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The Elder Scrolls V: Dragonborn (Xbox 360) artwork

The Elder Scrolls V: Dragonborn (Xbox 360) review

"A review that concludes the Skyrim portion of my gaming life."

After spending hundreds upon hundreds of hours in the world of Skyrim over the years, I finally decided to conclude my sojourn with the fifth Elder Scrolls by fighting my way through Dragonborn, its larger expansion. If Dawnguard could be best compared to Oblivion's Knights of the Nine, this is Skyrim's version of Shivering Isles. You are provided a completely new land to explore for your main quest, along with a bunch of tombs and caves and a couple villages loaded with people who are all too eager to bestow random quests upon your heroic self.

Technically, my "completely new" description a moment ago might be slightly erroneous, as Solstheim was previously explored in the Bloodmoon expansion of Morrowind. Veterans of that adventure will thus find all sorts of familiar experiences, including a brutal fight with the spirit of a giant named Karstaag, which was capable of easily dispatching even my vastly overpowered warrior. Solstheim is still a good bit different than the land of Skyrim, though, since the eruption of a giant volcano has turned a good chunk of the island into an ash-covered wasteland. New monsters abound, ranging from the ugly-cute weaklings--I mean, Rieklings--to the more imposing Ash Spawn, undead creatures notable for dropping various ores upon defeat.

To access Solstheim, you'll have to advance the main quest in Skyrim a bit. At some point, you'll randomly get attacked by a small group of cultists wearing Cthuhlu-esque masks. One of them carries orders for your execution that were issued by someone named Miraak. That knowledge unlocks a ship in Windhelm that will take you to the new island. The cultist creeps will regularly appear until you've finished Dragonborn, but at least they're not as tough as Dawnguard's roving vampire assault teams. I was at a pretty high level before tougher versions of these guys started appearing and, even then, they weren't that imposing.

Once you get to the port town of Raven Rock, you'll find that Miraak's influence has spread far and wide. Townspeople recognize his name, but can't seem to place where they know it from -- a problem perhaps linked to how a good number of them travel in a trance state to a nearby altar to construct some sort of device on a nightly basis. What little information they can give will lead you to a temple where, after a fair bit of dungeon exploration, you'll find a Black Book. Opening it takes you to a mysterious realm where you briefly meet the antagonist, who then taunts you before having his monstrous subordinates banish you to the real world.

Around this point, you'll encounter the third main performer in this struggle for power. Miraak is no common adversary. Instead, like your character, he is Dragonborn. At first, he was a Dragon Priest, but then he betrayed his serpentine masters for a Daedric one in Hermaeus Mora. Now, he's seeking to betray Mora and set himself up as a ruler, due to his mastery of the Thu'um. As for your involvement…well, nothing personal, but one super-powered Dragonborn can't really have another interfering with his plans, can he?

Unfortunately for Miraak, Hermaeus is not particularly pleased with his subject being less-than-loyal, and is more than willing to help you supplant him… for a price. You see, while Mora isn't the sort of bad news that Molag Bal and Mehrunes Dagon are, like them, he is a Daedric Prince. He therefore has his own agenda and is quite ruthless in pushing it through.

That's not the only problem you'll face in Solstheim, either. Raven Rock is slowly dying, with the local mine running dry and vicious Ash Spawn regularly assaulting the walls that fortify the settlement. Meanwhile, the town's leader is operating under threat of assassination from members of vengeful rival family. An arrogant mage living far away from town might be of help, but he has his own problems with a revenge-minded foe. I mean, it's not such a big problem that he feels like wasting his time addressing it. That's where you come in, Mr. Lackey! A group of Nords were kicked out of their home (somehow) by Rieklings, and could use a bit of help reclaiming their property. Someone needs your financial and physical support in excavating some ancient ruins, and so on…

Dragonborn's biggest strength is that, regardless of your character's strength, there will always be something to do. A low-level player can have plenty of fun going after Rieklings and completing various side-quests for local residents, while more powerful players will find Dragon Priests and other high-level challenges waiting. There also are some interesting locales, in particular, those Black Books.

These things are conduits to Mora's personal plane of Oblivion, Apocrypha. Unlike those of Mehrunes Dagon that were seen in Oblivion, these places aren't fiery hellholes. Instead, they could be best described as Lovecraftian libraries, with books scattered everywhere and giant tentacles exploding out of dark water while eerie sounds are emitted from just around corners. It's definitely a creepy place to visit even if you disregard its Daedric inhabitants, which are capable of providing tough challenges. Lurkers are powerhouses, while Seekers apparently are even sneakier than my guy (who had 100 sneak). I found them to be more than capable of getting the drop on me and assaulting me with spells before I'd even noticed their presence.

Dragonborn was a great way to end my time with Skyrim -- a duration that finally amounted to roughly 475 hours spread over two characters. I'd say the one issue I have with the expansion is that the typical Elder Scrolls storytelling dilutes the significance of your fight with Miraak. Of all the plot arcs in both Skyrim and Oblivion, this one felt to be the most personal as it pits the world's two notable Dragonborn against each other with the fate of Solstheim, if not the world, hinging on the outcome. In spite of that, your adversary is only seen briefly before the climactic confrontation, while much of the time you spend revolves around your efforts on behalf of others that will eventually grant you the power to reach his lair in Apocrypha. Other than that ill-fated early meeting after you reach the first Black Book, Miraak only will appear randomly after you fight a dragon to steal its soul, before you receive it. This dynamic felt a bit underwhelming and turned Miraak from your character's ultimate adversary to just another foe. At the end, Neloth (the aforementioned arrogant mage ally) felt like a far more memorable part of the game.

At least Bethesda made sure that the work you've completed in Skyrim carries over properly to Dragonborn; Miraak's demeanor changes depending on how active you've been at dragon slaying, with his dialogue ranging from open contempt for a novice up to begrudging (and somewhat backhanded) praise for a hero who's dispatched Alduin. Mora, meanwhile, will recognize you if you've done his quest in the main game. There were over 30 new dungeons and locations to conquer and a number of fun quests in interesting locales to keep me busy. If anything, writing this review is a bittersweet experience because it marks the end of my time with a game that proved to be more of a time-sink for me than anything I've played in the past 20 or so years. Kudos to you, Bethesda, and when it comes time to release your sixth Elder Scrolls game, may it prove equally addictive!


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (January 31, 2015)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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