The dream that, to be fair, probably only a handful of complete weirdos ever truly had, is nevertheless now a reality: with its much-heralded release on Switch, in a DLC-complete edition, it’s now possible to play Skyrim on the toilet. Or, more likely, in bed, or on a train or plane. Or even in the toilet of a train or plane. And so you should, too: this port of Bethesda’s role-playing revelation of the previous console generation might just be the best way to experience the fifth Elder Scrolls adventure right now, be that for the first time or in a repeat playthrough.
First-timers need to remember, however, that Skyrim’s a game of its time – that time being 2011. While the Switch edition runs at a delightfully smooth 30 frames per second, and after hours of stress-testing only very rarely takes a moment or two to catch up with itself in particularly busy scenes, this isn’t in Breath of the Wild’s league. What was once the benchmark for complete fantasy envelopment has been superseded a few times since its original release, and now resides not only in the shadow of Link’s latest, but arguably also The Witcher 3 and its expansions, and the Dark Souls series.
Not that you’ll be playing either of those franchises on a Switch anytime soon (he says, which probably confirms Dark Souls: Switch Edition for the next Direct), leaving Skyrim as the most obvious next grand adventure for anyone who’s had their fill of Zelda. And to embark upon it is to be handsomely rewarded, as while Skyrim’s not the market leader it used to be, it retains the potential to leave you astounded. Perhaps not as regularly as it once did, but, when it happens, it’s just as electric.
Yes, Skyrim is full of terrifically stiff NPCs and some legitimately awful voice-over work; its facially identical children, chasing each other through towns all over these frozen lands, are the stuff of Village of the Damned nightmares; and there’s a weightless clumsiness to combat that can sometimes turn the odds against you, even in the simplest of sword-unsheathed situations. But what freedom this game affords you, from the very off. What scale it presents, vertically and from horizon to distant horizon, even now. And what atmosphere it can manifest, as your character – custom created, just prior to the game’s opening execution gone awry – crests a frosted hilltop to gaze down upon a chimneys-smoking village below, Jeremy Soule’s forever-enchanting score swirling around you, chasing away the chill.
If this is so much preaching to the choir, apologies – but there will be those sceptical of paying for what they already own on another platform, just to play it in a properly optimised mobile format. But there can be no doubt that playing Skyrim on a small screen is remarkable, appearing to pull in the sodden walls of forgotten catacombs around you, all the tighter the deeper you descend. The resolution may drop when the Switch is undocked, but it’s never to the detriment of clarity of quest, nor does it compromise the imposing stature of this game’s violent landscapes, carved as they could well have been in places by warring gods. Mountains don’t bend when you reduce the screen size; they remain snow-capped and steadfast, and yes, if you want to go there, you most probably can. Again: Skyrim gives you the world, and merely asks that you sometimes follow a signpost or two.
And it’s on reaching the top of one of these peaks that those without amiibo options can discover the port’s trailered Zelda gear – you don’t need to bring any plastic figures to your draugr-slaying party to get your hands on the Master Sword and Champion’s Tunic. If cosplaying as the Hero of Time isn’t your thing, no sweat of course – there’s a wide range of threads to deck your adventurer of many colours and allegiances in, many of which also carry stats-boosting perks, or offer increased protection against particular elemental attacks. Which is to say: a lot of what’s in Skyrim, from loot and lore to gruesome gargoyles and grumbling quest-givers, conforms to tried-and-tested fantasy game conventions, of both before and after the game’s celebrated debut.
But Skyrim did so much of what you already knew immeasurably better than what you’d previously played, upon its first release – and stirred in some transparent real-world analogues too, with scenes of people who are effectively refugees banned from passing through a city’s walls, and civil war serving as the ever-present threat to the lives of regular folk just trying to get by. You might fill the boots of the legendary Dragonborn, a human (or humanoid, at least) who can absorb the souls of slain dragons and turn that energy into supernatural shouts, but there’s a dirt-crusted, grimly relatable truth to many of the smallholdings and hamlets you pass through. The have-nots will always have-not, whatever the context, whatever your gestures of kindness. Spare a coin, retrieve an heirloom, it matters not: the breadline’s as visible in this virtual world as it is in contemporary society. And you can bet the haves aren’t about to freely share their spoils.
Skyrim is a game as deep as it is broad, and not just geographically speaking. While the names of certain characters, be they lizard-faced or bushy-bearded, can elicit a chuckle for their tongue-twisting ridiculousness, and there’s a wonderful (not game breaking, just consistently funny looking) bugginess to so many of its high-stakes set-pieces, there’s genuine resonance to consequences. Your actions leave scars on the land, permanently altering its political climate, for better and worse. Often, try as you might to make what seems the right choice, it’s going to leave someone else hurting – and quite possibly a few cold bodies on the equally frigid ground.
There’s a fairly binary power dynamic at play between the warring Stormcloaks and the Imperial Legion, as you can only join one side, but it’s no black-and-white parade. You’ll meet Empire-loyal sorts in two minds about the faction they’ve aligned themselves with, and encounter situations where you’ll question whether punishments are quite in keeping with the crimes alleged. Death comes quick in Skyrim, and often without warning. (On topic: save often. As per the aforementioned artless combat, you can quickly, and unexpectedly, become overwhelmed and lose a significant chunk of progress, if you’re not regularly saving.)
This being the Switch, there are motion control options – detach your Joy-Cons, and you can raise a shield or loose an arrow with them. But while Skyward Sword was a 2011 contemporary of Skyrim, releasing just a week after Bethesda’s game, there’s really no reason beyond brief novelty value to play this game with your hands flailing. (Especially not in those cramped airline cans – you’re going to set off an alarm, swinging your sword arm around like that.) Even the lockpicking is best left to standard, pad-style play, the turning motion more elegant with a thumbstick than the twist of a wrist.
It's amazing to think that twenty-six years after the studio’s previous release, Home Alone on the NES, Bethesda has released not one but two stunning games on a Nintendo console in the space of a week. DOOM aside, the company's other Nintendo offering might’ve taken the form of a categorical safe bet, but not many can have predicted just how great Skyrim feels on the Switch. After Breath of the Wild’s painterly perfection, this could have been a resurrection too many for a title that, in games industry terms, is the equivalent of about 80 human years old. It so easily could have proved a relic best left in the past. But its invitation to exploration, to find your own way across these peaks, down into these dungeons, is as intoxicating as it ever was. Its music and its mysteries are evergreen. And to carry it wherever your own adventures take you, too? Well, maybe magic is real, after all.
The Switch isn’t short of games that have already taken a bow, or several, on other hardware, but Skyrim might be the one that most deserves another look from both hardy Elder Scrolls adventurers and absolute beginners alike. Despite its age showing, the countless little cracks in its already fractured façade, it still delivers a palpable sense of space, and the player’s niche-carving progress through it, that few games before or since have managed. May its dancing northern lights never dim.