Libra is a series which provides first impressions of games before their full review. These are generally spoiler free, however, some base plot points – as well as some mechanic/system reveals – could lurk ahead.
The Elder Scrolls: Blades was announced back at E3 2018 as part of one of Bethesda’s most stacked presentations ever. This same conference formally revealed Fallout 76, Starfield, and even teased The Elder Scrolls VI. Naturally, this culminated into one of the most hyped periods in the studio’s history (especially prior to the disastrous launch of Fallout 76) though many were unsure of just how their beloved Elder Scrolls franchise would translate into the free-to-play mobile market. During the presentation, Todd Howard hyped the game up as a “pure Elder Scrolls experience,” but this is the same man and time period in which Fallout 76 was touted as the “next big thing.”
Regardless, the success of Fallout Shelter before Blades would prove that the studio was at least capable of tapping into the ever-growing demographic successfully, as the former proved to be a financial success despite diehard Bethesda fans being weary of the shift in design. Microtransactions are nothing new to Bethesda, though — never forget “horse armor.” With the success of Shelter and obvious need for funding massive games in-development that, according to Bethesda, could still be years out at this point, the debut of a “mobile-friendly” Elder Scrolls title was inevitable. After being in early access for over a year, The Elder Scrolls: Blades finally released on mobile devices and Nintendo Switch on May 14, 2020.
So, how is it? Well, it definitely is not what Todd hyped up, but is that really surprising at all? It certainly isn’t a terrible game given the context, but I do suspect that there are skeptics that simply won’t bother playing it based on said context. Fair enough! If you would prefer to get the lowdown from afar, and in a spoiler-free fashion, then please, read on!
The Elder Scrolls: Blades is an on-rails dungeon crawler set in the Elder Scrolls universe, taking place sometime between the events of Oblivion and Skyrim. The player is a “Blade,” the sword and shield to emperors of Tamriel that have been forced into hiding as a result of recent events. Returning home for sanctuary, you instead find it in ruin, and there are some truly unsettling and peculiar things surrounding the attack. Being a protector at heart, the ex-Blade takes it upon themselves to help restore the town to its former glory, all while uncovering the ever-growing mysteries behind the attack.
This town serves as the hub for most activities, including building, quest acquisition, and shopping. Building improves the town’s prestige, granting access to additional building types and upgrades upon each “town level.” Key buildings, such as the blacksmith and alchemy lab, give the player access to those respective trades once they have been built. As you progress, NPCs will begin to populate the town once more and will often task you with diving into certain areas and dungeons – and I use the term “dungeon” loosely – to complete various objectives.
It is best to leave your open-world expectations at the door, seeing as Blades is in no way comparable to Skyrim or its predecessors in regards to exploration. Instead, most quests received in-town take you into bite-sized areas that are easily consumed in 5-10 minutes. I generally see this as a positive considering it is aimed for those with on-the-go action in mind, and you honestly won’t want to spend more time in these anyway. While you are free to explore these areas as you see fit, there are very few paths that deviate from the main road. Some of these off beaten paths can lead to additional treasure – chests, breakable objects, scattered reagents – and secret areas, though these are totally obvious and really anything but “secret.”
Of course, these objectives have you hack and slashing your way through many iconic Elder Scrolls enemies, including trolls, skeevers, bandits, the undead, and more. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the combat is as “cutting-edge” as Bethesda touts it to be, it is surprisingly enjoyable. It uses an active battle system that emphasizes (sometimes) intelligently executed combo attacks, as well as perfectly timed blocks and parries. Holding down and releasing ZL or ZR will unleash a melee strike, performing a critical strike if you release at the proper time. Following up this attack with another strike from the opposite side (ie. ZL if you just used ZR) will create a combo attack, increasing the damage dealt to the enemy. Combo attacks and criticals easily shred trivial enemies, but you have to be a bit more conservative when it comes to facing tougher foes.
Blocks and parries are performed by raising your shield or weapon by pressing “up” on the thumb stick. Timing this perfectly with an incoming attack has a high chance of staggering (or stunning) the enemy, exposing them for a short period of time. The player is susceptible to this block stun, too, should they strike when the enemy’s guard is up. Throw in potions, poisons, spells, and abilities – the latter two unlocking via a skill tree system – and you have a combat system that is relatively simple, but fairly engaging. Combat is easily the best part of Blades, and it should be considering how much time you’ll spend fighting enemies.
