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How the latest Elder Scrolls Online DLC was inspired by classic horror

(Image credit: Bethesda Softworks)

The Elder Scrolls Online's new Stonethorn update is an amalgam of horror's most famous monsters, from vampires and werewolves to mad scientists and gargoyles. As a fan of both The Elder Scrolls Online and horror, I was eager to learn more about these themes and how Stonethorn ties into the Dark Heart of Skyrim narrative, so I jumped on a play session with the devs for some hands-on impressions.

Hopping on the back of a Dwemer spider two-person mount - the first of its kind in The Elder Scrolls Online - Lead Encounter Designer Mike Finnigan shuttled me over to the gates of the baroque Castle Thorn dungeon, ruled by the treacherous Lady Thorn. Flanking the white-powdered path to the castle interior are magnificent tombs. Massive, pointed towers pierce a misty, starlit sky and you can almost hear Dracula summoning you inside.

"Castle Thorn definitely leans into the gothic vampire stories with ancient castles, gargoyles, bat swarming vampires and creepy blood drinkers, but in a decidedly Elder Scrolls way," Finnigan says. "Not only did stories we grew up with inspire these designs, but the art as well."

(Image credit: Bethesda Softworks)

Entering the castle for the first time is a spectacle on-par with Dragonsreach from Skyrim. Even though the threat of death hounds and vampires loomed in my immediate foreground, I couldn't help but study my surroundings as the Zenimax team cleared the area. The humanoids in dungeons are wearing armor that looks similar to the gear I'd later loot from bosses. And if you manage to clear Castle Thorn on Veteran difficulty, you'll earn a skin resembling the reanimated vampires you fight in the dungeon.

Turning to Stone Garden, the horror clothes are of a different color but no less explicit. The loading screen shows an elaborate machine emitting electrical pulses, surrounded by ornate lanterns carrying flames of crimson. Inside, of course, is an evil alchemist guarded by vicious werewolves.

"Stone Garden takes its cue from classic mad scientist/evil genius stories. Of course, science isn't big in Tamriel, so the next best thing was Alchemy. We had the basic premise for the story—a mad alchemist takes over a Dwemer structure and retrofits it to be used as a lab—but here again, our art team delivered a masterpiece," Finnigan says.

Though it looks every bit as foreboding, Castle Thorn's companion dungeon strikes a more playful tone. "What makes this dungeon feel more light-hearted is really the writing and voice acting of the main villain, Arkasis. His over-the-top performance really brings life to the character and elicits chuckles along the way."

(Image credit: Bethesda Softworks)

Both dungeons are distinct in their design and story, but they're tied together by the threat of Gray Host, an ancient army of vampires and werewolves players are grappling with throughout the Greymoor chapter. "The events within Castle Thorn and Stone Garden give greater context to the larger Dark Heart of Skyrim storyline and lead directly into the prologue quest and upcoming Q4 Story DLC," teases Finnigan.

"Much like in the Harrowstorm DLC at the start of the year, the things learned by Gwendis within the two dungeons will lead to new revelations and exciting new adventures. Not only that, but Gwendis will remember your character and their actions. If you help her in the dungeons, just like if you helped her in Rivenspire in the base game, she will reference your previous adventures together before embarking on new ones with the information you helped provide her."

On top of the disparate, but interconnected smorgasbord of classic horror ingredients you'll face in Stonethorn, the DLC also includes a range of updates to address performance and stability. There's also a new feature that allows you complete control over how your pets, mounts, and assistants move around your homestead, making the environment feel more alive.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Stonethorn DLC is available now on PC and Google Stadia, and it's coming to PS4 and Xbox One on September 1.

I'm GamesRadar's green tea-fueled, late-night news hound. I'm perpetually in search of an MMO to recapture the feeling of playing Ultima Online in the early 2000s, and I'm still sorting out self-esteem issues from being relegated to second player duties growing up with two older brothers. On a related note, I'm irrationally defensive of Luigi and his mansion.