Bethesda’s clearly having something of an identity crisis right now, so it seems like this is an opportune time to hop onto the hate train and tell them what’s wrong with all the games that aren’t Fallout 76. Right?
Well, wrong, actually. There’s something incredibly wrong with that whole train of logic. But that’s never stopped me before, so we’re going to do this anyway! Besides, with a new Elder Scrolls title sitting just over the horizon, maybe applying a little critical thought to the iconic RPG series that started it all isn’t the worst thing that could happen.
Anyway, let’s familiarize ourselves with the score, here. As totally legendary as nearly every title in the well loved Elder Scrolls series turns out to be, they’ve never been without issue, and a lot of those issues get swept under an immense amount of hype and undying fan dedication. For this list, we’re painting with broad strokes over the main installments, from 1994’s Arena to 2011’s infamous Skyrim. We’ll touch briefly on The Elder Scrolls: Online, but spin-offs like Redguard or Battlespire are totally out of the picture.
All that said, let’s fill our plates with complaints and dig right into the meat of them. Here are twenty-five problems with the Elder Scrolls series that are long overdue for confession.
When it comes to typical RPGs, you approach them with the general expectation that you’ll be spending a lot of time picking through menus. I mean, that’s just the nature of the beast. But this is a pretty strong incentive to make them easy and comfortable to navigate.
Unfortunately, this is an issue that has plagued The Elder Scrolls for a very long time.
I know there are more than a few modern players that would take one look at Daggerfall’s UI and give up. And being completely fair, it’s come a long, long way since then. But even Skyrim’s sleeker, more streamlined interface came under a lot of fire for being frustratingly simplified and clunky, largely on account of its aim at ease-of-use on consoles.
This one's more of a problem from Oblivion and on, but the enemy scaling is pretty ridiculous. And I'm not even referring to the difficulty, as it's usually absurdly easy to overpower your character. What I'm talking about is the actual implementation.
For example, once you hit a high enough level, common, dirt-poor bandits are suddenly using equipment that's so shiny and expensive, you wonder why they need to bandit at all. With Skyrim, you get draugr, then tougher draugr, and eventually it feels like the Nords were burying ancient warrior-kings by the boatload. It's less than creative, to say the least, and it feels like a lot more effort could've been put in here.
For the record, yes, this is entirely separate from the "hoarding" entry that you'll find elsewhere on the list. But really, you can't tell me you've never felt at least a tinge of frustration when you were trying to grab a key item off of a shelf and find yourself accidentally picking up an entire set of silverware in the process.
Of course, the immense amount of interactivity with the environment is one of the series' strengths, but the list of perfectly useless items populating the gameworld could fill up the entirety of a short novel. We don't need to pick all of them up. That said, Bethesda gave players the ability to scrap this junk for building materials in the Fallout universe, so maybe we've got a similar function on the way for The Elder Scrolls VI?
The criminal and law systems in these titles usually contribute more annoyance to our experiences than they do any depth. In fact, I'm willing to bet the greater majority of players find themselves staring down the loading screen for a quicksave way more often than they see the inside of a jail cell.
And really, can you blame them? The stealth system, while drastically improved in Skyrim, is still very hit-and-miss, meaning any sneaky, "above the law" actions are liable to land you a bounty when they shouldn't. And the actual act of going to prison (outside of a few particular quests) is punishing without offering any reward or interesting content.
I mean yeah, the logical goal behind an RPG is for your character to advance in their role, inevitably becoming incredibly skilled and powerful. But some of the more ridiculously overpowered, and plainly broken, mechanics are really hard to get behind when they remove all challenge from the game.
Even the introduction of enemy scaling in Skyrim hasn't kept up with how easily cheesed the Elder Scrolls has always been.
With Morrowind, it was possible to boost your statistics to ludicrous heights with a little "circular" alchemy and intelligence potions. In Oblivion, literally just being a mage and utilizing the custom spell mechanics was enough. And for Skyrim, just play the well known and loved sneaky archer combo for a guaranteed stroll down easy street.
Oblivion initially wowed us with almost entirely spoken NPC dialogue. But it really didn’t take you long to hear the same few voice actors recycled for hundreds of NPCs, along with tirelessly repeated canned lines.
Needless to say, this could grate at your nerves after a while.
This issue only seemed to grow worse when Skyrim came out, with several choice lines penetrating deeply into historic meme status. This is normally where you’d see an “arrow to the knee” joke, but chances are it immediately came to mind as soon as you laid eyes on this entry. So I think my point’s been made.
The Elder Scrolls is a series synonymous with ambition, but it feels like scope takes a further backseat to spectacle with every subsequent release. Skyrim is a beautifully detailed landscape as opposed to the procedurally generated terrain seen in Daggerfall, certainly.
