even if it’s just an appetizer for the main course coming in The Elder Scrolls VI.