I remember being the loner who loved collecting cards. Everyone else had the cool stuff, like electronic gizmos and digital what-have-yous. I had trading cards, Magic the Gathering, even Top Trumps for a laugh.
Now it’s 2017 and climate change fears have led to everyone cutting down on printing, and besides, everyone uses their phones nowadays…. so what better time for a revival of card-based games… but for mobile devices?!
The Elder Scrolls: Legends is just one of the summer’s many mobile deck-building titles. The game also has two expansions – the deck expansion “Heroes of Skyrim” and the story expansion “The Fall of the Dark Brotherhood”. So far, I have completed the main story, acquired a fair number of cards and decks in the Heroes expansion, and I am around halfway through the Dark Brotherhood story expansion.
So let’s kick things off with a bit of background for those wondering how an action RPG turned into a deck-building tabletop battler.
How Legends came to be
The main game, Elder Scrolls Legends, came out on PC in early March this year, and was released for iPads later that month, and then in June the game made its way onto iOS and Android. The Heroes of Skyrim expansion was released at the end of June on all platforms and then the Fall of the Dark Brotherhood expansion was released in July.
The game follows on the heels of Bethesda’s surprise smash mobile hit Fallout: Shelter, raising the expectations for the Elder Scrolls mobile experience.
The main storyline
The main story campaign follows a band of ragtag adventurers as they save the kingdom from Lord Naarfin, who looks proper evil and stuff. Your character is dubbed “The Forgotten Hero”, which is an appropriate name given that I had forgotten you have a character at all, due to it having no bearing whatsoever on the story (I’ll come onto that later). Crucially, although primarily an issue with the main game, the story is very linear, only branching slightly through a few choice moments in the standard plotline.
You battle your way through sewers and onto grand battlefields, dispatching a broad selection of enemy types which all feel appropriate in card format. The undead shuffle into play, bringing more hulking fallen foes into action with them. Creatures like harpies and conjurers are bastards and usually cause some sort of havoc when they appear.
The units and abilities you can summon are nicely varied as well. You get enough cards and decks to play as most of the standard “mage/warrior/rogue” classes, although you can always create your own decks to complement “your” story. Dragons and shouts, introduced in the Heroes of Skyrim expansion, feel mighty powerful when deployed, although never quite reach the thrill of blasting a Fus Ro Dah for the first time.
The game’s cutscenes, menus and cards are all beautifully-drawn and it is a good design choice for Bethesda. Rather than the usual “get 3D model to woodenly quote dialogue”, they have opted for a static image delivering dialogue, which seems far more natural and maintains the game’s light sense of immersion.
The artwork is perhaps a little muted in palette, meaning that certain abilities like “guard” – which is indicated in-game with a solid bronze box around the card – aren’t obviously visible against the bronze-ish card border and the also-bronze-ish tabletop.
While the game warns me that “this title was designed for bigger devices”, i.e. for tablets really, the text size and the rest of the user interface are perfectly suitable on my smaller Samsung Galaxy screen. However some parts of interface, particularly for the deck management screens, can be confusing, and I still have no idea how to delete a card deck altogether.
So, how does the Elder Scrolls translate to a strategy card game?
Similar to most deck-building strategy games, each card you collect has an associated attribute, or attributes. For Elder Scrolls Legends, it is these attributes which link the gameplay back to the classic RPG structure:
- Agility indicates that your creatures could move between lanes (see description below), move into cover, and make extra attacks
- Endurance means these cards get higher health, healing abilities, or can drain life from opponents
- Intelligence gives these cards the chance to deflect damage, prevent enemies from attacking, or damage enemies outside of battle
- Willpower means strength in numbers, often summoning swarms of friendly creatures, guarding abilities, or boosting the power of your other units
- Strength equals cards that have higher damage, may let them attack as soon as they are deployed, and bring along many powerful items
Aside from the above, there are also “neutral” and “dual-attribute” cards which are fairly self-explanatory. This array of different card types means that battles can be varied and fast-paced. While the first few rounds may be calm, once a few major “boost other units” abilities are on the table then battles can turn catastrophic at the turn of a card.
