Shivering Isles adds this strange gateway on a small island in Cyrodil. Will you enter? Of course you will…
Ah, Oblivion, how I love thee. True, you are indeed quite a high-maintenance dalliance, requiring countless hours of loving exploration and constant attention in order to flourish. So many people to talk to! So many places to explore! And you are so lovely, at once brazen yet delicate; bold yet subtle.
And now, just when I feel that I'm beginning to understand you, maybe even, dare I say it? – master you – your creators have decided that you don't already provide enough distractions. They've just released an add-on pack, titled The Shivering Isles, a game chock-full of new lands to explore, new dungeons to spelunk and new loot to… well, loot. But is it any good? Let's find out.
The lands beyond the gate are really lovely… and bizarre.
The Shivering Isles adds a doorway into the Realm of Sheogorath. Like expansions for other Elder Scrolls titles, players can travel back and forth between the Realm and Cyrodil at will. Seeing as how Sheogorath is the Daedric Prince of Madness, I expected the new world to be wild and woolly. What I did not expect was that the world would be divided into two very different sub-realms, each of which reflects a certain flavor of madness.
The realms dedicated to Mania, for example, are riotous and colorful, filled with lush, vibrant foliage. The ground is very hilly and carpeted with wildflowers. By contrast, the realms dedicated to Dementia tend to be cold and gray. Sheogorath's twin capital cities, Bliss and Crucible, add to the metaphor – the dark streets of Crucible are uneven and foul, with crooked doorways and pools of standing filth. It always seems to be raining there. In contrast, those of Bliss are brightly lit even at night and are filled with colorful flowers. The sky there is packed with stars and nebulae, quite a lovely sight.
Uh… OK. I have nothing better to do than hunt down pants for you, sure.
But don't let Bliss's beauty fool you – everyone you meet in Sheogorath's realm is in some way completely and totally stark-raving mad, even if that madness is not at first apparent. Every NPC you meet seems to have a twin somewhere in the world, both Manic and Demented, and trying to puzzle out who matches whom and what exactly is wrong with them is almost a mini game in itself.
This being an Elder Scrolls title, The Shivering Isles features a main quest storyline good for about 25-30 hours of game play all on its own, and of course the landscape is chock full of ruins, dungeons and camp sites to explore. NPCs will give you any number of interesting side-quests. I spent about 10 hours just wandering around and poking my head into discovered ruins when I first arrived to get the lay of the land. I was glad I did, as doing so unlocked the majority of Fast Travel points I needed to move through the main quest quickly. Be advised, however that while in Sheogorath's realm your only transport will be your own two feet – the portal from Cyrodil won't allow horses to travel through with you. Bummer.
Note to self: don't piss off the Daedric Prince of Madness if you can help it…
The main quest involves the player doing a little job for Sheogorath. Seems as if the end of days is rapidly approaching, and the Lord of Madness needs your help to stop it. Every other hero that's tried has failed and has been driven irreparably insane (of course), so the task falls to you. Don't you feel special? I thought you did.
Just as in other Elder Scrolls titles the player sets the pace of the story. Want to do some exploring between Main Quest tasks? Go right ahead – crucial events will wait for you and will also level up with you, always providing just the right amount of a challenge. Want to just burn through the main story, exploring as you go? That's cool as well – you'll be rewarded as you progress with some choice items, including several new and powerful weapons and armor pieces.
As usual, there are plenty of interesting side-quests that flesh out the land's history…
As polished and professional as The Shivering Isles is however, it did do some things that rubbed me the wrong way. Players looking for a deep role-playing experience should be warned that you will often be called upon to do any number of distasteful and even evil things as you do the bidding of the Lord of Madness. In one quest, for example, you are tasked with reactivating a massive, trap-laden dungeon and then either killing or driving insane a party of adventurers. In a second, you must torture helpless NPCs in order to uncover the details of a paranoid madwoman's suspected conspiracy. You're also called upon to perform an assassination – I chose to rub out the wench that forced me to torture people, thereby attempting to make a right out of two wrongs. It wasn't very satisfying. It did not appear that good-themed characters had any choice but to perform these evil deeds at Shogorath's whim, and often I felt like I was being channeled into certain courses of action that were not appropriate for my heroic character.
