Genre: Action Role-Playing Game
Original Release: November 11, 2011
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Played on: Windows (Steam)
I’ll admit, when I first started on the endeavor that is this blog, I was simultaneously looking forward to Skyrim and dreading it. Why? Well, on one hand it’s got a lot to do and it’s an easy way to pass the time, but on the other hand it gets samey very quickly. And I know that when I get settled into a routine in a game it starts to kill the fun for me. Don’t confuse that for me hating gameplay loops. Those are routines as well, but those are necessary loops that happen on a moment-to-moment, minute-to-minute basis, or even longer. That’s how you get your players engaged. Rather, I don’t like having a set schedule for myself in an open world game. And that’s something Skyrim kind of gets you into. I’ll explain that a bit later.
See, originally I was looking forward to completely eviscerating Skyrim because I thought it was terrible. I went into the game fully prepared to rag on everything about the game and nitpick every single detail.
But honestly? I found myself understanding why so many people like it. I still have plenty of complaints, but I’ll try to temper those with the things I like. So let’s start with a sticking point for me: a lot of the voice acting is…not exactly stellar.
I get it, Skyrim is a massive land. Walking from one end to the other takes at least a full in-game day and there are hundreds of NPCs roaming around. Giving each of them a unique voice would be prohibitively expensive. But if they’re important figures, why give them the same voice as at least two minor NPCs? Why does Jarl Elisif the Fair sound identical to Ysolda and Camilla Valerius? They even use the exact same lines outside of their individual dialogues. This isn’t the case with a majority of the other big-name NPCs, in fact, Galmar Stone-Fist sounds like Cookie Monster and I love it. He’s not voiced by Cookie Monster, but it still sounds really close.
There are some other noteworthy voices though, including my own favorite Daedric Prince:
I guess I should also point out that this is the first title in the Elder Scrolls series that I’ve played. At the time of writing, it’s also the only one I’ve played. So maybe the praise that other people have for Skyrim is lost on me because a good chunk of it comes from people who’ve played Morrowind and Oblivion at least, if not Arena and Daggerfall.
So with this being my first entry in the series, how is the combat? Well, you can choose between one-handed or two-handed weapons, a bow and arrow, or five different schools of magic, and you can equip a spell to each hand. Unfortunately, the majority of these options feel underwhelming or oversimplified. I went with the bow and arrow, so I’ll talk about that first.
You have a bow, you have an arrow. You nock an arrow and pull it back toward yourself, as you would in archery. How long you hold down the attack button dictates how far the arrow will fly. If you’re sneaking, you’ll net a damage bonus that depends on your chosen perks. Double damage is the norm, but you can bump that to triple if you’re far enough along the sneak tree. That’s typically more than enough to kill the bandits, draugr, and errant cave bears you’ll come across on your adventure. If it doesn’t kill them outright, it’ll at least hurt them enough that two or three more arrows will take them out.
The problem here is that archery is almost too good. If you’re sneaky enough, you can wipe out an entire camp, or take a potshot, damage your target, and roll away before they can find you, so you can just whittle them down that way. And more often than not you’ll have to. Even with heavy armor, or at least high-grade, reinforced light armor, enemies hit so hard that if you don’t have a lot of healing items on hand, you’re going to die and get sent back to your last save. It’s frustrating to say the least. But what about fighting up close in personal?
Well…This was me with a broom.
Melee combat is clunky at best. Depending on your weapon preference, you can have two one-handed weapons, one and a shield, or one two-handed weapon. This way you can choose between having a defensive option with the shield or going full-offense by dual-wielding swords or daggers if you prefer. The problem comes from the fact that it’s very hard to tell just how close you need to be to your target just to hit them. I miss more often than I care to admit, even if I shift to the third-person camera. The swings are just so wide and take so long to wind up that it’s hard to line them up properly. For me at least, I know there’s probably at least one person out there who knows how to handle it and can wreck house as a result.
