Fly on the Wings of a Dragon – Skyrim: Dragonborn Review

Our Rating
out of 5.0

This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim needs no introduction.  In 2011, the title was one of the most anticipated games of the year, as well as one of the most well-received.  Selling seven-million copies in only its first week of release, this non-linear fantasy RPG garnered considerable popularity and acclaim, both from loyal fans of the Elder Scrolls series and new players alike. However, once the initial excitement had died down, it was up to studio Bethesda to ensure that gamers were still absorbed in the picturesque alpine realm and not buying into the competition’s newest offerings while Skyrim collected dust on their shelves.  Enter Skyrim: Dragonborn. Dragonborn is the third DLC for Skyrim, preceded by Dawnguard and Hearthfire.  The trailers promise an all new epic adventure—a face-off with the very first Dragonborn, and the ability to ride atop the back of a dragon –and at a rather hefty 1600 Microsoft Points, Dragonborn had better deliver. So, is this return to Tamriel worth your dollars, or has it been crippled by that proverbial “arrow to the knee?”

Dragonborn begins immediately upon loading your latest Skyrim save.  You do not need to complete Skyrim in order to delve into Dragonborn, and can begin the DLC at any point in your playthrough.   A pair of cultists with distinct white masks concealing their faces promptly approaches you.  Hostilely, they exclaim that you are but a “false” Dragonborn and that they have every intention of cleaving you open and sacrificing your heart to the “real” Dragonborn, a figure referred to as “Miraak.”  For those of you who have forgotten, a Dragonborn is a being with the natural ability to speak the language of Dragons, allowing him/her to utter powerful spells or Dragon Shouts.  Of course, you know that you are a true Dragonborn, and you’ve done more than enough in these great northern lands to prove your worth!  After a brief fight, you head to the city of Windhelm to secure passage to the island of Solstheim, where this Miraak supposedly resides (and, by the looks of it, is causing a fair amount of trouble).  You meet the reluctant Captain Gjalund, who, after some light cajoling, agrees to ferry you to Solstheim on his ship.  Though, he informs you, there is something “strange” about the place…

Situated to the northeast of Skyrim, the island of Solstheim first appeared in The Elder Scrolls III: Blood Moon.  As all settings in the Elder Scrolls universe, it is rich with wholly unique history and culture. Primarily a Dark Elf (or Dunmer) settlement, Solstheim is home to Red Mountain – an active volcano, whose violent eruptions have turned the land into a waste of grey ash.  You first arrive in the port of Raven Rock, easily distinguishable from any Skyrim city due to its sandy shores, thatched roofs, and crustacean-shaped houses.  Unfortunately, the wonder of arriving on a new shore is short-lived, as you realise that there is something very fishy about the villagers of Raven Rock; although you question them tirelessly about Miraak, they seem to remember him only in vague snippets.

“That name sounds familiar, but I just can’t place it…” they say, over and over.

Further investigation reveals that Miraak has possessed the people of Raven Rock – and various other settlements around the island – and is using them to build monuments to him in a dastardly plan to augment his already considerable power.  In order to defeat Miraak, you must find and harness the power of the Black Books: dangerous tomes of knowledge created by the demon prince Hermaeus-Mora.  Each book leads you into the brand new Oblivion plain of Apocrypha and grants you a new word of power (or Shout).  The catch: these Dragon Shouts are ones that your adversary already knows.  In essence, to defeat Miraak you must become him… without losing your humanity (and sanity) in the process.

Immediately upon arriving at Raven Rock, I was delighted to discover that Dragonborn adds quite an impressive array of new items and features to the greater Skyrim game.  Along with the new locale comes unique armours, both new and old (fans of The Elder Scrolls may remember the Chitin and Bonemold armour types), new alchemy ingredients, and a sampling of enemies that you won’t find back on the mainland.  Among the latter are the grotesque, fire-slinging Ash Spawn; the goblin-like boar-riding Reiklings (they remind me of the Warg Riders from The Lord of the Rings); and even the colossally strong Werebears (yes, like werewolves, but bears!).  There are even new minerals to mine: fiery Heart Stones and icy Stalhrim.  In addition, deposits of precious stones are far more prevalent on Solstheim. So, if you packed a pick-axe, prepare to get rich!  If you’re worried about becoming hopelessly over-encumbered with all of the awesome loot that you’re bound to collect while overseas (something that I don’t have to worry about, as I play as a mighty Orc), never fear!  Though you do eventually get an area to safely stow your possessions in Raven Rock, you can actually Fast Travel directly between Solstheim and Skyrim.  Just click the intricate arrow on the southwest corner of your map (northeast if you’re on Skyrim and would like to return to Solstheim).

It becomes clear very early on that Dragonborn features some absolutely spectacular settings.  I’d even go so far as saying that some of them are unlike any that Bethesda has previously created.  There are tunnels utterly choked from floor to ceiling with tightly woven spider-webs (and alive with flaming spiders).  There are sunken Dwarven ruins of cavernous heights, their labyrinthine depths flooded with opaque waters.  At one point, you will even enter a tower that is tilted at a jarring 45-degree angle, giving the impression that your character might suddenly lose his/her footing and slide wildly across the floor.

