Elder_Scrolls_Arena_Cover.jpgThe game that started a franchise way back in 1994. I was big fan of Oblivion and Skyrim, and so I wanted to go back to the roots of the series and work my way up, if possible. Though it’s pretty old, I feel as though it’s aged decently well, and really gives that “table-top” feel that they were shooting for.

When you start, you find yourself in a prison (as is par for the course for the Elder Scrolls) and learn that the Imperial Battlemage, Jagar Tharn, has banished the Emperor to a plane of Oblivion, and is masquerading as the Emperor, releasing monsters to the land and ruling over it. Unfortunately, everyone in an important position to do anything about it has also replaced or killed by Tharn. In fact, a woman, Ria Silmane is the only one with any answers and can only turn to you, as a lowly prisoner wouldn’t be under any suspicion. In fact, nobody even bothered taking your weapons away when you got thrown in the cell! Ria promises to give you guidance in your dreams, as she is dead, and only her magic binds her to the world. She informs you that the only way to save the Emperor is to find the eight pieces of the Staff of Chaos that Tharn has broken and scattered across the land. Once you break out of prison, you get teleported to a random town in the province that your character hails from. From here the game opens up as you either hunt down the Staff of Chaos, or do whatever it is you want to do.

The game is played in first person. You can move using the arrow keys, or the mouse if you point and click on the screen which direction you want to walk (awful control, just use the arrow keys). There are a number of buttons along the bottom that you can click on to enable you to pull up/sheathe your weapons, check your map or quest log, cast spells, use items, and steal/lockpick. These are also bound to keys, like m for map. You can also access your character sheet and manage your inventory by clicking on the portrait of your character. Attacking is kind of different in that it is performed by readying your weapon, then holding the Right Mouse Button and swinging the mouse the way you’d like to swing your weapon, unless you have a bow, in which case, one click = one arrow. Certain directions do more damage but are less accurate than others, which is a neat touch, but most of the time, you’ll probably just be swinging and hoping for the best. There is also a jump ability (j) and you can jump forward by holding shift and j, which you’ll need to clear gaps, though you could also just climb up small cliffs or swim across the gaps if you’d prefer.

The_Elder_Scrolls_-_Arena_in-game_screenshot_(MS-DOS).pngWhen you’re in dungeons, you pretty much just kill stuff, find treasure, and advance to the bottom level of the dungeon. When you’re in town, you can talk to people for a number of different purposes, such as asking for directions, as towns are absolutely ENORMOUS, inquire about rumors for story bits (or if you’re lucky, you’ll get one of the Artifact quests, putting you on a journey for some of the best items in the game) or for some work, and as such, a bit of coin, or just engage in some friendly conversation. Inns will allow you to pick up quests, buy drinks, and rest. Sometimes the nobility will have a quest for you in the palace as well, usually paying a pretty decent amount of coin.. The Mages Guild will allow you to find out the enchantments on any of the equipment you have that is undiscovered, create and/or purchase spells if you’re a spellcaster, or buy magical items and potions. Blacksmiths will repair your gear and also sell weapons or armor. They are also the only place you can sell your unwanted items. Finally, there are temples that can heal you or bless you based on your donations. If you’re the sneaky sort, you can also break into homes in the hopes of finding riches.

The Elder Scrolls: Arena is HUGE. The map was made to be realistic, so walking from town to town can take HOURS, and is not how travelling was intended. Instead, from a town or anywhere outside, you can fast travel, which will tell you your estimated travel time according to weather (a nice touch), and all distances are made to be realistic expect to spend weeks on the road from town to town, though distances are all traveled in the blink of an eye to keep you in the game. If you want to explore outside towns on your own, you’re welcome to, as the world is randomly generated from a single seed, with randomly generated dungeons out there to find and plunder. Like in most RPGs, killing things levels you up and you’re able to distribute extra points to your stats once you do. Another interesting touch is the addition of holidays that make inns free, or get 1/2 off shop prices, but there’s no real way to plan your visits to towns on holidays.

a_001.pngThe game flow is pretty simple for the main quest (which really, there’s not too terribly much else to do; more on that later): rest so that Ria can communicate with you to give you a hint of where the next piece of the Staff of Chaos is, talk to people until you find out specifically who will give you the quest to retrieve something for them from a different dungeon, return with said item, then go to the dungeon now available on the map and get the next piece of the staff. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes the action in the dungeons can get repetitive, but it’s broken up by having to hunt down keys, find secret doors, or answer clever riddles. No two dungeons are exactly the same, and the dungeons you must complete to find the pieces of the staff are not randomly generated like the others. Instead, they were hand crafted by the developers.

