It’s unfortunate that The Elder Scrolls: Arena didn’t exactly fill my gravy boat, but then, despite it being the first in a venerable series of games, I’ve never heard anyone refer to it as their favourite title in said series. Its sequel, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, on the other hand, I’ve heard come up a few times. It’s rare. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind tends to be the darling of the series, though, perhaps that’s because it was the first to show up on consoles with its original Xbox release.
Regardless, Arena left me with an itch to scratch, and it didn’t seem right to just skip to Morrowind. I’m also constantly on the watch for ways to increase my snob cred, so it’s time to head to Daggerfall, peasant.
WEST… TO DAGGERFALL
Arena was pretty interesting in that it provided all nine of the provinces of Tamriel, whereas contemporary Elder Scrolls titles only provide one (not counting Elder Scrolls Online, which only technically provides territory in every province). That’s the only really interesting part of Arena, since it was an otherwise bland and unexciting game. Daggerfall, on the other hand, provides the area of the Illiac Bay; a territory that straddles the border of High Rock and Hammerfell, providing a portion of two provinces. And what a portion! The land size is estimated to be 161,600 square kilometers, one of the largest terrestrial game worlds on record. Also, unlike Arena, it can all be navigated. So if you wanted to travel by foot to every location, it’s entirely possible, you insane fool.
Don’t get too excited, though. The area between cities and dungeons is just as uninteresting as Arena’s flat terrain. Though Daggerfall’s land is finite and traversable, it was procedurally created, meaning it’s low-detailed and repetitive. There are also no roads or notable landmarks, so actually getting from one town to the next requires a lot of effort and constantly checking the cumbersome map.
Instead, you’ll be fast traveling a lot, which provides some degree of interaction, as you choose how quickly you move and whether you camp or stay at inns. It’s less than ideal, and it makes it feel as though the world is just big for the sake of being big, rather than to provide an interesting environment to set the game.
THE NUMIDIUM’S WALTZ
The first game in the Elder Scrolls series failed pretty hard to make the world feel like a living place, which is somewhat understandable, considering the fact that it began its life as a simple gladiator game. It also featured a villain straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon, so story was hardly a reason to dive into its antiquated mechanics. Daggerfall corrects this in a number of ways, and actually comes out as being a rather interesting narrative.
You start as an unknown agent of the Empire, sent by the Emperor himself to address a problem in the eponymous city state of Daggerfall. The previous King of Daggerfall has risen from the grave, and you’re tasked with finding out why and putting a stop to it. This sounds inconsequential at first, but as you dive into the intrigue between the squabbling territories, things snowball until the fate of the world is added to the stakes. This winds up happening rather organically, since you’re initially not given much to go on. You’re eventually contacted by people within the nobility of each of the principle cities, along with other key players, each of whom have their own motivations to manipulate you. You’re not given a whole lot of agency in deciding how things proceed, but it’s perhaps better than the closed loop that Arena was.
It’s not exactly well told, often not providing enough information to be engaging. You interact with multiple factions and you’re obviously expected to gain some sort of attachment to them. However, all of them are interchangeable and two-dimensional, and none of them plead their case especially well. By the time you’re supposed to actually make a decision on who to align with, you’re not given much to go off of as to who deserves your help. None of them really have problems that can be empathized with, and as a result, the whole story has the wind taken out of it.
On the other hand, Daggerfall is where the background lore finally finds its footing. Arena was largely just a lot of Dungeons and Dragons tropes thrown into a big pot and mixed around a bit, but this time around, the world feels a lot more substantially fleshed out. The unfortunate side of this is that very little is told through actual dialogue or gameplay; almost all of it exists within the many books that can be picked up and read. If you are down with some light reading, there’s a lot to dive into. This is, after all, the game in which we learn, conclusively, that the cat-like Khajiit race does indeed sport a barbed penis, ladies.
