The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim Special edition: Dovahkiin!
Updated: Mar 12
The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. A game that is surprisingly polorising , Some say, it is one of the best open world games of all time. Many consider it a favourite then and now. However, many people see it as a buggy mess, a sloppily written mess. A game so outdated and unpolished that mods are almost required.
I didn’t mod Skyrim for this play through. It was consideredit but I felt that it would be wrong for me to do so. I wanted to give Skyrimthe chance to offer a great experience. Skyrim is not a good game per say. It is however an endlessly charming one. In spite of almost everything it does wrong, it is quite playable.
Skyrim is a massive game filled with multiple storylines. As a result I cannot examine them all with the depth I want. I will take a few quests and examples and examine them in detail.
Please note that Skyrim’s story quality is rather up and down. As of writing I have not finished every single quest and story line in the game. Some are better than others, regardless of flaws they never stop being compelling.
Delaying the inevitable indefinitely
As with most Epic tales before and now, Skyrim tells a story about saving the world from the world eater himself: Alduin. As the mythical Dragonborn (a being capable of absorbing the souls of Dragons and have the ability to speak the language of the Dragons). It is your destiny to grow in power and save the world once and for all.
That is until you get side tracked by the mountain of side quests and storylines swallow you whole.
The problem letting the player explore such a vast world is that it drives the main quest’s pacing into a shallow grave. The main story line is not bad, it is compelling and provides a decent amount of threat. The problem is that if the player ignores the main quest to explore, do everything else first that sense of threat is thrown out the window.
High steaks drama
The stakes are so high that it becomes laughable in the game’s context. The Dragonborn is more concerned with cornering the real estate market and going to collage then preventing the end. Fallout 4 had a similar problem. You start out on a desperate bid to find your son. But you not so desperate that you can not spend five hours or more building your city.
Maybe it would not be as glaring the other quest lines were completely disconnected from the overarching threat. Dragon Age Origins did a much better job due to smaller scale and the constant threat posed by the Dark Spawn.
Sooner or later you will have to fight them when they are not ambushing you on the road, flooding the Deep roads or overwhelming villages. Dragons in Skyrim only raise an eyebrow short term. The robots react then seemingly forget. You can keep playing the radiant quests forever and Alduin will never consume the world. You can delay the end forever.
I am your headmaster now!
The writing is somewhat of a mixed bag. One of the more glaring examples of Skyrim’s rough writing comes in the form of the Collage of Winterhold. Applying to the Mage’s Collage is laughably easy (wish I could apply to Harvard by writing a five minute essay that could be mistake for a secondary school education and never worry about school or lodging fees).
You then get involved instantly in a execration dig (on your first day) and discover an ancient artefact. One would think that the obviously evil eldritch artefact would be built up over time. You get involved in lessons, learn new skills and upgrade your levels. A good combination of gameplay and immersive storytelling.
But instead they send a student (that teachers somehow trust more than themselves) into dangerous territories, get a dangerous staff and task you to save the school when the eldritch artefact starts going bad.
The quest line ends with you becoming headmaster of the Winterhold Collage. A student that has never attended a class or shown the skills in running anything. The only reason is because the protagonist needs a reward. You are never required to make policy designs or even be present. You are simply handed a lavish room and the idea of a title.
The Collage doesn’t run better or worse if you are there nor is there any reason to care. It is shallow title that crumbles when look at it too hard and makes the quest line look bad.
The collage where nothing happens
If the Collage of Winterhold’s questline was ham-fisted, then the Bard’s Collage of Solitude is a step up. Mostly because it barely even feels like an academic institution. In order to apply, you have to get a poem from an ancient tomb (more reasonable then Oxford at least). All in order to persuade the Jarl to allow a holiday celebration to take place.
One part of the quest involves you and the head master repairing the poem (some words are missing). You might think that this is setting up a possible failure state. Choosing the wrong words might result in you failing.
Regardless of what words you pick the festival goes ahead. After that the Collage is a barren wasteland of story or game features. The Bard’s Collage only offers three fetch quests. You never become a Bard; you never go to lessons or even get any followers.
The Collage yields nothing to the player from a story perspective once entry quest is over. It should be noted that a lot of the criticisms are due to content being cut. Originally you could become a bard, travel Skyrimand earn money through performances. All of it was sadly cut. However I cannot ignore how much of a missed opportunity and underwhelming the ending result is.
The sense of adventure
Skyrim however does one thing very well, The sense of epic adventure. You are not only involved in an effort to save the world. But you are also involved in a civil war, dragon fights, artefacts of unknown power. Godly affairs, tomb raiding and more. Skyrim does everything in its power to insure you feel like you are embarking on an adventure no matter what. The scale in the story telling is always grand, always unquestionably epic, I cannot deny that it is effective.
Even the basic act of travel feels like a grand adventure (mountains looming in the distance, ancient cities and ruins begging to be explored). As a result Skyrim is able to push past all of its short comings in its narrative. It grants a powerful illusion of being part and centre of something great. The atmosphere is so superbly ‘epic’ that the player wants to keep playing just to see what happens next.
The automated companions
You are allowed to take a single person with you as a party member. They are often very well rounded characters (the body guards granted to you as Thane, not so much) with stories and back stories. They are often genuinely likeable. The problem is that they are completely static in character.
You might be involved in a illegal smuggling operation, meeting a Daedric prince or fighting bloody Alduin himself. They never change. They never react to news that would have shattered anyone with any personality. Possibility the most hilarious example would be in Riften, where a party member is actively searching for the Thieves Guild (a self appointed protector of Riften’s citizens) .
