Enderal: Forgotten Stories isn't a just a mod for Skyrim, it's a damn good RPG in its own right
Late last year I provided my thoughts on Fallout: New California, a total conversion for Fallout: New Vegas, and while I was not completely blown away, I was genuinely impressed at the level of creativity on display with the passion project. It was my first real experience with a mod of that scale, and it left me open to trying out similar fan-created works in the future. It turns out that I didn't have to wait long at all because Enderal: Forgotten Stories, a total conversion mod for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim from German modding team SureAI released on Steam last month, and 80 hours later I'm a little bit floored with how much fun I've had with it.
Some of the nitty gritty to get out of the way first: Enderal in itself isn't a new release. It originally came out back in 2016, and it won several "Mod of the Year" accolades back then already. What's new this time is that this is essentially a soft re-launch of the game on Steam, complete with official achievements, new questlines, new talent trees, and the sorts of tweaks and features you'd expect to see in the end-year definitive package for a big retail title. Enderal is absolutely free for Skyrim owners (that is the original Skyrim, not 2016's Special Edition) and to be frank, after dumping so much time into it over the last couple weeks I feel like I'm effectively robbing someone blind. This is worth considering even if you have to pay full price for Old-rim. I think it's that good.
Enderal is completely independent of Skyrim's world and lore, and is instead set on a continent of the same name in the world of Vyn. Enderal is actually the third SureAI project set in this world after Nehrim and Arktwend (built off of Oblivion and Morrowind, respectively.) The story is almost entirely stand-alone, however, so one doesn't need to go in with any prior knowledge of the previous entries (though after completing Enderal, I'm certainly considering going back to revisit them anyways.)
Enderal starts with the player-character waking up from a striking nightmare -- one that sets a dark, eerie, and somewhat depressing tone right from the outset. Within minutes of booting up the mod, I found myself a bit agape, wondering what in the world I was about to dive headfirst into. The story does then railroad the player for a short while as the plot gets established, but before long I had found myself washed up on a remote beach, eager to get a better understanding of the magic of this world and to find if there's any sort of meaning behind these recurring nightmares or the imminent plague of the Red Madness.
While there are some obvious synergies between the two types of progression, there's not a whole lot that strictly links skills and perks together. For instance, you could trait into "Trickster" perks in order to be able to pick Master-level locks but without putting any skill points into the "Lockpicking" skill, if you don't want to. It's not a perfect system, there are a few weird gating choices for some of the perks such as requiring the player to take on some bow-related abilities alongside the lockpicking ones, but it's enough of a departure from Skyrim to help Enderal feel like its own experience rather than merely a reskin.
Several of the available talents also introduce synergies and even cross-classing bonuses, such as combining the one-handed focused "Blade Dancer" and the stealthy "Infiltrator" to create the critical specialist "Assassin", so there's a lot of incentive to experiment and select talents from multiple locations.
While these mechanical tweaks are interesting on their own, the highlight of the experience for me is the storytelling itself, which is honestly not something I expected to come away with for a game built off of Skyrim of all things. While the overall plot borrows from several archetypes that are all too familiar to RPG veterans, the execution and the character writing involved elevates the whole package above Enderal's obvious inspirations, it doesn't end up feeling derivative at all. There are pieces of Mass Effect's Reaper threat, Xenosaga's Eternal Recurrence, and several other familiar themes evident here in one place or another, but I never found them distracting -- instead I felt like their implementation was smart and, more importantly, inventive.
Driving all of this, and my strongest single take-away from Enderal, is the exceedingly high quality of character interactions to be found here -- and that's saying something for a game featuring a mute blank-slate of a protagonist. It's something I honestly never expected going in, and I'm still a bit baffled as to how it all ended up working as well as it does within those limitations. Within each story, either as a portion of the main storyline or one of Enderal's numerous side-plots, there's almost always a deep, well-realized character in the center of it. While each story thread often involves an outright conflict that must be inevitably solved with your weapons or magic, they are usually paired with a far more nuanced and provocative subtext underneath.