DELVING BACK IN
The problem that I’m happiest that Daggerfall addressed is the lack of motivating reasons to tackle sidequests. Previously, the only real reason to delve into the optional dungeons was for loot you don’t need and can sell for money you probably also don’t need. Daggerfall not only presents a wider range of options for equipment to buy, but also includes premium items like boats and houses that might take a bit of saving. Beyond that, it also introduces factions that can be joined with sidequests that allow you to improve your reputation and increase your ranking. Better standing within a guild provides you access to their services which range from items and training to spell crafting and teleportation.
It’s just unfortunate that the majority of these sidequests involve delving into one of Daggerfall’s many dungeons. I had complained about Arena’s dungeons being uninteresting mazes, but that was pretty understandable since it existed in a time before 3D polygons had caught on. Daggerfall makes use of its advances in technology by incorporating multi-leveled dungeons with all the fancy ramps and room-over-room tricks that developers loved to show off. That’s nice and all, but the dungeons are even duller and more repetitive than they were in Arena.
The problem is, everything is still created procedurally, or at least the minor dungeons are, so everything still has the brush of a robot’s hands over it. The layouts are confusing mashes of corridors and rooms that lead no where. Your objective, whether it’s to recover an item or eliminate an enemy, can be essentially anywhere. I’ve had moments where I rounded a couple of corners and found my quarry, and others where I ran in circles for an eternity and eventually discovered it behind some secret door I had walked past repeatedly.
There are underwater sections, areas where you have to climb, secret rooms, levers and switches that trigger devices in entirely different areas. Some dungeons stretch out in all directions leaving a lot of ground to cover. It quickly becomes confusing. I’ve had instances where I completed my mission, then struggled to find my way back to the entrance. The map system is practically useless, especially in the larger dungeons, which often resemble a tangle of Christmas lights.
Then just to top it off, all the dungeons are essentially interchangeable. Now, to be fair, I continued seeing new layouts and rooms straight through to the end of the game, but they all contained the same flagstone tunnels and empty rooms. The inhabited castles look like the ruined ones which look like the vampire manors that resemble the caves. It’s not fun, and you’re going to be sent through dozens of these identical monstrosities by the end of the game’s 60-100 hour quest.
RETURNING TO THE SURFACE
In the latter half of Daggerfall, I began feeling the gameplay loop tighten. Fast travel here, jog through town, talk to someone, fast travel, delve what is fundamentally the same damned dungeon, fast travel back, jog through town, end quest. Repeat ad absurdum. Daggerfall is a big game, but like Arena, it eventually starts to feel repetitive. By the time I hit the last few quests, I was just wishing for the game to be over. That’s never a good sign.
The further into the game I got, the more I felt the illusion of it all shake apart. Bugs started popping up more and more frequently, journal entries wouldn’t provide sufficient information and dialogue would sometimes not match what was logged, I’d find myself in precarious situations that I’d have to have been clairvoyant to have avoided. I opted to play through the vanilla experience for the sake of this review, but there are numerous fan patches out there to smooth out some of Daggerfall’s issues. I mean, more recent games in the series rightfully get some flack for their frequent glitches, but Daggerfall has them beat. Enemies get stuck in walls, I’ve fallen out of the level and into the void more times than I can count, certain events wouldn’t trigger if they’re loaded during a transition; it got to the point where the game’s six save slots didn’t feel sufficient enough to prevent me from repeating huge chunks of the game.
Whether or not The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall is still a worthwhile experience is a difficult question to answer. If you have a stomach for lengthy and repetitive dungeons, then you’ll find a world of near endless adventure and opportunities. Inversely, if you’re willing to pick up the game and drop it as soon as you’ve had your fill, there’s a lot of fun to be had just allowing yourself to get drawn in for a while. Just don’t be like me and force yourself past the point of endurance, it just isn’t worth it. At this point, The Elder Scrolls series just hasn’t reached its ambition. The procedural approach to content is steamrolling out all the bumps that would otherwise make it an interesting experience. What’s left is just big and flat, like the game’s countryside.
Daggerfall has been offered for free by Bethesda for years. This review was conducted on a copy provided by gog.com.