Tamriel Infinium: A look back at Elder Scrolls Online’s Blackwood

    
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Now that we’re firmly entrenched in the year of High Isle and the legacy of the Bretons, it almost seems archaic to jump back to 2021 and look at Elder Scrolls Online’s last expansion. But that’s how I roll, constantly a year late and a platinum short.

The reason for this column is that as of last weekend, I wrapped up all of the main and side quests for the Blackwood zone. I find it both enjoyable and beneficial to glance back at each region when I’m finished to ascertain what worked and what didn’t. So let’s break down Blackwood today, with the hopes of getting to Deadlands in a future piece.

How is the companion system?

Before I get into the meat of Blackwood’s story content, let’s take a few paragraphs to talk about the expansion’s key feature, companions. Companions were a greatly hyped system in which players could obtain a permanent traveling partner who would function, more or less, as a combat pet. As a pet lover in MMOs, this was a huge draw for me and the number one reason why I ponied up for the chapter even though I had plenty of other content to do.

I will say that it was worth the hype. Each of the two initial companions — Mirri and Bastion — required a somewhat lengthy quest to obtain, after which they’d be unlocked on that character. I liked that I could get both and swap between them, reminding me a lot of Fallout 76’s allies. Companions can be kitted with gear and modified with skill choice, so you can build one up to help you where you need it most.

After evaluating both, I went with Bastion (I liked his genial charm) and worked to make him a backup healer and spellcaster. I absolutely loved that I could use unlocked costumes on my account for companions, which was a nice touch of additional customization. And while I could do with a little less voice spam from my companion during combat, I do like his general remarks as we’re out adventuring. It does feel, to a degree, like I’m journeying with an NPC.

The help in combat is nice but not always needed. ESO’s landscape was already pretty easy to handle, so having a companion makes it that much easier. It is nice that they can sub in for missing party members in dungeons, though.

How is the main storyline?

I have no idea if I’m in the majority or minority on this, but after plowing through several main storylines in this game, I find that Elder Scrolls Online’s main arcs are some of the weakest narrative experiences. They’re long, dull, and often predictable. Gee, do you think that one semi-cranky guy will end up betraying us all? Oh hey, he did! Gee, do you think that all of this will culminate in a crawl through a castle under siege by cultists as we race against the clock to kill the big bad guy’s assistant? Yup, been there, done that.

I’ve heard the repeated complaint that, like many MMOs, tends to go too big with its expansion storylines. That they drag us into world-ending threats so often that Buffy and the Scoobies would be rolling their eyes at yet another apocalypse. I guess that’s the case, but my thing is that whether you go big or small, you need to make it interesting. This tale of the Ambitions and dead councilors and a blame game with the local assassin guild felt like a fantasy novel that I would put down and walk away from by chapter two.

How are the side quests?

The reason that I like ESO so much in spite of the above complaint is that the smaller side quest chains are often terrific in and of themselves. Little fantasy novellas that offer a perfect length, fun storytelling, and stakes that don’t involve a moon crashing into the world.

Blackwood didn’t have quite as many super-memorable side quests as I expected from previous chapters, but it had enough to keep me sated. Lady Clarisse and Stubbins — two characters who have enormous followings in the ESO community — returned for a hilariously weird quest chain.

Perhaps the best kicked off at a circus train and involved masked figures, missing villagers (there are ALWAYS missing villagers in this game, and chances are they’re in the nearby mine), and an “enemy” that became a sympathetic protagonist in its own right.

How is the zone?

Now I know that I’m coming at this game generally ignorant of the finer points of Elder Scrolls lore and landscape, but when I see the word “Blackwood,” my expectations are instantly drive in the direction of dark forests. Not, as I discovered, nondescript swamplands.

Sometimes ESO is pretty, sometimes it’s not, and in this case it’s both not pretty and very dull. Blackwood underwhelmed me as a zone, which I suspect might have been intentional. Perhaps the devs wanted players to dislike the zone aesthetics so much that the vacations to the hellscape of Oblivion would seem, I don’t know, neat-o? I didn’t like Volcano Land any more than Swamp Land.

This may be the first primary expansion zone that really underwhelmed me. I’m not going to keep slamming it or anything, but I feel it really needed something to make it more interesting than “generic fantasy towns plopped into the middle of a marsh.”

Overall, Blackwood was a decidedly middle-of-the-road expansion for me. The companions were great, the side quests decent, and all else a forgettable wash.¬†Looking for another take? MOP’s Chris ventured into Blackwood for his Choose My Adventure series earlier this year.

Traverse the troubled land of Tamriel in the Elder Scrolls Online! Larry Everett and Ben Griggs will be your guides here in Tamriel Infinium on Wednesdays as we explore together the world created by ZeniMax and Bethesda in one of the biggest MMOs in the genre. Larry and Ben welcome questions and topic ideas!
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