Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Where do I even begin? If it’s an RPG with the trappings of a traditional Bethesda game, how does one even start to tackle the monumental task of reviewing it? Skyrim is just that – another monumental Bethesda RPG, and yet it’s also so much more. You see, I never fell in love with Bethesda’s games. Morrowind endeared itself to me in a quirky way. Fallout 3 failed to impress me, and I found New Vegas to be only a slight improvement. Don’t even get me started on Oblivion. When I see fellow gamers so deeply immersed in these titles I feel as though I’ve been robbed of the ability to enjoy some of the most well loved and critically acclaimed titles of this generation.

But I’m not here to say that Skyrim left me feeling as empty as Bethesda’s previous offerings. Quite the opposite, actually.

Developer: Bethesda
Publisher: Bethesda
ESRB Rating: M
Released: November 11, 2011; December 8 [JP]
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Version Reviewed: PC

So clearly there are two questions that need to be answered here: ‘what makes this game so much better than the previous two Elder Scrolls games,’ and ‘are these differences going to alienate long-time fans of the series?’ The answer to the first question is not quite clear to me. Everything has been refined, sure, but a lack of refinement wasn’t the deal breaker for me whenever I would sit down to play Oblivion. It’s a nice flourish, but there’s something more fundamental than that at work. As for the second question, the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ If you loved the previous games, you may very well suffer from an overload of dopamine while playing Skyrim.

Perhaps it’s the world rich with activity and sub-plots that genuinely draw me in instead of incessantly reminding me that I’m playing an RPG and not actually embarking on an epic fantasy quest. Bethesda’s worlds don’t often compel me to do side quests and to explore the landscape because there is always a nagging feeling hovering somewhere in the back of my mind that I’m following a pattern of traveling from point A to point B, clicking something, and then going to point C to talk with an NPC until the game ends thirteen hours later. That feeling grows more uncomfortable while side questing, where the only real satisfaction is from getting some experience. I’ve never invested in the stories, nor have I been hooked enough by the often drab worlds to care about exploration or devising interesting situations for myself. It’s a bit like having an out-of-body experience and watching myself play as opposed to actually playing. At the most basic level the games failed to capture my imagination, which in turn weighed the whole experience down and prevented it from ever really taking flight. That is not the case here.

Skyrim’s primary story revolves around your birthright as the last of the Dragonborn, and your destiny to stop whatever malevolent force is bringing the long-dead dragons back to life. Meanwhile, Tamriel’s northern province of Skyrim is engaged in civil war; the imperials versus the Stormcloaks. While it certainly is a clichéd premise, the main story arc itself is richly constructed and the characters are so well nuanced that it is more than worth investing in emotionally. The Elder Scrolls has some of the richest lore never to be fully realized in a game up until this point. For the first time, I feel like Bethesda has accomplished their goal of making me feel like I am a part of this rich lore, instead of making me feel like I should read up on that lore after I’ve dispatched with the game.

While the story may not win any awards for its writing, it deserves praise for its coherency and the scenarios it sets up, like capturing a dragon atop a stronghold reminiscent of Mina’s Tirith from Lord of the Rings. Furthermore, the civil war side of the story is actually quite brilliant in what it forces you to consider. In pushing you to side with the empire or Ulfric Stormcloak, who murders the high king of Skyrim in the interest of making Skyrim independent from the empire, Bethesda asks the player to carefully consider both sides of the argument. It would have been easy to paint Ulfric as a shallow villain, but that never happens. I never felt like either side was the ‘bad’ side. On one hand, Ulfric and his contingent feel that their bloodshed is simply the price a nation must pay for independence – a notion that echoes throughout history, and has never been a matter of good or evil, but political idealism. On the other hand, the empire brings unity, safety, and stability at the cost of homogenizing the cultures of the provinces it rules. Whereas most games present you with moral and amoral options, Skyrim tries to humanize both sides of the conflict and is better off for it. Even now, I don’t feel emboldened and correct by siding with the empire, I feel conflicted.