Purely in this reviewer's opinion, in light of recent alleged atrocities committed by US soldiers at Abu-Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay in the name of "intelligence gathering", creating a scenario where the player must resort to torture to uncover a plot that may or may not be a figment of a madwoman's imagination is more than a little disturbing. Sure, all Elder Scrolls titles allow players the freedom to be a bad guy, and for this I've always commended Bethesda and recommended their games to my friends, but I can't remember any other cases where I was forced to do evil things as part of the main quest. I'd think that, given this developer's professionalism and skill at storytelling, they would have devised a way for me to reach the same result via Speechcraft, guile or exploration, even if doing so forced me to work harder – after all, violence is always the path of least resistance, in the real world as well as in previous Elder Scrolls games. Bottom line – if you have problems with this aspect of the game then you should probably cancel your trip to the Shivering Isles, or at least make a new character with an appropriate theme.
Of course it looks great… this IS an Elder Scrolls game after all…
Even with this in mind, The Shivering Isles is a delight for any fan of the Elder Scrolls series, embodying all of the things that make the franchise great: lovely worlds to explore; fearsome monsters to defeat, interesting people to talk to (and sometimes kill) and, of course, a compelling, if occasionally disturbing, story.
Haskill is hilarious… and quite useful. Don't be afraid to make use of him, no matter how sarcastic he gets.
Like the look of these underground ruins? Hope so – you'll be seeing lots more just like them over the course of the game.
Gameplay: 8 – While there are few times that I felt the main quest was too "dark" for my good-themed character, overall the story was compelling. True, it had its fair share of the dreaded "walk around and talk to a bazillion people, none of whom ever seem to stand still" quests (bleh!), but the rewards were almost always well worth the trouble, both in magical loot as well as in humorous (or occasionally disturbing) dialogue. It also must be said that the geography of the Realm of Sheogorath is in itself maddening, featuring a massive (and un-scalable) cliff running down the center of the Isle. Expect to spend lots of extra time running to the cliff's infrequent access points – somewhat frustrating. Of course, once you unlock a map marker you can always fast travel back, but everyone knows that a true role-player always travels overland…
Graphics: 8 – The Realm is gorgeous right out of the box and the newly-created flora and fauna are lovingly rendered. Caves and dungeons continue to be excellently mapped, however, repetition of key architectural features sometimes gives them a bit of a "copy and paste" feeling. PC players who aren't afraid to invest an hour or two on sites like the TESSOURCE Database (http://www.tessource.net) or FileFront (http://elderscrolls.filefront.com/) can find any number of easily-installable modifications that will take the Oblivion engine's already gorgeous textures and enhance them to near photo-realistic levels – we recommend checking out Natural Environments and Beautiful People at the very least, but there are literally hundreds more. Just be sure you have the hardware to run such visual lushness! Oblivion has been and continues to be one of those games that make me thankful that I play on the PC, where such free add-ons are possible.
Audio: 8 – Sound FX are typically wonderful, and can be enhanced with a few simple MODs. Just as in Oblivion, all dialogue is actually spoken – a nice touch – however some voices are uneven, using out-of-the-box audio files from Oblivion blended with newly-recorded actor voice-overs, resulting in a weird mélange. However, this being the Realm of Madness, the sometimes bizarre audio patchwork effect is oddly effective (although I doubt it was planned that way).
Value: 10 – PC users will be thrilled to learn that every one of the numerous plug-ins that I downloaded for Oblivion ran flawlessly in the Realm of Sheogorath, and new Shivering Isles-themed plug-ins are already appearing on the major MOD sites – it should be fascinating to see what the fan community will do with some of the stranger powers accessible by the Lord of Madness ("Cheese! Cheese for everyone!" ). The 30-odd hours of play time that main quest requires can easily be doubled with side quests and exploration. All-in-all, I'll bet that, if anything, there's almost too much to do, a problem that I always seem to run into with Bethesda games (I've still never completed Morrowind's main quest even after all these many years despite probably over 200 hours of game time).
Curve: 7 – Bethesda shows us once again why they continue to be the masters of the RPG genre. Like everything they release, The Shivering Isles is a highly polished gem, well worth every penny. I just wish that they'd tried a little harder to give "honorable" characters a way to win.