Although I probably won’t review the fantasy role-playing game “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” (2006) itself – since, like “The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind” (2002), it is a very long game – I’ll be looking at one of it’s expansions today.
Whilst playing the DRM-free “Game Of The Year Deluxe” edition of “Oblivion” that I bought during the winter sale on GOG last year, I ended up stumbling across the “The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles” (2007) expansion whilst playing the game. It was a really awesome surprise 🙂 So, I thought that I’d review it. I have a lot to say about this expansion 🙂
And, yes, although it is set in a self-contained world and tells a self-contained story, “Shivering Isles” is a traditional expansion that requires a full copy of “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” to play – I think it was also released as *groan* DLC for console versions of “Oblivion” too. This is probably because the beginning of the expansion is integrated into the world of “Oblivion”. I’d also strongly recommend playing the main game for a while to build up your character before playing this expansion (I think I was level 7 or so when I started “Shivering Isles”).
So, let’s take a look at “The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles. I should probably warn you that this review may contain some SPOILERS (and this expansion is best played unspoiled):
Looks perfectly safe! I’m sure there’s nothing scary behind this giant glowing door…
The expansion begins when the player receives a message about a mysterious door appearing in the middle of Niben Bay. After swimming into the middle of the bay, they find a small island with a strange three-headed statue with a glowing door in the middle of it. Someone who entered the door leaves in a disturbed state and starts a fight with the Imperial guard who has been posted to the gate. The guard wins and, after the player talks to the guard a couple of times, the statue speaks and requests a champion. You can enter the door at this point.
The door leads to a small stone room with a table. A man called Haskill sits at the table and explains a few things to the player. They are about to enter the Shivering Isles, a “Realm Of Madness” ruled over by the god-prince Sheogorath. Sheogorath wants a champion for an upcoming battle and, although few emerge from this realm with their sanity intact, the player believes that they have a chance.
Curiouser and curiouser…
Seconds later, the room dissolves into butterflies and the player finds themselves in a strange place called “The Fringe” filled with giant plants and a small town called Passwall. The Fringe is a gated-off introductory area, which allows Sheogorath to select which adventurers or visitors are worthy to enter his realm. All you have to do is to get past the fearsome gatekeeper….
One of the first things that I will say about this expansion is that, although it might look like a fantasy role-playing game at first glance, it is actually one of the best psychological horror games that I’ve played in a while 🙂
Seriously, if you’re a fan of “American McGee’s Alice” (2000) or maybe something like “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” (2004), then you’ll enjoy this one 🙂 But, not only is this expansion exquisitely creepy, it is also a lot more creative and imaginative than the main game in many ways. Yes, it suffers from a few mild flaws, but it is still very much worth playing if you enjoy horror games and/or the dark fantasy genre 🙂
I wasn’t exaggerating about this expansion’s horror elements – it is literally a horror game in disguise 🙂 Not only is the landscape of the Shivering Isles strongly reminiscent of the more surreal location designs in “American McGee’s Alice” – expertly contrasting intriguingly beautiful locations with an unsettling feeling of “something isn’t right”- but there are so many brilliantly unsettling elements here.
Seriously, some parts really DO almost feel like another “American McGee’s Alice” game – and I whole-heartedly approve 🙂
Whether it is the plethora of disturbing characters that you will encounter, various thematic elements, some gothic horror elements, the monsters, the atmosphere or even the way that the game will sometimes make the player character do evil things etc… this is a surprisingly dark, edgy and unsettling game. Yes, it won’t make you jump with fright – but it will instil a deeper and more subtle feeling of unease and dread.
Plus, in classic “Alice In Wonderland” fashion, the ruler of the Isles is both evil and eccentric too.
Plus, if you switch to a third-person perspective, the game briefly does a classic survival horror-style “close-up” camera angle when you enter the smithy in Crucible too 🙂
Yet, after a couple of days, the atmosphere and mood of this expansion went from genuinely disturbing and unsettling to being something that I really loved. It grew on me a lot 🙂 And perhaps this is the creepiest element of the game – the fact that, like the denizens of the Shivering Isles, the player will slowly adapt to and feel at home in this strange eccentric world.
Plus, I cannot praise the sheer level of creativity and originality in this expansion highly enough – although it was clearly inspired by “American McGee’s Alice”, it is still very much it’s own thing at the same time. Not only that, if you’re a fan of “The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind”, then you’ll probably also enjoy the return of more creative location designs too – rather than the generic “medieval Europe” style of the main game. This expansion has a very distinctive atmosphere that really has to be experienced first-hand.
