Monday, 11 July 2011

The Elder Scrolls: Arena (MS-DOS)

(*May not actually include an arena.)

This is the very beginning of the Elder Scrolls series, which seemed like a sensible point to start from. The game is available for free from the developer's website, and that's the version I'll be playing.

This guy is a bit of an asshole. He usurped the Emperor, dumped him in an alternate dimension, and placed himself on the throne. Then he murdered or imprisoned anyone who know of his treachery.

But before I can fight him, I need to figure out who I am, with the help of this questionnaire. The results say that am almost certainly a Battlemage, which sounds like a reasonable class. Well I'm not so sure about the 'mage' part, but I like the 'battle' part.

I choose my character's race by picking their country of birth. It's a little vague on what the difference between the races are though, at least until after I've chosen.

I'll go with Summurset, land of the High Elves because... I have no idea which is the best one to choose for a mage, and elves usually seem to know everything.

It's a transparent animation of the ghost of Ria Silmane! She was murdered by Jagar Tharn before she could tell the world that he an asshole, so now the task of getting rid of him falls on my shoulders.

... and then I accidentally skip the rest of her text before she could explain how.

The bad news is I've been locked away in a prison cell to die. The good news though, is that they thoughtfully left a key in here for me. In case I wanted to go out and stretch my legs a bit I guess.

I've got an array of buttons and gauges on screen to figure out, but most seem pretty obvious.

And there's a big pile of weapons and armour dumped right outside my cell!

I can't tell what stats these weapons have at all. My guy is surrounded by +10s, but swapping out weapons doesn't seem to change anything. I'll give him the staff, he is a wizard after all.

Yeah, he's definitely a wizard. That poor goblin barely had a chance to hack off half my health before I blew him to pieces with a fireball.

The game tells me I can rest on these raised niches to get my health back without being attacked. It didn't quite work out like that however. It seems like I used up all my magic on that first enemy, so when the next one appear I had to fight with my staff. Trouble is... I couldn't figure out how to swing the staff.


I decided I might as well create a new character seeing as I was right next to the start when I died. This time I skipped the questionnaire and chose to be a knight from Skyrim, so I should hopefully be a little tougher.

But to attack enemies first I need to find a way out of this damn water. I can climb up if I'm directly facing an edge, but those goblins will hack me to death before I make it up. It'd be so much easier to get around if I had sidestep keys.


I followed the water around and found some stuff, including a new sword! Plus I even figured out how to swing it. I have to hold right mouse button and move the mouse across.

Sadly this guy is even better at swinging his blade, and my brave knight is slain.


Now I'm getting somewhere. I'm playing as a barbarian from Hammerfell, and I have a mighty sword. Rats ain't shit compared to me.

The level up system seems pretty straightforward in this. When I get a level up, I get some points to put into attributes. And that's it.

Right, now what were those directions to get out? West then south...


I'm finally out of the prison maze! Now I'm in... a maze of buildings. And I have no idea where to go, my journal is empty.

I love having freedom to do what I want in a game, but I prefer to know what the hell I'm supposed to be doing before I choose to do something different. I don't want to have to stumble across the main storyline during my adventures.


Awesome, I've found a weapon shop. But they won't let me in because it's the middle of the night.

Well that's no problem, I'll just use the wait button. Huh, I can't find a way to wait. There's a camp button but he refuses to sleep in the street. So I guess I either find an inn, or leave the game running until daylight.

And then my hero is smacked in the back of the head and killed.


Okay, I don't get this at all. I reached the town again, and every one of these red dots I've found is a locked door. The streets are abandoned, there's no wait key, and not even the slightest clue what I'm supposed to do.

I wonder where the hell I am anyway. Hey, this is Black Marsh, land of the lizard people! Probably not coincidentally I'm playing as a lizard guy this time.


I've found someone to talk to! I asked her where the nearest inn was, and she helpfully marked it on my map for me.

Oh, of course. I'm standing next to it.

As I rest for the night, Ria Silmane appears in my dreams with another mission for me. I need to recover the pieces of the Staff of Chaos, so that I can rescue the Emperor. She tells me that the first piece is located in Fang Lair. Though where the hell that is she has no clue. She recommends I ask sages or scholars.

My quest to find sages or scholars was going well, until I ran out of street and walked into the sea. It's too dark to see anything, and somehow sleeping didn't fix that at all. I'm beginning to wonder if there's ever daylight in this game.

And then my poor lizard guy got murdered too. Time to hit the character creation screen again.


Daylight! Well, almost.

Well I think I'm getting better at least. I cleaned the dungeon out this time, took every bit of treasure I could find and murdered every enemy along the way. I'm playing as an archer, but without a bow I'm stuck using this sword for now. First goal: find a shop selling bows.

After asking a ton of people giving me vague directions like 'I think it's north' or whatever, I finally make it to a shop. And it's open!

I found this guy standing alone at the back of a huge empty room, just hitting the same bit of metal forever. He looks like the kind of guy that'd have a bow for sale.

Not even the slightest hint about what stats each weapon has, or even if they're better than what I have now. I'll get a bow and a full set of armour.

Putting the armour on made the green numbers on the inventory screen go lower. I guess lower numbers are better then, maybe. Or maybe I just bought some really crappy armour, who knows?