Thinking back, though, this isn’t what made me play through the game for fifty five hours without ever wanting to stop. It’s not what makes me look forward to playing for fifty five more hours either. Maybe it’s the profusion of side quests and dynamic miscellaneous objectives. The side quests kept me enthralled, and were far more substantial than even the main quest. Most importantly I never finished one because I thought to myself, ‘y’know, I could level up quicker if I just slogged through a few of these quests.’ It was always because I wanted to know what would happen next, and what the outcome of my actions would be. The faction quests, Thieve’s Guild, Mage’s College, Companions, etc., are all fascinating sub-plots varied in theme which all lead to unique payoffs.

Part of the reason why I never focused on the grinding aspect of doing side quests is because I simply couldn’t. There is some hidden degree of brilliance in the relationship between Bethesda’s approach to character progression and their approach to side quest design, where you might pick things up along the way, and you might get some gold at the end, but the reward for completion is never experience, and it’s rarely anything other than the satisfaction of having done it. This is because each skill in your repertoire, from alchemy, to one handed combat, to the various schools of spellcasting improves as you use them, and you only gain experience when these skills level up.

Leveling gives you access to an extra ten magicka, health, or stamina, along with one skill point to be used within the constellation themed skill trees. While I loved being able to improve my secondary skills, or my ability with shields in the same way that most games with such a system only allow you to focus on combat, the trees are overly ambitious and designed poorly. While the rest of the game’s menus are clean and simple to navigate, the core task of assigning skills is daunting and navigating the tree is far too clunky. It’s style over function. Fortunately, you don’t have to constantly put up with it.

The rest of the game’s UI is perfect. The menus lack the annoying pull-up animation of previous games, and they’re far less clunky to navigate than before. Not only this, but the innovation of the favorites menu is one so genius that it astounds me that this has never been done before. What this does is allow you to tag anything in your inventory or spell list so that you can pop up a non-intrusive list of those spells or items at any time. This alone eliminates most of the flow-breaking tedium of combat and other activities. It might actually be my favorite addition to any RPG ever.

Another small interface refinement, or rather an animation refinement, is that the strange facial zoom-ins during dialogue sequences are absent. This shouldn’t have ever been a bullet point on my list of things that Skyrim does better than any other Bethesda RPG, but it is and I will not mourn the death of those silly zoom-ins.

As for the combat, it hasn’t exactly been revamped. It is, however, improved enough to satisfy me. Finally, when I click and see my sword swing, it all feels fluid and responsive. Along with some better animations, a much improved spellcasting system, the ability to wield spells and weapons in whatever combinations you want, and some depth stemming from the timing based block / stagger / shield bash system, and the combat of Skyrim turns out to be something that not only did I not dread, I actually enjoyed quite a bit. Oh, and the shouts are awesome to boot. Whoever decided to make summoning a thunderstorm big enough to wipe out a small town a thing needs at least three small statues sculpted in his honor.

Of all the clear improvement Bethesda have made for Skyrim, this next one gave me the greatest cause to celebrate. Gone are the days where you would steal a loaf of bread from one misbegotten baker and travel across the world only to be apprehended because guards in the Elder Scrolls series are capable of the inhuman feat of transmitting your crimes from city to city with only their minds. Perhaps they belonged to an ancient cult dedicated to stopping crime, and they initiated some sort of pact with the Daedric prince whose job it is to piss me off, or maybe they sacrificed goats in order to strengthen their clearly psychic powers, or aliens came to support Tamriel’s law enforcement by giving them cell phone technology. Whatever the reason for this was, it is a thing no longer. Break out the party hats and the cake, for tonight, I will steal all of the bread.

But I already said that these refinements, while wonderful, were not the things that made me fall in love with Skyrim. So what’s left? The world. The world of Skyrim is not the most vast in all of videogames, but it is perhaps one of the most richly detailed ones out there.

