The Elder Scrolls series has become one of the biggest franchises in gaming with its most recent installment in the mainline series, Skyrim, selling a whopping 20 million units. (Thats the vanilla release only. Not including the millions of releases since) Regardless of your opinion of Skyrim, Elder Scrolls as a whole can be considered one of the best franchises in gaming. With its great role playing ability of immersing players into its vast world with unique history, character building, and its extremely deep lore to keep you interested. All franchises has their beginnings though. Today we are here to talk about the first Elder Scrolls game, The Elder Scrolls: Arena.
The Elder Scrolls Arena was much different than we know of the franchise today in its early development. It didn’t have an open world, and RPG elements. Instead, it was a first person game where you traveled across the fantasy world of Tamriel to fight in (Take a guess) arena tournaments. However as development continued, side-quests became more important than the tournament aspect, ideas to dungeon crawl to find equipment, and one thing led to another. It kickstarted a series which would later be a juggernaut and gaming powerhouse. Why is the game still called Arena even though an actual arena doesn’t even show up till TES: Morrowind? Funny story actually. They already ordered the advertisements for the arena fighting game. They tried to play it off by saying, “Oh, its because Tamriel at the time was like an arena!” but we all know the truth now. No need to believe the lies. (Lies would later become a big feature of Oblivion and Skyrim 😉 )
The Journey Begins in the Imperial Prison
All stories have their beginnings. You wake up in the Imperial prison. You are one of the few who know about Emperor Uriel Septim VII being imprisoned in another dimension, and impersonated by Jagar Tharn. You are guided by the ghost of now deceased, Ria Silman who was Septim’s apprentice. The only way to defeat Tharn is to collect 8 pieces of the staff of chaos, which is scattered all across Tamriel, and defeat the Battle Mage yourself in the Imperial City. Thats all really. A pretty basic fantasy story at the time but it makes for an epic quest to have to travel all across Tamriel.
From the very beginning its very apparent the controls are dated as hell. Not great when it comes to playing it in the modern era. Unlike TES: Daggerfall which offers modern controls, it offers no other option to play from its clunky, messy, and sometimes atrocious controls. It mixes a point and click adventure and a action game into one. You click and hold your mouse to move depending to where you point on the screen. Its clunky as all hell. Even jumping forward isn’t simple. Move forward while pressing jump key, right? Not right. It requires you to stay in place and press two different keys at the same time. Its possible to jump forward in a kind of traditional way but the way to execute that is even more clunkyer somehow. The mouse is also used to interact with objects and to combat enemies. The combat is meh. Skyrim tier swing at it until it dies. There’s no deep magic system or many weapons so strategy isn’t much of an option. Buy a ton of potions, and swing like you are Babe Ruth at a home run derby. Interacting with things is fine but sometimes feels unresponsive. This game requires real time action. When simply touching something is clunky or unresponsive, its going to a bad day. Or for me, a bad month spent on this game.
Its not all bad though, you can get used to it. I know I did. I played this game first when they released it for free around the time Skyrim came out. I still somehow had some enjoyment with this game even though the controls are hell. Maybe its the retro spirit in me. Even though the controls suck, I don’t consider the opening dungeon hard unlike most people feel with Arena or Daggerfall. enemies are unscaled to the play so you might get a brotherhood member waking you up while you are trying to rest. Just make sure you sleep in a place where you can hide your stench. First dungeon also shows us a climbing/swimming mechanic though these are barely deep enough to even talk about. its simply to progress the level and make it seem more defined than a Wolfenstein 3D room to room feel. Overall the designed of dungeons and cities are pretty generic but they do have creative gimmicks given the limitations in main quest dungeons.
The RPG Elements aren’t so Great Either
All characters have unique traits but you won’t know which race has what without having a manual. I don’t have one but I never knew. From what I read online however, they are all lackluster and one race appears the better choice over everything else. That didn’t matter to me as I already created my character unknowingly. Despite that, it doesn’t get much better. Its a super simple RPG game with super simple armor, and super simple weapons. Not much depth in anything. Every character and class basically plays the same. Some might just have weapon penalties or something like you can’t use a bow or a certain material. You might say that its a Skyrim demake because we all sure know that game has little to offer for RPG elements.
“Dagoth Ur welcomes you, Nerevar, my old friend.”
The Lore Makes Up for Some of the Shortcomings
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of this game isn’t good but the immersion from all the text, puzzles, dungeons, quests, and most importantly, a snippet of lore for each major quest dungeon is amazing. This is what kept me going. Even if you master the crap controls, and look past the crappy RPG elements, you’ll be blasted in the late game no matter what your character is. Every enemy will shoot 3 fireball spells simultaneously and kill you instantly. No matter the build, armor, or magic defense. The fireball spell is simply overpowered and every single late game enemy has it. Definition bad/lazy game design. Artificial difficulty at its finest. Still I quested on. Why?
Because I felt like I was weak. The entire world was after me day after day because I was the only living person that knew the truth of the Emperor. I longed to learn more about each dungeon. Tharn would give me a vision of defeat every time I took a step closer to facing him. Ambushes everywhere. Impossible enemies but I had to keep on. The fate of the empire is at hand, you know? It wasn’t going to be easy. It was the power of immersion and lore that kept me going through Arena. If it had the power to carry people through that game, its no wonder the series is where its at now because of it. The immersion together with its lore is phenomenal.
Some would say reviewing a game that’s over 20 years old is pointless but I see it as an opportunity to look back and see whats worth playing for newer players. Some might say reviewing in the vision of modern games is stupid, but I promise you I’m not. Arena is mediocre now and it was back then as well. It has things going for it like lore and actual infinite quests but its an example of a game where people were more impressed with visuals rather than the game. Despite this I still enjoyed the game rather a lot. Almost beats out Skyrim for me personally. The presentation, and graphics are still good. (Its not gonna become magically HD because its 2017. What I mean is it still looks visually nice with its artstyle) There is content to be found. Its easy to become immersed in this huge world. However it doesn’t, make up for the bad game design, no depth RPG elements, and clunky mess of controls. It was the Skyrim of its time. Luckily we’d soon get the sequel Daggerfall which shows us how much better it can be in every aspect. Do I recommend going back and playing Arena? Only for the most hardcore retro gamers and dedicated TES fans who are curious. Personally, I’d say just go and play Daggerfall.