Hoo boy. Skyrim. That's right. I played Skyrim.
Of course, I'm referring to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the huge open-world RPG from Bethesda Softworks. Now, I was never very cognizant of Bethesda games prior to around 2000 because before then my PC gaming was limited almost exclusively to city-building games, Civilization, Heroes of Might & Magic, Carmen Sandiego, and Final Fantasy VII. I'm sure I had heard of Elder Scrolls in passing, but I never had much of an opportunity to play their stuff, and it wasn't until ES3: Morrowind made a big splash that I realized how popular they were as developers.
When Morrowind landed, I couldn't tell what all the fuss was about. It looked like a generic Western fantasy RPG with boring combat and no personality. I was obsessed with Japanese RPGs and dismissive of anything that I didn't have means to play (mostly unfairly), so that was the opinion I held about the Elder Scrolls franchise for several years. ES4: Oblivion made a similar impact to Morrowind, and then Skyrim blew the lid off the franchise back in late 2011. From my understanding, Skyrim isn't as big or necessarily as deep in customization as its predecessors, but it's the best in the series when it comes to visuals, combat, and overall accessibility. That probably had a lot to do with its runaway success.
So, having played zero Elder Scrolls games for the first 26 years of my life, I received Skyrim as a gift via Steam during the most recent Steam winter sale (thanks, Amanda!). When I got it, I knew I had to play it. It was officially The Shit of its year. I made a last-second change to my 13 in '13 preview post and included Skyrim as a 2013 target. It would be irresponsible not to. So I got around to playing Skyrim as my major game of May 2013, and I finished a lot of it. I got to level 56. I did every quest that gives you a Steam achievement other than the final Thieves Guild quest. I probably fired five thousand Bound Arrows over the course of the game.
So I did a lot. And that's kind of the point. Elder Scrolls is about player freedom. Skyrim presents an incredible variety of tasks for the main character to perform. You can totally ignore the "main storyline" to hunt dragons, explore caves, clear out fortresses of bandits, chop wood, or what have you. And... well, that's fine. I cleared lots of bandit fortresses. It was alright.
Basically, Skyrim starts out with your character (created as either sex of one of several races, with a customizable appearance, but I'll just refer to the MC as male to make it easier for me to write this) on the gallows, about to be executed. You're saved by the roar of a dragon, who attacks the settlement without warning, allowing the MC to escape during the confusion. Not long after this, the MC learns he is a being called "The Dragonborn," as he has the power to cast ancient dragon magic by using a number of mystic words of power, or "Shouts." You can locate walls of runes ("word walls") that teach you the words, and then you can activate that word and use it as part of a shout by slaying dragons. So that's one sidequest.
Look, I could talk about the variety of quests in Skyrim, but let's say that there are hundreds. Several dozen specific, scripted quests, and about as many repeatable, recurring quests and unplanned, happened-upon groups of monsters or hostile bandits. Plus dragon attacks. You can play Skyrim for a hundred hours easy before even beginning to fulfill the Dragonborn's destiny in the main story. My total playtime was around 65 or 70 hours, and there were a great many unexplored forts and caves and what have you. I only completed five Daedric quests, and a quick wiki search tells me that there are fifteen.
Let's continue on this out-of-order ramble-rant by having me say what Skyrim is. Skyrim is a western RPG in the Elder Scrolls series, whose particular highlights are player freedom, a massive amount of Elder Scrolls lore, and a huge amount of content. The Elder Scrolls series has been around for over twenty years, and each of them are RPGs in the first-person perspective (you can switch to third-person in Skyrim but really it's made for first-person). You can do a huge number of things. Go from town to town righting wrongs, reading books, chopping wood, defeating bandits, turning into a vampire or werewolf and attacking people, ruling different factions, and becoming a major player in the politics of Tamriel in general or Skyrim in particular.
Right, books and politics. The Elder Scrolls games each take place centuries apart, and most if not all of that lore in the past and present is found in books. There are HUNDREDS of books scattered throughout Skyrim, explaining everything from legends of the past to how magic works to racy tales. Each book is typically a few short paragraphs, and it's folly to read all of them. I just stuck to the few that raise your abilities, and if a new book didn't do that (or wasn't part of a quest) then I never really read them. But you totally can if you want; "to each his own" is practically Skyrim's fucking motto.
Right, abilities. Well, in Skyrim, like most RPGs, you get stronger as you fight. But it's not just that - you raise your Dragonborn's abilties with every action you take. You attack with short sword? After a few swings your 1-Handed Weapons expertise increases. You cast Heal for a few seconds? Your Restoration expertise increases. That extends to 18 different skillsets that increase, with 6 associated with Warrior builds, 6 with Mage, and 6 with Thief. One of each of those skillsets has to do with item creation (Smithing, Alchemy, and Enchanting); the other 5 Warrior skills deal directly with combat, the other 5 Mage skills are different magic schools for spellcasting, and the last 5 Thief skills have to do with dialog, sneaking, and generally doing thief-esque things.
So you have these eighteen skill trees, each of with has an overall meter (maxes at 100, but can be reset to zero if you want to gain more and more levels) and a constellation-like chart with "perks" at each star. Sometimes, as you increase in skill, you gain a character level (higher character levels require more skills, etc.). Each time you gain a character level, you get a point available for perks. The perks are bonuses associated in each tree that vary in usefulness, but can definitely be key for building a strong character. It's impossible to 100% max out perks, but you can get a bunch over the course of the game. My character was a summoner-archer that wore mage clothes. I focused heavily on the Archery, Conjuration, Alteration, Illusion, and Enchanting skill trees. With a few other perks here and there. At every level, you can also choose to increase your health, stamina, or magicka; if this was a Japanese RPG they'd be HP, SP, and MP.
