First Impressions: Diving into Oblivion portals with companions in Elder Scrolls Online’s Blackwood

Like clockwork, The Elder Scrolls Online has flung wide the gates of its annual chapter release. This time, in Blackwood, we are headed to southern Cyrodiil, where the remnants of the once great empire meet the borders of the Argonian homeland of Blackmarsh. The Elder Scrolls Online loves to capitalize on nostalgia, and Blackwood is no different, this time leaning heavily into themes related to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

There’s a lot to unpack in this expansion, and a lot I’m excited to explore, so let’s dive in.

I was personally pretty turned off by the storyline of last year’s Greymoor expansion. Real life in 2020 was bleak enough; I didn’t need a grimdark gothic horror story in my fantasy world. I was a little worried that Blackwood’s story would be similarly dark and edgy, replacing angsty vampires with world-ending cultists and Hellgates, but the dark themes are balanced out by our partnership with Eveli Sharp-Arrow, the spunky Wood Elf adventurer whom long-time players will remember from the Orsinium DLC.

Unexpectedly, most of the story has less of an apocalyptic feel and more of a murder mystery investigation vibe to it (a fact that the NPCs keep reminding us of, which is a little immersion breaking, but whatever). Someone has been killing people connected to the former emperor, making it look like the work of the Dark Brotherhood, but something seems off. Surely no one else in the world could have access to the technology required to put a black ink handprint on a sheet of parchment, right? As we go, we learn that all of the people murdered were somehow involved in the former emperor’s plot with the Daedric Prince Mehrunes Dagon to forge powerful weapons, called The Four Ambitions. I won’t spoil anything, but there are a lot of great twists and turns to look forward to.

I do feel as if this expansion’s writers are talking down to me a little. ESO has always had optional “Wait, who are you and why am I here and what was I supposed to be doing?” conversation branches scattered throughout its quest lines, which is a good thing because sometimes, especially when one has been away from the game for a while, the nuances of the convoluted storylines this game weaves can get a little fuzzy in one’s memory. But in this expansion, I feel as of my character asks a lot of dumb questions and NPCs repeat things that were just said in the main, required conversation, moreso than previous expansions. It’s not the end of the world (well, unless Mehrunes has his way), but it’s a little annoying to periodically have these mandatory review sessions.

One of the unique features you will bump into on the landscape of this expansion is Oblivion portals. Similar to the Oblivion gates of TES IV, these portals will take you to a mini-dungeon in Mehrunes Dagon’s plane, The Deadlands, so expect a Hellish nightmarescape of lava and fiery daedra. I have run into these portals less often than I would have liked. Maybe I’m just unlucky, but they don’t seem as common as, say, dolmens do in the Vanilla zones. Then again, there’s no giant hole in the sky with these gates, just a small portal with a bit of a red glow around it, and nothing to mark them on the map, so it’s entirely possible that I’m simply looking the wrong way and missing them.

In any event, defeating all of the daedric beasties inside is reasonably rewarding, with all of the gold and furnishing blueprints and style pages up for grabs that you’ve come to expect from ESO loot. It’s also worth noting that completing these portals isn’t as punishing or time consuming as Greymoor’s witchpikes or Elsweyr’s dragons, which is a welcome change.

Let’s talk a bit about companions, now that I’ve gotten some hands-on time with them in the live game. There are just two companions available in this expansion: the Imperial Dragon Knight Bastian and the Dark Elf Night Blade Mirri. Having them talk to me as I wander through the world adds a new level of life to my gameplay experience. I love that they comment on locations as we pass, make passive-aggressive remarks when I do something they don’t approve of, and even shout “Let’s ride!” when hop on our mounts. They even warn me when my sorc pet goes down, which is actually useful. Maybe this will all get old eventually, but for now, it feels infrequent enough to avoid feeling like annoying chatter.

ZeniMax Online Studios has been tightlipped about further companions, but I won’t be surprised if we start seeing more pop up in the cash shop later in the year; ZOS doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to monetization. At the very least, I think it’s a safe bet that there will be more in the DLCs scheduled for later this year. Many players have been asking for fan-favorite NPCs like Naryu or Razum-Dar, or at least this expansion’s star, Eveli Sharp-Arrow, to be made available as companions.

But as much fun as it would be to drag these memorable characters all over Tamriel with me, I think it’s more likely that future companions will all be new characters, created specifically to be companions, like the two we got with Blackwood, and I think that’s for the best. It’s bad enough that every player you bump into has a clone of one of two people running around with them, it would be even worse if you had an Eveli companion, then went back to the Orsinium DLC and met up with her for the first time there, while her future self is standing right next to you, like some greenscreen-heavy episode of Doctor Who.

Companion skills are fairly limited: just one bar of slots, with three skills in each skill line for their class, three for each weapon, and one ultimate skill. When setting up your companion’s bar, it’s important to pay attention not only to the skills’ damage and effects, but also their cooldowns. Since skills get activated in the order you place them on the bar, I recommend putting any debuffing skills first, and any heal skills you’ve slotted further down the line so they won’t be wasted at the beginning of combat. Their available skills may be limited, but there is enough flexibility to allow your companion to fill any role you might need.

Additionally, companions don’t have skill points or attribute points, so there are no pesky respec costs if you want to switch them from dps to tank to healer. Just swap out their skills and gear and go. Note that if you’re having trouble finding the type of gear you want for your companion (companion gear can’t be crafted, unfortunately), basic, white quality companion gear can be bought from any armor or weapon vendor. Even well-geared, your companion won’t be as good at anything as an actual player, but their contribution to combat is definitely noticeable, especially as they progress in level.

Companion levels and gear are account-wide, which is really nice, but disappointingly, each character must run through the quest associated with a companion before that character can summon that companion. If you’re like me and have a lot of characters (the game actually refuses to sell me any more character slots), running these quests is going to get old fast. At least it’s only one quest, and not a world-spanning scavenger hunt grind like the Psijic line.

I’m happy that I can dress up my companion as I see fit, making them look as epic or ridiculous as the mood strikes me, by applying costumes or by changing their armor skins. I am kind of disappointed that their head slot is permanently hidden, though. Given that every companion has the same face, it would be nice to give them a little anonymity. But that’s a minor quibble.

I think that companions have the potential to be a real game changer for people like me who prefer to play solo or in small groups. I’ve tried soloing some of the easier dungeons, like Fungal Grotto I and City of Ash I, both with and without the companion, and I can say that having the companion around definitely makes things run smoother. It’s nowhere close to having a full group, or even just a second player, but it can be the difference between a narrow defeat and a narrow victory.

Blackwood is one of the most solid expansions The Elder Scrolls Online has released to date. After a year in mountainous viking land fighting vampires and werewolves and undead, I find this expansion’s more lush and varied locale is a welcome change, especially since it means the Argonians get a bit of the spotlight, as they are my personal favorite Elder Scrolls race. The story has everything you would expect from an Elder Scrolls story: political intrigue, betrayal, daedric plots, and doomsday cults. As tentpole features go, companions are a great addition, rooted deeply in Elder Scrolls tradition. They work surprisingly well, add a lot to the game, and make this a must-have expansion, even if you’re not that interested in the story.

Massively Overpowered skips scored reviews; they’re outdated in a genre whose games evolve daily. Instead, our veteran reporters immerse themselves in MMOs to present their experiences as hands-on articles, impressions pieces, and previews of games yet to come. First impressions matter, but MMOs change, so why shouldn’t our opinions?
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