Like many Elder Scrolls fans, I’ve been holed up in my room for the last month playing Skyrim on the Nintendo Switch. Having played it on PC since the game was released six years ago on November 11th 2011, the idea of experiencing my favourite stories, characters, music, and environment on a totally new platform was enamouring, and I became one of the presumably thousands of people to pay £50 for a game I already own.
Skryim has been described by numerous media outlets as a game that ‘just won’t die’, not least by Jim Sterling in an episode of The Jimquisition (whimsically titled ‘Fuck Skyrim‘), where he described it as ‘the cockroach of video games’. The game has been released and re-released on several platforms several times and the franchise is still going strong, so far selling nearly 43,000 copies in 2017 alone (as of October 28th 2017, so not counting the Switch sales which haven’t been announced yet), totalling up to almost four million copies sold since its release. When your elderly, bow-legged horse is still somehow winning races despite being more than a little past its prime, why stop flogging it?
This review doesn’t take into account the amiibo feature, as I, ahem, don’t own any amiibos.
Take Tamriel With You
The initial draw of Skyrim for Switch is the portability. No longer confined to your living room or bedroom, now you can take your Dovahkiin with you wherever you go. I played on a train from Utrecht to Amsterdam and then again on my return journey; a novelty that won’t soon wear off. There’s something freeing in exploring such an expansive world on a handheld device.
The battery drain isn’t as bad as I expected it would be. Knowing the enormity of Skyrim, I expected it to leech the power from my console. It took me just under three hours to run the battery dry while playing, making it perfect for a long train journey or flight. And of course, the portability of the Switch means its easy to charge up while waiting for a connection or on the go with a Switch power bank.
I’ve roleplayed so many characters over the years with Skyrim. The first memorable one was Hrolfr, a patriotic Nord who revered Talos and brought the Stormcloaks victory over the Empire. After that I played as a Bosmer, with a penchant for thievery and deceit, and I’ve even tried to go out of my comfort zone and roleplay a female Orc specialising in two-handed weapons. My Switch character is Teriarvel, a Dunmer whose first port of call was the Thieves Guild in Riften, who laughs at the Daedra and abuses their artifacts, and who cares not for the Thu’um save what it can bring to him. I haven’t even touched the main quest in this game; why would he risk his neck traversing the 7000 Steps when there’s easy loot in the neighbouring town?
The point is immersion is incredibly important to me, and I always revert back to stealth based characters when I play The Elder Scrolls. Bows are my weapon of choice, and if I can sneak around a high level enemy and get them with a backstab I’m happy. But I’m used to playing on PC, using the mouse to aim precisely. I’ve never been good at aiming with controllers and this was a concern when buying Skyrim for Switch. However, I was relieved when I found that the motion controls present in the Switch were being utilised to their full potential. It is incredibly easy to aim both bows and spells in handheld mode by just moving the console around, and the lockpicking mechanic when using tabletop mode takes a little getting used to but, in the end, is intuitive and very, very fun. The joy-cons even do a little vibrate when moving the lockpick, getting subtly stronger when you’re close to the sweet spot – just enough to give you a physical tie to the virtual world, but not enough so that you feel you’re being hand-held. It is wonderfully immersive.
Back to basics
If you’re anything like me, your PC is choca with mods and improvements. From purely aesthetic mods that make the world look just a little bit better, to fully-voiced questlines to bring some more depth to the fantasy world, mods can range from the useful, to the essential bug-fixers, to the downright ridiculous. One of the first mods I installed made Nyan Cat appear in the night sky. Hmm? Oh sorry, I forgot it’s 2017 now.
But the idea of going back to a totally vanilla game was alluring to me, as I’d pretty much forgotten what vanilla Skyrim looks like. How would I cope without my invincible horses, galloping over the top of mountains so I could get to my destination as the crow flies? More seriously, how would I cope with the original stupidly-designed inventory system, with everything ordered alphabetically and no way to organise it? Sky-UI has been my saviour when it comes to easily seeing which items are worth the most, or which ones are heaviest and should be sold first.
Well, the answer is you get used to it. Yes, the inventory system is a bit clunky, but after a while there’s a certain charm in viewing the game as it was originally released. Stripping back the modifications, you’re left with the game you originally fell in love with, and that is very refreshing.
There’s a reason why so many people play The Elder Scrolls on PC. It’s because the vanilla game is so full of bugs and glitches that consumers spend their own time fixing them. Not everything is rosy for Skyrim for Switch, and bugs are an issue among many.
