The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an action RPG that has cemented itself as one of the most popular games of all time. There are a number of reasons for this, but they can all be boiled down to one advantage Skyrim has over most games, uniqueness. For better or worse, there really isn’t another game like it.
The game’s presentation is generally solid and well executed. The graphics don’t look great, but they are serviceable and don’t take away from the experience. As a whole though, the world disguises a lot of its graphical shortcomings thanks to well designed set pieces. Even though large portions of the world can feel empty and hollow, most of the points of interest look unique. It makes exploring the world much more interesting, thanks to the juxtaposition between the bland, empty plains and the intricately designed landmarks, camps, dungeons, etc.
The game’s sound design is a mixed bag. While the soundtrack is usually fitting, and oftentimes even great, the sound effects and voice acting leave a lot to be desired. Sound effects are generic and reused for a lot of things. It can be pretty underwhelming when you use a top tier late game spell and it uses the same sound effect as some basic spells. When it comes to weapons, it’s more forgivable, but it still gives most weapons a generic feel. The voice acting is a much bigger problem, and is far more noticeable.
The range in quality of voice acting is astounding, with some legitimate stars like Max von Sydow giving great performances, while the majority of minor characters are voiced by a handful of actors whose lines are simply copy and pasted throughout the game. It makes voice acting feel like an afterthought, until the good voice actors show up and sound great.
The gameplay is Skyrim’s most glaring weakness. As an RPG, it features a fairly large progression system. Every time you level up, you get a perk point to spend. You can spend it in a variety of perk trees, but they all require certain skill levels. To raise your skill level, you must use that skill, for example, using a shield to level up blocking, stealing from people to level up pickpocketing, etc. It makes leveling feel more natural, because your path is decided by what you do, rather than getting to pick from any path you choose. If you only use swords, you can’t upgrade your magic skills. This technically limits player choice, but it is executed so perfectly that you rarely notice. The big issue with this mechanic is that the perks themselves are boring and generic. Enchanting is the worst example with the majority of perks being a small percentage increase in power. Nothing about it is interactive, because most perks are just number multipliers. This problem is okay if the combat itself is fun and engaging, but Skyrim struggles with it.
Skyrim has 3 main categories of combat. You can use melee weapons, ranged weapons and magic. Within each category are multiple options for what specific weapon you will use, but the are generally similar. A melee user can choose between one-handed and two-handed weapons, but choosing between a one-handed sword and a one-handed axe is mostly just for aesthetics. There is a lot of opportunity for depth in the perk trees, but Skyrim ignores it in favor of simplicity. The ranged tree is just choosing between bows and crossbows, which are different in mechanics but are very similar in results. Magic is the only part of combat that has any variety within its category, but it is still lacking in content. There are only a handful of spells that are actually useful in each school of magic, so it forces you to either knowingly use a bad spell for fun, or use the same boring, but powerful, spell for every fight in the game. Overall, every path you can take with regards to combat feels unfinished or lacking in some way.
The game’s driving force is the quest system. There are both story-based quests and automatically generated quests. The story quests are hit or miss. There are a number of completely predictable plot lines that are a chore to play through, but there are also some interesting gems that show off what the writers are capable of. On average, the story quests are decent but not great. The generated quests are repetitive and boring. You get the same sort of mission every time, but with some minor change like a different location. The game would have been better served if the generated quests were removed altogether. The main storyline is decent, but lacks player agency. You make arbitrary decisions that give you the same outcome with different coats of paint. The writing is much better when it comes to general world building, but it struggles once it has to get specific. There are a lot of clichés and fantasy tropes, but it never gets bad enough that it takes you out of the game.
Overall, Skyrim has numerous issues and is characterized by its wide range of hits and misses. The modding community is a huge asset, but it also puts the game’s flaws in the spotlight. The unmodified version of Skyrim is mediocre compared to what mods can turn it into. One of the biggest issues I have with the game, its pacing, is easily forgotten after only a handful of mods installed. In the normal game, you quickly become an all-powerful God and can get strong enough to kill a dragon with a single arrow. The beginning of Skyrim is when combat is the worst in terms of variety, but the best in terms of difficulty and balancing. With mods, you can extend this period to last almost the entire game. Most of my modded playtime has been split between 2 different curated mod lists.
The first mod list I used was Ultimate Skyrim. Without getting into specific mods, the general goal is for a realism based RPG. Any character build is viable, but you are forced to focus on a handful of specialties, rather than taking a jack-of-all-trades approach. There are a number of new mechanics that make the game feel more like a survival game than a standard action RPG. It is a great mod list that is consistently updated and improved on. Highly recommended for anyone that thinks default Skyrim is too easy or that the pacing is too fast.
In the other end of the modding spectrum is Legacy of the Dragonborn: Special Edition. This is an enormous mod list that covers nearly everything in the game. Skyrim is almost unrecognizable, but not because of a realism focus. LotD: SE takes all the wasted potential of Skyrim and fully realizes it. It is a heightened version of Skyrim that focuses on making exploration more interesting, combat more dynamic and progression more rewarding. It leans into Skyrim’s tendency to make you overpowered and makes enemies overpowered too. Any skill can be your main one, because every perk tree has been overhauled to be powerful and valuable to invest in. Exploration has been improved with the addition of a museum to store the rare artifacts you now come across. Combat has real stakes, now that any enemy can defeat you if you aren’t prepared. It can be bloated at times, especially when it comes to some of the lower quality content mods, but the constant updates and refinements make it a worthwhile mod list to try out. It’s best suited for those that like Skyrim on its own but wish that there was more depth and content.
On its own, Skyrim is an above average action RPG, but also one that struggles in some key areas. With mods, it can become a near flawless game, as well as a game that can be customized to suit any preferences you have.
*rating is based off of a modded version of Skyrim