But it’s also less than one hundredth the size, and maybe half as mechanically deep.
We’ve lost a lot along the way, including countless weapon types, classes, custom spells, and even character statistics. Skyrim comes near to an action-RPG in its attempts to keep up with gaming trends. And while it’s still a stunning game, how much of what really makes up the Elder Scrolls spirit have we progressively lost with each chapter?
Maybe I’m a bit nitpicky, but the player housing mechanics never really impressed me with the Elder Scrolls, and they’ve arguably grown just a little less exciting with each title. Morrowind didn't offer us much, but the strongholds associated with the Great Houses featured some neat bits of interactivity, despite being rather dodgy and feeling "forced in."
Skip forward to Skyrim and what we have are essentially oversized loot chests. The Hearthfire DLC didn't do much to fix this, giving us even more oversized, albeit sort of modular loot repositories customized via frustratingly tacked-on crafting mechanics and charging us money for it.
Trust me, I wanted to fit this in under the generalized "dumbing down" entry, but didn't have enough room. But over time we've traded the innately exploration-heavy and immersive questing experience that came to define the series for a HUD so full of markers and arrows that it looks more like a Call of Duty playthrough.
I get it, I really do. A lot of people found themselves lost when Morrowind reached the peak of its popularity, totally turning some players off to the experience. But it feels like more creative solutions could have been implemented here, like more detailed and immersive directions. Better maps, perhaps? Anything would have been better than instantaneous travel and magical, floating arrows.
Face it, the Elder Scrolls has a way of bringing out the hoarder in all of us. Come on, there’s no shame in it here. We’re nerds! We like to collect stuff. Whether it’s an armory’s worth of enchanted swords or 2,000 loaves of bread, collecting stuff is addictive.
We've all spent cumulative hours sorting through our bottomless pile of junk in fruitless attempts to organize it, or locate "that one thing" that we could've sworn we had, but can't recall precisely which chest we absentmindedly dumped it into. Even more baffling is the idea that we've all had the audacity to call it "fun."
This may be a minor complaint, but it’s always bothered me that you could crawl back into town, completely worked over by a clan of bandits, and nurse yourself back to strength by stuffing unholy amounts of cheese down your gullet.
Relegating food to some sort of passive bonus would’ve made so much more sense to me. Instead, we’ve got fearsome Dragonborn warriors stopping time in the middle of combat to chomp down a few dozen steak dinners because a rat bit his big toe. I mean I guess that’s sort of awesome, from a certain point of view, but I’m still bothered over here.
When you bring romancing NPCs into the mix, you’d better be bringing in the big guns. Because let me tell you, contemporary developers have really turned that into an art form. I’m looking at you, BioWare. You too, CD Projekt Red.
Tying the knot in the Elder Scrolls became a thing during Skyrim, and while it’s a neat little addition to the game, it feels like there’s a lot of missed potential here. Heck, I would’ve gladly traded the sheer number of options for spouses that packed a little more in the personality department.
While Bethesda would go on to refine the companion system something fierce for Fallout 4, the implementation we saw for Skyrim really was less than stellar. Only a handful of your options have a personality anymore interesting than a painted brick, and the few that do don’t particularly shine.
They get in the way more often than they help, aren’t terribly compelling outside of any quests they might be attached to, and their primary function seems to be as a living, breathing backpack. But I mean, hey. Lydia is sworn to carry your burdens, after all. May as well take it literally.
While you could fairly fire this one off at almost any high-fantasy RPG that has ever existed, it rarely ever seems to be as thoroughly swept under the rug as it is with the Elder Scrolls.
While the lore itself is totally cool and well written, it rarely, if ever does anything new or exciting with that material. Virtually all of the plots are a slight spin on the "chosen one" trope, while the races and settings are all borrowed from your usual fantasy components with a few blanks filled in here and there. Dunmer culture is awesome, as an example, but "dark elves" aren't exactly a fresh concept.
I know, I know. They’re not bugs with Bethesda games, they’re features. But seriously, these notoriously buggy releases by one of gaming’s most successful and respected studios are standing to land them in hot water.
Bethesda’s reliance on post-launch support has always been a little high, recalling Oblivion's infamous FormID bug that would gradually corrupt and demolishes your save file after installing Shivering Isles. Skyrim wasn't exactly a step forward from here, with classics like the plate-wall glitch letting you phase through walls, and then there was pretty much everything about dragons on release.
Bethesda has tried a few different methods of curbing this problem, but they never seem to really get it right. Everyone remembers “severing the thread of prophecy” in Morrowind, essentially dooming your current game to being unbeatable if you took out NPCs that were necessary to finishing the main quest. Well, sort of. It rendered the main quest impossible as initially intended, anyway.
