Elder Scrolls Blades review in progress: An impressive mobile game held back by aggressive microtransactions

You’d think after the troubles of Fallout 76, and seeing just how fast a fanbase could turn, Bethesda would play an easy ball with Blades. But, instead, it’s taken an impressive looking mobile game and pinned its wings with an aggressive microtransaction system that holds your wallet to ransom after the first few hours. It’s Early Access at least so hopefully there’s time to change things because there is a good game here, and I don’t mind paying for it in a friendly, more approachable way - but right now the microtransactions feel obtrusive and placed to block the most basic elements of the game. 

A cut above

Let’s focus on the good stuff first though: Blades is an incredible looking mobile game. It’s set shortly after the Fourth Era Great War, which puts it between Oblivion and Skyrim for timeline fans. This is a pocket Oblivion though by any other name. It’s towns and enemies might have a more generic Elder Scrolls feel initially but the Ayleid ruins you can visit place it firmly in Cyrodiil’s embrace. If you’ve played Oblivion then those crystal lit caves and creaking skeletons are unmistakable, and to see a prettier version of that game on your phone is a pretty amazing moment. 

The concessions needed to make something as open and expansive as an Elder Scroll title work on mobile are well done too. This is a distraction game meant to fill short patches of time so its ‘hub to mission and back again’ quests work well when you’re on the go but are also expansive enough to chew through a few hours on the couch. The missions are all fairly similar at the moment - load up a largely linear run and fight through monsters and bandits to collect rewards - but it’s yet to wear out its welcome thanks to its good looks, a smart combat system and just enough extra corridors and secret doors to avoid levels feeling too straightforward. 

Combat locks you in to one-on-one encounters and uses a system of buttons to block, attack and launch various spells and specials. This expands as you level up to include more magic, or physical moves like slow overhead swings or a dodge-to-swipe attack. Whatever tactics you chose are all built around the ability to time a parry and open up an enemy’s guard. It's both simple enough to pay one handed, and chunky enough to feel like there’s a reward to being thoughtful - when you nail the blocks and perfectly time the comebacks it’s a satisfying win. 

When you’re not out exploring you can wander the hometown you’re slowly trying to rebuild and level up with various building materials you can gather on quests (as well as resources you can use for gear crafting). This is both cosmetic in terms of building homes and placing decorations, but also functional - the first thing you build is a Smithy for all your weapons and armour. Then there’s an Alchemy Laboratory and so on to strive for, with your town leveling up and unlocking in much the same way as your character. 

 Jewel in the rough

All in all, it creates a compelling enough loop of plunder and progression initially but that’s soon hampered by some inhibitive microtransactions. By far the most egregious offenders are the timed chests. The loot chest rewards you earn open on a real-world timer so you can either wait (up to six hours for a gold chest) or pay the in-game gem currency to open them instantly - 30 gems for a silver chest, 70 for a gold. In a few days of play I’ve rarely held more than 30 gems and to buy them they’ll cost you between £1.99/$1.99 for 160, right up to £19.99/$19.99 for 2500 on the in-game store. You never seem to earn them through playing unless you run out, in which case the next chest you open seems to coincidentally coughs up three or four, but you receive chests almost constantly so unopened ones soon pile up. Unless you cough gems up to speed opening them along they’ll just sit there - I’ve got, on average, somewhere between 5-10 silver chests waiting to be opened at a time and, while in the grand scheme of things, waiting doesn’t sound so bad, about five hours in I was warned that I couldn’t store anymore chests and I’d either have to pay to open some, or pay to increase my storage. Or, you know, just keep playing for free and lose all my prospective mission rewards. 

I’m not against microtransactions at all, I played loads of Fallout Shelter for example and bought plenty of bits and pieces because I wanted to. I never felt like I had to though. Good microtransactions should add to a game you’re playing anyway, but Blades makes it hard to play without pay. Basic things, even something as simple as crafting a health potion, are on timers. You can also only have one timer on the go for a given item or vendor as well - so one chest at a time, one piece of gear upgrading and so on. You can’t even use the smithy for repairs or upgrade his shop if he’s, say, upgrading your armor. The set up means everything can grind to a halt simply because you want to boost your sword’s attack. It creates numerous bottlenecks and blocks to doing almost anything, with spending the only solution to clear the way. 

The timers vary wildly too: potions take 10 seconds each, which is both no time at all and also a massive pain in the ass if you just want to get started. Armor and weapon repairs can be 10-15 minutes, while upgrades could be anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour plus. You could juggle multiple loadouts of gear to make sure you have spares to equip but you’ll probably need to pay 10 gems increase your inventory past the starting 20 slots. Because gems are so rarely awarded but are ubiquitously needed to remove timers I’ve been slotting in chest opening, armour upgrading and other unavoidable timers into my non-playing time - remembering to check the clocks occasionally and start more off when I can. This sort of time management is fine in a more building heavy or strategy focused game but in something so action focused it feels clumsy and rude. 

All this would be far more palatable if you could play your way out of in-game poverty, but you can’t. At the moment I’m checking side missions and other objectives to see if there’s a better way of earning what you need, but the fact that I’m already looking for ways to game the game suggests that are things that need fixing. What’s extra offputting is because you can see just how essential the gems are to do almost anything, it’s a deterrent to actually buying any because it clearly only provides a quick fix to a problem that’s not going anywhere unless the economy changes. This is an Early Access release though and hopefully Bethesda can see its way to make the changes needed to free up the potential of what is otherwise a promising mobile game. However, if prices don’t go down, or rewards go up, it feels like Blades’ paywall could keep out all but the most determined adventurers.