We can't say that we weren't sceptical of The Elder Scrolls: Blades upon its reveal. A free-to-play fully-fledged Elder Scrolls title in the vein of Oblivion and Skyrim that could be played on our mobile devices did sound a little too good to be true, and that's without factoring in its roguelike-styled Abyss mode and social town-building aspects. During Quakecon 2018, however, we were able to take a look at the upcoming mobile title to see whether our scepticism was justified, and for the most part, we were pretty impressed with what we got to see.
Within the demo build we able to explore two rather linear dungeons that were titled simply forest and castle. Many of the teased bells and whistles were absent here and the focus of the demo instead seemed to be on Blades' controls and performance on mobile devices; the crux of the experience. The touchscreen controls we found intuitive, despite not offering the fluidity of a mouse and keyboard or a controller of course. Tapping the screen moves your character forward and you can look around by dragging your finger across the screen. Much of the challenge came from moving and tilting our heads simultaneously - although we did find this much easier in landscape mode where we had more room to use the controls with both hands.
Across both dungeons, we went toe-to-toe with shield-wielding skeleton warriors, giant forest spiders, and rabid rat-like creatures. We soon got a feel for combat too, which involved tapping and holding down the screen to time attacks and holding down a shield button to block. There are also spells that you can trigger that are limited by a mana meter, and in the demo the two that we were able to use were lightning and blizzard armour. One thing that we disliked about combat though is how the camera would automatically shift if an enemy so much as tapped us. This gave it kind of an 'on rails' feel that held us back from depending on our vigilance and speedy reaction time.
The build of Blades we experienced was running on an iPhone X and ran as smooth as butter, delivering stellar performance, some impressive lighting effects, and great environmental detail. This quality was never compromised either when switching between landscape and portrait modes, something which Todd Howard touted as a major selling point during E3. It might not be giving 2011's Skyrim a run for its money in the graphical department, but seeing both of these locales running on the iPhone X was an impressive feat to witness, and we feel Bethesda has succeeded in capturing the essence of an Elder Scrolls title within the constraints of mobile.
Something which is still unclear is how microtransactions will feed into Blades. With it being a free-to-play title, we know that they will factor in somehow, but the demo offered little hints as to how they'll operate at launch. As we slashed our way through both dungeons we gathered gold coins and emeralds, for instance, and we suspect that these may be the currency used. Whilst all we can do is speculate at this point, we hope that these microtransactions aren't somehow linked to core aspects like weapons, spells, and armour, especially with PvP having a focus.
This is of course only a small taste of what Blades has to offer and we were told that three distinct modes would be playable - there's a PvP mode where players across all devices can face off against each other, the aforementioned story mode, and an Abyss mode that plays like a procedurally-generated roguelike. Out of all the modes teased we imagine it will be the Abyss mode that will translate best to short bursts of play. Being able to fight through a gauntlet of randomised dungeons on the go that have been crafted with Bethesda's usual seal of quality is something that is really compelling and we can't wait to hear more.
We were also told that Blades is set to have character customisation similar to other Elder Scrolls titles where you can play as multiple races. We'll also be seeing a town section where you receive quests, build up your home base, and purchase additional resources like weapons and armour. From what we've heard at E3 and from the Bethesda team at Quakecon it really does sound like an expansive RPG and an experience that can be played socially for hours or just for minutes on your own. We just hope that the quality that Bethesda is known for is communicated across all of these different modes as quality is always something that speaks louder than quantity.
A lot still remains unclear about Blades and only time will tell whether it will deliver a journey worthy of the Elder Scrolls name. We can report that combat feels slick and it packs a real punch in the graphical department, but without seeing much of its other modes and dreaded microtransactions we can't tell for sure whether this may be a must-play on the go. The Elder Scrolls: Blades is set to launch on mobile devices this autumn with other platforms said to follow, but pre-registration is now available on Apple and Android devices, and you can watch our hands-on footage featuring both of the dungeons mentioned below.