The Elder Scrolls: Blades Hands-On Impressions from E3 2018
Announced during Bethesda's E3 Press Conference, The Elder Scrolls: Blades is a new mobile experience from the veteran studio, and the second mobile experience in The Elder Scrolls mythos, behind the digital card game The Elder Scrolls: Legends. Unlike Legends, however, Blades is being marketed as a more true-to-form Elder Scrolls experience, complete with dungeon crawling, gear progression, and even some aspect of town building. We had a chance to go hands-on with Blades, and were unfortunately left a little bit unenthused.
During the reveal of the game, Todd Howard described the game as a pure Elder Scrolls game, a "massive first-person RPG". During our time with the game, it honestly, felt anything but. Playing on an iPhone X, we had the option to select between two small dungeon samples, a forest and a castle. Both areas were remarkably unremarkable. The forest had us traveling in a straight line through and entirely limited path. We had to throw down with imps and spiders, and collected money and jewels we weren't able to spend. The castle area played similarly, only swapping the enemies out for skeletons and rats.
The combat controls of the game were actually very functional and didn't leave a lot of complaints. One thing that simplifies the game a little bit is that encountering an enemy in a dungeon locks you to that enemy and from that point, you seemingly cannot back out of the battle until either you or the foe perishes. This means that the dungeon gameplay essentially has two discrete modes: battle and exploration. When in a battle, we had the option to cast two different spells, a lightning bolt and an armor of ice enchantment. We also had the ability to shield bash, which was frankly incredibly overpowered. We were not able to back out of a fight, and almost all fights in the demo were one on one (we once fought two rats at once, but seemingly couldn't specify a target between them.)
Skills and Spells both lean on cooldown mechanics as well as a magic or technique point pool. In other words, you can't spam shield bash back to back if it's on cooldown, and you can't cast it if you don't have enough technique points. Standard melee combat also worked pretty well, you hold down with your thumb on either the left or right side of the enemy, and swinging or letting go right when the reticle fills will perform a critical hit of sorts -- poorer timing will be a standard hit. There's enough actual gameplay involved with timing swings around blocks and raising your own shield to see a functional core of decent mobile experience, so it's too bad everything surrounding the mechanical core is so drab and banal.
Movement in the Elder Scrolls blades is the messiest part of the game right now. The standard mobile movement involves pressing an area on the floor in front of the player character, who will then automatically move to that spot, unless interrupted by an enemy. This works okay in straight, longer hallways (which comprise a large chunk of the demo area, needless to say), but is a bit of a mess in smaller rooms, where turning your character around or navigating around tables involves awkwardly looking at the floor and repeatedly tapping the edge of the screen while facing downwards to clumsily turn around like a poorly practiced puppet. The possibility of virtual analog sticks, surprisingly, seems like an upgrade but it's not clear how that would work in portrait mode. Playing with a controller (eventually) would fit our personal preference, but could also compromise the mobile experience. It almost feels like a grid-based movement system could have worked out some of the kinks. In any case, it feels a bit unwieldly at the moment.
While the game is launching as a mobile title, Howard described the eventual end goal of the title as one able to allow cross play among all consoles, PC, and even VR. One thing that we didn't get to see with our limited demo is the town-building aspect of the game as described during the title's unveiling which would likely comprise the majority of the multiplayer aspect of the game. An Elder Scrolls take on something meshing Animal Crossing with cult WiiWare game My Life as a King actually sounds incredibly interesting, if also a bit unorthodox.
It's understandable that a short demo experience wouldn't be able to do that aspect of the game justice, but I'm eager to see a little more about that mode once the game fully releases some time this fall.