Elder Scrolls Online’s yearlong “Dark Heart of Skyrim” story continues to unfold in its third chapter, Stonethorn, which is out now for PC and consoles alongside the MMO’s 27th update. Aside from the update, which introduces character pathing in the game’s housing system, new cosmetics, and performance improvements, the DLC chapter features two new dungeons: Castle Thorn, where a vampiric army amasses at the feet of the powerful Lady Thorn, and Stone Garden, the underground lab of mad alchemist Arkasis, whose evil experiments have been yielding monstrous results.
I had an opportunity to play through Stone Garden with some of the members from the development team at ZeniMax Online Studios and got a bit of insight into how the new dungeons were designed, what inspired them, and how they tie into the larger “Dark Heart of Skyrim” narrative.
Before entering the dungeon, the team showed me one of the game’s new group mounts, which looked to be a Dwarven mechanical arachnid of sorts. I hopped on the back and rode as a passenger, and while it may seem like a minor addition to the larger game, riding on the back of a group mount was actually a lot of fun. I imagine traversing Skyrim with a buddy will be a lot more enjoyable (and potentially chaotic) with group mounts now available to all.
After the brief ride-along, we headed to Stone Garden, where we met with Gwendis, who first appeared in Rivenspire in the base game’s story. “Whenever we have characters that become fan favorites, we try to bring them back,” says lead encounter designer Mike Finnigan. It was nice revisiting Lyris Titanborn in ESO’s Greymoor chapter, and it’s nice to see this sort of narrative cohesion continuing in Stonethorn.
After meeting with Gwendis, we proceeded to fight through Arkasis’ facility, taking on stone husks and werewolves to uncover the malevolent schemes the alchemist has been cooking up. “Greymoor discussed The Gray Host, which was an ancient army of vampires and werewolves which was defeated by the Bangkorai Legion centuries ago,” explains Finnigan. “In both of Stonethorn’s dungeons we wanted to highlight this [piece of lore]. Stone Garden focuses on werewolves, and Castle Thorn leans into the vampires. The dungeons represent both sides of The Gray Host, essentially.”
What’s been particularly enjoyable about “Dark Heart of Skyrim” is its tone, which is dark and Gothic but actually has an irreverent, genre movie appeal to the dialogue and story elements. Which is to say, while the story presents a darker side of the Skyrim we know, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. The underground expanses of Blackreach are actually some of the most vibrant areas in Skyrim, and the dungeons are fun and a little wacky in tone, which is a good thing. There are mushrooms that you can pick up throughout the dungeon and essentially experiment with, boosting your stats, and there’s even an opportunity to drink a potion and turn into a werewolf behemoth yourself. It’s all a bit off-kilter (Arkasis’ voice acting is theatrical to say the least) but I had a really fun time with it.
Gameplay-wise, the developers recognized that some players were looking for more of a challenge in the game’s dungeons, so the team were more than happy to oblige. “Traditionally, in dungeons, we have five bosses with one hard mode at the end,” says senior content designer Shane Slama. “We heard feedback from players that they wanted more control over the difficulty of the dungeons. There are three bosses in these dungeons, but in veteran mode, there is a hard mode for every single boss that you can activate and increase the challenge.”
One of the most notable aspects of “Dark Heart of Skyrim” so far is that each chapter feeds into the larger narrative while also acting as a self-contained experience should the player choose to approach the game that way. “The more [content] you play, the more you learn about the story,” says lead content designer Jeremy Sera. Stone Garden, for example, is a fun romp for anyone to jump into and enjoy, revolving around Arkasis’ experiments. But if you’ve been following along with “Dark Heart of Skyrim,” you’ll notice little references sprinkled throughout the dialogue and even the menu system that fill in or make reference to the overarching story. It’s a nice detail, for example, that if you’ve encountered her previously, Gwendis will make reference to the fact that you’ve already met.
The art design in Stone Garden are compelling and detailed, too. The machinery and overall aesthetic are familiar in that they are distinctly Dwemer but have been corrupted by Arkasis’ mind. There are giant, glowing vats of inexplicable goo lining the walls of the dungeon with all manner of bizarre creatures floating inside, which not only foreshadows the terrors you’re in for as you fight your way through the facility but makes reference to monsters you’ll see out in the wild, terrorizing Skyrim’s denizens.
As for update 27, the team stressed that while there is no silver bullet as far as making the game perform perfectly, they have made some significant improvements. “This time around we worked on persistent AOE improvements, reevaluated our item sets and rescripted any that we didn’t feel were performant,” explains Sera. “On the back end, we’ve made some changes to our critical system memory, which should handle high-memory situations better and result in fewer crashes. Similarly, we made changes to our physics engine, which should reduce the number of crashes.”
So far, the “Dark Heart of Skyrim” event has been a blast to play, with its Gothic story allowing players to experience Western Skyrim in a new way. One chapter of the “Dark Heart of Skyrim” remains. It’s called Darkstorm and it will be released later this year.