Visually stunning (most of the time)
It’s reasonable to expect a certain degree of reduction in the graphical quality of Skyrim, considering how huge the game is and how hard the Switch has to work to accommodate it. And I’ve been really impressed with the game so far, as most of the time it doesn’t feel any different to the way I see it on my computer. The only time I notice is when viewing the landscape from on high, where the terrain texture quality is noticably reduced, and with certain characters, such as Lod in Falkreath, who has a horrifyingly cartoonish quality to his lined face that I’d never noticed before. Maybe it’s just because I’m holding the console too close to my face. Who knows.
Also expected is a certain amount of lag The Switch is powerful, sure, and it handles Skyrim very well, but I have experienced serious lag on more than one occasion. The worst was when I was in combat with three Thalmor justiciars all throwing spells at me – something about the amount of chaos that ensued was too much for the console to handle, and I lagged my way through the battle until it was over and the gameplay returned to normal. Not easy to deal with and I’m not sure what, if anything, can be done about it.
Aurally sound (except when it isn’t)
Generally, I haven’t noticed much difference in the sound quality of Skyrim for Switch. Obviously there’s a reduction in depth as the Switch speakers are just a little bit smaller than my laptop’s, but it’s not enough to make a difference. Every so often, however, I get a sudden and loud sound distortion, like white noise played staccato. Sometimes this happens once, sometimes it happens over and over again in an irritating, immersion-breaking rhythm.
It’s been 84 years
Come on, Bethesda. I’ll tolerate some bugs and glitches, but it’s the smaller ones which are the most infuriating. Skyrim has now been in existence for over six years and some of these bugs are now unacceptable when it comes to a game which has been improved and released so many times.
Personally, I’ve experienced several glitches, some which I would ordinarily correct with the console, and some which I still would have had to suck up and deal with even on PC. For example, players who have had the pleasure of entering Windhelm at night will have come across the quest ‘Blood on the Ice’, where the Dragonborn helps to solve a series of murders across the city. Some players will also be familiar with the annoying problem of having the Strange Amulet stuck in their inventory forever because they didn’t sell it to Calixto before the end of the quest. You can’t turn it into the Necromancer’s Amulet and you can’t sell it because it’s marked as a quest item. It doesn’t weigh anything, but it sits there, useless, for ever.
The addition of Hearthfire a year after the intial release of Skyrim allowed players to build their own homes, marry their favourite NPCs, and adopt children. But a niggling bug that annoyed me when I first started playing Hearthfire five years ago, is that none of the display cases work. You can open and close them but you can’t place anything in there. This is exceptionally annoying, and it’s even more annoying to know that I’m not the only one to bring it up, and even with all the improvements done to Skyrim over the years it’s been in existence, Bethesda haven’t ironed out even small bugs like this one. Come on, Bethesda. For a game that has been released as many times as Skyrim, it’s not really good enough. These are just two of the numerous graphical and gameplay glitches that dot the game, and unfortunately for console players there’s no way to fix any of them without reloading previous saves.
Not Enough Space
The nature of the Elder Scrolls series, as well as the popular Fallout series and other role-playing games, is that players will create several saves rather than one big one. This is to be sure that they can go back and fix a glitch if it happens, or perhaps they don’t like the decisions they made and want to go back to do something different. But I can’t get more than about 120 saves on my Switch, and that’s not enough for someone who saves roughly every 10 minutes. You can use a Micro SD card, of course, but…I don’t have one, and I resent needing to pay for an extra item so I can play.
It’s not really a huge deal if you’ve only got one character – you can delete the saves from your early game if you’re comfortable, as you’re not likely to go all the way back to the beginning if you’re already Thane of three holds and starting to rack up a nice selection of perks for your skill tree. Where it could become a problem is when you decide to create a new character alongside your first – there is the option to choose which character you want to play as in the save menu, so to be able to do that sucessfully you need to have the storage capacity to cope with double the amount of data, or you’ll be spending a lot of time freeing up space and losing possibly valuable saves.
I love Skyrim. I love the whole Elder Scrolls universe. So even though there are some annoying aspects such as the lack of bug-fixing, they’re vastly outweighed by the ability to take my favourite game series away with me. I hope that they will continue to improve the experience for Switch players. But at the moment, I’m just happy that I can shoot a dragon down from the sky while waiting for the bus to work.