By ZombiePie 10 Comments
The Weirdest Elder Scrolls Game Ever Made Is On PC Game Pass! (Maybe Don't Play It!)
The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard has a reputation. It is widely considered one of the worst games in the series and plays almost nothing like what we all would consider the norm for the franchise today. It is the only entry in The Elder Scrolls franchise that locks players into a third-person perspective, lacks RPG leveling mechanics, and follows a single predetermined character. To call The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard a "weird" game is a bit of an understatement; it is an anomaly the likes of which we will never see again. However, it is an oddity that Bethesda Softworks is not ashamed of, and years after its release, even before the advent of Game Pass, they made it and Daggerfall downloadable on their webpage for free. However, with the company's purchase from Microsoft, the game has since become available on PC Game Pass, though unfortunately, but understandably, not for Xbox Game Pass.
Much like when I decided to check out Zelda II, I wanted to give the game a whirl as it is, ostensibly, an adventure game, which is now becoming my bread and butter on this site in between my JRPG and Final Fantasy retrospectives. After giving the game over ten hours of my life, it became a rare "DNF" for me, however, not for the reasons you might expect. Even after I bounced off the game, I came away with at least a partial appreciation for it, absent in most contemporary reviews that excoriate it for being downright terrible. To me, the game is a snapshot into that odd period before the release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind when Bethesda wasn't the CRPG figurehead we consider it today. The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall was an ambitious project, but it was one with a reputation even in 1996 of being rough around the edges and not for the faint of heart. Oblivion gets some credit for partially sanding off the series's crueler sensibilities, and Skyrim is one of the most successful CRPGs ever made. Nonetheless, we should look at the OG Xbox release of Morrowind as an underrated inflection point for Bethesda and the CRPG genre. It and KOTOR paved the way for the genre's quick but substantial jump toward the console clientele until its rejuvenation with the growth of digital PC marketplaces and crowdfunding.
But what does any of that prattle have to do with The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard? As I will review shortly, Redguard should be treated as Bethesda's first olive branch to those outside PC-centric traditional CRPG circles. Even though it never launched on consoles and remained an MS-DOS exclusive until recently, upon start, you can tell Bethesda envisioned it as a "baby's first Elder Scrolls" experience. With the expected RPG leveling and character creation mechanics thrown to the wayside, it plays much like the late 90s PC platformers that were all the rage at the time of its release. People often forget this point, but the original Tomb Raider is one of the most important games ever made. It codified many of the design and control conventions of 3D action-adventure platforming that we take for granted today. Also, it spawned an INSANE number of copycats, and Redguard, in parts, is one of them. This matter leads me to my first discussion point.
The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard Is An Understandable Experiment And Should Be Approached As Such
Before we delve into Redguard's Tomb Raider-inspired design, I need to spend some time articulating why the game, despite its first appearances, represented a massive risk on the part of Bethesda. Redguard is not something I recommend unless you are an incredibly dedicated Elder Scrolls fan or gaming historian. Nonetheless, it is highly ambitious. For one thing, the game features a complex scripted mission structure with a character-focused storyline. That's something you are not bound to experience in an Elder Scrolls game today. I also found it interesting seeing Todd Howard and the rest of the old guard at Bethesda try their hands at a traditional fantasy narrative. Correspondingly, to make the predetermined characters resonate better with players, Redguard is fully voice-acted from start to finish, and it was the first game in the series to do that. I'm not going to sit here and tell you the voice acting is perfect, but it generally gets the job done. When the voice acting errs on the questionable side, which usually occurs when it is time for female characters to talk, which I suspect were male actors pretending to be females, it is "of an era" rather than a complete and total failure.
On a similar note is the game's massive 3D open world. In terms of scope and size, Redguard's world pales compared to Daggerfall or Morrowind. Still, when you consider the design objectives of Redguard, I think you can come to appreciate it as a technical accomplishment. Every explorable environment has a smattering of characters with at least ten to twenty minutes of fully voice-acted dialogue. The characters even flap their lips in synch with the spoken dialogue, which is not something everyone had the time or patience to do in 1998 or with MS-DOS. These technical achievements are why you might be surprised to know that Redguard was reviewed relatively well at its release. Its production values were enough to tilt some to give it the benefit of the doubt. However, the game bit off more than what Bethesda was capable of chewing at the time. With Redguard spending so much time vocalizing wordy lore while trying to convey a cohesive narrative, its gameplay feels like an afterthought. In fact, its slapdash attempt to copy Tomb Raider feels all the more "off" because its action set pieces feel so rote and by the numbers. Also, I will discuss this point in more depth, but it plays like absolute garbage. Tomb Raider's gameplay, wherein players navigate levels split into room complexes with a kaleidoscope of designs and challenges, is fluid and quick. Redguard is the opposite of those two words.
