If you tell the wrong gamer that you’ve only played the Fallout games past Bethesda Softwork’s 3rd entry, you’ll elicit a scoff. That’s because they liked it before it was cool, and it was way better back before Bethesda came in and mucked everything up. To be fair to those jerks, both Fallout 1 and 2 have a lot to offer that haven’t quite been well replicated in the recent 3D entries. Even so, if you haven’t played them, you’re still cool. Just like your mom says.
On the other hand, saying you’ve only played past the third Elder Scrolls game is less of a faux pas (though, if you started after Oblivion, you’re still trash). While I have run into people who extol the virtues of Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, no one has insisted I play it, nor suggested their superiority because I’m the sort of unwashed filth that started with Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. If nothing else, this just made those primordial games more tantalizing, like distant lands obscured in a mysterious fog. The few details that I had uncovered just magnified the allure: Elder Scrolls: Arena presents the entire continent of Tamriel to explore, whereas subsequent entries just serve up individual provinces. Daggerfall has one of the largest terrestrial game worlds ever created for a 3D game (cited as 161,600 square kilometers). As someone who approaches these games as a form of virtual tourism, that kind of territory gets me salivating.
Unfortunately, in the case of The Elder Scrolls: Arena, that territory is as flat and uninteresting as a game from 1994 can muster.
THE ARENA SUPERMUNDUS
To truly understand The Elder Scrolls: Arena, it’s important to know where it came from. The Arena in its name is contrived to refer to the idea that the fantasy land of Tamriel has become so violently tumultuous that its denizens have taken to comparing it to a place of constant battle. That’s a massive stretch that current games sweep under the rug. The real reason for the subtitle is because the game started off as a fantasy arena combat game, and they didn’t want to change the marketing material after it mutated into something different (which is probably also why the cover features a woman who appears equipped for something other than adventuring). It becomes even more confusing when you delve into the game’s final form. As far as I can tell, anything resembling an arena was stripped from the game. Instead, it’s a first-person RPG and dungeon crawler.
This is set up by casting you as an unknown prisoner beneath the Imperial City. You’re visited by a ghost who tells you that Jagar Tharn, a battlemage, has usurped the emperor and is ruling in his place. To defeat him, you’re asked to assemble the eight parts of the staff of chaos that has been dispersed across Tamriel. It’s a pretty predictable fantasy setup, a tale as old as time, but it’s an efficient way to establish the game’s framework and pacing.
To accomplish your goal, you travel across the provinces of Tamriel, from city to city, to gather information on where these pieces might be. It starts with a dream that gives you a vague hint about the location of the next piece. If you weren’t able to guess the province based on the dream, you can narrow it down by asking passersby until someone says, “I heard someone from <insert province here> talking about the same thing.” You then go to that province and ask around again until someone says, “I heard someone from <insert city here> was looking for that, as well.” After traveling to that city, you once again ask random pedestrians until someone finally says, “Someone at <insert location here> might know about that.” You then ask where that is, get directions, and talk to the person at that location. They’ll give you a quest and mark a dungeon on your map. You go there, get what they want, then go back. They tell you where the dungeon with the piece of the staff is, then you go get it.
Then you do that same process seven more times.
INTO THE WILDERNESS
That’s a pretty rigid framework, yet the main quest is typically one facet of a tastier whole when it comes to The Elder Scrolls’ later adventures (heck, I’ll gladly replay Oblivion, but will never again touch its dull main questline). There’s a world to explore, side-quests to embark on, and a character to build up. Was that the case with Arena? Yes and no.
As I’ve mentioned previously, Arena covers the entire fantasy continent of Tamriel, rather than a single province. This means you can visit the swamps of the Black Marsh or the deserts of Hammerfell in all the graphical splendor that 1994 could muster. Hundreds of towns and dungeons dot the map, giving you a wide range of locations to explore. I mean, if you want to.
