The Elder Scrolls: Blades is a pretty misguided attempt on the part of Bethesda to transfer its beloved RPG franchise to the mobile, free-to-play arena. It may have been touted as something resembling a full-fat entry in the franchise prior to its initial early access release last year, but it falls far short of being anything close to that. There's no adventure here; no great big open world or engaging RPG elements. This is a very basic, repetitive grind with an Elder Scrolls skin designed very obviously to tempt you into spending your real-world money on the gems and chests you'll require to get the most from its grubby little representation of the Elder Scrolls universe.
The story here, such as it is, centres around your character, a surviving member of the titular Blades – a group of legendary spies and bodyguards, now forced into exile – who sets out to discover why the Bloodfall Queen has had her mercenaries destroy your hometown and what exactly it is that's been uncovered in an ancient crypt hidden underneath it. It's a narrative that's reasonably well set up at the outset but quickly dies a death due to how it's haphazardly conveyed as the game progresses, with tiny bites of information doled out by janky NPCs who act and speak as though they couldn't care less and are much more concerned with sending you on the endless errands that make up the adventuring aspect of the game.
The Elder Scrolls: Blades is split into two distinct aspects in terms of its gameplay. On the one hand, you'll head out into depressingly small and completely linear levels to smash your way through braindead enemies in order to accumulate loot and materials which then feed into the other part of the gameplay, rebuilding your shattered hometown and developing it through multiple levels in order to unlock access to further bland and repetitive missions. It's a simple setup, and within minutes of starting the game you'll be in its mind-numbing groove – slaughtering dumb enemies, collecting loot, returning home and building.
As you make your way through the missions on offer here you'll find great big chests of various rarities that are full of loot, ranging from common old swords and armour to great big legendary things with ridiculous Elder Scrolls-style names such as the Remarkable Iron Shield of Hampering or Exquisite Leather Hood of Resist Buying Green Gems (we may have made that one up) which temporarily reminded us of the addictive excitement derived from discovering good gear in a proper Scrolls game. Here, however, that excitement is immediately tempered by the gems, materials and coin that accompany the weapons and armour, a depressing and constant reminder that this is not a proper Scrolls game; it's a grindy FTP mobile bastardisation of one.
In terms of the combat on offer, this is the one part of the game where Bethesda has done a reasonably good job. The Elder Scrolls series has always had some very basic combat but here there's been an effort to introduce a few new wrinkles to make things a bit more interesting. You'll smash foes with your equipped weapon by pressing the left and right trigger buttons to swing in either direction – doing so quickly counts as a combo – and time the raising of your shield by pushing up in order to parry enemy attacks and stagger them briefly.
There are magic and elemental attacks to unlock, perks to enhance various aspects of your base abilities and some special moves – such as a dodge counter and extra heavy attacks – that you'll gain access to as you progress. On a very basic level, it's inoffensively entertaining; the kind of action you can perform adequately whilst completely tuned out of what's actually going on. Unfortunately, while it does add this handful of new mechanics it also loses out massively by removing the player's ability to sneak up on enemies or perform any type of ranged attack. You have absolutely zero freedom in how you approach enemies here; you can't even swing your weapons until a foe sees you, moves towards you and locks on for some bland one-on-one action. It grows old very fast.
The town-building aspects of the game are even more groan-worthy. This is not a good-looking game and so any joy you may derive from re-establishing your settlement is tempered by the fact it looks just as bad rebuilt as it did in ruins. In order to repair and replace the houses, blacksmiths, workshops, labs and so on that you'll need to shelter your ever-growing population – as well as purchase potions, weapons, upgrades and all that good RPG stuff – you'll need a constant supply of the materials and coins that you'll find out in the field. However, you'll also need lots of green gems if you want to get anywhere fast, and this is where the expected free-to-play aspects of this mobile game take hold – but in a much more upfront and incessant way than we'd hoped.
You'll need green gems to do most things in The Elder Scrolls: Blades without having to wait for an annoying amount of time. Every house you build, weapon you want to repair or craft or potion you wish to make is put on a timer and, if you don't want to wait, you'll have to hand over some of your gems in order to override the countdown mechanic. Even though Bethesda has made positive progress by toning down this aspect of the game somewhat since its initial release – you originally had to wait for much longer and every single loot chest you found in the game had a timer that counted down to you being able to open it – the fact is it still relies very heavily on you purchasing gems in order to progress at a satisfying rate.
You'll constantly be spammed with messages and adverts offering you gems, chests, special offers on gems, fancy chests, one-time deals on gems, legendary magic chests and so on, all for real-world money. We get it, this is a free to play game; this is how it goes and nobody is forcing you to buy anything, but Blades' model is so old-fashioned and overbearing, and it's attached to such a crummy, repetitive game that it very quickly becomes pretty intolerable.
Away from the town-building there's a PvP Arena mode and endless PvE Abyss mode that are easily the best parts of the game. The combat is still basic here and the performance is all over the place, but fighting against other players can be pretty fun stuff that adds a tactical element to things as you use your available skills to outwit your human foe.
The Abyss mode is also something of a highlight because it allows you to just get on with battering stuff without having to keep returning to your homestead to get fleeced for gems. Make no mistake, neither of these modes are in any way great, but they're the standout aspects of this particular package and where we found the game at its most entertaining. You can also make or join a guild and visit other guild member’s towns to swap and buy things and do other guild activities. It’s a nice addition to the game, for sure, but we just can’t fathom how anyone would be so engaged with the dull and repetitive gameplay here to spend the time required to really get into these modes.
It's all a bit of a shame because The Elder Scrolls: Blades does sometimes give off the impression of a full-fat Elder Scrolls game; it looks just like one in places, has that instantly recognisable music and is occasionally capable of it giving off just the right sense of time and place and you can feel yourself pining for the series' special brand of adventure and exploration. You'll recognise the enemies you come up against in battle as well as place names and certain aspects of the story that tie into the main entries in the franchise, but it's not enough to hide the fact that beyond the surface-level similarity, this really isn't anything like an Elder Scrolls game. It's a tedious, shallow, repetitive, free-to-play mobile game designed to frustrate you into spending money.
This is also a game that performs surprisingly poorly on Switch given that it was built from the ground-up to run on a variety of mobile devices. There's plenty of stuttering to be found as you wander around your beige homestead or fire off a few magic attacks whilst battling your enemies, which is surprising as the graphics here really are, for the most part, basic and dated looking.
Textures are muddy, NPCs are janky looking and although there's the odd nicely-lit cave here and there, it's hard to see why the game seems to struggle to stick to its 30fps target quite so often. We also noticed a few bugs such as weapons not reacting to our button presses and unresponsive menus that had to be exited and entered again in order to select a mission. It should also be noted that although the game is advertised as having motion controls, this isn't actually something that's made it into this release as of yet, with Bethesda reporting that it'll arrive in a future update.
The Elder Scrolls: Blades is a bland and repetitive grind, a free-to-play mobile game all dressed up like a proper Elder Scrolls title but lacking in any of the adventure, exploration, wit or charm of a mainline entry in the franchise. Combat here is dull, levels are small and linear, town-building is boring and everything is designed to frustrate you into spending your money on the gems required to override the constant timers that impede your progress as you level up and make your way through the barely existent story. It's a free-to-play title so you won't lose anything (other than your time) by giving it a whirl, but we reckon you'll have had your fill of this one in pretty short order, and there are lots of much better freemium experiences available on Switch to spend your precious time on.