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The Elder Scrolls: Arena (DOS) Review
~by tankMage (August 2016)
Score: C- (7/10)
Not only is The Elder Scrolls: Arena the first entry in the famed TES series, it’s also the quintessential Bethesda game: brilliant, bold, ambitious, and horribly flawed. In 1994 the massive and open three dimensional world of Arena must have been an exciting novelty, but today the title comes off as formulaic and barren. Oddly enough, in some ways time has improved the experience this game has to offer since modern computers are able to run it without crashing constantly due to memory issues.
The story for this game is fairly simple and straightforward: The evil Jagar Tharn used an artifact known as the Staff of Chaos to trap the Emperor of Tamriel and has gone about impersonating him. To make matters worse, Jagar rules with an iron fist, imprisoning and murdering all opposition. If that’s not evil enough for you, Tharn is also massing a demonic army. At any rate, your character is visited by the spirit of Ria Silmane (a battle mage was killed fighting Tharn) and told to seek out the Staff of Chaos, which has been split into eight pieces. Ria also kindly provides you with a key (you’re in prison, possibly for defying Jagar Tharn) and opens a portal to freedom.
Throughout the game, the player is visited by both Ria and Jagar Tharn in visions. While somewhat entertaining, the cutscenes are rather formulaic and predictable. Still the story is rather interesting and the lore that TES is famous for lays it’s roots down here. Fans of the series will recognize many classes, races, geographical names and even some characters from later games. NPC dialogue is rather basic, but the snarky comments and bits of info gleaned from conversation bring the plot to life a bit. Many of the mission briefings and area descriptions were nicely written as well. Of course this is no literary masterpiece and many of the usual plot holes and cliches are existent in Arena, so don’t expect too much.
I won’t mince words, this game is pretty ugly. Monster and NPC animations are choppy and stiff, buildings are squat and blocky, and there’s a sameness to every town and dungeon, despite Bethesda’s efforts to add variety. It should be noted that many of these issues stem from technological limitations.
Arena does sport some nice visual touches. The ground is white with snow in winter and verdant green in spring, there’s weather effects like fog and rain, heck, there’s even a night/day cycle. In fact the out of doors is where this game really shines visually; areas outside of town are even randomly generated so players can wander these places endlessly, taking in the sights and enjoying all of the cool weather effects, if that’s your cup of tea. Too bad much of the game takes place in rather drab dungeons that are somewhat bland looking for the most part.
What’s worse is the horrible frame rate which makes walking, fighting and doing just about anything tedious. It’s possible to remedy Arena’s FPS woes and get it to run more smoothly by increasing the CPU cycles in DOSbox (The emulator you will need to run the game), but this leads to other issues.
Music and Sound
Arena has a really well done soundtrack that sets the game’s mood beautifully. Dungeon themes are eerie and haunting soundscapes that are reminiscent of an old horror movie. The music in towns, taverns, and castles is comforting in contrast to the spooky dungeon tunes and impart a sense of security. In fact Arena’s OST is so good that Bethesda used much of it in TES II: Daggerfall.
There’s a number of nicely done sound effects in this game that stand out, as well. Monsters growl and emit all sorts of spooky noises, melee attacks land with a satisfying whomp, and your footsteps echo throughout the cavernous dungeons. Once again, technological issues put a damper on the experience here; it’s not uncommon for sound effects to cut out or simply not play thanks to sound limitations from the era that are reproduced in emulation.
Arena’s UI is a miserable failure. The game can be played entirely with the mouse or using a combination of buttons and the mouse, but both are torturous.
Mouse play: The idea here was to let the player move, interact with NPCs, use items, fight and do just about everything you would in an RPG using only the mouse. It’s a nice idea and works for the most part, but gets clunky when you have to cast spells, turn around (to move in the desired direction or turn you have to leftclick while holding the cursor in the associated quadrant of the screen) and attack with a weapon. In fact, the melee attack mechanic, which is novel at first, becomes incredibly tedious after a few hours, because the player must hold rightclick and swish the mouse back and forth as if he or she were slashing with a sword. All in all it’s a very cumbersome way to play the game despite the fact that its creative.
Keyboard and mouse: Players can use the keyboard to access menus and move around if they so desire and it’s much more convenient than the mouse only setup. Too bad the button layout is dreadful, cannot be remapped (although you can do so in DOSbox’s config file, but it changes the keys for anything you will do in the emulator), and you’ll still have to use the mouse to attack. The keyboard layout’s fatal flaw is that it forces the player to use the arrow keys to move and since the mouse is required to attack, you will have to hold your hands in and awkward, choked up position to play the game depending on what kind of keyboard you have.
So essentially the two interface options the player is presented with are equivalent to being given the choice of sticking a fork into the top or bottom outlet: either way it’s going to hurt. Seriously though, this game is actually physically uncomfortable to play and forget about it if you are trying to play it on a laptop track pad.
So where do I start? Everything good about this game is cancelled out by a technological limitation, bad design choice, or a bug; resulting in a strangely mediocre experience.
For example, maybe you wanted to travel all of Tamriel in one game? Well Arena lets you do so, but everything is essentially the same, so it doesn’t matter. The NPCs, settlements, and even dungeons all have names fitting to the part of the continent on which they are located, but aside from that you won’t find anything special in Skyrim that you wouldn’t find in Valenwood or Black Marsh (barring the occasional artifact quest). All the side quests, buildings and dungeons are the same patchwork of procedurally generated nihilism no matter where you go.
