80 Days is great, go play that instead.
Over the weekend, I started up a new character in Skyrim on my Switch. I’ve owned the game across five platforms: I pre-ordered it on the 360, picked up the Legendary Collection after my defection to the PS3, got deep on the modding scene on PC, both for the original version and the 2016 remaster, dabbled in that same remaster when it was on sale on PS4, and finally (until the next release, I guess) picked up the Switch version for some on-the-go sojourns through the mountains. It is, by all measures, one of my favourite games. The Elder Scrolls: Blades, Bethesda’s latest foray into the world of mobile gaming, bastardises just about everything I’ve come to love about the series.
Perhaps the most upsetting part of the Blades experience is that it makes such a positive immediate impression. Bethesda have been mindful of the ways people play games, including intuitive ways to play in both portrait and landscape. The visuals are pretty breath-taking for a game running in the palm of my hand, and it runs nicely on my Pixel 2. The music is similarly grandiose, exactly the kind of vast orchestral arrangement you’d want from the franchise. Indeed, Blades is very much an Elder Scrolls game on its surface. Once I got my hands on it proper, I found a gameplay experience that was compromised to its core.
Enemies hang back and wait their turn to attack one-by-one, pottering around you in a stupor before stopping to make heavily telegraphed moves that you can either block or soak up—it doesn’t really matter much either way. There’s no skill, dynamism or space to the fighting, and even spells feel uninspired and simplistic. There’s none of the freedom or variety that makes the franchise what it is: no stealth, no environmental experimentation, no friendly AI to fight alongside. Combat was never the franchise’s selling point, and Blades is a couple steps back from even that low bar.
The game’s problems are summarised no better than in its implementation of a helpful spell. Clairvoyance, the ethereal quest guide from Skyrim, makes its return as an on-by-default option, free from resource constraints. The idea that the game would need this kind of handholding is comedic, because there’s absolutely nothing of value to be found off the beaten path. In fact, it is so narrow in its design and so stingy in its sense of discovery that there isn’t anything but the beaten path. A breadcrumb guide implies some grander scale to get lost in. Blades has nothing of the sort.
Because Blades is a mobile game, it must have some capacity for monetisation and player hooks. The setup for the game is, as the name implies, that you are a member of the Blades, an ancient organisation created to protect emperors and kill stuff. After the group is unceremoniously outlawed, you find your town conveniently destroyed in ways that allow you to spend an awful lot of time (and, potentially, money) rebuilding it. NPCs titter about, muttering the usual ambient dialogue to themselves and staring blankly into the middle distance when you interact with them. It’s unsettling, like walking around in that episode of Doctor Who where all the mannequins come to life.
In completing quests and “exploring” the “environment”, you can collect resources and chests, which are easily Blades’ most insulting mechanic. Opening a wooden chest, the game’s lowest tier, takes five seconds. You press a button and watch a timer tick down—for five seconds. It’s the mobile equivalent of holding a button to navigate the UI in a console game, and it’s just as frustrating. On top of the already cumbersome menus, these small niggles make playing a chore, even in short bursts. Blades is too fragmented for satisfying quick sessions and too frustratingly clunky for immersive binges, so how the hell are you supposed to play it?
Silver chests, the next step up from wooden, take an hour (and it’s worth noting that they took three hours before player pushback forced them to lower it). Of course, you’re immediately encouraged to pay gems, the game’s premium currency, to speed up the process. Loot has never been a strong suit of the franchise; it largely adheres to the same equipment sets based on two factors: materials and enchantments. There are no Diablo-style legendaries, just fancier metals and more potent magical effects. The result is that it’s just impossible to care about what I’ll get at the end of that hour, and even less enticing to pay money for the pleasure of knowing now.
Blades made a strong showing at E3—a connected Elder Scrolls experience that brought players together across all platforms—but the end result has none of the adventuring soul you’d want. The game is barren, lacking any immersion or connection to the environment around your character. Perhaps the game’s chances on that front will be better in VR, but that doesn’t address the egregious timers, less-than-basic combat and consistently monotonous gameplay loop. I don’t care for my character, I don’t care for the town I’m rebuilding or the people in it, and I sure don’t care for Bethesda’s buck wild greed. I’m going back to Skyrim and Dragon’s Dogma on my Switch, thanks.