Thursday, February 02, 2017

A Magical Realm Where Everything Wants To Kill You

I'm iffy on medieval fantasy most of the time. The whole swords and sorcery and wizards with long beards thing can work, but rarely deeply interests me. It just doesn't stack up next to Westerns or sci-fi in terms of setting and genre conventions that interest me. So Skyrim was always going to be fighting an uphill battle. But it was a gift.

Skyrim is in a civil war*, dragons are emerging after centuries of dormancy, and the main character is the legendary Dragonborn**, which means your character will gain power by absorbing the souls of dragons you kill. Or dragons that are killed near you. I was able to gain the soul of one that got killed by a nearby group of giants it attacked instead of me. The main story is about dealing with that, but there are many other factions you can throw in with, or one-off quests to do. Or just wander the countryside and explore. Keep in mind that, as the title of this post states, everything and everyone you meet will try to kill you. There are a few exceptions, but you might as well just start swinging if they approach you and dialogue options don't immediately appear.

I can't blame them. They live in a crappy, mostly frozen land of dragons and no indoor plumbing, with crypts and caves full of undead, possibly dragon-voice wielding, warriors. Because some jackass thought cursing the people who fought alongside the dragons to that existence was actually, you know, a curse. Why not just trap their consciousness inside a dead body that can't move? Then they can watch helplessly as I loot their graves, and I don't have to fight another crypt full of Draugurs. I was 100% done-zo with that within the first few hours. Sadly, it was not done with me, and there was much more Draugur fighting to come.

A lot of the quests boil down to going to a place to retrieve a thing and bringing it back, with a lot of killing along the way. There were some standouts. I didn't really want to start the Forsworn Conspiracy, but once I got into it, it felt a bit like a detective story. I kept finding dead bodies, discovering clues, being warned off by the equivalent of cops and goons, and eventually the guy who hired me turned up dead. Then everything went to hell.

The guards wanted to arrest me. I wasn't interested, so I hightailed it out of there. But every time I came back to Markath, they tried to arrest me. Which threw a real crimp into my attempt to start the Dark Brotherhood quest line (I had decided by that point if I didn't like anyone in this world other than my housecarl, Lydia, there was no reason not to start taking money to murder some of them***). This despite the fact I was dressed completely differently now (my face covered both times), and was alone where I had a friend before, but somehow they always know immediately that it's me. That makes a lot of fucking sense.

So I let them throw me in their mine/prison. Where I meet the leader of an uprising. The game gives you the choice of killing or helping him. I meant to kill him, but misunderstood when I was supposed to try that and waited too long. So screw it, help him escape. What do I care? He and his guys kill the guards, run amok, I get all my gear back, the quest is over, now I can do what I wanted, and I did. But when I had to return to Markath to learn who The Gourmet was, so I could kill and impersonate him, the guards were back. More critically, they were back to trying to throw me in jail for the same stuff they already threw me in jail for. I couldn't claim innocence, couldn't bribe my way out of it, couldn't even let them throw me in prison, since giving in just caused the dialogue sequence to start over. All I could do was run away.

So the Dark Brotherhood quest line died an angry death. As did the Thieves' Guild quest line when I decided to start that immediately after. The glitch blocked two things I actually was somewhat interested in. That did not help my attitude towards the game.

I did enjoy many of the Daedra quests. The Daedra being creatures that exist mostly in other realms and make themselves known in Skyrim in various ways. Dreams, prophets, drugs, gifts bestowed on the faithful, stuff like that. I ran about 50/50 on helping them and thumbing my nose at them. I helped Astra, but not the one that told me to kill his talking dog servant. I killed all the people who were sick and hiding in the old dwarven city at the behest of one Daedra (he'd made them that way, but was mad one of his followers was keeping them there rather than having them roaming spreading illness). I ended up not killing that guy who wanted to assemble the pieces of some old cursed blade when asked to. What was required of the quests wasn't a whole lot different from all the ones I was so bored by in broad terms, but there was something interesting in dealing with the Daedra. What they wanted was so rarely connected to the major storylines running through the game. Daedra don't give a crap about some civil war, they'd rather torment a mad ghost, or make an entire town suffer nightmares constantly.