The game does give a couple of decks from the beginning, so you can try out a couple of different combinations to see what works best for you. You may find that relying on one particular style may work…. right up until that big battle where you get overwhelmed and have to try a different tact. While in general I like this approach, you don’t really get enough out of failed battles to reward your experimentation, so it’s not surprising people “stick to what they know”.
Legends also mixes up the formula with the introduction of lanes, which vary between story missions but can have either one or two separate channels to deploy your cards. The catch: you can only attack/defend lanes with deployed units, meaning you have to think tactically and allocate your cards appropriately.
Do you go all out in one lane, or spread yourself thin between the two?
Other Gameplay Modes
Aside from the story campaigns, you can also enter into single battles for bonus experience (both AI and online player battles) as well as taking on the Arenas. These are eight consecutive battles plus a boss which must be defeated without too many losses, or you have to start again.
Each arena attempt costs a ticket – either lots of in-game currency or real cash – and as the game needs a constant internet connection, losing through dropped wi-fi can be a massive pain in the ass, even if the game sometimes counts this as a win.
The standard “solo” arena is AI opponents, although you also have the “versus” arena, where you are pitched against other actual players in the same format, and presumably with even greater risk of connection issues buggering your gameplay.
The overall narrative is ever-so-slightly carried through the gameplay as well, with each story mission changing the play slightly. Some levels give each unit a bonus item when deployed, other levels cause random damage to units each turn, and these unique mechanics are explained through the scenario and cutscene introducing the level.
As mentioned above, you have some choices to make as well, not surprising for an Elder Scrolls title, but these are simply conveyed through selecting which cards to upgrade and sacrifice at certain points in the story. You do technically decide whether a friend lives or dies based on these simple card-based choices, which gives this singular moment the slightest hint of emotional impact.
The main story is completely linear – you have no choice about the order of levels and simply plough through them until the inevitable climax. This disappointed me slightly, as it lacked the depth or variety associated with an Elder Scrolls game. The lack of any true character development also disheartened me, with the role-playing limited to which cards and decks you have available rather than which skills and abilities your character has acquired.
The problems I found with the story were slightly improved in the first story expansion – The Fall of the Dark Brotherhood – which reformats the story progression into several maps which are explored by clicking a limited number of markers to either advance the story or trigger the next battle. The interaction is limited but just about enough to make it feel like you are in control of the direction this story is taking. The choice of your next battle, and exploring the map to progress the narrative, gives that sense of being part of the unfolding events far more than the main campaign.
The Fall of the Dark Brotherhood is hard as balls, so I’m retrying most levels with several deck options before being able to progress.
Throughout the main story, there were only four or five levels which caused any trouble at all. Even the final battle only took a couple of tries, but by that point I had acquired a better selection of cards. The expansion ramps up the challenge, which I guess is expected, but I was surprised that the opening missions obliterated me for the majority of an evening. I’m still only part of the way through the FOTDB, but I still want to keep playing, though I’m guessing the difficulty is going to continue climbing.
That is before I’ve even gotten onto “Master mode”, although there don’t appear to be new cards on offer there, only some in-game currency and “titles” (which means I get to be called “The Saviour of Cyrodiil”, both in-game and out).
I guess a bonus extra-tough mode adds to the replay value and stretches the content further, while giving additional challenges / bragging rights through titles, but the cost for the expansion is £20 (complete, or you can buy individual story acts separately). Pretty pricey for mobile DLC so you’re going to need to cough up for that additional content.
The game is beautifully drawn, well designed and strategically rewarding, which you would expect from Bethesda. What I didn’t expect was a total lack of character development, or influence over the story direction (aside from the odd “A or B” choice), which meant that this never really felt like an Elder Scrolls game. The story expansion gives just enough of that choice to almost feel right, but you will have to fork out a pretty penny to experience it.
If you love deck-building strategies, this probably has enough depth and variety to keep you happy. If you love the Elder Scrolls titles, you may be left wanting a bit more….