LGR – The Elder Scrolls Arena – DOS PC Game Review

[typing] After years of waiting, Skyrim, the fifth game in the Elder Scrolls
series of FPS RPGs is here in all its nerdy glory. But you can go to a hundred other
people if you want a review of Skyrim. So, here on Lazy Game Reviews we’re taking
a look at the very first Elder Scrolls game, Arena. Released in 1994 by Bethesda Softworks, Arena was a bit of a shaky start for
the now-revered Elder Scrolls series. Just looking at the box art
and even the name of the game, you might be inclined to think that
you’re in for some good old melee combat in an arena of some kind. With sexy high-fantasy chicks and
bloodthirsty crowds watching from the stands. But then you flip it around
and read the back of the box and you see magical monster slaying, character creation with lots of stats
and repeated mention of the term CRPG. Yes, this is purely a computer role-playing
game so you’re better off just forgetting the
“Arena” name because it’s just deceiving. But why the odd name for a pretty
traditional CRPG experience? Well, there’s a good reason for this
and it starts back in 1992… Bethesda Softworks was a small company
mostly making sports and movie-licensed games, like Wayne Gretzky Hockey
and The Terminator. But in 1992, Origin Systems
released Ultima Underworld, a 3D first-person role-playing game that
was a huge technological leap from older CRPGs like Dungeon Master and Wizardry. The guys at Bethesda were already fans
of Dungeons & Dragons and the Ultima series, and then came along Legends of Valor,
which further inspired them to develop their own fantasy action game. They had the idea for a first-person
action game where the player and a team of fighters would travel a fantasy world competing in arena battles and
gaining new skills along the way, eventually being proclaimed the ultimate
victor in the Imperial City. Eventually, they decided to add side
quests to vary the gameplay a bit and it wasn’t long before they realized
that the side quests were more fun than gladiatorial combat. More stats were added, more fantasy
elements were added and pretty soon the arenas were
replaced with the large open world for a player to explore instead of just hopping from battle to battle. Eventually, they just said,
“Screw it, we’re nerds.” “Let’s make a full-blown RPG
with awesome, nerdy RPG stuff!” But there was a problem:
the marketing material and artwork for the arena combat ideas were already being
printed up and they were rushing to make a Christmas 1993 release. So, some weird backstory was quickly
created that explained that this world called Tamriel was such a ruthless place that its citizens often
referred to it as “the Arena” and sur-title “The Elder Scrolls” was added
to make it sound more like a role-playing game, and to provide further fantasy plot devices. However, they still missed the Christmas release and didn’t get the game
out until March of 1994 when nobody cared and those that might have cared were thrown off by the “Arena” name. It only sold about 3,000 copies. But as time went on,
more copies kept selling, and due to word-of-mouth the game became a cult classic,
eventually leading Bethesda to come out with even more Elder Scrolls games. The first was an enhanced version
of Arena, the CD-ROM rerelease, which added some speech and
computer-animated video sequences. Then came the Deluxe version of Arena,
containing the latest CD-ROM version, a mouse pad with a map of Tamriel on it and the Codex Scientia hintbook. I have here the original
floppy disk release from 1994 which is actually dated 1993 all over the
place. Take off the sleeve and you have a nice box with entirely too many Bethesda
Softworks logos printed on it. And inside of this, you have the guts. The guts include the game, which comes on eight high-
density 3.5-inch floppy disks, an installation guide, an ad for the Codex Scientia hintbook, and the manual itself. The manual has a nice RPG texture to it, and if you’ve had many RPGs, then you
know exactly what I’m talking about. It feels good. Sadly, the quality inside is kind of bland with only sepia-toned
images instead of full-color. But that’s just nitpicking. The information within is solid and it is absolutely required to play
the game for more reasons than one. Once you start the game up, you’ll be
greeted with some percussive music and pixels. On the floppy version, the game pretty
much just starts up without any fanfare, but the CD-ROM version also gives you
a short and somewhat needless intro. In both versions, a scroll will unravel before
you and you’re given some vague details
about something fantastical or something. Next, the menu pops up and it’s incredibly basic
with no options to speak of, only the choice of starting a
new game or loading a saved one. Starting a new game will provide you
with yet another bit of backstory, this time detailing the main plot. Emperor Urethra Septum IV is
just chillin’ and is summoned by Imperial Battlemage Jägermeister Tharn, sporting his best Nazgûl attire But holy balls, Jägermeister is actually
a douchebag and crap happens. Emperor Uterus Rectum is
sent off to a galaxy far, far away and Ringwraith Mick Jagger
himself takes the throne. Then some chick with lovely assets
is zapped by Darth Sidious and hair metal makes a
comeback in the land of Tamriel, complete with horny demons and skinny naked dudes surrounded in fog. You’re then told to select your class, which is accomplished