With Oblivion, they simply made these essential NPCs invulnerable. Sure, it works, but it’s jarring to immersion and sort of lame when it comes down to it. Maybe I just can’t be pleased here, but it feels like a little effort could go a long way in terms of making these quests more reactive to player choice.
One hallmark of the Elder Scrolls series is a deep and well-populated game world. Skyrim boasts roughly 5,400 NPCs. Daggerfall’s NPC population reached an absolutely staggering 750,000.
The problem is that the majority of them are pretty lifeless, especially in the older games. And while you’d think that the addition of voice dialogue in later titles would alleviate that problem, it really outlines just how generic the greater majority of any Elder Scrolls game’s population really is when you hear so many lines reused by the same voice actors.
This is another one of those integral parts of the Elder Scrolls that really has come a long way over the course of the series, and yet still seems to suffer from some sort of inherent design flaw.
Melee combat, in particular, is something that just doesn’t feel great.
There have been a lot of moves made to correct this and add variety, but it all surrounds covering up the awkwardly shallow core of the combat mechanics. You click furiously until the other guy is done, in a nutshell, and very few of your weapon or spell options perform much of a variation on the monotony of it.
Any time an Elder Scrolls game hits the market, it is usually championed as possessing a seemingly endless amount of content, or truly being a game that you could dump years into while still finding new things. And they aren’t wrong, but they usually don’t mention how incredibly dull a lot of it is.
With Daggerfall you got an awful lot of empty, copy and paste locales due to its content generation. With later games, you wound up with radiant quests, bandit dens and caves that had may as well have been copied and pasted. The games do deliver on exciting and fun content in spades, but they’re also packed to the gills with total filler material.
With all the whining I've done about NPCs in this article, I still feel the need to tie them all together with one summary flaw - the AI's shortcomings can become an annoyance of immense proportions sometimes.
Followers plunge headlong into visible traps, flimsy escort NPCs charge into front line combat, broken scripts ruin quests necessitating a console fix, and their daily routines sometimes dissolve into hilariously weird and out of character behavior, like town guards being tricked into basically staging a riot. And all this glosses over how straightforward and dull the combat AI is. But hey, I'll never argue with a troll's pathing going haywire and awarding me with an easy archery target.
One of the biggest draws of an Elder Scrolls title is the immense amount of player freedom on the table. And at first glance, the amount of freedom at your fingertips is remarkably impressive.
But really, the game only ends one way. This is less true for Daggerfall, which had several different endings, but from Morrowind and on you're pretty much the hero that you need to be, regardless of whether you'd prefer otherwise. You're free to choose how you do it, basically, but not free to choose exactly what it is that you're doing.
I really wanted to stick with the main, numbered entries in the series for this list. But while it makes sense to gloss over largely ignored, unpopular spin-offs like Redguard and Battlespire, The Elder Scrolls: Online has too much of a controversial footprint to be completely written off.
The issue it presents is that, well, it exists. A very limited perusal of almost any related forum or fan community reveals what an extremely polarizing title it is, and with good reason. The lore and narrative surrounding it is pretty awkward, and while it definitely pays respect to its roots, it is quite clearly a typical MMO with a nice coat of Elder Scrolls paint covering the surface.
Now, how does an extensive, dedicated and prolific modding community amount to a bad thing? It doesn't! Having such an extensive selection of equal parts serious and wacky modifications is nothing short of awesome.
But when so many people buy your game purely for the mods that it becomes a selling point, the game itself may be due for a critique.
It isn't the majority of players, but it's so much of a growing trend that both Skyrim and Fallout 4 received mod support on consoles. Bethesda's even shuffled through a couple of ill-fated ventures attempting to cash in on their popularity. While its accessibility to modders isn't a bad thing by any stretch, when judging the quality of a video game, is it fair to judge it by content that the developers didn't furnish themselves?
The Elder Scrolls has become what is probably one of the most iconic RPG series in gaming history. Just to put it into perspective, Skyrim sold more than 30 million copies between its release in 2011 and 2016, and still retains an incredible player base and modding community as of this writing.
While that’s all well and good, garnering such a titanic built-in base of fans has a bad tendency to result in… well, headstrong development processes, to say the least. Fallout 76 and the PR nightmare that followed it should help to provide any necessary context here. With the train already rolling in the wake of an Elder Scrolls VI tease, let’s just keep our fingers crossed.
I'll admit, I'm a little bit "on the fence" with this one. When you have to load up such a massive world's worth of information onto the platter, you're inevitably going to spill a little bit here and there, especially when it comes to decades-old lore from the initial games. Sometimes updates just need to be made.
But really, while some of it is just sort of disappointing, like the slight alterations made to the Nords for Skyrim, there are some that just come across as lazy, like the retconned explanation for Daggerfall's multiple endings amounting to little more than "all of them happened, but they also didn't, because time magic." Yeah, great.