"A better Skyrim than Skyrim. For free": Steam reviews are going nuts over this free mod for Skyrim that turns it into a completely new open world RPG

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Skyrim came out 8 years ago – yes, that makes me feel old too – so honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve also rinsed it for all that it’s worth. But emerging from its ashes like a phoenix rising from the flames (the metaphor is justified, I assure you) comes an entirely new open-world RPG, disguised as a community-made mod named Enderal: Forgotten Stories. 

The game may have been made using Bethesda’s Creation Engine, but Enderal won’t give you any major déjà-vû as it’s effectively an entirely new game. So, sure, the textures and surroundings might look a little familiar from time to time – they are based on those of the wilderness and the Bannered Mare, after all. And, yeah, those wolves you’ll be running away from – more on that later – look exactly like the ones you would loot in Skyrim to find garnets (don’t ask me how they go in there), but everything story and character-wise is brand new. 

In fact, Enderal offers over 30 hours of original content, it’s basically free (though you will need to own a copy of the original Skyrim to be able to download it), and it’s finally available on Steam. With the studio behind the project, SureAI, boasting over 1.5 million downloads of Enderal to date and with dozens of reviews on Steam praising it as being superior to Skyrim, I just had to find out what it is that makes this game so special. To do so, I sat down with Nicolas Samuel Lietzau, Enderal’s project lead – who was also responsible for crafting the game’s huge 250k page script and directing the English and German localisations that featured a cast of over 80 professional voice actors – to find out how this colossal total-conversion mod was brought to life. 

Enderal in a nutshell

You arrive as a foreigner to the land of Enderal, meaning that, unlike its citizens, you can do whatever you want as usually – and rather horribly – someone’s role is determined by the caste they were born into. The main plot has you investigating a mysterious sickness, and besides that there are dozens of side quests to tackle. The root of it all is based on the eerie ideas of C.G. Jung, a psychologist who believed that humanity shared a collective subconscious. The more time you spend in Enderal, the more chance there is of things getting creepy (especially considering that the main antagonists only appear in dreams and visions), but despite what Lietzau worries is a “pretentious” basis for a game, he tells me how the whole idea was to “take this very theoretical concept, this very abstract concept, and turn it into an emotional, relatable story which was very character-centric.” 

If the Steam reviews are anything to go by, SureAI has certainly succeeded, although the studio’s attempts to create a believable, emotional story were so effective that Lietzau recounts how some players “were triggered by some of the nightmare sequences” due to the accuracy of their depiction of domestic violence. In case that didn’t give you enough of a hint, Enderal is a dark, thematically mature RPG. If you’re expecting similarities between it and Skyrim you’re going to be sorely disappointed. One of the few things linking the two, however, is a joke about getting an arrow in the knee – yes, seriously. 

This isn’t Skyrim

As Enderal is built using the Creation Engine, you’d expect there to be some overlap with Skyrim that goes beyond using the same assets. However, Lietzau tells me that, story-wise, Skyrim had no influence over Enderal, with him instead citing Bioware’s trademark attention to complex characters as an inspiration – mentioning Mass Effect and Dragon Age in the same breath. Comparisons to such impressive triple-A games are bold, but the reviews on Steam back up what I’m being told. Most players really can’t get enough of it: “Skyrim 2: Free and Better edition”, “the world seems almost hand crafted”, and “we would gladly pay 60$ [sic] for it, that’s how good it is” are just some of the things mentioned on Enderal’s Steam page, and currently there are over 600 reviews that attest to the game’s prestige, that dwarf the 63 negative ones. Comparisons to old-school RPGs like Gothic are also rife in the reviews; there’s no level scaling, so some areas are a no-go when you start off as a beleaguered traveller (even wolves should be avoided to begin with), and killing an enemy gives you XP rather than levelling up a skill like in Skyrim. Enderal sure as hell isn’t easy, yet its special brand of tough love has won over the hearts of hundreds of players. 

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But treading that fine line between the freedom of an open world and strong narrative that’s found in some of the best RPG games of yore is tricky. Lietzau tells me that “there are lots of open world games that offer freedom but the story isn’t that present… [some people] do prefer Enderal to Skyrim because they felt Skyrim was lacking in this atmosphere and story department, and that’s exactly what Enderal provides.” 

As well as a story centered around those shudder-inducing enemies that live in your subconsciousness (joke’s on them, I’ve had the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme tune stuck in my head since forever), Lietzau tells me that Enderal doesn’t have the typical fetch quests that can often be found in open world games. Well, they have one which tasks you with collecting magical symbols, but it’s a way to get you to explore the world and that makes it ok in my book. That one aside, you’ll be investigating the disappearance of someone’s wife, following birds as they soar through the sky to find their nests, and tracking down missing persons across the large space. With 30-125 hours of gameplay, the sheer range of quests you’ll find throughout the world is diverse enough to challenge some triple-A RPGs. I’m just going to say this again in case you weren’t paying attention before – Enderal is free on Steam right now. I really hope you’re installing it as you read this.

Want a good story? Then you can’t do anything you want – for good reason

With side quests like the aforementioned waiting for you out in the open world, I don’t blame you if you want to jump in and start exploring straight away. You’ll have to be patient from time to time though, as Enderal has a special storytelling technique that Lietzau calls “segmented linearity”, which temporarily locks you into a main quest so you can’t get distracted from urgent issues like you can in some of the best open world games

So, the phrase ‘segmented linearity’ might sound rather dry at first, but there’s a good reason why you don’t have utter freedom in Enderal like you do in Skyrim. As Lietzau puts it, “in Fallout or in Skyrim you can just kill anyone you’re talking to at any given time, even if this person is pouring their heart out. That’s something that just completely kills the feeling of the story, and that’s something we just decided not to allow in Enderal.” As these characters add a lot to the story and are worth a lot more than some blood on your blade, there’s a specific function that prevents you from leaving dialogue to prevent those quicksave massacres that you’ve probably done once or twice (c’mon, admit it). 

If you’re ok with the fact that you can’t always procrastinate from playing the main story, and you already have Skyrim in Steam, Enderal is a no-brainer. You don’t even have to have Skyrim installed on your machine for Pete’s sake, and I’m going to say this again: Enderal is free. So instead of spending money on it, just be prepared to spend hours upon hours in its world. 

Hungry for other Skyrim mods? Check out our article on the best Skyrim mods available for PS4, Xbox One, and PC right now!