Maybe you want to play as different classes? Well this is something Arena did very well even though TES’s beloved skill system wasn’t invented yet. Arena boasts 18 classes, all of which are fairly interesting to play as, despite the fact that the only things that set most of them apart are equipment choices, basic stats, and the ability (or inability) to use magic. The only real problem with the class system is the fact that some characters are ridiculously over powered (especially magic users) and others are absurdly weak. While this is fine for people who are knowledgeable about the game, the new person who picks the monk class, because it sounds cool is in for a nasty surprise unless they do some serious reading.
So, maybe you just want to dive into some dungeons and bash some monsters? Well, Arena lets you do that too. In fact the game will make you complete 18 dungeons to finish the main quest (unless you exploit a well known bug), plus you can explore randomly generated dungeons that appear outside of towns or go on artifact hunts. Unfortunately, even the handmade main quest dungeons are barren, sprawling caverns with only the occasional interesting piece of scenery or battle to break the monotony. The random dungeons used in artifact quests are even worse, because they are almost identical to each other and monsters seem to constantly spawn behind you. Speaking of monsters, this title’s beastiary is more than a bit sparse and the same rats, skeletons and orcs attacked me throughout the journey with the odd ice golem or medusa thrown in for variety.
Another issue with the dungeons is the overuse of riddles to lock doors. The first riddle I encountered in the game was amusing and I thought it was cool that the devs came up with such a creative way to block progress. Then I encountered another riddle door, then another, and I quickly realized that there would be one in every dungeon, which really killed the novelty for me. Speaking of repetitive features, the flow of this title’s quest line is incredibly rigid and boring. Essentially you grab a piece of the staff, have a vision, go to a new province, do a quest to find out where the next piece of the staff is (which always involves a dungeon), then dive into yet another dungeon for a staff piece, then rinse and repeat eight times. This got boring fast and the fact that repairing, identifying, buying, and selling gear/supplies is a complex ordeal only made the game drag more.
So maybe, just maybe, you’re in the market for a game with tons of gear and abilities. Arena does pretty well in this category and it’s only real failing is that there is little to no balance. Plate armor is hands down the best armor, because it can come with enchantments, leaving leather and chain in the dust. Magic is tremendously unbalanced, because it can easily break the game, but at least there are interesting spells like passwall and players can make their own spells. Bethesda did do a fair job at balancing weapons in respect to what classes can use certain weapons. There’s also magical devices that non-mages can use which come in handy as well as powerful artifacts that help level the playing field, so I’ll give them some credit here.
Of course, if you’re looking for a challenge, this game can offer plenty of that depending on what class you choose. Mages are often easy to play as and can essentially walk through the game, but players can at least limit themselves by not making game breaking spells. Warrior type classes that can wear plate armor offer more of a moderate difficulty experience, since they lack magic, but can use powerful gear. Classes that can’t use magic or plate armor tend to be tough to play as, but individuals who are looking for a challenge may enjoy them.
Another thing to keep in mind is that this game does not run smoothly unless you are playing on modern computer using a DOS emulator like DOSbox and you tweak the settings a bit. Arena crashed commonly on computers of the time, so much that one author of a guide warned players to save constantly, because the game could crash at any moment. Today, players should still save religiously. You should also be careful when making changes to DOSbox to get Arena to run more smoothly, because the primary way to do so is to increase the emulated cpu cycles. While this will certainly get the game to run faster, it will also put your character in greater danger since monsters will attack faster as well, which can be deadly if you are attacked from behind by a powerful creature.
In the end, Arena’s gameplay is a rather mediocre affair that is hampered by a number of design issues. This title was noteworthy in its time due to its size and pseudo 3D graphics. Today it is notable, because it set the stage for an excellent series, but doesn’t really have much to offer outside of that.
As a TES fan, it was with a heavy heart that I gave this game a “C-”, but I couldn’t justify giving it anything higher. Arena is just too bland and cumbersome to give a decent grade. I cannot imagine playing this title in 1994 and dealing with the constant crashes. In fact I have trouble understanding how Bethesda survived the release of Arena, but apparently the game was a cult hit that made money. Perhaps it was, because Arena was 3D, offered so many classes and a massive world to explore at a time when such titles were on the cutting edge. At any rate, I would have given this game a “D”, if not for the interesting class system and atmosphere that it managed to establish, not to mention the fact that the gameplay is entertaining at times. It’s sad to say, but many of Arena’s flaws still haunt Bethesda games to this very day as we see games like Skyrim get huge patches a week after release (ok, so that’s not uncommon today) or read about Morrowind’s suspected memory leak….oh, and don’t forget Oblivion’s infamous “Glitch of Death”. Bethesda, Bethesda never changes.
Only hardcore TES fans that absolutely must play every game in this series, classic RPG enthusiasts, and masochists like myself should play this game. Those looking for a fun CRPG to play should go elsewhere, since there’s plenty of DOS titles that have aged more gracefully than Arena. On a side note, Bethesda did make this game available for free on their official site some time ago, so those in need a of a free game to whittle away the hours with may also appreciate The Elder Scrolls: Arena.