If you’ve ever played any game in the Elder Scrolls series, you’d know that it has been much loved for many things — attractive storylines, rich graphics, and most of all, an incredibly enjoyable open world gameplay. Ever since Blades was announced by gaming powerhouse Bethesda at E3 2019, we knew we had to give it a go. After all, Blades was near certain to be one of the most important mobile games to be announced on either Android or iOS through 2019. Now, having played the Early Access copy, we can safely conclude a few facts about the game, and deduce where it excels, and what lets it down from being out-and-out awesome.
Hopes set high
Straight off the bat, this game is drop-dead gorgeous, so if you can, make sure that you play it in as high-end a phone as you can. Blades comes with a sense of finesse and grandeur from the start, and has the air of taking you on a journey. However, it is this very fact that lets Blades down, since the rest of the game struggles to keep up with the initial impressions. While setting up your character, you get decent customisability, which is good. Our protagonist, whom we named Arya of Winterfell, was then taken through the backdrop — there has been an attack on her hometown, and there was a mysterious green fire that has destroyed it all. Naturally, the onus of restoring the town to its glory, battling through adversities, and above all, rid the world of evil that befell her world (in our case, Winterfell).
The thing is, here’s where the high hopes end. Sure, you start with minimal costumes and weapons in every game, and the initial few items are fairly easy to unlock, but even within the first 30 minutes of downloading and playing the game, we began feeling a weird lack of purpose in the mission that we were seeking. We even felt bad about naming our character Arya, for the real one would’ve probably wrapped up her mission here and left way before you could blink.
Throughout Blades, you go about executing primary quests and side jobs in tandem, while using your earned gems and gold to rebuild your city back to its former glory. Talking of rebuilding the town is what turned our attention to the graphics, with every scene inside the town looking like a pitch-perfect recreation of mid-17th century European countryside. There were even times when we stood by to just admire the mountains in the horizon, or sunlight filtering through the broken window panes of a dungeon. Everything except the characters of the game are beautifully designed, and it would be safe to say that Elder Scrolls Blades is, at this moment, one of the best looking games on Android and iOS.
Through all this beauty, you’d keep sensing sparse bits of mystery thrown in here or there — the shattered statue of the town’s founder, for instance. That, however, is just the start of our problems with Blades. You see, while Blades should have grabbed the mystique of the storyline, married it to the graphics and placed it smack dab in the middle of the gameplay, they’ve instead swept it to the margins in an almost lackadaisical nature. In fact, at times it feels as if a super-meticulous game development was hastily replaced by a drab and indifferent one to finish a hasty job that could have otherwise been fantastic.
In terms of the general tasks of the game — battle through the Queen’s forces, recover kidnapped townsfolk being patrolled by goblins, or even take on a furry ol’ grizzly, none of these would have you break a sweat. While many would criticise that, casual gamers would find it as something that lets the player enjoy the game’s mise-en-scene, instead of put too much effort in the battle mechanics. There is a straightforward range of toil that you go through in order to restore the town hall, build the smithy back and set about recovering the ruins of your city. Building back more of the structures, rescuing the townsfolk as well as traders will also help you gather more essentials and build greater structures, as your town’s prestige level increases.
Here again, it all just feels a bit too simple. Pivotal story points get masked in the lack of Blades’ intricacy, to a point where we were actually surprised with it. Your protagonist’s equipment, including shielding and weapons, keep upgrading as you progress through the game. This is crucial as you level up further, but is also very easy. You will also get the chance to upgrade spells or abilities, and it is important to choose wisely here.
You also have a second mode called ‘Abyss’, which is an infinite runner with a continuous stretch of rooms that have enemies of increasing difficulty that also increase in number as you progress. This mode is actually more gratifying than the town mode, simply because you can get a continuing headrush of achievement. The mystique factor also increases in abyss mode, with a cavernous hall and filtered sunlight greeting you at the start, interspersed with foliage growth in the middle.
The biggest letdown
You see, Blades simply doesn’t feel like Elder Scrolls because it barely has actual open world elements — just pretensions that would only make you think “nice” if you’re playing it for the first time. Despite having options to explore caverns and dungeons, most of the features are locked, and you can only walk around through an unnecessarily restricted area, or interact with a needlessly few number of items, to make this game the amount of fun that it really should have been. More than anything, it is this that we just cannot get beyond, and we can only hope that the game changes for good as it nears launch.
This brings us to a second point — resource utilisation. On a Samsung Galaxy S9+, which is a rather powerful flagship smartphone from 2018, Blades started dropping frames, overheating the device and stuttering just about 20 minutes into the gameplay. This would happen with extra apps closed and all background services frozen, and if such a flagship device faces such stress when the game is played, Blades might just seem unplayable on lower-end devices.
You see, Elder Scrolls Blades is a bit like a hastily made Funskool replica of a Dodge Hellcat, or a Lamborghini Miura — they are supposed to be incredible, but in reality, they really aren’t. The graphics and the easy controls, coupled with nicely designed weapons and costumes are the game’s saving grace, coupled with a few decent story points. But, Blades falls flat in its open world quest that really should have been its own, and gameplay is way too underwhelming for what it should have been.
It’s still quite a stunning game, though, and that definitely makes it worth downloading and playing through at least once.