Outside of the main quest there’s little to actually do aside from shopping and exploring. Stealing things is neat and somewhat useful early on, but by the end of the game, you’ll find the need to steal and barter for the best prices trivial. I was banking nearly 200,000 gold by the end of the game with nothing to spend it on. Most things are fairly cheap, but I can see gold being a bit more of a commodity for a Mage, as magical things tend to be more expensive. With gold being more or less useless about mid-game, there’s no real incentive to do any quests or work offered to you outside of the Artifact Quests, but you can only have 1 Artifact on you at a time (unless you utilize an exploit). Artifact quests give you a big advantage over enemies, but can degrade quickly and need repairs if you’re not careful. Repairs for these legendary Artifacts are pretty expensive, but again, an exploit comes to save the day, if you choose to go that route. Finally, since all loot is randomly generated, there’s no real risk vs. reward system.

One kind of big gripe with the game is that it is very demanding. If you don’t read the 90ish page manual before starting the game, you’re going to have a rough time, as most important things like stats and spells are not explained in game, only in the manual. In fact, most of the game I played in windowed mode so I could have the manual right next to me. On one hand, this is neat and is almost a “days gone by” approach to gaming, especially with games’ need for incessant hand-holding, but makes it very intimidating to the first-timer. Not just will you be in the dark without a manual, but if you’re not prepared with many different ways to deal with the dangers of dungeons, you may see your play time cut woefully short. Magic, my main gripe with the game, is VERY overpowered. the-elder-scrolls-arena-screenshot-7.pngAny enemy with a magical attack of any kind can and will often kill you within 1 or two hits. You can walk in a room and die instantly because there is no invulnerability once hit or anything, so multiple casters will kill you often before you can even see them. The only solutions are to carry a ton of potions with you that resist the three main types of magic, Frost, Shock, and Fire. The only way to know if your potion is still active is to check the status screen, so the game could have really benefited from putting an icon on the heads up display or something. Alternatively, you could have enchanted equipment that give you a spell resist or even better, spell reflection ability. Many enemies can be defeated quickly late game by turning their powerful magic against themselves with magic reflection. Likewise, status effects like paralyzation or disease can be a quick end provided you’re not prepared for them, so you’ll need an entire apothecary in your pocket if you want to survive. I found myself carrying 50+ of 5 or 6 different potions by end game; luckily they don’t weigh anything, but they do take up a slot in your already limited inventory.

My last gripe is a glitch that makes it impossible to advance because an enemy may be standing on top of a wall of where you need to go. For instance, you often have to swim through narrow passageways of water to make your way to hidden rooms, but if an enemy is glitching into the wall, you cannot pass, and although there are a few solutions, none of them are particularly good solutions.

The Bottom Line

Pros

  • A challenging pen-and-paper experience.
  • The story and dungeon crawling will have you craving more every time you set it down, with a great payoff at the end.
  • Neat ideas like realistic travel times, a randomly generated (and HUGE) open world, and holidays set new standards for RPGs.

Cons

  • Difficult and seemingly unfair sometimes.
  • You practically have to read the manual.
  • Lack of variety, especially as you near the end of the game.
  • Glitches and bugs.

Final Score: 6.5/10

Ultimately though, the Elder Scrolls: Arena is strangely addicting. The fun comes mainly from exploring every corner of a dungeon, and early on, the bartering and finding your way around town is fun. They did a really good job at making it feel like you were playing a pen-and-paper RPG, even if there was little to deviate outside of the main story. Finally, the ending has a great payoff, and you really feel like you’ve weathered a journey by the end of it. I think it’s flawed for sure, but don’t let the lower score fool you; if you’re in the mood for a DOS RPG and up for a challenge, consider giving Arena a shot.