So you have a character with tons of freedom and a pretty versatile skill system. The combat itself is... serviceable. Your actions come from your two hands, which can equip weapons, shields, or spells (some weapons and spells require both hands). Some item-based techniques (blocking, heavy swings) require stamina, and pretty much every spell requires using magicka. Different perks can mitigate stamina and magicka costs; I used a bunch of Conjuration spells, and I would have been boned in the first 70% of the game if I didn't have Conjuration perks lowering magicka costs.
Combat is... well, it starts out a little rough when you aren't really prepared for what's around you, but pretty soon it's just darting around unloading whatever you're specced in. By the mid-game I was killing dragons and giants easily and the game was only challenging when I attempted to perform stealth exploits (my character wasn't terribly stealthy). It's rarely strategic or challenging, unless you make it that way for yourself. The Dragonborn gets so powerful so easily and there are no really bad ways of building your character, so by the endgame combat becomes... just another thing.
So that's how it's set up. You can find and craft hundreds of different items, learn up to several dozen spells, and then wander the land righting wrongs, learning dragon shouts and completing quests. And let me tell you, there is a lot of wandering. Skyrim is a massive, fully contiguous map with nine major cities ("Holds") and hundreds of smaller settlements, caves, ruins, and geographical features. I played for over 30 hours without even visiting the western half of the map. It is very, very easy to just roam Skyrim forever following quest completion arrows. The scenery is gorgeous, with many Nordic forests, mountains, and valleys with varying geography by region, and for many that ability to wander is a major highlight.
There are hundreds of characters in Skyrim, and you can do some pretty interesting things with them. Characters will attack you on sight if you're a werewolf or vampire (and curing those conditions can be tricky), and a large number of characters will join you as followers if you complete certain quests. I usually kept around one of my housecarls as a companion; when you do enough good deeds for a Keep, they'll honor you with a position of Thane (like a sheriff's deputy, sorta) and give you a housecarl as a free servant. I decided to become Thane in all nine holds, but it's probably not worth it, since you can beat the game without even visiting one or two of the holds. You can also marry a character you meet on your journey if you like, and I favored Sylgja the miner's daughter. Couldn't tell you why. I think she just wore those miner clothes really well.
I enjoyed wandering and doing quests at times, but... I dunno. After the initial wanderlust waned, I was more interested in just finishing shit. And it was often boring shit. The major quest lines, which include the "saving Skyrim" quest and five large quest chains that grant achievements, are usually pretty interesting. They introduce cool factions and new gameplay bits that are worth exploring. The Daedric Quests are quests serving Daedric Princes, who are mystical beings of great power; Daedric quests tend to involve a subversive decision and at least one significant dungeon crawl, but yield powerful rewards and expose you to the interesting Princes. Other than those six quest chains (I completed 5) and fifteen or so Daedric quests (I completed 6 or 7), Skyrim's boring.
Look, maybe I just like RPGs with more personality. Skyrim's dialog is usually weak or hackneyed, and good dialog is what creates interesting characters. The majority of the dialog was dry and expository in nature, and the character models aren't expressive at all. And this is a lazy comparison, but you can probably construe Elder Scrolls as dry, regular Tolkien-inspired fantasy. Skyrim is just the Scandinavian-flavored version. My favorite quest lines were the Dark Brotherhood quests and the Daedric quests, because at least those had you dealing with some over-the-top personalities and some interesting basic quest mechanics. If I were to replay Skyrim again, I'd be as chaotic and evil as possible, trying to earn me some demonic Daedric equipment pieces.
Maybe it's my great appreciation for games like Dragon Age: Origins and Tales of Vesperia, but Skyrim felt a little flat after the initial 15-20 hours of exploring. For me RPGs need three things: interesting basic actions, interesting customization systems, and interesting character interactions. Skyrim only checks that middle box. 80% of the quests are boring and the battle system is just clicking left hand or right hand and then changing weapons or spells. Once I was satisfied with exploring (which admittedly took less time than it would for most gamers), I was mostly playing to finish those main quests and watch the skill meters increase. Not a great time.
But hey, don't take my word for it. Skyrim has a massive world, a huge amount of quest content, and five games worth of lore. There's a lot to like here. But because I'm someone that likes rich characters and dialog more than gorgeous environments and massive scale, I didn't like Skyrim as much as a few other RPGs I played this year (namely Persona 4 and Tales of Vesperia). I'm glad I followed through and played Skyrim, but I don't think I need to play any more Elder Scrolls.
Games Beaten: 2013 Edition
1. Persona 4
2. Pokemon White Version 2
4. Persona 4 Arena
5. Persona 3 FES: The Journey (NG+)
6. Hexyz Force
7. Persona 4 (NG+)
9. Tales of Vesperia
11. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
12. Final Fantasy VI Advance
13. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4
14. inFamous 2 Evil Finish
So there's another target down. I still need to write reviews for Final Fantasy VI Advance (LOTS of personal stuff there) and inFamous 2 (which managed to dodge my 30 reviews written for 2011), but then I'll be caught up. Unless I finish Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis before then. Don't count that out. I'm starting to get behind in a bad way.