I’ve now completed the goal I set for myself when returning to Elder Scrolls Online: Finishing the Aldmeri zones and the main story. I now bring you my (mostly spoiler free) thoughts on the matter.
The Aldmeri zones, for the most part, maintain ESO’s commitment to a consistent “good not great” level of quality. They’re an enjoyable experience, if not necessarily mind-blowing.
The one exception that really stands above the others is Malabal Tor, a zone focused on the spiritual side of the Bosmer. The story there has a very traditional mythic feel, like you’re playing through an old folktale, and I really enjoyed that.
It’s also above average in terms of environment. Jungle zones are one of my least favourite biomes for games, and I was getting a bit burnt out on them after Grahtwood and Greenshade, but Malabal Tor has a wilder, more fantastical feel to it that helps it stand out. The trees twine around each other in surreal shapes, and the whole place is just far enough to the left of normal to feel enchanting.
This is how I imagine all of Valenwood should look, based on its lore.
It’s funny because I have a reader who swore by Greenshade, viewing it as the one zone that stood above all others in ESO. I almost wonder if they were confused and meant Malabal Tor, though it’s probably just another case of differing tastes. I found Greenshade had interesting moments, but the story as a whole was a little too scattered to really stand above the pack, if you ask me.
Reaper’s March was interesting, too. I didn’t love the main story there — it probably makes sense if you know Elder Scrolls lore better than I do, but I never quite grasped the why and the how of the glow in the dark Khajiit popping out of the ground to murder people — but the side quests were pretty fun. Nice to see the Khajiit get some attention.
After completing their story, I maintain a very high opinion of the Aldmeri Dominion. They’re an interesting faction with fascinating cultures, compelling themes, and solid characters. Razum-dar is still my favourite character in the game so far, and Ayrenn is second.
The quest on Stirk only strengthened my loyalty to the Dominion and its queen. Ayrenn was the only faction leader to come out of it looking anything like an adult.
The Breton king, in particular, has earned my ire. What an insufferable, arrogant, condescending, sexist prick.
I’ve decided to make some extra gold by robbing his castle on the regular.
The main quest dealing with Molag Bal and the Planemeld never really managed to win me over.
Normally I’m a sucker for an epic quest to save the world, but this one was just dull and generic in pretty much every way.
The fundamental structure of it drags the story down a lot. There’s so much time between each quest that you’ve already forgotten most of what’s happened so far by the time you start progressing it again.
There’s no emotional investment, either. None of the characters in the main quest are particularly memorable. Tharn is the only one I’ll give any credit to for decent writing, and even there it’s a “love to hate” thing.
The fact they’re all humans is probably part of the problem. I think a strength of Elder Scrolls as a setting is the sheer breadth and diversity of it, but in the main quest all you’re dealing with are the most vanilla human adventurers possible. The one non-human in the story is just a one-note villain with the depth of a mud puddle. The fact he’s an Altmer affects his character not at all.
There are some things about the main story I liked, mainly near the end. The open world Coldharbour zone is surprisingly beautiful and definitely one of the best zones in the game from an aesthetic perspective, and the very last quest offered some cool gameplay.
Still, the main story is ultimately something I did because I needed the skillpoints, not because I was excited to.
Scrolls of lore:
When I first spoke at length about the lore of the Elder Scrolls universe (as experienced through ESO), I described it as “mediocre.” Having gotten farther into the game, that opinion has changed somewhat, but not entirely.
I think I’m going to upgrade my view of Elder Scrolls lore to “inconsistent.” There are some aspects of it I very much like, and some that I don’t.
As mentioned previously, I greatly enjoy the Bosmer, and my opinion of them has only grown with time. I think they’re an incredibly fun and fresh take on the Elf archetype, and I’m really glad I had the foresight to pick Bosmer for my main’s race.
There’s a lot of layers you can appreciate about the Bosmer. They’re one of the more innately fantastical races in the setting, often feeling like they’ve leapt off the pages of mythology. Their savage edge is equal parts terrifying and fascinating. And they’re also surprisingly funny, especially if your sense of humour is as twisted as mine. Their casual bloodthirst never ceases to amuse.
