While Dungeon Lords constantly called glorious Morrowind to mind (though it could never reach those heights), recent escapades with DOSBox led me to believe I was ready to start playing the Elder Scrolls series from the beginning.
I downloaded The Elder Scrolls: Chapter One: The Arena from Bethesda’s website ages ago, because I knew that this day would come. Since Dungeon Lords was a bit of a damp squib, but I was still all fired up for an RPG, I finally took the plunge.
While lots of people have attested to Daggerfall being the best Elder Scrolls game, nobody has ever recommended Arena in my presence. I didn’t really know what to expect; I imagined it would be some kind of endless underground dungeon crawl. I mean, surely they couldn’t have all that giant-open-world stuff back then — they just didn’t have the technology (or the manpower), right?
It certainly has the standard low-key prison start, though I suppose back then it wasn’t a standard.
You’ve been forgotten in this prison after some nob-end teleported the Emperor to another dimension and took over, but then you recieve a vision from a floaty ghost woman and she tells you to escape. Some silly bugger has left the key to your cell inside your cell, so this isn’t a difficult thing to do (the only challenge is finding where to click to actually pick it up). The dungeon is very twisty, dark (but as always you mystically emit just enough light to see around yourself) and full of goblins and rats.
Luckily, some stumbling around in the general direction suggested by a handy hint eventually yields the outside world… And then the game begins.
You’re teleported into a town, where there are people wandering everywhere and buildings and a sky. Okay, the houses are constructed of cubes and the people are barely recognisable sprites, but they’re wandering around and you can talk to them all. I asked some people for directions to the nearest store, sold all the loot I’d found in the dungeon, and bought myself a nice suit of plate armour.
I’m still not entirely sure how the game’s RPG elements actually work. It certainly doesn’t seem to be in the same way as Morrowind — that is, you seem to get experience from killing things (and possibly quests) in a fairly normal manner, rather than boosting skills by using them. In terms of skills… Well, I haven’t the faintest idea what skills I actually have. If there even is a skill window, I can’t find it (then again, it took me ages to find the inventory so this wouldn’t be surprising). Maybe there are no skills at all; Bethesda sadly didn’t include a scan of the manual with the download and their setup/readme doesn’t mention anything.
The general rules, however, are all too familiar: death is the end, so buy healing potions and get to the dungeon diving.
Quests come in two forms: fetch quests that require you to take an item to or retrieve an item from a shop in a town, or dungeon quests that require you to penetrate a dungeon and acquire or kill something.
The dungeons themselves are fairly aimless — with no architectural hints you are left to wander around and hope that you’ll eventually wander in the right direction. The best hint I’ve had so far was “follow the mine cart tracks”, and that’s constantly offset by the tendancy to have entire halves of the dungeon be a spurious maze with no objective in it and not even some bangin’ loot to compensate. So glad I invested heavily in speed, but I’m sure that’s a fair cop for any Elder Scrolls title.
I suppose any RPG can be boiled down to these quest elements; the difference here is that each side quest is a single requirement — go down this dungeon, get something and come back, done; take this item to this shop, come back, done. There is never a variable string of twists or turns, in fact there is very little exposition at all. The questing is naked and raw.
The main quest, however, is a series of sub-quests in a repeating formula: first, find somebody who knows the location of the next dungeon, then do a quest for them (raid this dungeon and bring this item back) before they’ll reveal the location you need, then go down that dungeon and get the staff part… All over Tamriel.
The game is controlled by mouse and arrow keys. It’s not mouselook, though; the cursor is free-floating like in Windows (and you probably came to this game from DOS, so that must have been pretty scary).
Combat is funny because it’s gestural. Right-click and drag the cursor across the screen to swipe your sword in the desired direction: left or right for slices, up for a thrust and down for a downward stroke (and there even appear to be two angles of side-swipe, depending on how high your cursor is at the start (and end?) of the gesture). Which makes an interesting change from the click-to-perform-some-kind-of-attack paradigm I’m used to, though I’m not sure how different the effects of each of the different attacks might be (if they even are more than eye candy).
Either way, combat gets you plenty of wrist action. Whoosh!
As a fictional world, Tamriel is not particularly fleshed out in this game. Arena might be continent-sized, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of variety to make it worth the geographical spread — while individual settlements have distinct layouts, interiors don’t vary so much (and almost always hilariously splurge outside their external walls) and exteriors only really differ in their decorations.
Outside towns there are vast swathes of mostly uninspiring wilderness, with scattered random dungeons. I’m not sure if any of the wilderness areas would ever join up between towns, since most are days apart and even with my heavy investment in speed I’m not going to try that, but it’s still a pretty mad big world. There just… doesn’t seem to be much worth striking out there for.
A curiously addictive experience despite its simplicity, Arena shares very little with the Morrowind I fell in love with years ago — if it wasn’t for the races and names you’d hardly know this was where it all began.
As a game, the cuboidal landscape is strangely compelling and the furious mouse-sweeping combat is rather endearing.
So unless it takes a nosedive any time soon, I think I will play this one to completion.