The Elder Scrolls: Blades Early Access Review


Blades is far from the mobile Elder Scrolls game fans may have been hoping for.

If you listed out everything that Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series is best known for, you’d probably include things like an open world, freeform character development, hundreds of NPCs with interesting backstories, and the freedom to go anywhere and do anything at any time. The Elder Scrolls: Blades unfortunately has none of those things. It’s a decent mobile RPG, but not a very good Elder Scrolls game, and it’s loaded with obtrusive microtransactions.

Blades feels like a collection of typical mobile game mechanics with a shallow coating of Elder Scrolls paint. It’s got the signature beauty in its world design and at first glance could be mistaken for sections in Oblivion or even Skyrim, but it lacks any of the depth that made those games so special.

You take on the role of a champion of a ruined city and set out to complete an endless stream of tedious quests to rebuild and restore your home town to its former glory. The majority of your time in Blades is spent exploring similar-looking dungeons and ruins, clearing out monsters and bandits as you collect precious loot. The overarching plot is thin at best and hardly gives you much reason to keep playing.

The overarching plot is thin at best and hardly gives you much reason to keep playing.

Right now Blades has two fundamental modes: Town and Abyss. When you select Town you’re sent to your village and are forced to complete a series of uninteresting quests that all revolve around clearing out a certain number of enemies or collecting items, and they’re all bookended by long loading screens. Once back in town you’ll use the resources you’ve earned from them to build and update structures, which is required to advance your town level and unlock higher tier quests. The town management angle of Blades is a fresh perspective on the Elder Scrolls formula, but it just boils down to being a poor excuse for why you need to grind so much.

Alternatively the second mode, Abyss, is a more fun and immediately rewarding option. The Abyss is a never-ending dungeon below the city that gets tougher and tougher the deeper you go. Although it’s just as repetitive as you could imagine exploring the same crypt could be, it spices things up by doling out consistent loot and throwing new enemies at you on each floor. When you die you keep your treasures and log your progress and can restart from the beginning or a checkpoint you found along the way. Stripping away the tedium of loading screens and going back to town after each quest helps keep the pace up.

The rinse and repeat format means you can easily pick up and play Blades for just a few minutes while on the bus or waiting somewhere in public without much hassle since the cornerstone of the entertainment value sits with the reactive timing combat system. Whether you’re playing in landscape or portrait mode (it fortunately auto rotates and adjusts the UI automatically mid-game) you press and hold on the screen to begin your attack wind up and then release just as the inner circle meets the outer circle – similar to Pokemon Go.

You can’t really create a varied and nuanced character like you can in previous Elder Scrolls game.

As a result, any character you might make in Blades will be melee-focused first. You can’t really create a varied and nuanced build here like you can in every other Elder Scrolls game. As you level up you gain points that can be spent on spells, perks, or abilities. Naturally, spells cost magicka to cast and abilities cost stamina to perform, while perks are passive improvements.

Stamina abilities are usually based on preempting enemies or reacting to their attacks, such as triggering a block that leads to a shield bash or dodging a swipe and following it up with a hit. Magicka-based spells you just tap to use, but a lot of them can be interrupted while you’re casting so careful planning is key. And while many of those spells are useful, they aren’t able to replace melee attacks entirely, so playing as a proper mage isn’t possible without tons of Magicka potions at late levels.

The basic fodder enemies never pose much of a threat, but the tougher boss style creatures can really hit hard requiring quick reflexes and clever resource management throughout fights. It still doesn’t feel like Elder Scrolls combat and it never feels like you’re creating a character that’s uniquely your own, but it’s a decent system for a mobile game.

Lots of framerate drops, especially in combat, pervaded my experience.

That is, when it was running properly. I played Blades on a Google Pixel 2, which isn’t an ultra-modern phone but is certainly a capable device, and I still suffered from frequent performance issues. Lots of framerate drops, especially in combat, pervaded my experience, and seemed to get worse if I played while my phone was charging. It was a huge issue in combat, which is when timing matters most.

And while that reflex-heavy combat is amusing, the days of stealthily sneaking through the shadows to one-hit kill dragons with your super-charged bow and daggers are long gone. That lack of trademark individuality that the franchise is known for really holds Blades back from feeling like an actual Elder Scrolls game. Instead it feels a bit like someone played an Elder Scrolls game once a long time ago and then was tasked with making a mobile phone version. It’s a shame that Blades feels like a shadow of what it could have been, but luckily the core gameplay loop and combat is fun enough that I found myself pulling out my phone to check on things and fight a few enemies far more often than expected.

What really hurts the pacing are the uncomfortably intrusive microtransactions. Some treasure chests that contain loot necessary to progression arbitrarily ask you to wait up to six real hours before you can open them – unless you cough up cash.

Blades has treasure chests that arbitrarily ask you to wait up to six real hours before you can open them – unless you cough up cash.

The bright side is that Blades doesn’t necessarily prevent you from playing content with timers like some other mobile games do, but it instead restricts your progression. Often times that Gold chest you have to wait six hours on will have the gear you need to improve enough so that you can take on the next quest or it has valuable resources you need to build that specific structure in your town that will upgrade your prestige enough so you can unlock a higher tier of quests.

Even if you’re waiting on chests to unlock there is always something else to do, whether it be a repeatable quest for easy XP, the Abyss dungeon, or just wandering around your town, but that’s no excuse. If anything, the long periods of waiting just emphasize how much Blades is missing the vast, explorable open world that defines other Elder Scrolls games. Being able to go anywhere and do anything is such a huge facet of the series and it feels strange playing a game that says it’s from the Elder Scrolls franchise but lacks any ability to just walk around the overworld. If you’re looking for a mobile RPG that emulates that old school feel similar to Wizardry, Might and Magic, Arena, or Daggerfall, I’d recommend The Quest instead.

The Verdict

The Elder Scrolls: Blades is a visually impressive mobile game, and its satisfying combat provides just enough variety to at least partially salvage an otherwise repetitive and lackluster adventure. While technically an Elder Scrolls game, this watered-down version of Tamriel has very little to do with the RPGs it’s based on, and the fun that is here suffers from intrusive microtransactions that bog things down.