What immediately caught my attention was the beauty of it all. Not the technical side, but the art direction. If the hallmark of a great meal is that it is so delicious that it makes you want to lick your plate clean, then Skyrim’s world is the videogame equivalent of a great meal. I wanted to leave no rock unturned, to leave no corner of the map unexplored. It isn’t simply gorgeous, it’s downright captivating. From snow-crested mountain tops with breath-taking vista to tundras pierced by fissures of steam, I wanted to see the world just for the pleasure of seeing it. It gets better though, in fifty five hours of play, and dozens of dungeons cleared, I never saw the same thing twice. Not once did I get the impression that a town or dungeon was recycled.

Bethesda wasn’t satisfied with just giving me a beautiful playground to explore, though. They crafted a world that felt dynamic and lived in. They do this by populating the world with events that are random and often times indifferent to the player’s presence. At one point on my journey, I came across a thief as I was emerging from a dungeon, who quickly handed over a stolen weapon and asked me to hold on to it for him, and then took off with a guard in chase. I later found his body abandoned on the path up a mountain.

Another way they craft such an intricate world is by allowing the player to initiate memorable cause and effect sequences. Every person who walks away from Skyrim will do so with their own unique stories to tell, not about the plot points given to them, but tales of what happened during their time with the game.

My favorite story began when I was approaching the game’s first town. I saw a chicken, and the game started me off with a fire spell. The time between me going, ‘hmm…I wonder…,’ and a chicken desperately clucking out its final breaths while running around aflame must have been under a half of a second. The townsfolk didn’t take kindly to this, including an NPC I had to talk to for the main quest. I defended myself and killed the angry blacksmith, then went across the street to the general store to stock up after a hard day of chicken roasting. I bought a spell that let me raise enemies from the dead. After that, I went into the man’s house where his family were none too pleased to have my company. Their loss. His little girl was particularly disrespectful. The gall of this impudent child, scalding me after her chicken worshipping lunatic of a father attacked me. Suffice it to say, the game would not allow me to set her on fire like some sort of commonplace chicken. That wouldn’t deter me from getting revenge. With my new spell equipped, I walked outside, raised her father from the dead, and used my new minion to kill his widowed wife and leave that brat as an orphan. I then spent the next fifty four hours killing dragons, moderating peace talks, and being praised as a hero while that little urchin went alone and forgotten.

Horrible and vindictive? Maybe. The point is that Skyrim let me do something that I will never forget. If you want a launching point for your own story, the game has werewolves and vampires in it, along with the option to marry NPCs. Go forth and corrupt the fiction of Twilight as you see fit. This is simply the best kind of role playing that you are going to get out of a role playing game.

The final garnish on this plate full of mouthwatering delights is the sound design. The music is pitch perfect at all times. During lulls it is ambient and functions as light mood music, and swells with a grand orchestra during combat making an encounter with a giant and his mammoth herd or a dragon even more grandiose. The voice acting is far less rigid and cheesy than previous Bethesda games to boot, and the distinctly Scandinavian accents give Tamriel’s Nords a personality all their own which meshes quite well with the central conflict of the civil war; stability and homogeny versus the preservation of a unique cultural identity at the expense of the safety the empire could provide.

It still bugs me that many of the voices are recycled, and that characters who are emoting so well vocally aren’t actually animated. Cicero is a particularly striking example of this. For such a lovably bizarre character, it’s a shame that he’s just as rigid as any other NPC. There’s also the issue of some rare glitches and some freezing on the PC side of things, and lag and install issues with the PS3 and Xbox versions. I’d like to call attention to the word ‘rare’ in that last sentence. While it’s still not acceptable by any stretch of the imagination, Bethesda’s move away from the old version of the gamebryo engine is a welcomed one, and the game ran as smooth as silk with the exceptions of the aforementioned rare freezes.

So 2,500 words later, where are we? Well, I’m still not quite positive what detail, or what combination of improvements are at work allowing me to love this game. Maybe it was just some inexplicable ethereal detail that kept me on the outside of Bethesda’s past parties, looking in at all the guests reveling in the festivities and lamenting that I’m not one of them.

Whatever the case may be, Bethesda has thrown another party, opened its doors to me yet again, and I’m finally beside myself with joy. The guests are lovely and alive, it’s beautifully decorated, and the music is great to boot. All that’s left is to celebrate.

9.0 / 10

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