The Elder Scrolls: Blades isn’t the full The Elder Scrolls experience. Instead, Bethesda has crafted a game that takes some of the key elements of the franchise and reworks them into a portable experience that feels built from the ground up to work on phones. But Blades also brings with it elements of mobile gaming that some fans might find annoying.
First revealed back at E3 2018, The Elder Scrolls: Blades is a mobile phone game that is set in the popular The Elder Scrolls universe. Though, to be clear, this isn’t Skyrim on a phone. The experience here is more focused on small quests and managing a town.
The game starts by quickly throwing the player into the world and introducing them to a village which was recently burned down and nearly destroyed. It is up to you, of course, to find missing villagers, get new folks to move in, rebuild shops and homes and bring the settlement back to life. To complete this task, players will have to go exploring dungeons to accomplish simple quests.
In my first few hours with the game, the quests have nearly all involved saving villagers, killing a certain number of baddies or collecting a something or many somethings in a dungeon.
The simple nature of the quests might get stale eventually, but so far I’ve found myself excited to jump back into the game whenever I can find some spare time. The reason I keep coming back is that the basic gameplay loop is really fun and satisfying. As you complete quests and challenges you get more materials that let you improve your village. You have full control over where to build new shops or homes and can even customize them. Watching a village return to life is a neat way to visually show players how much progress they are making.
Also, as you complete quests you earn new weapons, armour, level up and unlock new abilities, passive perks or spells. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but the whole experience feels polished in a way most mobile RPGs don’t.
There is no open world to explore. Instead, your town is a hub and dungeons and other areas are smaller levels you explore depending on the quest. Again, some players will find this too simple and pared-down. Yet the short quest length and smaller size of the maps feel perfect for a game that you pick up and play for only a few minutes.
For those wondering, in my time with the game, I could close the app mid-quest and when I returned I was right where I left off, making it even easier to sneak a few minutes of adventuring in while at the bus stop.
Visually, Blades is one of the best looking mobile games I’ve played. It looks as good as most Xbox 360 games and honestly nearly as good as Skyrim. Some crappy looking water and weird lighting are the only graphical problems I’ve noticed. Watching a game like this run on my phone is still remarkable and I was happy to see it didn’t instantly kill my battery or make my phone turn into an oven.
Much of what you expect in an Elder Scrolls game is found in Blades. Multiple enemy types, armour, leveling up magic or stamina with each level, unlocking perks, a character creator and even lovely lizardfolk. It’s just been reworked to work better on a phone and a touchscreen.
Maybe the most impressive feature in Blades is that you can play the entire game in portrait or landscape mode. This makes it possible to play Blades with one hand. I found myself using this mode while I watched TV. What’s really remarkable about this feature is that you can switch between either mode whenever you want. Every menu works in both vertical or horizontal. Combat and exploration work in either mode too. I spent more time than I would care to admit rocking my phone back and forth, watching menus shift and icons move. It’s slick.
The controls change depending on which mode you are currently using. When playing in landscape, you control your character using two virtual joysticks. When vertical, you tap on the ground where you want to go and your character moves to that spot. While I prefer moving with two sticks, tapping to move is great for playing with one hand.
The combat in Blades is based on timing when to tap and when to release. You tap the screen and hold down your finger until a circle fills a ring. Time it perfectly and you will land a critical hit. If you are using a shield, a simple tap on the left of the screen brings it up, letting you block. As you level up you can equip new spells and abilities, which are activated by clicking their corresponding icons during combat.
The combat is simple enough that most players won’t get stuck, but there is also enough depth there to allow players to really master it. Like the quests and dungeons, exploration and combat aren’t ripped right out of the bigger games. They feel inspired by them and built to work on a phone.
One element of Blades that will most likely be a deal breaker for some fans is the inclusion of timers to unlock chests. The first time I found a chest I was excited, as I often feel when finding chests in other RPGs. Then I clicked on it, the way to interact with objects in the game, and the chest just popped out of existence. I got nothing. Hmmm. I was confused. Then the game explained that chests are collected in quests and then you unlock them in a menu.
This takes time. Real world time.
Basic chests only take a few minutes or less. But bigger and rarer chests can take hours and hours to unlock. This, as you might expect, can be skipped using in-game gems, which you can buy from a store.
There isn’t any way to spin this chest unlocking process as a positive. The act of opening a chest is supposed to be a joyous moment in an RPG like The Elder Scrolls, except now it’s locked behind a timer. In my time with the game I haven’t been bothered too much by these chest timers as the rest of the game is free and unrestricted to play for as long as you want. Yet, I also understand that many will see chests that take hours to unlock and uninstall the game, which I think is a totally fair reaction.
I’m just more accustomed to how mobile games work and outside of these chest timers, I find the rest of the game to be really open and not very manipulative. If these annoying timers are the cost of getting a high-quality RPG like this on a mobile phone, I’m willing to put up with them. But I understand many won’t.
Another part of Blades that I’ve only barely dug into is The Abyss. This is a large, randomly generated dungeon that will challenge players as they get farther down. As you get deeper into The Abyss, you earn more rewards and loot. One mode that isn’t available currently in the Early Access release of Blades is PVP. So no idea how that will work or if it is any good.
The Elder Scrolls: Blades isn’t a portable Skyrim. To be fair, that already exists on the Switch. Instead, Blades tries to reimagine the core elements, visuals and gameplay of The Elder Scrolls games for touchscreens. The result, at least in my first few hours, is mostly successful.
I can now play a large, visually impressive RPG with one hand while eating. Isn't the future wonderful?