by either generating one or taking a Myers-Briggs
personality test for role-playing nerds. Or by selecting one outright without
knowing anything about it at all. You’ll probably want to read
the manual if you want to be anything other than completely surprised
at what you pick and thankfully it’s sorta kinda explains what you need to know. But you’re just going to have to play
the game first to know what you want, what you really, really want, so just pick something
and see how fast you die. You can also pick your
name, and anything goes, so be sure to make it count! Next, choose your reproductive
organs and then choose the province your character will call home. This will determine where you
start the game and your race, so choose randomly because you really don’t know what you’re
doing. Or just check the manual once again
like the little RPG slave you are. You can then choose to place
some stat points anywhere you like. This will affect how much you
suck in the beginning of the game, so allotting the proper stats
is key to your survival. In other words, you’re screwed. Finally, you get to customize your character’s
look, and by “customize” I mean choose from a
small handful of predetermined head sprites. Next thing you know, you’re being looked
down on by some translucent female in the sky who is basically telling you that you’re
important and the fate of the world and yeah, don’t die and stuff. She just spews text at you in the floppy version, but the CD-ROM actually has her speaking in all of her cheap cloud lady majesty. LADY: In that act of arrogance,
he has made his first mistake. LGR: The gist of it is that it’s up to you
to find the eight remnants of the Staff of Chaos, Lord Voldemort’s seven Horcruxes, the Nine Pirate Lords’ Pieces of Eight
and the one ring to rule them all. It’s a very ambitious game. Freaking finally, you’re into the gameplay
itself and like any good role playing game,
you start off in some dank dungeon with freaking nothing, being hunted by rats and
goblins and looking for a way out. The game controls with the keyboard, mostly, with your typical CRPG set of controls that end up looking more like a flight
simulator setup than anything else. But a lot of the work is going to be done
using the mouse, including picking up items like this Golden Key and opening doors like this door-y door. It also serves as your method of combat, where you’ll have to face your enemies,
hold down the right mouse button and swing in different directions
in order to do damage. This is just awful. What makes this more annoying
is the fact that it sucks. And what makes it even more annoying
is the fact that not only do you use the mouse to attack, you also
can use it to move around. If your cursor gets anywhere near the
edge of the screen, an arrow will appear showing which direction it will move you. I guess this was to appeal to the old CRPG
play style of games like Dungeon Master, but in Arena it makes no sense. It’s incredibly clunky to move like this and instead it only gets in the way any time
you try to click on something on-screen. Since you can’t turn this off, you’ll be
getting aggravated at this constantly and it’s just dumb. Another thing that provides an unfortunate
amount of stupid is the user interface. Yeah, the entire thing! Now, I know this was a first
effort on Bethesda’s part, and it was basically a converted
gladiator game, but still. You have these little buttons along the
bottom of the screen that allow you to access to most of the features of the game. Stuff like your status, magic, spells, map, combat and pickpocket modes, resting, etc. But what you’re not told is what any of these
are. Since they’re just icons, you have to
figure out through trial and error or read the crap out of the manual. Some people will be just fine with this. *I* find it needlessly annoying. Another thing that’s not so obvious is
that some of these have alternate modes. For example, just clicking on the map
will bring up a map, but if you right-click on the map,
it’ll bring up an even larger map. Okay, why not just have this larger map
available from the regular map screen? One other complaint is jumping. You press J to jump, but that’s useless. You only hop about a quarter of an inch straight up. You have to press Shift+J to jump forward, which is used not only for jumping chasms,
but hopping directly on top of short walls. The sound effects don’t help either. They’re extremely simple. You don’t always know what is
making the sound or where it is. Not only that but only one sound plays at
once. So if you happen to be doing
something that’s making another sound, it will cover up the sound of an enemy nearby, so often you’ll just be attacked in silence. But really, once you look past all that,
the game is incredibly frustrating. For one thing, these dungeons are the
textbook definition of complex. What moron Tamriel architect
designed these things? The layout makes no sense half the time. Almost all the walls look the same, so you get turned around super easily. And then there’s these waterways
underneath floating walls all over the place, which function only to get you killed
by enemies standing above you. So you’re going to have to be
using your compass and map all the time to try to navigate, which I would have less of a
problem with if it weren’t so clunky. For one thing, these transitions
bother the nuts off me. Every little thing fades in and out and in
