The Elder Scrolls: Arena

Let’s end this year right…

Life is nothing if not full of surprises.  For instance, in the same year that I was unable to even spend the holiday season with family, I was made a full timer at a company I think the world of.  You never know what surprises lie in store!  Long ago, my life was very different from what it is now.  There were two children for which I was stepdad for a period of time.  The older of the two was already 12 when we first met.  When his mom and I went our separate ways, we also slipped out of each other’s spheres of influence. Since he was around 20 by that time, he continued living his life.  Then, out of the blue, life offered me anther surprise!  He reached out to say hello and share some of what he had gotten up to in the intervening years.  Some of that included introducing his own son to things I had introduced him to.  What more could a guy ask for?  To know I made a difference… had an influence that went beyond the time we were in each other’s lives!  Flash forward to today: I had been planning to just post a new year’s message with Roger to end the year, foregoing a video game review for this one Thursday.  But as if through magic, I received a message asking if I would like to post a video game article…  Needless to say, I was delighted!  (And then to have him open his review referring to me as The Doctor… 2020 ends on a high note indeed!)  As I said… life is full of surprises.  (And Will… thank you!)  ML

The Doctor introduced me to The Elder Scrolls (TES) way back when The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was released in 2002 or so. For those who don’t know, the series is a first-person fantasy RPG most famous for the relatively recent Skyrim installment. Looking strictly at the numbers, TES has become increasingly popular and successful over time, but few have played the first two titles: Arena and Daggerfall. Arena was released in 1994 for MS-DOS, blending elements of classic D&D-style fantasy with the first-person perspective of Doom. Originally, the game had intended to be some sort of gladiator simulator; an idea that was later scrapped for the game’s central storyline of hunting down the abductor of Emperor Uriel Septim VII. Both Arena and Daggerfall are free-to-play from bethesda.net, so I thought, “why not?”

Character creation is intended to replicate the randomness of classic D&D, but rather than rolling three six-sided dice, your character’s attributes range from roughly 40-100. After sprinkling your points between the difficult-to-read and ambiguous attributes, you awake to find yourself locked away in a dungeon with no mouse-look. The vision of a sorceress speaks to you in a dream, and implores you to stop being a prisoner and save the world.  While the graphics in Arena are absolutely terrible, the first thing I noticed was how excellent the developers were able to construct a truly creepy dungeon environment. Before getting accustomed to the game, I found myself creeping slowly and jumping at the sight of a rat or goblin. That said, we enjoy a great advantage in 2020; the internet. I actually can’t imagine attempting to navigate Arena with no map or information explaining critical information such as what your attributes do, or what your class’s special abilities are. Unlike later TES titles, Arena had some interesting class-centric abilities, such as the Knight’s convenient automatic armor repairs, saving the player from the game’s admittedly tedious armor durability system. Magic and spell creation are also interesting parts of the game to explore, but once again require some internet assistance to navigate.

Arena’s main storyline consists of 18 dungeons on the hero’s quest to reassemble the Staff of Chaos, the only weapon powerful enough to defeat Jagar Tharn, the sorcerer who imprisoned the emperor. I was shocked at how faithful subsequent reproductions of the Elder Scroll’s continent of Tamriel are to the original game. If you have played Morrowind, Oblivion, or Skyrim, you will notice some familiar places along the way such as the Labyrinthian or Dagoth Ur. The developers have taken very few liberties with the lay of the land since 1994. Aside from the long-winded romp through every province of Tamriel, the player may encounter optional quests to search for artifacts (which are later known as daedric artifacts). Much like the game’s topography, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon familiar equipment such as the Ebony Blade or Auriel’s Bow. Artifacts are incredibly powerful in Arena, and unlike later installments in TES, you can only possess one at a time. While there are other quests in the game outside of the central story and artifacts, they are short-winded, randomly generated, and uninspired (not really recommended).

There are a couple of other fun facts to note outside of the core gameplay itself. I mentioned that the game was heavily inspired by D&D. Specifically, the core plot device in Arena, the Staff of Chaos, was plucked from an official campaign centered around an artifact known as the Rod of Seven Parts. The fully assembled rod reads (in Latin), “Though chaos reign, let justice be done. Behold! Law is king.” The game’s chaos-order motif was born out of necessity. You see, prior to the design decision to shift the game from a gladiator simulator to a roleplaying game, Bethesda had already ordered swag and packaging labeled “The Elder Scrolls: ARENA.” The “arena” letters in particular took up approximately 25-30% of the box art. The Bethesda team compensated by adjusting the plot. Tamriel, they said, had become so lawless that it was bestowed a nickname: The Arena. Living up to its reputation, quite literally every person or creature the player encounters outside of town is either an enemy or dead.

If you can stomach mid-90’s DOS graphics, I highly recommend giving Arena a shot. Arena is an endearing romp through the roots of a title that has stood the test of time. While crude by today’s standards, it is astonishing that a roleplaying game of its quality and magnitude came about during the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis era. Shout-out to anyone who beat it without a walkthrough!  WW

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1 Response to The Elder Scrolls: Arena

  1. ragaius says:

    So interesting to take a walk through time and see the roots of Skyrim. Thanks for the write-up Mike! I’m new to modern RPG games but it does seem like The Elder Scrolls is one of the best, if not the best, RPG for D&D. I’d like to see a modern release, maybe with some of the resource-building streamlined. Having played another game with a simpler model (Mass Effect) I think a balance with less gathering and crafting and more storyline is more fulfilling. Just my opinion!

    Liked by 2 people

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