Eventually I managed to find a person who knew that Fang Lair was in Hammerfell. Now I just need to figure out how to get there.

Even though I don't look it, I'm playing as a cat person from all the way down in Elsweyr, so I really hope there's fast travel in this or else this could take a while.

It seems that I just have to click the town I want to visit, anywhere in the empire, and I can ride there on horse immediately.

Finally I find the scholar I was looking for. She gives me another place to visit, and soon I find myself at the fortress of Fang Lair.

Fang Lair is a dump. Skeletons all over the place.

Looks like I'm back to crawling through water to find the way past the locked doors. I need to make sure to keep away ledges with enemies on because I'm totally vulnerable down here. Even with a bow I can't fight back.

What the FUCK are those things? Whatever they are, they only took four hits to kill my dude. Game over, again.

Well I've come too far to restart from the beginning this time. I'll reload and give it another shot.


Right, I think I've got this figured out. The enemies here may be totally out of my league, but as long as they're over there, and I'm over here, that really doesn't matter. I can just sit here in total safety firing off some of my infinite arrows until they eventually die, one at a time.

MY BOW HAS BROKEN? What the fuck?

Without my bow I'm stuck fighting close up and don't last three hits before I'm Game Over'd again. Well fuck that then.

To be honest, I found this game to be a total pain in the ass. It's soulless and miserable and ugly and it takes forever to find out what I'm actually supposed to do. But for some reason I was hooked, for a while anyway. I guess going around dungeons hitting goblins still has its charm even when everything else about the game is frustrating. It was like the total opposite of my experience with Tales of Destiny II, which looked beautiful and played well, but bored the hell out of me.

Next game.

Other Elder Scrolls posts:
Elder Scrolls: Arena
Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall
An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire
Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion


  1. Ah, more old dungeon crawler goodness. I'm sensing a pattern on the games I'm commenting on here.

  2. Thanks for sparing me the trouble of playing this game. I've got Morrowwind and REALLY like it (I plan to play Oblivion and Skyrim eventually). Was curious about its predecessors, which led me to this blog. It looks like I'm not missing anything by not playing Arena. The water stuff is really baffling design.

    1. Months later, I've decided to give this game a shot. Like you, I couldn't figure out how to attack anything at first. This game certainly doesn't hold your hand; it's unfortunate because it could be so much better if it just gave you a little bit more of a clue as to what you should be doing. In any case, I enjoy the retro look (I get the same feeling from NES games) and find it compelling. I'm sure I'll do a blog post of my own on this game somewhere down the line.

    2. Elder Scrolls on the NES, now that would've been a thing to behold.

      Yeah, the games seem to hold the player's hand more and more as the series goes on, which isn't always a good thing depending on who you ask. But I think the balance was definitely a little skewed towards the needlessly obtuse on this one. I never did manage to get into the flow of it.

      It's still worth more of a play though, even if it's just to make Daggerfall seem better by comparison when its time comes around. Plus I suppose it doesn't hurt that it'll give you something to write about.

  3. What you're experiencing is the fundamental "dumbing-down" of games that has occurred in the last 20 years. Yes, Arena is TWENTY-ONE YEARS OLD. And back then (jeez, I sound like an old geezer. Well, that stands to reason, I am one), games didn't hold your hand, and you were expected to pay attention and keep up. You can't? Death for you! Try again. Still missed the point? Death! Still not paying attention? Death! Death! Death!

    The game is no less straight-forward than its successors. Your main quest (Fang Lair) is right there at the bottom of the "Where Is" question you can ask of almost every NP, and Ria tells you to do exactly that in your very first dream sequence. But, like any good RPG, diving right in to the main quest right off the bat is an invitation to, say it with me: Death!
    The game gave you eight save slots for a good reason: Even a good player will likely need them. DEATH awaits you at every corner; enemies can literally spawn out of thin air right in front of your face, and, if they spawn behind you and are levelled to match you, one good paralysis spell and you're, you guessed it, DEAD.
    I'll grant you that Arena has a few flaws (not being able to climb out of water or pits unless you are dead-straight to the wall being one of them, not being able to fire arrows or spells from down there another, and magic is seriously over-powrred), but by no means is the game unplayable. However, from the sounds of it, it would appear that you didn't read the manual before starting. DEATH! Always RTFM. Try it again. Save at the start of every dungeon floor. Save about halfway through each dungeon. Keep at least four saves (the dungeon you're in plus the town you came from). Play a magic-wielding class (did I mention how over-powered magic is?) Save after each enemy in the starter dungeon. Spam-reload the treasure piles in that first dungeon so that you get some decent gear. Don't accept any roll of your starter stats that has anything under 50. Don't wander at night until at least level 6. But mostly, pay attention and keep up! These games were designed to be challenging, not to let you win even when you half-assed it.
    Happy gaming!

  4. Arena felt like the original dungeons and dragons. Totally lethal, wizards could cast one spell and then died, thieves were pretty worthless, and fighters are the only people who survive. Though, I did find the game fun once I found a magic sword(and totally disregarded the main quest. Time limit? Yeah right), and proceeded to whack everything to death. The game was so much easier when I decided to stay in the imperial city and not move around.


Semi-Random Game Box