The Khajiit have also managed to maintain their position as my second favourite aspect of the setting. I’m coming to the conclusion they’re not quite as shallow as a culture as I initially took them for, though I still wouldn’t describe them as exceptionally deep in the greater scheme of things. But they’re definitely fun and charming and almost always a good source of entertainment.
In general I think this game’s story-telling is at its best when you’re delving into the cultures of the various races and nations. The meta-plot isn’t great, and individual side quests are hit and miss, but there is a great depth to a lot of the societies of Tamriel.
On the other hand there are a few races I’ve decided I definitely don’t like. Chief on this list are Nords and Orcs, who so far seem to be incredibly shallow and archetypal, and not even interesting archetypes at that.
I can’t say I’m a particular fan of the other human cultures, either. Maybe I might like the Bretons; I don’t know much about them yet. I’d like to shove their king down a flight of stairs, but he might not be representative of his people as a whole.
But of course the humans are going to be boring. Hell, humans aren’t even my favourite race in the real world.
I feel like the Dunmer could be cool, but I still don’t know a lot about them. From what I gather, they used to be Daedra worshipers, but then some of them managed to promote themselves to godhood? That could definitely be interesting.
And Argonians are the biggest question mark. Really all I know is they worship trees, which speaks highly in their favour.
I would like to know what they did to make everyone hate them so much. Even Gnomes in WoW don’t engender this much disdain from the playerbase.
Then there’s the history and mythology of the world itself. That’s still mostly failing to impress, but I’m starting to think the problem is not the content itself, but the presentation.
Much of the lore in ESO is delivered via in-character history books you find while adventuring. These tend to be written in an incredibly dry, scholarly style, and while this is realistic, it sucks a lot of the fun out.
Even the most epic events lose their thrill if you explain them in a sufficiently dull fashion, and I think that’s what’s happening here. I’m beginning to think Tamrielic history actually is quite interesting, but it’s presented in such a hopelessly pedestrian manner that I can’t help but go cross-eyed as I try to read it.
It’s also rather scattered, in the most literal sense possible. When and where you find each book is highly randomized, so you’re learning the history in bits and pieces that often have little or no relation to each other or what’s going on around you. This makes the lore less a coherent narrative and more a jigsaw puzzle where you don’t even know what the final picture is supposed to be.
It’s almost like if TSW’s lore honeycombs were randomized such that you might pick up a piece of lore in Kingsmouth only for it to start telling you about Zeroes Wild. It has no meaning out of context.
Another issue in the presentation is how every culture in Tamriel tends to have its own words for the different deities, supernatural beings, and the like. Again, this is realistic, but it makes the lore incredibly unfriendly for someone who doesn’t already have a strong base of Elder Scrolls knowledge. As a result, I’ve managed to develop a solid understanding of the geopolitics of Tamriel, but remain almost completely baffled when it comes to the greater cosmology of the setting.
Finally, the story can also be inconsistent when it comes to tone. Most of the time I’d say ESO is a pretty tame, sanitized sort of game, but once in a while, with no warning at all, it will go someplace incredibly dark. Examples include the residential school quest in Auridon and that lore book about how vampires in Tamriel are apparently the result of some poor woman being raped to death by a demon lord.
With my main goals for the game complete, I’m not sure where to go now. There’s still an astonishing amount of content I’ve yet to explore in ESO, and I think I would like to see at least some of it.
I think I may take advantage of the game’s sandbox nature and begin simply picking and choosing the zones and quests that specifically appeal to me, rather than playing through everything completionist style. I finally have enough skillpoints and am nearing the all-important 160 CP gear cap, so I can afford to be more laidback.
However, I am also tempted to take a break and move on to other games, if only temporarily. WoW, in particular, is calling to me…
“I almost wonder if they were confused and meant Malabal Tor, though it’s probably just another case of differing tastes”
I think you’re talking about me and…. Gotta be the differing tastes. I just love the story in the Greenshade of making the elf-girl into the new forest king or whatever it was. I can’t even remember the Malabal Tor story at all.