She always talks about the finding the Thieves’ Guild but she never reacts when I led her through the secret entrance. She smiles and thinks of me as a friend while I make dealings with the Thieves Guild. She never even protests. Skyrim flattens its characters so much that they never change. They are little robots in colourful costumes, designed to help deflect enemy fire but not much else.
Skyrim was the birth place of Radiant quests, repeatable quests that have the same sort of goal (the Dark Brotherhood quests for example) but are randomised. This is where the theoretical infinite playtime comes from. They are good for farming gold and exp but are very repetitive and boring after a while. They feel like a unsatisfying job, where you perform menial repetitive tasks potentionally forever. Some people might enjoy Radiant quests but it is otherwise extremely boring and not what I play games for. I prefer to not get reminded of my job when I am playing games.
Gameplay is a massive mixture of everything. You have lock picking, crafting (potions, weapons and armour) melee combat, ranged combat, a magic system, real estate, speech training, dragon shouting, a romance system and so much more. It cannot go into all of them with the depth I would otherwise like, so I am going to examine a select few of them. I hope I will give you a decent idea what Skyrim holds.
Mad sword play slap
Considering that there is no way to parry/block (without a shield)/ dodge roll all you can do stand and twat the foe. It doesn’t help that the sound and visual design provide so lacklustre and the animations so stiff. It struggles to feel visceral or impactful. All you are doing is spamming the right mouse key. Some weapons do have a heavy attack but it takes so long to wind up, coupled with the lack of easy mobility. There is no reason to use it. There is no strategic advantage to be had when the job could be done by slapping the sword.
The magic system however is pretty great. The wide amount of spells that can be used offer a wide range of offensive and defense strategy, being able to swap two spells out at any given time offer the player the ability to adapt on the fly. Unlike melee combat, there is a good amount audio visual feedback. Fireballs explode with a satisfying bang and crackle, illusion spells flash with an enjoyable whoosh with a soft/harsh colour.
On the other hand, the magic system offers everything the player would need and then some. I cannot stress how much I prefer ranged magic as opposed to melee. It is more complex (are they going to rush me? Cast fire cloak, is there a weakness? Adapt to the ideal element. Do I need crowd control? Summon an elemental etc) it is more satisfying from an audio visual standpoint (how can you not want to cause an entire room to freeze in place?) and just a hell of a lot more fun.
The AI is passable. At its best it does the job. At its worst the AI struggles to navigate the dreaded caves of the world. A majority of the AI opponents simply rush you and punch you relentlessly. It rarely gets more complex then that. Mages will cast spells and run away if you get too close. In both cases you might find an AI running into a wall, or just refusing to fight.
A dragon once got stuck in a loop of near fire spewing action but never actually breathing fire or moving. It makes what are not entirely difficult fights easy wins.
As a mage the relentless rush of enemies who almost always charge me instead the big scary Storm Atronach is annoying. It does not provide any sort of challenge, just firing spells until they get too close then running away. It is artificially difficult. All the challenge of a tag with half the exercise.
Skyrim is a massive game. While it might be on the surface none too different from other open world sand boxes, Skyrim stands out due to being a well designed, memorable experience. The compass at the top of the screen is always alerting you to some undiscovered location. Skyrim always encourages you to explore, take some time to go into a cave or ruin. The sense of discovery and promise of reward is always being fulfilled. There is always the promise of treasure, a new quest, a character interaction , there is always something to find. A place to uncover.
Fantasy terminator: a question of difficulty
There is a problem with Skyrim in terms of scaling. Simply because there is very little scaling with each level. Eventually you will become a one man killing machine as you specialise in everything. When you are perfect at absolutely everything, even the most difficult fights (like the final boss) become trivial. The difficulty curve is static. Bethesda’s bid to accommodate as many people as possible turned the game into a rather breezy affair. Enjoyable but completely unchallenging as the player goes further into Skyrim.
The final boss: Alduin should have been something grand. At least a boss battle that would be worthy of the Eater of Worlds. However, it is just another dragon. A dragon that goes down with all the finale of a fart in a church.
Alduin is so unremarkable for what is supposed to be a final game boss. It leaves the player with a sense of disappointment. I could kill him within a minute without any sort of change of plans. A pitiful ending to what should be an epic conclusion to an epic tale.
Art style and graphics:
Graphics are moderately polished. So much so that without a side by side comparison it would be rather difficult to tell. The vistas are outstanding (as to be expected). Even though Skyrim is graphically underwhelming for a rerelease. The environments are gorgeous. They make travel a blast. It sells the sense of adventure. The yearning majesty of Skyrim is done perfectly.
Almost every single AI bug, visual glitch and performance issue was present in Skyrim. From a good old fashioned hard crash to path finding issues: Skyrim has them all. You might think that with a rerelease on a new system, Bethesda might have tried to fix some of the myriad of problems that plagued Skyrim on release. But it turns out that you are wrong. It is extremely disappointing and somewhat embarrassing for Bethesda.
Skyrim will not be making an appearance on my Hall of Fame. The performance problems alone prevent me from doing so. However I will still recommend it. I wouldn’t have put in over 100 hours into something that I didn’t enjoy. If you consider Skyrim to be one of your favourites, then all I can do is be happy that you can get so much enjoyment from a single game. Skyrim might be an outdated piece of software. But it is undeniably engaging.
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2020/03/12: Edit- Changed opening to be less...contradictions