Yes, actual CREATIVITY with the location designs 🙂 Just like in “Morrowind” 🙂
The Shivering Isles themselves are a small-medium sized open world, filled with eerily beautiful giant plants. Although it is only one island, it is divided into two halves – Mania and Dementia – with the former being bright and verdant, and the latter being gloomier and more gothic. Yes, this adds some variation to the world – but, compared to the main game, there isn’t really as much to do on this island. Yes, there are dungeons/ruins/tunnels to explore and a few tiny hamlets, but there is only one large city to visit – New Sheoth.
Still, this one city is more creative and well-designed than anything in the main game – basically being two cities in disguise. The half of the city in the realm of Mania is called “Bliss” and has a bright, twisted fairytale kind of look to it – complete with angel-like guards in bright golden armour. The Dementia half of the city is called “Crucible” and is an almost Victorian-like slum, full of filthy streets, scary statues, tall cramped houses and a general mood of desolation. The guards are, of course, a bit more gothic here 🙂
And I cannot praise the character designs in this expansion well enough either. A lot of the horror comes from the many other characters you meet, almost all of whom have had their minds twisted in some way from residing on the Shivering Isles. My favourite character is probably Cutter, Crucible’s resident smith.
And, yes, she only sells bladed weapons and can also make gnarly-looking weapons from “Madness Ore” too. Seriously, she’s almost as edgy as The Edgesmith from Matthew Willis’ “Swords”
When you first meet Cutter, she is one of the most subtly terrifying characters in the game – talking in a low, yet unsettlingly cheerful and friendly voice, about how much she enjoys using blades. She also has a creepily wide-eyed stare and seemingly never sleeps. Yet, she’s also a fascinating character because of all of the intriguing implied storytelling – such as her antagonistic relationship with the smith in Bliss, or the disturbing way she tests her blades – and the fact that she almost seems like she could be the protagonist of an “edgy” gothic horror game or comic.
But this is just one character, and there are so many other intriguing, funny, quirky and/or downright terrifying characters in this expansion too. If you are a fan of horror fiction, Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics, “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” or “American McGee’s Alice”, then you’ll absolutely love the characters and writing in this expansion.
It may not include vampires, but the quality of the writing and characters is very reminiscent of “VTM: Bloodlines” at times 🙂
As for the main quest itself, it has lots of great moments and some “meh” moments. Although there’s a brilliant story and some really creative missions too, expect to spend some of it traipsing through almost identical underground ruins and annoying maze-like tunnels. Plus, there were at least a couple of times when I had to consult a walkthrough too – although it’s usually relatively easy to work out what you are supposed to do.
And, yes, you get to charge into battle with a small army during some of the less-fun levels. BUT beware of “friendly fire” – one stray slash or spell and your so-called “allies” can spend half of the level chasing you and trying to bash your brains out in revenge (and, no, I hadn’t learnt how to “yield” at that point…). It’s annoying, to put it mildly.
Still, the story surrounding the main quest is suitably dramatic – and there are quite a few genuinely creative missions, moments and set-pieces (eg: a decision regarding an assassination, getting addicted to a substance called “Felldew”, a dark comedy segment about becoming an inquisitor, helping a necromancer with a ritual, getting to run an evil dungeon for a couple of minutes, fighting a mirror image of yourself etc…) that stop the gameplay from becoming too monotonous. If every mission was of the level of the ones I’ve described, then it would be a truly great game. But some missions aren’t as interesting, so it’s more of a “really good” game.
Not only do you get to practice the forbidden art of NECROMANCY, but there’s also cool purple mood lighting too 🙂
Plus, again, the story is really good too – in an evil “Alice In Wonderland” kind of way – too 🙂
Plus, I have to praise the sheer amount of new stuff in this expansion too. In addition to several extra weapons (including a sword that changes depending on the time of day) and outfits (some of which have a gloriously gothic “vampire aristocrat” look to them) and a couple of hilariously melodramatic religious factions (called “Zealots” and “Heretics”) who will fight you on sight, there is also a bestiary of new monsters too 🙂
Seriously, I love the sheer gothic extravagance of the outfits here 🙂
And check out these gloriously melodramatic “Zealot” robes too! “Crudox Cruo!” indeed!
As you’d expect from a horror game, many of the new monsters are surprisingly creepy – including giant insects, a humungous guardian, inhuman Knights Of Order, skinned undead hounds and torn/mangled flesh Atronachs – who reminded me a lot of the “Ed Hunter” version of Iron Maiden’s mascot 🙂
Not only do you get to fight an evil mirror version of yourself but the atronachs (like the one in the background here) are really metal too \m/
All in all, whilst some of the dungeons in this game can feel a bit monotonous or confusing, this expansion is well worth playing for everything else about it. The characters! The location designs! The writing! The atmosphere! All of these things are absolutely superb 🙂 If you’re a fan of “American McGee’s Alice”, if you miss the creativity of “The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind” or if you just want to play an unsettling psychological horror game that will grow on you after a while, then this expansion is well worth playing 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.