In truth, there isn’t much beneath that giant map. Unlike every other Elder Scrolls game, the world of Arena isn’t a continuous, connected land. I mean, take a peek at the manual, and you’ll find the curious statement that the wilderness of Arena is a completely optional location, which proves to be accurate. To travel in Arena, you simply bring up your world map, select a town or dungeon, then hit the fast travel button. You’ll appear inside the gate of that location, and there’s little reason to turn around and step outside.
You can’t travel from Morrowind to Skyrim on foot, even if you wanted to, so don’t get any ideas. Stepping out of a town’s gate drops you into a procedurally generated wasteland that stretches out infinitely in every direction. Walk sixty minutes in a straight line, and you’ll see the featureless landscape seemingly repeat itself around you. There’s little to do, aside from plumbing the randomly generated dungeons that pop up, and there’s not really much reason to do so. By the fourth or fifth dungeon, I had built my mage up to an unstoppable force, and had very little reason to go looking for side opportunities to make money or grind experience. If I even wanted to beef up my character by throwing money at it, there aren’t many significant options. Besides, during the second half of the game, I counted maybe two deaths, so what would be the point?
As far as virtual tourism, if you’ve seen one town, you’ve seen them all. The hundreds of locations dotted across the map are all interchangeable and contain all of the same locations. Once again, there’s no reason to visit cities outside the main quest. It’s damning evidence that bigger is not always better.
DO THE DELVE
So the world of Arena sucks out loud, but the focus of the gameplay seems to be on dungeon delving, so that’s at least good, right? Well, it’s passable. It’s not bad. It’s fine.
The dungeons that make up the main quest are allegedly hand crafted, as opposed to the procedural wilderness and dungeons outside city gates. However, I’d never guess that by looking at them. Each one is a mash of tight, maze-like corridors and empty rooms. Some are connected by pits and elevated platforms, all jammed together with no rhyme or reason. A few of them have portions that feel like they were designed by human hands, but invariably descend into madness. They’re also sprawlingly huge. Miss a key tucked in the corner of some obscure room and you may find yourself running in circles to find what you missed. This never happened to me, so perhaps I’m not giving the designers enough credit, but it isn’t hard to imagine it being a problem for others.
Enemy placement seems to be pretty random, with specific enemy sets spawning in certain areas, meaning dungeons can’t be cleared of threats and there’s little strategy to the encounters. Combat is in realtime, which is clunky but serviceable. Movement on the whole is pretty clumsy, forcing really awful climbing, jumping, and swimming sections into getting around. Because of the game’s vintage, the UI sucks out loud and makes simple tasks like picking something up off the ground or casting a spell an absolute chore. It’s not so bad, but it doesn’t compare to some of the higher profile dungeon crawlers of yesteryear.
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
There’s not even that much to grasp onto as a fan of the series. Locations, such as the Labyrinthian, appear in later titles, along with mentions of characters like Galidor and the unfortunately named Gaiden Shinji. A lot of lore wasn’t developed at this point of the series, so not much is revealed for longtime fans. At best, you’ll understand references made in later games. Otherwise, while you may be seeing Winterhold hundreds of years before the events of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you’re not going to recognize anything.
Even when you take the game as a product of the time period that it came out in, it wasn’t a significant achievement. The world may be big, but it doesn’t add anything substantial to the existing dungeon crawler formula, which was already being done better in games like Ultima Underworld. A lot of the game looks good as a list of features, but beyond the bullet points, it’s inconsequential.
That’s not even mentioning the fact that the game crashed on me multiple times and bugged out twice, forcing me to delve back into dungeons I had already cleared. Save early, save often, children.
At the same time, it’s not a bad game, there’s just very little reason to play it today. The storyline is so basic that it’s better told in the lore books found in later games, and the world only gives a hint of the depth that would emerge as the series progressed. The procedurally generated world filled with randomly generated quests and dungeons concept has been duplicated in the contemporary independent games sphere, and it’s been done much better since. At best, The Elder Scrolls:Arena only stands as a curio; the origin point for one of the pillars of modern gaming. Recent games in the Elder Scrolls series may have written the open world standards, but Arena is only a pale hint of that.
The Elder Scrolls: Arena has been available as a free download from Bethesda for years. This review was conducted on a copy obtained through gog.com.