The realms of Apocrypha are a wonder in their own right, putting their The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion counterparts to shame.  Within them, the walls are entirely made up of tightly packed ancient books, and cyclones of unbound pages twist about the landscape.  Here and there, great black tentacles rise from pools of oily sludge, seeking prey.  There are corridors that curve and undulate as if they are truly the throats of some colossal living beast; still others shorten and elongate right before your eyes, like optical illusions.  Apocrypha is also inhabited by brand new foes: beings that appear to be giant predatory fish that walk upright are called Lurkers, while the Cthulhu-like things that you may recall from the DLC’s promo materialare called Seekers.  The Bethesda team deserves commendations for creating these awe-inspiring spectacles.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all of the scenery featured in Dragonborn.  Though Dragonborn does boast a select few remarkable locales, in the interim, Solstheim just appears to be a repetition of Skyrim, complete with snow-capped mountains and coniferous trees.  Even the plain-like patches of Solstheim look just like the Skyrim tundra, only blanketed with grey “ash” instead of white “snow.”  At times, without the silhouette of Red Mountain looming on the horizon, I truly could not distinguish playing on Solstheim from playing on Skyrim, and this repetition does not only occur outside but applies to interiors as well.  While I realise that Solstheim’s appearance is developed based on lore that is already well-established… did we really need to explore another abandoned mine?  Another ice fortress?  Another Nordic barrow?  This issue left me yearning for an add-on more akin to Oblivion’s incredible Shivering Isles, in which the difference in appearance between DLC and original content was as stark as night and day. It turns out Dragonborn’s similarity to Shivering Isles lies in its sheer length; it is decently long.  It took me about eight to ten hours to complete a pretty thorough playthrough.  The quests are varied and interesting, and some even require players to travel between Solstheim and Skyrim to obtain items or deliver messages.

As can be expected from Bethesda, the NPCs are well-voiced and well-written.  Just like the characters in Skyrim, they each have their own quirks and stories (which they are always willing to share if you select the right dialogue option).  In fact, they are voiced by the exact same cast as the characters in Skyrim.  While this does not necessarily detract from the game, it can be a little strange.  It is a bit of a shame, though not detrimental, when you realise that the leader of a band of fierce hunters is also a Riften shopkeeper, or that a regal town councillor shares his pipes with a barkeep.  What does detract from the game, however, is the extremely guided nature that the majority of conversations in Dragonborn seem to have.  In around eighty-percent (literally, almost all) of the conversations that I had, I was not given the opportunity to select any dialogue choices save for the initial topics.  Rather than allowing you to venture down different avenues of speech – or even just preserve the illusion that you are making decisions – you are forced to click a single statement or question as a response, sometimes four or five times during a single encounter.  This is a strange development in a series of games that generally does well to maintain the sense that you are truly, in every aspect, role-playing.

I’m sad to say that the aforementioned richness of character does not extend to the portion of the game where it is most important – that is, to Miraak himself.  It turns out that Miraak was once a Dragon Priest who betrayed his Dragon masters and, under the tutelage of Hermaeus-Mora, learned to control them.  Our first impression of Miraak comes from his temple, and it is rather impressive.  The walk to its entrance is littered with dragon skeletons. In its dingy halls, statues of monsters seem poised to awaken, and as we spiral deeper and deeper, it becomes eerily silent, successfully establishing tension.  When Miraak does appear in the flesh, he cuts an imposing figure, towering over you and glowing with ethereal, multi-coloured light.  But these outward impressions of Miraak are the only ones that players will ever get, and his backstory is scarcely explained in greater detail.  There is no effort to humanise, develop, or even get you acquainted with your enemy at all.  It is clear that he’s menacing and powerful… and that’s about it.  Even when you’ve completed the final quest, Miraak falls short of establishing himself as a character.  In fact, completing Dragonborn left me generally disappointed: the plot of the main quest does not seem to be fully developed.  The surface of many introduced concepts is scarcely scratched, and the narrative drops off abruptly.  Indeed, even as that final achievement popped up on my screen, I was left with the gloomy emptiness of many mysteries unsolved.

Another big disappointment was the much touted dragon-riding ability.  Over the course of Dragonborn you learn parts of a Shout called “Bend Will” that, in its final form, allows you to control and mount a dragon.  I was excited about this feature, as I’m sure many others were.  In actuality, this aspect of the game may as well not even have been included as it appears very late in the campaign and plays little to no role in the story.  On top of this, the first dragon that you ride is very hard to control.  The flight mechanics are ill-explained, and I instantly found myself dive-bombing into the sea.  To be honest, it was so cumbersome and non-incidental that I’m still not sure if I was actually controlling the dragon, or if he just happened to be flying clumsily in the direction that I was aiming.

There is undoubtedly a final aspect of Dragonborn that must be addressed.  Most RPG gamers know that Bethesda games are infamous for their many glitches, travesties that can sometimes have devastating effects on players’ games.  So, is Dragonborn glitchy? In my experience, not terribly. During my ten hours of play, I did experience two generic console freezes. Luckily, the game autosaved so often that I was able to turn my Xbox back on and continue without detriment. This aside, I was able to turn in all quests without a hitch – no missing dialogue options, no eternal objectives, and I never once found myself stuck inside a wall.

In the end, my affair with Skyrim: Dragonborn was tumultuous.  When I began, I was sceptical, then very enthusiastic, and ultimately settled somewhere in between.  Is it worth the 1600 Microsoft Points, despite its flaws?  If you enjoyed the previous Elder Scrolls games, then it might be a good investment… but don’t expect it to live up to Shivering Isles — it’s clear which island is superior.  That being said, Dragonborn is truly an “expansion” of Skyrim; it adds many elements to the existing game and gameplay.  Though the main plot feels half-baked and leaves something to be desired, Dragonborn is, ultimately, enjoyable.

Final score: 3.75/5

Our Rating
out of 5.0

About This Post

December 17, 2012 - 8:05 am