FWIW, Belghast over at aggronaut.com is doing Malabal Tor right now and he’s loving it right along with you. “I completed a good chunk of Malabal Tor, a zone where I am already completely enthralled by the storyline….”
Guess I’m just in the minority 😉
Yeah, I figured. I really liked the Wilderqueen story, too, actually — I’d rate it one of the better arcs in the game. It’s just that that was only, like, a third of Greenshade and then you went off doing a bunch of other random unrelated things, so I don’t rate the zone as a whole as much above average.
Well since I don’t pay much attention to story in any game, the fact that I got hooked on the story at all and it was in Greenshade is why I say “I liked the story in Greenshade.” I frankly don’t recall the rest of the zone. Nor Malabal Tor. I do have some vague memories of Reaper’s March being about Khajit and other dimensions, or something. But that’s about as far as it goes.
I had quite a different experience starting as a Breton in the Daggerfall Covenant. I’ve completed that alliance story, along with the Aldmeri Dominion and am just starting the Ebonheart Pact.
So far, my favourite story has been the Daggerfall Covenant, with such extremely memorable characters that start with you right from the beginner zones and follow you throughout the whole game, even being with me at the end inside the cathedral of the Hollow City in Coldharbour right at the end of the main story (<3 Darien Gautier – I will solve the mystery surrounding him someday).
Even the smaller side characters I met were memorable, helped by the fact that they seemed to come back again in later zones and remember me, a trend that continues into the DLC story content much to my delight – Orsinium was amazing for this, and now I'm experiencing the same feeling in The Gold Coast.
High King Emeric seemed like a pretty decent guy (to me at least) and you get to see all kinds of angles to him from dream-induced rock bottom depression (caused by nefarious means) to riding in to save the realm during the Covenant storyline. I have to say though, I really liked Queen Ayrenn as well – very down to earth despite being High Elf royalty, progressive and accepting of all races and cultures. I've yet to meet the Skald King of the Ebonheart Pact.
I really felt connected and invested in the main Molag Bal story too – it was all about you – having your soul stolen, it was your quest to get it back and stop Molag Bal from destroying all of Nirn. I felt like I joined the Five Companions, and got to appreciate each of them so much that it was agonising to pick one of them to make the ultimate sacrifice. The brave Nord Lyris Titanborn was one of the first faces my character awoke in Coldharbour to see, and her not-so-secret feelings for Sai Sahan were sweet. I was totally shipping them by the end of the story. I'll also remember the last words The Prophet spoke to me… hinting at a pretty awesome sounding new story coming in the future.
It was all written in the Elder Scrolls…
It is entirely possible I may enjoy the Covenant story if I ever play it, though it’s pretty low on my list of priorities. They don’t seem an interesting faction on paper, but my expectations have certainly been proven wrong before. I’m never going to forgive Emeric for insulting Ayrenn like that, though.
My experience with the Nord king so far isn’t extensive, but from what I’ve seen he’s exactly the same blustery dudebro as every other Nord ever.
I don’t share your view on the main story. I never felt invested at all. Yeah, your soul has been stolen… but it’s never explained what this actually means, nor do you ever experience any negative effects as a result. It remains a totally abstract concept that apparently interferes with your character’s everyday life not at all. And I just didn’t care at all about any of the characters, to the point where I refused Sai’s offer to join the Companions. I was eager to be rid of them.
Cadwell’s fun, but that’s just because of John Cleese being John Cleese. I’d pay to watch that man read a menu.
I found a lore book once that shed some light on the nature of the Vestige which fascinated me, about the azure plasma “water” in Oblivion, which is actually the stuff creation is made of. After souls are harvested, the vestiges left behind coalesce from the plasma into imperfect copies of their previous bodies and degenerate into the soul shriven you see all over Coldharbour. But then the author wondered what would happen if a vestige ever coalesced into a perfect recreation of their old body and that’s apparently what you are.
As for the main story, I sacrificed The Prophet and haven’t seen any of the others since, so if you never liked them then good news for you 😜
I still actually feel like I’m doing the main story, as I still have Cadwell’s mission in my journal and I’m apparently Meridia’s champion now.