Unfortunately, Bethesda was out of its element when they were making Redguard. Whenever you need to transition Cyrus, the game's protagonist, from one quest to the next, instead of emulating the snappiness of Tomb Raider and immediately transitioning the player to a new environment, Redguard prefers to have them wander deserts, sparsely populated towns, and vast distances for unmarked NPCs. That design might work in the scope of a CRPG where players already assume they need to explore their surroundings for hints, but with something that is trying to be an action-platformer, it presents the sometimes shoddy patchwork of the game. Bethesda's lack of experience with platformers resulted in scenarios wherein they did not know what to do and them defaulting to 90s-era CRPG conventions. So, when the game presents you with saw-filled or lava-drenched platforming arenas that feel ripped from Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia, Redguard is downright excruciating to play because it has the mechanical deathtraps of early 90s platformers but with the added anti-player rough edges of a CRPG as well.
It's A Semi-Decent Lore Bible
Here's where I will significantly diverge from the consensus on Redguard. Many of the negative reviews for the game, which I agree with overall, cite the overwhelming amount of talking as a significant barrier to it being an entry point to the series. To the credit of these reviews, they are correct in one regard. When you first boot up the game, there's an initial fight scene on a boat, but it's quick, and if the player explores all of the possible dialogue trees that exist after it, talking could represent most of your first three hours with the game. I reviewed the archive of my first stream of the game's opening, and I would hazard to say that fighting random pirates in the starting bar and hub world took about twenty minutes of my two-and-a-half-hour stream. That might sound odd to some people, but with the combat being the same shit, over and over again, I came to find the lore dumps in Redguard to be a welcomed change of pace.
I'm going to let you in on a weird fact about my relationship with the Elder Scrolls franchise. I enjoy reading the in-game books in every Elder Scrolls game. Whether it is learning about the failed invasion of Akavir in Oblivion, Palla in Morrowind, or consulting the Lusty Argonian Maid or A Game at Dinner books; I think the amount of worldbuilding the series has accomplished through its in-game books is nothing short of amazing. The majority are well-written and have vivid personalities and voices that exude far more charm than many of the characters you meet in the game. They also do a lot to fill in the gaps regarding time skips or jumps from one game to the next. If you're like me, and you spent HOURS scouring Oblivion or Skyrim, buying every possible book you could and reading them from page to page, there's a core to Redguard that's not a terrible value proposition. The game takes place in Hammerfell, a criminally underrated setting, and tackles a period in the franchise that I found conceptually and literally compelling (i.e., the Second Era). Seeing Hammerfell under a recently established Imperial occupation, with citizens split on if being a part of the Empire is an improvement, sets a lot of the foundational work Bethesda would later explore in more depth in Oblivion and Skyrim. Redguard also showcases a low-tech version of The Elder Scrolls universe most are unfamiliar with unless you play The Elder Scrolls Online.
The game's initial exploratory moments in Stros M'Kai were among my favorite of what I played. The vast majority of the NPCs have folktales, parables, and unique perspectives about what's happening, and they all share a different part of the history of Tamriel up to that point. When Cyrus meets up with an old friend, they croon about battles they fought, speculate on geopolitics, and shit-talk the crime boss currently employing your character. It's far from perfect, with the vast delta in the quality of the voice acting being a constant issue. Likewise, the game's "proper noun problem" leads to much of its lore dumps being overwhelming even to fans of the series. However, it's an incredibly earnest game, and I get the sense that Bethesda was so excited about sharing the world of The Elder Scrolls with newcomers that they couldn't stop themselves from putting everything they accomplished in the series up to that point. In Stros M'Kai, an NPC talks about the sinking of Yokuda for forty minutes and another about Dwemer technology for thirty. There's even a guy who will speak about the Imperial Battlespire for twenty minutes while loudly wondering about the state of the Ayleids. The game leaves no stone unturned, and its nerdy effervescence is admirable. Now, if only the game were fun to play.
Redguard Is No Goddamn Fun To Play!
Oh, fuck me. I WISH for a universe where I could genuinely pen an essay on why this game is an "over-hated" buried treasure. I went into the game with low expectations, and while I found it technically and narratively impressive, I cannot advise anyone to play it. As I detailed in the first section, the game borrows heavily from Tomb Raider. Unfortunately, with Bethesda lacking any design or programming chops regarding platforming games, their attempt to graft their CRPG controls and engine to a genre where you cannot do that is an unmitigated disaster. Imagine playing a third-person action-platformer with the jump in Oblivion or Skyrim. Now imagine playing that game for fifteen to twenty hours with Prince of Persia-styled lava rooms that kill you immediately if you mistime a single jump. And this game being "of an era" means if you are not speedy with your quick saving abilities, dying can cause you to lose hours of progress because the checkpointing is NONEXISTENT!
Bethesda games have had a floaty-ass jump since their inception, and it's FINE in open-world CRPGs where you can use it to get into out-of-bounds areas or summit mountains. However, with Redguard expecting a certain amount of precision, IT'S NOT GOOD! One of the game's first "real" quests involves you hopping over platforms on a bridge, and as you walk along it, beams fall, causing you to need to leap over gaps. There's no easy way for me to express how fucking awful it felt trying to accomplish this simple feat, and it is made even worse thanks to the bridge hovering over a shark-infested ocean. And before you ask, the sharks will eat you, resulting in a "Game Over." Later in a cemetery, Cyrus will need to climb and leap around a giant stone statue and let me tell you, getting Cyrus to attach his hands to ledges is one of the most frustrating things in the world. His animation is incredibly jerky, and he puts his hands up on the ass-end of his parabolic jump. There were times when I thought he would die, only to see him miraculously cling to a ledge I did not even realize existed. There were other times when he bumped up against the edge of a platform and did not bother to throw his hands in the air, and I was forced to watch him scream in agony as he fell into a pit of spikes.
