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The Elder Scrolls Blades isn’t a full Elder Scrolls game, but it’s an impressive mobile game

Blades’ limitations disappear when you play it vertically

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

The Elder Scrolls: Blades may be the most expensive mobile game that plays best vertically ever made. This might surprise you, considering the Elder Scrolls franchise is perhaps best known for its open worlds filled with beautiful, yawning landscapes that benefit from being enjoyed on a big, widescreen television.

But the demo for The Elder Scrolls: Blades shown at Bethesda’s booth on the E3 2018 floor isn’t the usual Elder Scrolls experience. It’s more linear, claustrophobic and limited. In widescreen, the limitations are obvious; but when played in one hand, I can imagine how this game will fit into the daily routine of commuters and folks who like to fiddle with a mobile game while watching TV.

The demo offered two paths, one through a fantasy forest filled with goblins and giant spiders, the other through a castle, in which a collective of perturbed skeletons have taken up residence. Blades isn’t on rails, but the demo did hew me into corridors like an old-school first-person shooter. It could be generously described as a guided experience, akin to a museum tour. Sure, you can move around the room, maybe investigate an adjoining space, but like a patient tour guide, the game will ultimately get its way, in this case using fantastic beasts and glowing treasure to entice you towards its terminus.

A tap on the screen sends your character walking autonomously to that location. Gently swiping the screen directs where you look. Holding the screen prepares a swing of your weapon, its angle of attack depending on where you press, adding some strategy to how you topple a shielded baddie.

Tapping small icons launch a collection of rechargeable abilities: a lightning bolt, “blizzard armor,” and a shield slam that breaks through enemies’ guard. A shield symbol that rests in the bottom center of the screen in vertical mode lifts your shield; its on-screen real estate speaks to its importance. The combat in the demo boils down to timing blocks to stun enemies, unleashing a charged attack and repeating the loop, tossing in an ability here and there.

The combat is a bit loose. In the demo, it was hard to tell if landing an attack on an enemy canceled their own attack. At first, combat played out like two health bars taking turns whittling each other down. But once I made amends with the block and attack strategy, things found their rhythm, albeit one that I wish had more variety. One enemy — large rats — kept a distance, requiring me to release attacks as they lunged forward, but the rest of the enemies felt similar and predictable, even within the confines of the short demo.

Elder Scrolls Blades being played vertically on a smartphone

Nobody from Bethesda was available to speak to the variety of enemies we’ll see in the final game. Nor were they available to speak to the game’s economy, which features gold bags and green gems, suggesting the in-game gold and in-app purchase gems that have become a staple currency of mobile games.

The demo was stuffed with bags of coin and gems, some rooms containing multiple vases just waiting to be crushed for money they inexplicably held. I wonder if the loot grind may be what carries the game. Its inventory contains slots for your sword, shield, armor, helmet, gauntlets, boots, necklace and two rings. Separate inventory menus for “Potions” and “Misc.” appeared in the menu, but were locked for the demo.

Played on the iPhone X, Blades looks impressive for a mobile game, and while it doesn’t compare with Skyrim on modern consoles, the art direction and some very moody lighting create a fantasy world that’s inviting enough to entice folks to open the app during those bits of free time during the work day when you just want a quick escape.

For this reason, I recommend the vertical mode, which makes Blades feel less like Skyrim and more like the close-quarters dungeon crawls of the past — a very beautiful update of the genre to say the least. The vertical mode calls to mind the gobs of grindy games that make mobile gaming both addictive and wonderful, and awful and weird.

As an Elder Scrolls game, Blades is lacking. As a mobile game though, it could be something special. Hopefully its creators embrace its nature, and players, the vertical gaming life.