"Blades, at its heart, is a pure Elder Scrolls game; a massive, first-person RPG with console-quality graphics. Yes, running on a phone - it really looks and plays incredible." That's what Todd Howard said at E3 when he announced The Elder Scrolls: Blades to the world, and it sounded quite exciting. Except, it's a load of old tosh. Blades isn't a pure Elder Scrolls game and it doesn't have console-quality graphics, unless we're talking about an old console, nor does it play incredibly.
It's not bad though, I want to stress that up front, and lumps and bumps do come with the early access territory. There are many moments where Blades does a pretty good Elder Scrolls imitation. You can create a character and mess around with their appearance, as you would in a core Elder Scrolls game, and you can level your way through a considerable number of spells, perks and abilities. You have a town to build houses in and upgrade, and you can buy and sell and order crafted equipment, each piece of which displays on your character when you equip it. You can talk to non-player characters in multiple-choice dialogues, and when you're poking around subterranean ruins, forests or caves, with rousing music playing in your ears, it can feel like the real Elder Scrolls deal.
But fundamentally, Blades is stunted. A pure Elder Scrolls game, to use Howard's phrase, promises freedom of adventure - a giant simulated fantasy playground to play in. Go where you want, do what you like and the world will shape itself according to you. Blades doesn't offer that, presumably because it's very hard on devices with varying storage space and power, particularly when Bethesda pushes for fancy graphics as well. Blades compartmentalises the Elder Scrolls experience instead.
Your town serves as your in-between-missions place, and missions are instanced clones of each other, more or less. There's a bit of variation in layout and task but it all feels more or less the same: kill X number of Y, rescue X number of Y, find X number of Y. I'm sure there's a story somewhere, about the secret society of Blades fighters you belong to, but so far it's lost on me. Not that repetitive questing is alien to the Elder Scrolls series, but the problem here is it's not much fun to do and the rewards for doing it are fudged.
It's not much fun because of sluggish gameplay and controls. Trying to make Blades have "console-quality graphics" has meant sacrificing snappiness. It's not awful, and there are moments the mobile controls work, both in and out of combat, but there are also moments where you find yourself pinned nose-to-wall, struggling to turn around, or where the on-screen combat controls don't register a quick touch - or fire off an unintended ability and you die.
Sludgy performance spreads into menus and loading screens too, which is a pity given the amount of time you'll see both. Maybe it's unavoidable given the platform and range of devices people will be playing on. I use a Pixel 1, which is about average, maybe slightly under, and perhaps that's the problem. If you have a newer phone and performance is as crisp as freshly pressed bed sheets then, well, damn you, but I'd be surprised if it were the case. Incidentally, Todd Howard said Bethesda wanted Blades available on as many platforms as possible, including consoles, PC and VR, from bottom-end to high-end, but why you'd want Blades on more powerful systems instead of Skyrim, or another Elder Scrolls game, I don't know.
Rewards in Blades are a more fundamental flop because they're inextricably linked to how the game makes money - yes, Blades is free-to-play and yes, it has an in-game shop. In Blades, loot comes from chests - it's not picked from corpses after battle - and you receive them at the end of quests. But you can't open chests immediately, which is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds. You are held back by a timer, and the best kinds of chest take upwards of an hour to unlock. Quite. Oh, and there are similar timers for building houses and shops in town, and for upgrading equipment, which the smithy takes off you while he works!
Of course, you can complete these tasks immediately - for a price. You can spend varying amounts of gems to bypass the timer, and usually the better the thing, the more it costs. You can earn gems in the game but naturally it's quicker to buy from the shop. The biggest bundle I've seen costs £93.
Chests can be bought with real money too, which presents a more aggravating issue, because these buyable super-chests are how you get the best equipment in Blades and they drop very rarely in the game. In other words, Blades' natural grind wears you down in the presumed hope you'll head to the shop.
It's frustrating because, as I say, Blades has moments where it edges towards fulfilling an Elder Scrolls promise. But when you compare it to a "pure" Elder Scrolls game, to use Howard's terminology, you realise what is lost. It's just too big a concept for mobile devices, and squashing it snuffs the magic. Bethesda would be better off tailoring something to the strengths of the touch-screen platform rather than forcing a foreign body in.