Even more curious are the mechanics Redgaurd lacks when you compare it to other games in the series. The game has a third-person combat engine, but with no stats to plug into Cryus or upgradable equipment to purchase, what you see at the start of the game is what you get in its final hours. That's a real problem for several reasons. While the enemies he fights begin to don impressive armor and require more strategy to defeat, Cyrus is stuck with the same paltry HP bar from start to finish. Another source of frustration stems from Cyrus being a single person, but he can wrack up more than one foe, and if he gets surrounded, you're essentially fucked. There's a way for you to spam pokes and slashes while also parrying and dodging attacks, but after a certain point, people take fucking FOREVER to die because you are stuck with the same shitty sword. However, Cyrus goes down much as he did at the game's start, which feels incredibly unfair to the player. And with Redgaurd sporting a relatively large open world packed to the gills with horrible monsters that can murder you, the lack of any character progression makes its end-game nigh unplayable for me.
Speaking of that open world, it isn't very good! Like all Elder Scrolls games, there's real-time travel where you must walk vast distances to get to the game's many set pieces. That's a tired and true format for RPGs, but in something trying to copy Tomb Raider, it pulverizes the blow-for-blow pacing expected in an action platformer. The quest design also employs the open format of previous and subsequent Elder Scrolls games to hilarious results. You can do missions out of order, meaning some difficult late-game quests can be completed before early-game ones. In my case, what caused me to rage quit involved accidentally exploring a late-game area and not knowing it, getting my ass handed to myself, and lacking enough money to get my health back to parity. This issue leads me to my final quibble with the game. There are ways for you to get into unfixable death spirals, and Redguard knows this. Instead, it employs ye olde CRPG trope of expecting the player to "re-roll" and try again from scratch when they get into sticky situations, which is beyond fucked even if that was all the norm with previous games from Bethesda.
This Game Reminded Me of Why I'd Like The Elder Scrolls VI Explore The Past
If there's one last positive takeaway I'd like to make of Redguard, it has to be its setting. Exploring a version of the "Second Era" in the scope of a single-player experience is such an incredible idea to me. The times when Redguard revels in more fanciful magic or traditional high-fantasy themes were my favorite moments. There's a scene wherein you enter a Dwemer observatory and look at a complex, Steampunk-like moving gadget, and it is visually and thematically impressive. I miss the times you could play an Elder Scrolls game and expect to see goblins, trolls, fairies, and other "funner" fantasy icons. With Skyrim, the series has moved in such a dire and realistic direction that I found the sillier sensibilities of Redguard refreshing. Remember when Elder Scrolls games had unicorns or octopus monsters? Redguard's fast travel system involves Cyrus transforming into a parrot to fly to alternate locations, and it is the funniest shit!
With The Elder Scrolls VI likely years away, I cannot help but lament that I can close my eyes and imagine almost perfectly what it will look like and how it will play. It will have a bunch of hyper-realistic Creation Engine humanoids that err freakishly close to the "Uncanny Valley" with dead eyes and poorly animating faces. You're going to swing your sword at a bandit's face, and the only feedback you will get are grunts. The balls of fire you summon out of your hands will look even more like real fire than they did in Skyrim. And you know what? It all sounds incredibly generic to me in a post-HBO Game of Thrones world. Even in Skyrim, I felt like a significant disconnect existed between you spewing streams of magical energy from your body and the game's unflinching grim-dark seriousness. You still have Sheogorath or Cicero in Skyrim, keeping the goofier roots of the series alive, but those are outliers. Honestly, I don't see the appeal in swinging the pendulum toward Game of Thrones in the world of The Elder Scrolls. You'd think things would be more comedic or silly in a game with cat people and lizards.
I don't think going backward in time will fix all those problems, but I sure don't think it would hurt. Bethesda has been about technical ambition and scope first and storytelling second for a while. Nonetheless, I think there's untapped potential in seeing how they would approach the narrative foundation they set for their tentpole franchise twenty years ago. I'm going to be perfectly honest with you. I'd be curious to see what goblins and unicorns would look like in the hands of modern Bethesda. Before anyone chimes in about The Elder Scrolls Online taking place in the Second Era, I want to remind you of my emphasis on "single-player experiences." However, that game has giant toad-like Sloads spewing vomitous acid on players as they try to bring down criminal syndicates, and if that was included in a mainline Elder Scrolls game today, I say, "Sign me the fuck up!" That's the kind of dumb but great fanservice I feel is only possible if the series revisits its past. And if Bethesda has no interest in doing that with The Elder Scrolls VI, maybe it is time to revive the "Adventures" spin-offs.
Also, here's a link to the first episode of my mini video series of me attempting to play this game: