We were waiting for The Elder Scrolls: Blades for a long time, weren't we? Nowhere near as long as for The Elder Scrolls VI, but if you enjoyed the wait, then this game does have a special appeal for fans of delayed gratification. If not, then Bethesda's new mobile game has compelling reasons not to play it, or at least, to play in small doses.
For some, just the fact that it was a mobile game was enough to dismiss TES: Blades out of hand from the get-go. I'm not of this opinion. There are a lot of great mobile games out there, even completely free ones. But it's true that the news of a free-to-play game in an already popular franchise gives some cause for apprehension. Because Blades follows the predictable mobile game formula to the hilt: a beautiful but shallow game with built-in frustration points designed to pressure players into buying virtual currencies to spend on the marketplace and to gamble on uncertain rewards. As any veteran dungeon-crawler knows, before opening the chest, one must check for traps.
Important note: The Elder Scrolls: Blades is still in early access, and so may (and hopefully will) change before the final release.
Although originally touted by Bethesda's Todd Howard as a 'pure Elder Scrolls experience', Blades lacks the open world and freedom to mess with your environment and be anything you wanted that was the hallmark of the mainline Elder Scrolls games. Instead, while you have considerable flexibility with your character as a member of the Blades, the game takes place in distinct levels with very repetitive content. You have a home base in the form of a ruined town which you can rebuild with materials you win from quests, and accepting different story missions, side-quests tellingly called 'jobs' in roughly linear levels with monsters to slay, chests to loot and resources to gather.
The waiting game
At first, the game's early dungeon crawls do make it thrilling to be adventuring in the world of Tamriel from your smartphone, even if the areas are smaller and combat more basic. The classic dungeon crawling play loop of explore-fight-loot-level repeat is a time-honored satisfying formula. But it isn't long before Blades starts throwing roadblocks at you.
When you find a chest in a dungeon, you can't open it right away...rather you open it from the menu and it takes either time, or gems to open. The most basic chests (with basically worthless items) still take 5 seconds. The next up, Silver Chests, take 1 hr or 12 gems (and they used to take 3hrs or 36 gems!) to open. Chests with even better loot will take 6 hrs, 12 hrs or more, and you can only open one at a time. Worse, you only have a limited number of chests you can store at one time...reach that limit (starting at 10), and you either have to pay gems to open the chests as you find them (or waste them), or pay to increase your chest capacity.
Player homes in Skyrim were a (fictional) money sink sure, but also a point of pride for players, and were also among the most popular free mod types from the community. The town in Blades has the potential to be a real-life money sink, however, as constructing buildings take up different resources in ever-climbing numbers, and much faster than you can get them through regular play. The town isn't just cosmetic. Items and questlines needed to progress are locked behind town development. Of course, the fast track can be bought here just like anything else.
Are we having fun yet?
Although Elder Scrolls veterans may be used to exploring the world in search of the materials they want, the fun of adventuring an open world and discovering unique and detailed locations isn't present here. Skyrim, Oblivion, and Morrowind all had great main stories but it was a joy to get lost in hours and hours of side questing. In Blades, the story is pretty bare-bones, and side quests can be skipped for gems.
But of course, no one would actually pay to skip a quest, since quests in RPGs are supposed to be fun, right? The thing is, maintaining a satisfying gameplay rhythm in the face of all the prodding towards the game's storefront demands time management, accounting and task optimization more akin to work than play.
I've slammed Blades for its economic model, and make no mistake, that's the main focus of the game. Even if you never spend a cent, your game experience will be based around trying to resist the pain points of the monetization systems.
If you do spend, bear in mind that there is no payment that just unlocks a ''pure Elder Scrolls experience" for you to enjoy. Your paid-for benefits will be temporary, and in the case of chests, unpredictable. After some levels, you'll find yourself hitting the wall again. An upcoming PvP arena from the game will only push the stakes higher, as deep-pocketed players pay to get ahead in the arms race. It's a shame, because there are glimmers of a good game in there, and perhaps hope that it may emerge from the early access period a better one.
Blades can still be enjoyed in small doses
It's the irony of modern gaming that the best thing to avoid being caught in the spending cycle here is not to play it, or at least, not to play so often. If you play a few bite-sized chunks of 10 minutes or so throughout the day, you won't fill up your chest slots and inventory so fast, and end up with an attractive casual dungeon crawler that has the nice advantage of being playable in landscape or portrait mode - something I really like about it.
While I can't honestly recommend The Elder Scrolls: Blades as it is, especially when there are alternative open world RPGs out on mobile like The Quest (paid), Ravensword 2 (paid), Naroth (free), and Moonshades (free) that offer an Elder Scrolls experience unhampered by the pushy microtransactions, there's still some hope. Responding to player feedback during early access, Bethesda did reduce the Silver Chest cost from 3hr/36 gems to 1hr/12gems, among other tweaks.
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There's still space for improvements before final release, and aside from less aggressive monetization, more variety in environments and a more intuitive UI for skills and abilities could do wonders for Blades. But for now, however, those waiting for a worthy successor to Skyrim and predecessors have but thin gruel to whet their appetites here, and an anticipation that no amount of gems or dollars can skip.
Have you tried The Elder Scrolls: Blades? What do you think of it?