This review was originally posted on Nintendo Scene on 22nd November 2017.
Following from the successful launch of DOOM on Switch, it stands to reason that Bethesda would continue the ball rolling with bringing more of its extensive backlog of incredible and critically acclaimed games to the portable wonder. So, and as the end result of possibly the worst attempted cover up in recent gaming history, when a game that looked suspiciously like Bethesda’s Skyrim was shown as being playable on Switch during its reveal video, only to be fervently denied by Bethesda, we now have Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on Nintendo Switch. Now, this game has been ported multiple times in its lifespan, but I haven’t played it before, so this review will be coming in as a complete outsider. With that said, how is Skyrim?
This story of Skyrim is almost painfully high fantasy. Beginning with your character being carted off to their execution at the hands of a seemingly malevolent Empire, and by execution, we’re talking proper head-on-chopping block style complete with executioner with face covered. However, your execution is interrupted by the untimely arrival of a dragon, which flies in an essentially razes the town that was holding you captive to the ground. During the commotion, and after a surprisingly in-depth character creator, you and another prisoner escape through the already devastated almost-ruins of the town. After your escape, the other invites you to his village and it is here the story and the first quests of the game kick off. Throughout Skyrim, you’ll encounter nobles and bandits, knights and merchants, each with their own tales and impact on the overall narrative.
Here’s where Skyrim truly deviates from the normal standards of narrative-based experiences on Switch. The main story is by a very large margin not even close to the full experience of Skyrim. Every side plot and most NPCs tie into the over-arching narrative in a truly spectacularly feat of world-building. Furthermore, some of these side quests will result in moral choices where the player has to decide how to progress. Sometimes, during a single quest, there will be multiple of these choices as the tale unfolds and this gives the player a real sense of agency within the world, as their choices affect how the events play out. If you couple all this with the fact that any character in the game can be made hostile towards you by attacking them, the end result is a wonderfully immersive player experience in a thoroughly thought-out and extensive world.
The gameplay in Skyrim is, admittedly, a bit of a mixed bag. The exploration, which makes up the majority of the gameplay is tremendous fun. All of the NPCs feel fleshed out, all of the locations are well-designed and easy to navigate (which is helped by an incredibly detailed in-game map), and all of the towns are brimming with life. Discovering a new location and exploring everything it has to offer has never been more immersive. Also, exploration usually yields new armour and weapons, some of which have particular magical imbuments, such as the slightly hilarious fear-inducing axe that causes your opponent to run away from you when struck.
This being said, where it falls apart a little is with the combat. It might be owing to having played a lot of adventure games that have been made since Skyrim was made, but the combat feels very clunky and unresponsive. In fact, the only aspect of the combat that feels intuitive is the ranged attacks with the bow and that is likely because Bethesda have used the motion sensors in the controllers to give an aim assist. With melee, however, there’s just not appropriate sound cues for your blows to register adequately as a player successful or failed hits and it can take a while to understand how Skyrim wants you to engage in combat scenarios.
Furthermore, the combat is hampered a little by a poorly optimised menu system, making inventory management somewhat of a chore. Even by using the in-game “favourite” system so as to have particular equipment on quick select, it’s still a chore to switch weapons. These problems extend to almost every menu in the game, with the main menu for character optimisation (activated by holding “B”), requiring holding of directions to navigate and potentially resulting in panicked confusion as to where to go to achieve the player’s aims. I’d like to point out that you eventually learn how to effectively navigate these menus and they become second nature, but they didn’t need to have such a high barrier for entry to begin with.
One wonderful aspect in this menu, however, is the levelling up area. This highly stylised menu allows you to place the points gained by levelling into initially your magic, health or stamina pools, then adding points into various character traits that can be used to truly allow the player complete freedom over their character. For instance, should you want to have a thief-like character, you can choose to put experience into the “Sneak” and “Lock-Picking” attributes. These points then grant the player advanced techniques within these attributes, such as giving the player 20% more damage when wielding one-handed weapons or increased Stamina regeneration.
How you gain experience in Skyrim is possibly the most interesting aspect of the game, as it isn’t only gained by completing quests and defeating enemies, like most other RPGs. You also gain experience in particular attributes merely by doing the actions linked to those statistics. For instance, if you effectively and continually use a longsword and shield, you will gain levels in “One-Handed Weapons” and “Blocking”, getting better with those objects as you progress and become a more powerful fighter. This shouldn’t discount the traits that aren’t even attributed to strength, such as continual interactions with merchants raising your “Speech” level, which in turn allows you to sell objects for more money and also buy more cheaply.
Needless to say, the amount of thought that has gone into this mechanic is staggering, and it’s impossible to do almost anything in the game without one of your attributes becoming stronger, which in turn feeds back into the overall immersive feeling of Skyrim overall. Furthermore, the different races you can choose to play as are influential in how easy it is to gear your character towards a particular build. The basic character type, Nord, is a great and versatile base to build from to take in any direction; this is opposed to the Khajit, which are essentially cat-people and are better at stealth and have in-built improved vision at night making them a better build for sneaking. The level of player impact on their character and how it develops shows a clear care of attention from Bethesda, and it’s undeniable that every little choice of the player has a tangible effect on the experience.
Aesthetically, this game is absolutely phenomenal regardless of how you choose to play it. Unlike DOOM before it, which fares rather unfavourably while the Switch is docked, Skyrim looks absolutely incredible. Every location is beautifully detailed and full of life, every creature and enemy type are (at times) tremendously realistic, especially the horrifying giant spiders. All of the towns in terms of both design and layout feel realistically proportioned and thought out, and all of the characters you meet feel cohesively part of their surroundings. Then there’s the sound design, which is absolutely stellar, with the music fulfilling both the more epic and the more sombre sides of high fantasy. The voice over too is incredible, with multiple different dialogue options for most conversations, further fleshing out the immersive world and giving more life to the denizens within it. My only recommendation is that when playing with the Switch in handheld mode, definitely use headphones because the sound design is simply that good and should not be missed.
So, should you buy Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on Switch? I have to say yes to that question as Skyrim is, in my opinion, one of the best games currently playable on Switch. Having not played the game on other consoles, I can’t speak for how this port fares against its contemporaries, but this is a huge and immersive high fantasy epic on Switch and this feat alone is enough to recommend it, and that’s not taking into account how enjoyable the game is to explore despite the arguably clunky combat and initially bewildering menus. If you then factor in that the Switch version of the game contains all of the DLC, and the ability to take your adventure on the go, it is impossible not to recommend for those wanting a substantial adventure. There is so much in Skyrim that I haven’t been able to cover in here to explore for the player as well, simply because a lot of the game is served better by being uncovered with fresh eyes. Chalk this up as another to add to the long list of essential Switch titles.
Thank you to Bethesda for kindly supplying us with the review code to cover this game.
Skyrim is out now on Nintendo Switch in both physical and eShop download.