This all seems mighty familiar. The sun splits the trees to my right while long sprawling shadows are cast over the lake; fireflies flutter overhead, close enough to be plucked out of the air; a nearby waterfall cascades from a river hundreds of feet above.
An arrow suddenly splits the air, a disgruntled hunter crying obscenities from across the pond as an impatient orchestral melody lets me know - as if it weren't clear already - that I've been spotted. Worse still, the commotion has stirred a bruting troll-like Mud Elemental who's now hot on my heels and, bloody hell, I best hightail it if I want to avoid being slaughtered for the third time in a row. I've been here before, but I haven't. I recognise it, but I don't. It's Skyrim, but it's not.
What it is is Enderal: The Shards of Order - a game-sized total conversion mod for Bethesda's fifth Elder Scrolls main series instalment, and the work of German hobbyist modders SureAI, the same team who crafted 2010's impressive Oblivion overhaul Nehrim: At Fate's Edge. Five years in the making, it now has an English language version that welcomes players to a new but wholly familiar world, which is in itself a surreal experience, mostly because the landscape of open world games has shifted quite considerably in the intervening period.
The likes of Grand Theft Auto 5 and its Online counterpart, for example, have pushed the envelope on both credibility and possibility within the bounds of a faux-real life setting. Fallout 4 has brought Bethesda's sandbox mastery to modern hardware, and The Witcher 3 has since delivered a sublime interpretation of medieval fantasy. Even Skyrim itself has been subjected to tens of thousands of user-made modifications which have at times tweaked and teased the base game beyond recognition. Despite having its roots in what, in gaming terms, is the distant past, Enderal can be a magical experience.
Within a playground almost identical in size to Skyrim and certainly more geographically varied, Enderal is filled with new quests and factions, allies and enemies, dungeons and townships - each of which is a joy to discover. Its story unfolds two years after the events of Nehrim and while paying occasional deference to its forerunner - by way of the odd returning character and/or story overlap - newcomers can expect to hop on board with little issue.
As an isolated continent, you learn early on that Enderal has narrowly escaped tangential civil war but that a 'Red Madness' sweeps its populace, causing otherwise friendly folk to turn against one another in brutal fashion. This in turn forces a magic-related fever and strange dream-like auguries upon our protagonist, within which we learn that the theocratic Order of Enderal might be behind these dodgy events. And so sets the scene for your hero's fantastical journey - one which involves sussing out this seemingly unscrupulous church-state, eradicating your potentially fatal delirium, and putting a stop to the dreadful plague.
Story-wise, Enderal's tone is darker than that of Skyrim's and while its surrogate narrative offers upwards of 50 hours of mainline questing, it is perhaps a little less sophisticated in comparison to Bethesda's skilful weave. It can also be frustratingly linear at times - although it's always worth remembering the disparity in studio size (and the fact that for SureAI development on Enderal was a hobby rather than a living).
Certain quests are fantastic, offering divergent paths and multiple conclusions, yet others breakdown by simply wandering from the game's predetermined 'most straightforward' route. This is a real shame as there's an overarching sense that everything in Enderal's landscape is there for a reason, that it's been meticulously placed with equanimity, and therefore being punished for your desire to explore is an unfortunate byproduct of the game's limitations.
Nonetheless, the moments where Enderal breaks from its inspiration's lead are where the total conversion truly comes into its own. Its class system has been completely overhauled, mirroring a more traditional setup that lets players accumulate experience points by way of killing monsters, uncovering new locations and completing quests and so forth - separating itself from Skyrim's 'learning by doing' ethos.
Special skills named Talents replace Skyrim's signature Dragonshouts, of which each class houses two, unlockable via the assigned perk tree. Once the player accumulates enough EP, they can level up which, in turn, grants them a single Skill Point which is then transferred to the appropriate class tree and is used to work towards buying new Talents.
Furthermore, Learning Points are used to buy books from the realm's many merchants which, once read, uncover yet more new credentials. Admittedly, this sounds more complicated in theory than it is in practice, however this diverse approach ultimately prevents spreading perks across the board - à la Skyrim - and instead forces players to specialise in two specific traits across nine classes.
The knock-on effect this has out on the field is that Enderal is significantly more challenging than its source material. There are certain areas that, although reachable from the outset, are almost impossible to pass through while floundering in lower levels, and there were a few occasions where I had to rely on side ventures (the difficulty of which is indicated by a handy star rating) so as to rack up strength in order to proceed with the main quest.
Healing is also less effective - in part due to the absence of level-scaling, but also because the majority of looted potions are "rancid" and are therefore barely helpful whatsoever - and your magic-induced fever only worsens by overindulging in the use of the arcane arts. Healing via spellcasting, then, is advised in sparing measure which is a really interesting and thoughtful twist on standard fantasy RPG genre mechanics.
Naturally, the further you work up the skill tree, the stronger you become - the spread of skills and scope for ingenuity in later experience levels echoes the mix-and-match variety of BioShock's plasmid system - yet that's of little consequence nor consolation when you're slogging it out in the game's earliest stages. In short: you ostensibly earn your right to explore certain zones - the outskirts of Duneville and Silvergrove both spring to mind - and do battle with their inhabitants.
Fast travel also makes way for teleportation scrolls and the use of winged Myrad beasts which are dotted around specified signpost checkpoints across the map. While being forced to trek long distances without an obvious means of expediting the process was occasionally disheartening, Enderal's multitude of gorgeous snow-covered plains, barren deserts and rolling pastoral landscapes ensured the journey was as entertaining as the destination.
To this end, Enderal is so well presented it's easy to forget it's an overhaul of a big-budget game made on a part-time basis by a group of keen, but ultimately hobbyist, modders. It's a staggering achievement whose English language version is superbly translated - which includes professional voice acting from the likes of Dave Fennoy, best know as Lee from The Walking Dead - and its refined class and levelling systems facilitate scope for varied replayability.
A Skyrim remaster is on its way later this year, but SureAI's five year-long pet project has suitably satisfied my appetite for an Elder Scrolls-like sandbox adventure for the time being. Enderal isn't without its flaws, but it's easily one of the very best total conversion mods ever made.