and out, with some kind of delayed effect, and after the billionth time you see this, you just feel like the game is trolling you. You’re gonna have to physically walk to
an area if you want to see it again. Sure, you can use it to take notes
and stuff but that’s only useful if your notes aren’t on the
part of the map you can’t see! Once you’ve stumbled around
this stuff, you’ll eventually level up, and you’ll be able to apply the
points you’ve earned to new stats. This is the entire appeal of the game, really. To do stuff until something happens. So you get more points to do more stuff. Also, the loot. The loot in the game is mostly random,
so every time you enter a dungeon or even reload a game, the loot will be different
than the last time you played. So there’s always a chance you’ll end up with
some awesome katana or war hammer, but chances are you’ll have about 14,000 weak daggers and bucklers instead. Once you finally freaking holy crap
what the balls exit the first dungeon, you’ll be greeted with the copy protection. Yeah, just now do you get the copy protection. It involves looking up some crap in the manual so if you don’t have the manual… [chuckles] Oh, man, that sucks. Once you put in the right stuff, you can continue onward to
whatever city you ended up in and start exploring the game at your leisure. At first, it’s pretty fun
exploring these towns since there are a ton of people that bother
you, a ton of shops to buy and sell your loot, and a ton of places to get drunk. But you’ll soon realize you
have no clue what to do next. Like most RPGs, the gameplay consists of
the main quest and side quests, and how you find these is kinda vague. Side quests are usually found
by talking to random townsfolk and asking if there’s any work around. You’ll go somewhere, like a bar,
and a text box will ask you to do something like deliver a piece of paper to a
text box on the other side of town. Do this and you’ll have wasted your time
for what is often a paltry amount of gold. Hooray. And then you have the main quest,
which is progressed by doing something. Yeah, I–I don’t know. The first
time around you just have to kind of figure crap out yourself. You’re told to find some dubious place but not where to look or
even how to go about looking, so I had to consult a wiki to
figure out I needed to talk to a million random NPCs before one of them randomly told
me I was in the wrong province. How helpful. Eventually, you’ll find a place,
which eventually leads to a person, which eventually leads to another place, which eventually leads to you wanting to pull your hair out with a ball of
barbed wire because you forgot to save the game any crashes to DOS. Right, so here’s the thing: when Arena works, it can be fun, once you get used to the clunky UI and the overpowering African
swallow-speed enemies. But then the game either locks up or crashes, sometimes taking your
save game along with it, and it’s just one more
crappy thing to deal with. It really sucks because this
game has so much potential. There’s so much to see and experience here. It’s unreal for a game of this age. You have the entire continent of Tamriel to
explore and each city and main dungeon
is handcrafted to be awesome. And outside of that is an endless
procedurally-generated world to explore, filled with tons of convoluted dungeons
and annoying enemies trying to kill you. And holy crap, I haven’t even talked
about the spell making. The possibility for custom magic
items in this game is insane! With something like 2,500 unique
magical items which can all be combined into custom magic items and spells. And yes, you can name these anything you want, like my Fart of Fury here. If you understand this reference to a
classic arcade fighting game, then congratulations, you win +5 Internets! So the point I want to end on is that
The Elder Scrolls Arena is really impressive. But it’s just too darned big and too darned
clunky and unfriendly for me to enjoy it. I played almost six hours and finally
got my first friggin’ piece of the Staff of Chaos. But then the game crashed
for the nine quadrillionth time and I decided I was done. Seriously, done. I don’t think I’ll ever play this game
again and the reason is that if I want to play a DOS Elder Scrolls
game, I’m going to play its sequel, Daggerfall. And that one has its flaws too,
but it’s a far cry better than Arena’s convoluted mess. And that pains me somewhat to say that
because I really do like the ideas and world in Arena. It’s still the Elder Scrolls. It’s got an incredible amount of gameplay
and an addicting way of advancing you through
the story, tossing lots of loot and experience points
your way. It’s a respectable first effort, but it’s a game that never saw its
true potential lived out due to the overall scattered
quality and ill-advised implementations of gameplay elements. In my opinion, Arena should only be viewed as a curiosity for those interested in
the beginnings of the Elder Scrolls saga. And it’s gonna cost you if you
want the boxed game too, since it’s highly valued by collectors and
its lowish production numbers resulted in it selling for about $70 to $100 currently. However, Bethesda has released the
floppy version of the game as freeware, so you can at least try a
digital version of the game for free. But seriously though, make sure
you go into it expecting great ideas but less-than-great implementation.

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