The Elder Scrolls is one of my favorite game franchises. I first tried to get in with Daggerfall, but Morrowind was my true entry and I’ve never looked back. Unlike some folks who have fallen away from the games over the years as the series has chased accessibility and a wider audience, I’m always fascinated to see what Bethesda does with each iteration of their flagship RPG. Oblivion and Skyrim are both wonderful games that I revisit every six months.
And now we have Blades.
The Elder Scrolls: Blades is technically in “early access,” but it no longer requires any kind of special registration. It’s freely downloadable on both iOS and Android devices.
Blades is a first-person random dungeon crawler, mixing modern mobile visuals, a statistical character system streamlined from Skyrim’s progression, and touch-driven combat that hearkens back to the analog mouse combat of the first two Elder Scrolls games.
It’s also essentially a game about managing numbers, bars, timers, and resources. Like many free-to-play games, Blades has hard progression gates that require you to either grind out levels and gear through a combination of play sessions and waiting for loot chests to open, or spend a premium currency.
At initial launch, this system was out of whack compared to most other games in this mold, but after the Internet yelled it’s now smoother. It’s still a grind if you’re just looking to make your way through the basic story, and it’s still geared towards gently nudging you into the store.
The story is just present enough that people like me can’t call it “nonexistent.” It’s all tied into the town building mechanics. Your home town has been burned down as part of a larger conflict, and you’re a returning hero who has to rebuild it, and also fight monsters. The overall tone of the story is lighter than I expected, with some fun little moments of self-referential humor. Dialog choices exist, but they lead to the same quests and narrative paths no mater what.
Town building is pretty darn limited in scope. There’s several plots of land and you get to plop stuff down from a selection of correctly-sized buildings and objects. You can customize these things to some degree, but it all requires resources. And you have to find some objects by completing dungeon quests.
The whole town is essentially another meter to manage, dressed up in fancy 3D clothes, as your Town Level is used to gate certain story quests.
Dungeon delving makes up 90 percent of the game. The dungeons are procedurally generated, and although new tilesets and exteriors are rolled out every so often, you’ll also see a lot of the same dark corridors and dank cave hallways.
Combat locks you into a one-on-one showdown in most cases, and positioning and timing of your finger both factor in to your success. The combat’s fun and different weapons handle differently, which is great. Beyond that you have several abilities and spells you can unlock as you level up that both drain your mana/ stamina resources and operate on cooldowns.
Humanoid enemies are fun to fight. You’ll have to try and aim around their blocks and time your own spells and abilities correctly. Animal enemies can group up against you and frequently stand so far away that they can’t be hit except for in small windows. Don’t be surprised if low level wolves pose the biggest challenge early on.
The game is good at generating an endless stream of dungeon content for you to grind against to try and hit the requirements for the next story mission. A Jobs tab presents randomly-generated quests with small rewards, and there are both daily and weekly jobs that offer enhanced goodies. If you prefer to go all-in and spend a longer time playing, then there’s The Abyss: a survival-style “go as low as you can” dungeon delve that presents increasing challenges and rewards the deeper you get.
Many of the rewards are trapped inside Loot boxes.
Loot boxes are everywhere in Blades, and your adventurer picks them up instead of opening them. You have open them in a separate menu, and the higher the grade of chest, the longer it takes to open…unless you’re willing to pay.
This might be extremely off-putting to you depending on your personal tastes and philosophy. Premium currency is earned through gameplay, and enemies will sometimes drop weapons and armor. You can also craft things in the town, so the loot boxes aren’t your only means of getting stuff. But they’re the fastest. They’re omnipresent, and designed to make you check on the game every few hours and open some more. And maybe spend some cash, too.
Blades doesn’t offer most of the things people enjoy about The Elder Scrolls franchise. You can still make a character from a wide variety of races, and you can still tailor their combat style somewhat to your liking thanks to the skill trees on offer. But there’s no big world to explore. There’s no stealth or relationship mechanics. There’s no branching storyline. It’s not a clockwork world full of magical computer people and realistic physics, it’s just an endless series of dungeons and hacking, with slightly interesting combat.
Visually and sound-wise, the game so easily evokes bigger Elder Scrolls experiences that it’s almost a shame the production values were “wasted” on a simplistic Dungeon Looting experience. It’s not so hard to imagine this being expanded into a larger, more involved game. The core gameplay is solid, and if you already like Elder Scrolls, you’ll probably enjoy seeing this honed slice of that classic formula.
But it’s not a full Elder Scrolls game in the slightest. It’s a compelling take on a well-worn mobile RPG formula that dozens of other games have already perfected, but now from a first-person perspective. It’s got just enough Elder Scrolls stuff in it to stand out, and it might serve as a gateway game to the larger titles for people that haven’t played these before…as long as the loot boxes don’t send you running for the hills.
As someone who both likes to get loot from things and play Elder Scrolls games I’m enjoying it. I don’t think there’s any major reason to play this exclusively over other mobile RPGs that are faster paced, offer true multiplayer, and have the benefit of additional years of development.
Still, Blades is a honed, visually impressive game and you can see most of its core features in about an hour. By then you’ll know if you want to keep going or if you never want to launch it again.