Bethesda recently opened up early access for its latest mobile game The Elder Scrolls: Blades, and since we learned yesterday that this access has expanded to anyone with a Bethesda account, I figured why not go hands-on with the title so that our readers can see exactly what it has to offer. So strap in folks, because I'm predicting a bumpy ride.
Compared to any mainline TES release, the story in Blades is exceptionally lackluster. You play the part of a Blade who was forced into exile but recently returned home to find their village destroyed. So, of course, it will be your duty to take on a never-ending series of quests so that you can earn the funds and items necessary to rebuild your hometown one structure at a time.
Rebuilding your destroyed hometown is your goal
The story honestly offers nothing special, and it's clear that its primary purpose is to explain why in the world you're spending so much of your time playing the part of a city planner in a freaking TES game. Story design doesn't get lazier than this, bask in its glory.
The graphics look alright, especially for a smartphone title, though indoor environments appear to be a lot more detailed than the game's outdoor areas. I get a distinct feeling that much of the game's particle effects, fog, and lighting are not effects at all, but pre-rendered images. This gives the game a cheap feel, much like the first 3D games in the late '90s that relied on a lot of pre-rendered backgrounds. The game's environments rarely change all that much in appearance, so once you've delved into a few dungeons, you've seen just about everything there is to see.
The pleasant graphics could use more variety
Currently, there are no options to change the graphics in the settings, so if you experience questionable performance (which happens), there's little to be done about it. So far after testing the game on a GS8+ and OP6T, I have noticed more than a few hitches in the framerate on both devices, and on the older GS8+ I have also experienced a few freezes, so there's no doubt that this is a very demanding game. Hopefully, this is something the developers will address before the global release, because as-is, the performance isn't all that great on most devices.
The settings are pretty sparse
The controls are interesting, and while they could use some work, I absolutely love that you can choose to play the game in landscape or portrait. More mobile game developers should aim for a similar design. Navigating menus in portrait and landscape both work very well, though movement in the in-game world will differ between the two views.
I would say playing in portrait suits tablets best, though you can also get away with this view on a phone. Movement is performed by tapping on the screen precisely where you would like your character move, which works well enough, though mistake movements are common. Combat can also feel a little crowded thanks to the limited amount of horizontal space, but once you're familiar with using both thumbs at the same time to attack, block, and pull off your skills, you shouldn't have much trouble when fighting in portrait. Heck, I bet some players may even prefer the combat in this view since it's a more comfortable way to hold your phone.
The landscape view is probably how most people will choose to play through Blades. This view offers a more traditional control method. On the bottom left of the screen, you'll find your left thumbstick, and the bottom right contains the right thumbstick, and during combat, you'll find your block button on the bottom left of the screen and your attack button on the right, plus a sprinkling of special moves in between the two. For the most part, using the thumbsticks works as expected, though they turn the camera rather slowly. If you move either of your thumbs to the top half of the screen, you'll be able to adjust the camera much faster. So while this split setup may seem confusing at first, especially since it's never explained in the game, once you know where your sticks and camera controls are located, you should be able to maneuver around with a workable amount of precision.
The Elder Scrolls: Blades gameplay resembles that of any skinner box on Android, so whether or not you will enjoy it comes down to the type of games you like to play. If you are a fan of casual experiences you revisit in your downtime throughout the day and aren't too worried about things like endlessly grinding extremely repetitive content, the lack of skill-based gameplay, or dealing with an insurmountable amount of wait timers, then you'll probably feel right at home playing Blades. There's always something to work towards, which can feel fulfilling as you complete your goals.
Twenty-two minutes of hands-on gameplay of The Elder Scrolls: Blades, watch as the framerate progressively gets worse
Of course, if you were hoping for something that resembles the mainline series, you're going to be very disappointed. Much of your time will be spent delving into dungeons, either as jobs, quests, or daily challenges. There's also an endless dungeon in your town called The Abyss, which offers better rewards the deeper you go. Sadly the dungeons mostly look the same, which makes sense since many of them are procedurally generated.
In the Story section, your primary purpose is to grow your town. To improve your village you have to collect loot. This loot is mainly obtainable through loot crates, and loot crates can be found in quests or purchased in the store. There are three types of loot crates in total, wood, silver, and gold. It takes five seconds to open a wood crate, three hours to open a silver, and six hours to open a gold. At first, you can only hold ten crates in your inventory, and you can only open one crate at a time, so if you have a bunch of gold and silver crates, it could take days before you unlock the items necessary to rebuild your town. As you can imagine, this is a considerable time sink. You do have the ability to upgrade your chest capacity, but you'll have to spend some premium currency to up your limit.
