The Elder Scrolls: Blades – Hands-on with Bethesda’s New Mobile Adventure

We've played The Elder Scrolls' first mobile adventure and have some thoughts...

When The Elder Scrolls made the jump to consoles in 2002, after spending almost a decade exclusively on PC, there were those who doubted Bethesda could pull off the transition. Would the complexity of the PC RPG series, as well as the keyboard and mouse controls, translate to the Xbox? Or would sacrifices have to be made on the less powerful platform?

Morrowind‘s Xbox port turned out to be a success, both critically and financially, paving the way for subsequent Bethesda console releases, but that all came at the expense of certain PC features, such as the ability to load mods in the game. Still, Morrowind on Xbox was an excellent debut for the franchise on consoles despite the sacrifices.

The same could be true of Elder Scrolls‘ first proper RPG on mobile devices, Blades, a game that keeps the essence of what makes the franchise so great while further simplifying the package. The upcoming free-to-play mobile experience brings a new fantasy adventure to your smartphone touchscreen that offers both a story mode as well as a roguelike dungeon crawler and a multiplayer mode. 

I recently spent a few hours at an Apple gaming event, where I had the chance to play a content-complete version of Elder Scrolls: Blades. As both a pastime while commuting or on your lunch break, as well as a gauntlet meant to be played for hours at a time, Blades hits the mark so far. I found myself easily being sucked into the game’s Abyss mode, a procedurally-generated dungeon that only ends when your character has met his demise. 

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There are four different dungeon types in Abyss: castle, cave, forest, and ruins. My playthrough saw me exploring a mix of these settings, from making my way through the cold hallways of a castle full of skeletons to dark, wet caves (water and moisture effects look particularly good for a mobile game). I made my way through several levels of the dungeon crawler, hacking and slashing with my Argonian, one of the many races in the game.

Yes, you should expect all of your favorite Elder Scrolls races to make an appearance in Blades, including Argonians, Khajiit, Nords, Redguards, and more. The game even features a character creator akin to those in past console and PC installments, but I didn’t get to see how in depth the system is.

The gameplay itself should feel familiar to mobile gamers. While you shouldn’t expect the combat or traversal to be as complex and multi-layered as in Skyrim or Elder Scrolls Online, Bethesda Game Studios has really worked to refine the mobile controls. It never gets much more complicated than tapping or swiping at your screen, but there’s a certain flow you still need to master if you hope to survive the Abyss to its higher levels. A mix of melee attacks, spells, and defensive maneuvers make it so that you’re never mindlessly tapping your screen — although the earlier levels of this gauntlet won’t demand much more than that.

Certain enemies demand specific tactics as well. Skeletons are the weakest enemies I encountered, crashing into a pile of bones with just one or two swings of my sword. But as you progress through a dungeon, you’ll face tougher enemies whose attacks you’ll need to counter with a well-timed parry before going on the offensive. It’s a delicate balance that eventually did me in during my demo. 

The game is also pretty flexible when it comes to how you prefer to play it. I expected to feel more comfortable with the game’s landscape mode, which allows you to play Blades in a more conventional dual analog stick style. Playing the game this way, a thumb on either side of the screen, is fine enough, but the portrait mode is the real highlight. Since movement mostly involves tapping your way through hallways and tunnels, with a few open areas in between (at least in the dungeon I played), playing Blades with one hand never feels like an extra challenge, just a matter of preference. Overall, the controls are very intuitive. Additionally, the switch between portrait and landscape modes feels seamless and lag-free. Simply flip your phone and the screen will quickly readjust itself.

Blades also boasts impressive visuals for a mobile game. Running the game on an iPhone XS, the graphics look on par with Skyrim‘s. Perhaps that isn’t a major achievement these days, but Blades‘ presentation is still a step up from other popular mobile titles, with dynamic lighting and shadow effects and zero pop-in. Character animations will wow you as well, as enemies recoil after an attack or rush in for a killing blow. Truth be told, I never felt like I was playing a cheap replacement for the real thing. 

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Of course, Abyss provides only a brief glimpse of what Blades has to offer, so it’s hard to say whether the game as a whole will be able to satisfy fans anxiously waiting for the upcoming Elder Scrolls VI. For instance, I didn’t get to try the game’s main mode, Town, which is where Blades‘ story will unfold and you’ll be able to unlock quests.

As far as the plot goes, you play as a member of the Blades, the Empire’s elite agents, who returns to his hometown only to find that it’s been destroyed. In order to proceed through the story, you’ll need to go on quests and find loot to rebuild your town and level up your resources. Things like upgrading your blacksmith in order to make better gear will come into play in Town, although I can’t speak to the extent of the RPG elements in this mode. 

It’s no secret that developing a mobile game based on a popular AAA franchise is an uphill battle (just ask Blizzard). Besides the quality of its graphics and gameplay, and how faithful it is to the classic Elder Scrolls formula, the element that could really make or break Blades is its microtransaction system. Bethesda has received some pushback in the past few months over Fallout 76‘s pricey in-game purchases, and the studio has had to go back and tweak the system a few times since launch. Bethesda Game Studios head Todd Howards said in a July 2018 interview with that the developer was employing a “lighter touch” when it comes to monetization in Blades, an approach akin to the studio’s work on Fallout Shelter. That, of course, remains to be seen.

I seriously hope Bethesda nails the landing because what I’ve seen so far of Blades is really impressive. With devices like the iPhone XR and XS (and their beefy A12 Bionic chips) giving developers a powerful mobile platform to work with, it’s up to big studios like Bethesda to convince us that we should start taking mobile gaming seriously. Elder Scrolls: Blades is a good start.

John Saavedra is Games Editor at Den of Geek. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @johnsjr9