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Blades may be pared down but still looks like Elder Scrolls

Skyrim Lite?

The Elder Scrolls Blades - fighting a ghoul Bethesda Softworks
Russ Frushtick is the director of special projects, and he has been covering the world of video games and technology for over 15 years. He co-founded Polygon in 2012.

Playing Skyrim on Nintendo Switch is an incongruous experience. It’s such a massive game that playing it in short spans on the subway seems almost wrong. Toss in some hefty load times and battery drain and it’s clear this was not a game made with portable devices in mind.

The Elder Scrolls: Blades, however, is made for mobile devices and every aspect of the design seems built around that. At a recent Apple event in New York City, I played several missions from the content-complete version of the game and I started to appreciate the slimmed down take on Bethesda’s biggest franchise.

The Elder Scrolls: Blades is not an open-world Elder Scrolls game. Not even remotely. If you go in expecting that, you’ll leave disappointed. Instead Blades feels closer to retro dungeon-crawling RPGs like Ultima Underworld. Blades is always played from first-person perspective, sending you through linear dungeons and a series of one-on-one battles. You’ll collect gear and gold along the way, which you can then use to take on more challenging quests.

The controls are pretty basic. I tap spots on the ground to walk to that point. If I want finer movement controls, I turn my phone sideways, granting me a digital analog stick. But this level of accuracy is almost overkill because the maps I’m exploring in Blades are straight-forward and linear. There’s no way to walk off a ledge or scramble into a hidden crevice. They’re large open hallways and caves. Sometimes I need to walk around a corner to find a chest, but that’s about it.

That same level of simplicity carries over to the enemies and combat, at least early on. I have several one-on-one encounters with bandits and giant rats. I attempt to swipe at the screen, Infinity Blade-style, but that proves a disaster. No, Blades is all about the tap-and-hold. Tapping and holding one side of the screen charges up a swing from my weapon, with heavy weapons taking longer to charge. After releasing a swing, I tap and hold the other side of the screen and, if I’m quick enough, I deal a combo attack for some bonus damage.

Adding to some of the complexity, I’m also able to parry enemy attacks with a shield, if timing is accurate. Each of my combat encounters plays out the same way: I hold down block when I see my foe begin to attack, parry their blow, and then unleash a combo or two while they attempt to recover. Again, pretty straightforward.

Later on in my play session I experiment with character builds to mix things up. Spells are an option. I mix in a fireball after a combo to set a giant rat on fire. I find myself sated by the explosion of gold coins he leaves behind. Other unlockable skills add more variables to the combat but there are no classes in Blades. Instead everyone will play as some variant of a spellsword, though you will be able to focus on specific trees (emphasizing casting or melee, for example).

The controls and combat in Blades seem intentionally basic, which is in stark contrast to the visuals, which are stunning. I wander around my town, a between-missions hub world, talking to various merchants. I’m surprised at how much detail there is, given that this is all running on a phone. I’m only able to test it on a high-end iOS device, so I can’t speak to the scalability on more affordable options, but on a flagship iPhone, Blades looks looks on-par with Skyrim’s dungeons and models. Lighting with real-time shadows and high resolution textures blanket the world, giving it a lived in and (at times) creepy vibe. There is no better graphical showpiece on mobile than Blades. (Though given the speed of mobile games these days, there could be a new king in a week.)

The visuals can only take Blades so far. Can its simple controls and scaled back combat really appeal to the diehard Elder Scrolls community? It’s too early for me to say. The missions I played were basic but that’s expected for a tutorial. Later quests may offer a bit more depth. The Abyss, which will be a large portion of the game’s content at launch, is a never-ending dungeon that gets more difficult and rewarding the deeper you go. At level 20 in The Abyss, I may have to juggle multiple spells, special attacks, and parries if I have any hope of staying alive.

I’ll also have to wait and see about the game’s monetization models. Blades will be free-to-play, with two forms of currency (one earned in-game and one mostly purchased with real money). Will competing at the highest levels of Blades require hard-earned cash? I won’t really know until the game’s beta is released by Bethesda sometime this spring. Until then, having access to a bite-sized Elder Scrolls world, no matter where I am, is kind of exciting. I just hope there’s enough depth to keep me dungeon crawling.