I didn't have a lot of success varying my combat. It figures one of the few games where I actually tried carrying a shield and blocking sometimes, would be one where that was probably the wrong approach. I was informed I'd have been better off either going with a two-handed weapon for more damage, or dual-wielding (which means you can't block). I tried using magic, but it never felt like it was working quickly enough to justify sacrificing being able to carry my shield. I suppose it might have worked if I used it more early on and leveled it up more, so it did more damage later. I did find the stealth option reasonably simple to use, as long as I stuck to sniping people with the bow. Sneaking up for close range attacks was dodgier.

I had the impression you could talk to almost anyone and get some sort of quest. But given my reluctance to engage in another slog through a crypt full of Dragurs, this made me less likely to try talking to random people. Not that I'd be required to do the quest, but I got tired of seeing my menu screen filling up with quests I had no interest in undertaking. That exhaustion was grinding against my completist nature.

I liked Blackreach, which was the remains of a dwarven city sitting in some immense cavern. There were other dwarven cities, but when you're in those, it's lacking something. It's all stone walls, lighting from somewhere, the occasional robot attack. With Blackreach, it was like part of the city fell into the cave, so there was more a collage effect to the setting, which I think I appreciated. Plus it was dark and atmospheric, but with weird crap glowing up on top of pyramids (which I did not venture up to because there were a shitload of Falmer up there and I didn't feel like dying). But sneaking around there was somehow much more interesting than doing so in ordinary caves.

I didn't love the look of Skyrim. The graphics are good, stuff is rendered well, it just isn't a style I particularly care for. Now that I think about it, maybe it's just the Western version of medieval fantasy I don't like. A fair number of the JRPGs I've played could be described as medieval fantasy, like DragonQuest 8 or Tales of Vesperia. So you filter it through an anime aesthetic and I can dig it. I dunno, I can see why a lot of people like it so much, and I found parts of it engaging, but I wouldn't say it ever really clicked. It felt like I was always another encounter with Draugurs away from it reverting to being a slog.

* Which I never did take a side in. Helping the Empire would be helping imperialists, but the Nords are racists. Where was the, "Rally the dragons, use them to burn everything," option?

** I went with a Redguard I named Yukio Monroe. Did I give her white hair with a mohawk? You bet.

*** OK, I also liked the Argonian member of the Dark Brotherhood, at least I did based on that one conversation I had with him.


SallyP said...

Holy crap! You mean people do this for... fun?

Kelvin Green said...

I still don't understand why Skyrim was heaped with praise and awards when the much better Xenoblade was around at the same time. I suppose it was probably because the latter was released on the Wii and everyone hated the Wii, and Nintendo was reluctant to release the game in the US.

I do like the landscape in Skyrim but the dungeons are boring, the quests shallow, and the combat is terrible; the controls are too wonky for anything but stealth-sniping to be at all effective. The Dark Brotherhood quest is not bad but it's almost hidden, and you can run through the whole game without having anything to do with it.

(I did quite like that there was no right side to join in the civil war, as both sides were bastards in their own way, but your suggestion of rejecting both and taking over as a dragon lord is much better.)

All that said, even though Skyrim is a janky, sometimes boring, mess, I still put in a lot of hours. There is something compelling about it, underneath all the glitchy, buggy, crud.

But it's still not as good as Xenoblade.

CalvinPitt said...

sallyp: Yeah. I guess it depends on one's definition of "fun". I had fun with it sometimes.

Kelvin: Hmm, I'm not sure I've even heard of Xenoblade. The friend who gave Skyrim to me even admitted the story was pretty weak compared to some of the earlier ones (I think she's a really big fan of Morrowind).

And that's very true about the Dark Brotherhood. I came across that jester and his busted wagon fairly early, and convinced the guy to help fix it. I expected something would come of it, but had no idea it was going to relate to me killing that orphanage lady for that one kid. And since I never had my character sleep, it was 30 or 40 hours of gameplay after that before I read the guide my friend loaned me and figured out that I needed to sleep to start the Dark Brotherhood. That's a little too elaborate of a set-up, to be sure.

Kelvin Green said...


Yeah, the Dark Brotherhood quest ends with you assassinating the Emperor. That's quite a big deal, but it's all hidden away and may never be unlocked.

In a way it's quite impressive, having a major plotline like that be optional, but it's also a bit of a shame because it's more compelling that the main plot. It's a frustrating game because it's almost good, but fluffs the landing, as it were.