It isn’t without faults, however. Enemies tend to be either complete pushovers or can almost one-shot you with a single power attack – there is very little ground tread in between the extremes. Rather than jobs – basically repeatable quests – scaling with your level, they are usually either mind-numbingly easy or excruciatingly difficult. Story quests naturally have static level recommendations, but have the tendency to jump in levels drastically after the first few hours, meaning you may be forced into doing some of these stupid easy side jobs in order to reach the appropriate level/gear threshold recommended by the quest. This is all from the perspective of a 100% free player, of course, as those with deep pockets could quickly gear out their characters or buy an infinite amount of retries upon death — such is the nature of a free-to-play mobile game.
Blades also features the Abyss, an unending labyrinth that is relatively useful in terms of grinding but not extremely interesting (to me), and a player-versus-player Arena mode. While I have no firsthand experience in the Arena thus far, reports suggest that the matchmaking system needs more work and an exploit with shield blocking has made it quite difficult for many to enjoy this mode. Take that for what you will – again, I have no personal experience with the Arena as of this writing – but what I DO know is no PvP matchmaking system is perfect. If the potential for exploits is true, on the other hand, then it is a slap in the face to legitimate players and should be fixed ASAP.
The cash shop is inevitable in any free-to-play game, and Blades is no different. Promotions will be thrown at you, but I haven’t felt the need to open the wallet in my 10 hours of casual play. You receive a free reward daily and can earn miniscule amounts of the premium currency naturally, though I believe some things in the shop can only be purchased with actual money. It remains to be seen whether everything is 100% accessible to free players (including all items), but much of it will also depend on how often you intend to play and how willing you are to grind in place of cash shop conveniences.
I do not fault the game for this in concept, as there has to be something in place to generate revenue, but it could have been built in favor of more cosmetic bonuses rather than actual performance benefits – especially when it comes to PvP. Then again, Blades is a first-person game and you never see how your character looks outside of a menu, so cosmetic incentives would do little without a way to toggle a third-person perspective.
Ultimately, The Elder Scrolls Blades is not a “pure” Elder Scrolls entry by any stretch of the imagination. The lack of exploration alone, something which the series prides itself on, is all but removed here in favor of very streamlined, on rails dungeons, many of which feature identical layouts and asset placement. That said, if you expected Skyrim on mobile then that is your own fault – Blades is a free-to-play mobile game released in the modern era of Bethesda, after all. Not all is bad, though, as the combat is fun for a while and could be really interesting in the Arena…if these rumored exploits are false and/or fixed in the future. It isn’t the prettiest game – in ways it looks worse than even Skyrim – but it does have some areas that look nice, and Inon Zur once again delivers an emotionally stirring soundtrack. The same cannot be said for the dialogue and voice acting, which is a bit of a mixed bag. And, to no one’s surprise, the performance is sketchy, with occasional stutters and crashes offset by a shockingly dependable autosave system.
At best, Blades is an average game, and I’m certain there are far better games in this vein available on the mobile market specifically. If you are going in with a Skyrim mindset, you will immediately be frustrated by the experience, but it really isn’t terrible for what it is. Ultimately, you really have nothing to lose (other than time) if you want to experience it for yourself. While I’m not upset about spending 10 hours in it myself, I do question the longevity of that enjoyment, free player or otherwise.
- Simple, but engaging combat.
- Bite-sized objectives that can be completed in no time.
- More Blades lore is always good.
- It’s free(?)
- Soundtrack is wonderful.
- Cross-platform progression (when using a Bethesda account).
- Uneven difficulty progression.
- Performance issues and crashes.
- PvE combat changes little over time.
- Very linear.
- Inevitable progression gates as a free player (depending on how much you play).
- PvP system may have some underlying issues that need some attention.
This may be all we cover in the realm of The Elder Scrolls: Blades, at least for now. But please, tell us what you think about Blades and whether or not you will check it out!