Within Enderal's many individual stories are themes that extend beyond mere objective-chasing. One questline dealt with someone desperately seeking closure for a past relationship, and the manner in which they learn to cope when that closure never comes. Another asks themselves if a person who has murdered in cold blood can ever be considered a good person. Even an early one-stage quest questioned whether it's ethical to give a merciful death to someone that has even a remote chance of being healed.
Add to this a couple of lengthy player romance options and at times, Enderal almost feels more like a sort of Bioware game.
The true meaning of justice, the fear of failing, the strengths and faults of organized religion, and the manner in which one can combat humanity's inherent propensity for greed are all also touched on, and only with few clear-cut resolutions. Some quests involve nothing more than visiting a companion in the local tavern or spending time with an ally on top of the watchtower outside of the city. Others are multiple stage interlocking stories of their own, with a couple possible outcomes depending on the player's choices. All of this is on top of the civilization-ending threat the player finds themselves swept up in the middle of.
I'm not missing Skyrim's radiant quests much at this point.
If there's any drawback to the quest design in Enderal, it's that many are so story driven in a sense that there are a handful of cases where the player character is not allowed to have much of a say. Each of the longer questlines usually has at least one stretch of conversations where the player doesn't get a lot of choice in the manner in which a quest unfolds, and often only has a single line of dialogue to provide in response to a question, which acts only to probe a character to keep expositioning their current moral dilemma.
In a way, it's more reminiscent of side quest design in many Japanese-style RPGs -- and it's the clear distinction between the strengths of Enderal and something like New California, which features a strong degree of player agency in spades. A lot of the writing is well done enough however, that this personally didn't feel like much of a concession at all.
Outside of the huge map and strong quest writing are all of the various tertiary trappings that are a key component of any great RPG. Unique gearsets, interesting spells, optional bosses, varied locales, and a decent slew of enemy types (probably a few too many marauders and skeletons). Behind all of this is a great, emotive soundtrack that often pairs perfectly with either the story moment at hand or location's atmosphere. Whether it's the soft chanting of the Whisperwood, the sleepy piano of the Frostcliff Mountains, or the moody strings of the seedy Undercity, I never found myself bored of the soundtrack.
As Enderal is built upon Skyrim, some of the mod's limitations and technical shortcomings are perhaps unsurprising. While none of these issues were deal-breakers, even collectively, it would be unfair of me to gloss over them without at least pointing out some areas that feel a little rough.
Occasionally an NPC would awkwardly path into a wall when trying to move from one location to another in a dramatic story moment. Sometimes I would use a teleport scroll to a certain location, only to find that I had somehow activated a bizarre no-clip mode. Occasionally the music wouldn't start up right away after loading a save. There were a couple lines of dialogue still in German, and often the English voice-over still didn't match with the provided subtitles.
My performance would swing wildly from location to location depending on the level of detail, objects, and NPCs present -- from 60fps facing north to 20fps facing south from the same position. Crashing was also initially an issue, until I enabled the plug-in feature UseOSAllocators=1 (this was recently patched to be a built in option in the launcher, one I suggest enabling.) After making that tweak and allocating more available memory in the base settings, I had a much cleaner experience.
And finally, a major limitation is that Enderal is based off of Skyrim's original combat system, which I personally found functional but also unremarkable. It didn't really detract from my personal enjoyment of the game, but it could be a hangup for those less invested in the story and looking more for interesting and engaging combat encounters. While there are a handful of mods available on Enderal's Nexus page with various tweaks to the system here, they aren't something I'm personally well-versed in.
Calling Enderal a "Skyrim mod" might not properly incentivize people to think of this as the stand-alone, fully-featured RPG experience it actually is, and a good one at that. At a moment in time where historically single-player western-RPG developers are struggling to find their footing with multiplayer-focused excursions that are leaving several fans feeling burnt, here's something that at the very least might make the long wait for The Elder Scrolls VI feel just a bit shorter. Though at this point I might just be looking forward to SureAI's next project a little bit more.