And then we have magic. Oh boy the magic system is a bit weird. At its core, it makes sense. You have a pool of magicka that replenishes over a period of time, the rate of which can be improved by wearing certain equipment of enchanting your gear, but spells like flames, frostbite, and sparks will eat through your reserves so quickly that it feels like you’re intended to use them sparingly. And if you have some bandit thug lumbering toward you with an axe, your instinct isn’t going to be to fire in controlled bursts, but to hold down the respective attack buttons and hope they melt before they get to you. Typically this isn’t how it turns out at all. Even the conjuration spells take a lot of magicka and you might not get to use them for very long.
So my question instead becomes: why would I ever use anything but archery? And really you don’t have to outside of certain questlines. Nothing really bars your entry behind a certain combat requirement, and you’re given plenty of access to spells and melee weapons as they’re needed. You don’t even have to be terribly proficient with them. Just have a magic dagger on hand to move some giant roots, or a legendary two-handed axe to open a tomb and you’re good. After that you can just switch back to your preference.
Skyrim does have a wide variety of skillsets though, split across constellations representing the warrior, the thief, and the mage. Each one contains relevant skills that are improved through use throughout the game. Buying from and selling too shopkeepers will improve your speechcraft, crafting potions will improve alchemy, and making weapons and armor will improve your smithing skills. It’s nice to have the ability to pick and choose what you want to improve, and that the game scales the enemies with your level so that you don’t have to stick to one area until you hit a certain point.
Some of the quests are a lot of fun too! I always have a blast getting the Thieves’ Guild back into working shape, exposing a conspiracy in Markarth and escaping from prison as a result, or proving to myself that I could never be an assassin given how many times I bungle the Dark Brotherhood assassinations.
But there are some bad quests in there too. The aforementioned College of Winterhold chain in particular goes on for a while and involves a lot of running back and forth before you’re met with magic anomalies that take significantly reduced damage from everything, to the point that you’re better off just equipping two daggers and hoping for the best. And you have to kill at least ten of them before you can do anything else in that quest. It’s just tedious, especially since the whole questline is supposed to focus on magic and you end up not using magic to defend yourself at that point. Why would you do that?
And that goes for the main story as well. It starts off so well, but then loses steam very quickly. Like once you’ve started to uncover precisely why the dragons are coming back after thousands of years of absence, the whole thing starts to fall apart. I’m not going to reveal why that’s the case, but I will make it known that I find the in-universe reason lazy at best.
I get it, writing is hard. Making a game is hard, lord knows I’ve been at my first project for almost two months now and it’s microscopic in comparison to Skyrim. Developers need way more recognition for the hard work that they put into their projects, even if they do turn out janky. And Skyrim is rife with glitches. Seriously, there’s a reason Bethesda games are the butt of many jokes about stability.
From my own limited experience, open-world games seem like a nightmare to try and debug. They’re massive, for starters, but then you have to consider just how many things your players can do. Does the magic work as it’s supposed to? Does an arrow fly straight? How many collision problems do we have in just one of the many dungeons across the world? Can the player fall through the floor? No joke, I was playing through one of the main story quests last night and when I freed a prisoner he fell backwards through the wall. I wish I had gotten a screenshot of it. Though I did have a horse following me around for a while. I did not purchase this horse, nor did I steal it. It just kind of showed up wherever I went and defended me until a dragon finally killed it.
I could go on about Skyrim for a long while, but I think I’ve made my point. It’s weirdly enjoyable at times, but incredibly boring at others. A number of mechanics feel half-baked, but the ones that work do so very well, almost too well. And so I’m going to give it a recommendation. This one feels a little tepid at best, but it comes with an understanding of why people enjoy it as much as they do. Maybe it’s not for me, but I must admit that it has a lot of charm to it. If it didn’t, why would I feel so conflicted?
If I may add one final note though, the modding community has done a lot of work both to stabilize the game and make it ridiculously silly. One of my personal favorites turns the mudcrabs into Futurama’s own Dr. Zoidberg, voice lines, scuttling sound, and all.