It will cost you ten gems to add ten more slots to your chest inventory
Combat offers a mixed bag. When wandering through a dungeon you'll come across enemies, and if you get too close to one, you'll immediately jump into combat. This transition is often very jerky, but it at least signals it's time to fight. Each enemy contains an assortment of animations, and it's up to you to figure out which one signals their attack so that you can then block or counter it as you time your strikes in-between. More or less the combat feels like a shallow time-wasting mini-game that drags out the actual gameplay of opening loot boxes and upgrading your town.
At the start of the game, you'll jump into fights and wipe the floor with your enemies. Keeping both thumbs near your attack and block buttons helps, and usually, if you attack from one side and then the other your flurry of slashes should win you most of your encounters. This fun ends at around level eighteen or so when you inevitably hit a wall. And since advancement is tied to your town's growth, and since that growth is tied to the items you randomly find in loot boxes, and since you can only open one box at a time, you can't do much other than wait or pay once you hit the wall.
You can tell almost immediately that Bethesda has designed Blades from the ground up as a shallow cash grab. After all, it's a free-to-play game that packs in-app purchases that range up to $99.99 per item, so it's not like it was a mystery. These IAPs are mainly useful for purchasing a secondary currency called gems, and they can be spent on removing the many roadblocks that halt your in-game progress. You can also earn this secondary currency through gameplay, but you won't ever earn enough to unlock all of the loot box timers you run into.
Tons of IAPs and premium currency for sale in the store
Growing your town is directly tied to the loot you unlock in the game's many loot boxes. Those boxes all contain timers, and they can only be opened one at a time. It would appear that this mechanic is designed to force players to either pay to advance at an acceptable rate or wait for each loot box timer to pass for a shot at unlocking the required items necessary for gaining your next town level.
You can only unlock one chest at a time
Heck, you can even use the secondary currency to complete many of the game's jobs without ever having to actually play them, which should tell you everything you need to know about this release. Everyone's heard of the term "pay-to-win," but Blades is an entirely different beast since its design asks players to pay for the privilege to not to have to play through some of its content. Bethesda's already known as a developer that releases unfinished and extremely buggy console and PC games, but creating content that you ask people to pay to skip, well, that goes beyond the bounds of developer ineptitude and clearly signals the actual purpose of this game.
Who wants to waste time playing the game when you can pay to complete all your jobs
At the very least, Bethesda appears to be aware of the loot box balancing issue and has made a statement that silver crates will be rebalanced in the future.
Since you have to sign in with a Bethesda account to play Blades, it makes sense that cloud saving would be included. You can quickly pick up where you last left off no matter what device you chose to play on. I even spent some time testing the game on my iPad Pro just to see how well the cloud saving works. I've yet to lose any data, and I have to say the feature is indeed seamless in its functionality, which is appreciated.
Simply sign in with your Bethesda account to pick up where you last left off
One feature that's squarely missing is physical controller support. You will have to play on a touchscreen, there's no way around it, which sucks for those of us who prefer to play with a physical controller or require better accessibility. This missing control method also means Shield TV support is most likely a pipedream.
It would also appear that Google Play Games Services are included, though I have not been able to find any features present in the game past the auto GPG account sign-in.
The Elder Scrolls: Blades offers exactly what I expected, which truthfully isn't that much. Maybe I've grown cynical over the years, or perhaps I've been at this for so long that I can instantly smell a cash grab from a mile away, but either way the result is the same. The Elder Scrolls: Blades is a shallow free-to-play skinner box that continually asks the player to spend money on its secondary (premium) currency to alleviate the very roadblocks it regularly places in your way. On top of that, the combat is boring, the story is nonexistent, and for some reason, we are all tasked with rebuilding a town, because you know, that's exactly what TES fans would want from the series. While Bethesda's Fallout Shelter was received positively thanks to its non-invasive monetization, The Elder Scrolls: Blades goes in the exact opposite direction with its ridiculous loot box timers. If you enjoy casually chasing the carrot on the stick, then you'll probably get a kick out of Blades, but if you're looking for a quality TES experience, this ain't it. It doesn't even come close.