LGR – Elder Scrolls: Battlespire – DOS PC Game Review
The Elder Scrolls began in 1994 with the release of Arena, a fantasy role-playing game taking place in a big world with open-ended objectives. This was followed up by Daggerfall in 1996, a fantasy role-playing game taking place in an even bigger world with more open-ended objectives. So, what was the next thing for the Elder Scrolls franchise? How about a fantasy-action game taking place in tiny environments with linear objectives? Enter An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire, developed and published by Bethesda Softworks in 1997 for MS-DOS PCs. At first, this was going to be an expansion pack for Daggerfall, but it ended up being the first spinoff to the Elder Scrolls series, meant to tide over fans until Morrowind was ready. We’ll get to Morrowind eventually, you have my word.
But for now, let’s just take a gander at this box art! Say what you will about the game itself, but this silhouetted imagery is pretty stellar, or lunar. It’s also a tough box to come by, with copies routinely going for anywhere from one to two hundred bucks. The back of the box sure does make it look like an Elder Scrolls game too, with every screenshot and marketing blurb carefully chosen to show off its juiciest morsels. However, it may as well just say, “This isn’t Daggerfall! Manage your expectations!” This stuff continues inside the box as well, with a special letter from Bethesda’s founder, Christopher Weaver, saying, uh, “Hey guys! Seriously this is not a new Daggerfall and Morrowind isn’t coming out until 1998 so just enjoy Battlespire for what it is, please?” [Laughs] That didn’t work as they planned. Morrowind in ’98? Yeah, try 2002. You also get an installation guide, a registration card, an ad for the M Player Network that later became GameSpy, an ad for Bethesda’s own Battlespire strategy guide, and a manual for the game that’s a disappointment compared to previous Elder Scrolls manuals. It feels cheaply made and contains relatively little in the way of lore, but at least it HAS a manual, which is more than most games can say nowadays. An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire begins with a decidedly non-legendary intro telling you nothing of value, and showing you even less. But by reading the manual, you learn that you play a character in Tamriel’s Battlespire known as ‘The Apprentice’ and on your final day of training among the Imperial Battlemages that douche from Arena, Jagermeister Tharn, pulls another dick move. By his command, the legions of Mehrunes Dagon have entered the Battlespire and chopped everyone up into little bitty pieces. On top of this, your partner has been captured by Maroon 5 dre’gon himself giving you a convenient personal vendetta. As the Apprentice, you just can’t go for that, no can do, so it’s up to you to slay all the bad guys or else… [Donald Trump]
“You’re Fired.” After this, it’s off to the main menu which lets you play single player or multiplayer. “Wait, multiplayer in an Elder Scrolls game?” Yep! Elder Scrolls Online was NOT the first multiplayer ES game by any means, but since it’s mainly a co-op version of the main campaign with some basic competitive stuff thrown in, let’s just focus on single player. Name thyself and choose thy sex organs. Next, choose your race from a selection of six, down from the usual eight. Argonians and Khajitt are not included at all because Tamriel racism is the Imperial way. Next choose the breast– I mean, uh, BEST combination of hair, eyes and mouth designs from a pre-made assortment. Yeah, this game has a lot of nudity, so heads up! Although it draws the line at genitalia, meaning males are curiously lacking a, uh… battlespire of their own. Once you’re done with the classy nudity, pick your classy class, either from the existing classes or by creating one. This is mostly the same system from Daggerfall, so you’ve got an incredibly powerful tool to craft your experience. However, even more so than Daggerfall, Battlespire will punish you in extreme ways for creating or choosing a lackluster class. Truth be told, there are only a handful of builds that I would recommend for playing this game at all, but I’ll explain as we go along. Battlespire begins with your character standing in level one of the Battlespire, directly in front of the weird gate. Just move forward and… oh… Well, crap, that was fast! Then the game restarts for some reason and you have to either reload your game or start a new one. And yes, it does this every time you die, which is certainly not the most annoying thing ever. Nope, nope. Ahem. As I was saying, you’re in front of the gate and there are corpses near by that signal some real bad mojo. But wait, what’s this? A scamp wants to talk to you? “What? Manflesh? It talks? What WANTS it?” “Keys? Keys in dark, nasty place. Near my tail. Want look? See!” Ah, how charming. Yes, one of the greatest aspects of Battlespire is the ability to talk to practically anyone, or anything you come across. Friends, enemies, spirits, glowing crystals– you name it, you can probably talk to it. And it’s not just a gimmick. You can actually have some full-length meaningful conversations. You can even talk to certain enemies to convince them not to fight, or even offer to help them out with some ancient curse that forced them to be evil in the first place. Each character you talk to is fully voice-acted, too. Though the results may vary from pretty decent to pretty god-awful, depending on who’s doing the talking. “Oh, dear.” “If that were true,” “then you’d know that she’s” “Sirran Angada,” “NOT Lomegan Mariel.” “Reap him, my minions…” So, yeah, conversation is a big deal in Battlespire, which is a good thing because the rest of it is… incredibly linear. And make no mistake, I’m not saying linearity is always a bad thing, as this was clearly designed to be a dungeon-crawler fantasy-adventure, inspired by great games like Ultima Underworld and the Wizardry series. As a result, the actual role-playing is cut down quite a bit, replaced with sprawling, handcrafted levels and a story that you participate in but don’t actually control too much. You also have no open world, no bustling towns, no side quests, no experience levels, no resting, no spell making, no item customization, no repairing, no stealing, no guilds, etcetera, etcetera. In fact, there’s not even any gold or selling of items at all, so that’s a big part of Elder Scrolls just gone right there. So, uh… what’s left? Action! And lots of it! You’re constantly barraged by creatures that look like something out of the Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, so that’s nice. And the fighting remains largely the same as Arena and Daggerfall with that funky mechanic of swiping the mouse in different directions in order to perform varying attacks. Or if you have a missile weapon of some kind, you just press the right mouse button to shoot, which is preferable in many situations. Another thing that’s changed is the jumping mechanic, which is good because there’s a LOT of first-person platforming in the game. When you hold the jump key, a Bugle corn chip pops out of your crotch, and floats out in front of you. This indicator shows you precisely where you’ll land once you let go of the jump key. However, what’s not great is that in practice, it’s a glitchy mess. The crotch-Bugle is no guarantee of a successful jump since it’s possible to collide with the scenery and fall through the level to my death. Hell, if you even open a door wrong, or pull a lever while standing under it – yep, you guessed it. You’ll find yourself dead or falling through the level. Forget the enemies. The level geometry often traps and kills you. Both you and your enemies will get stuck on every object possible. On the bright side, you can take advantage of some of this broken gameplay to take out enemies without getting hit, which is kinda nice. And that’s because the combat is atrocious and the enemies are legendarily idiotic. I know the combat’s supposed to rely on dice rolls and skill points to make contact while fighting, but it’s still a horrendously unsatisfying system for me. Speaking of annoying, the inventory is downright unpleasant to use as well. For instance, each level uses old-school design to a fault, relying on keys and locked doors everywhere. And that’s fine. I enjoy this stuff from time to time still, but here’s the thing. The keys in Battlespire, known as Sigils of Entry, look identical to the near-useless Sigil Amulets. And you’ll run across hundreds of those things throughout the game, so it’s easy to accidentally pass over one that looked useless, but was actually the key you needed. This is a minor complaint, but it’s also vague about what items actually do what in your inventory, like, “Which one is better for me? The Iron Pauldron of Assured Red Wisdom, or the Iron Pauldron of the Assured Horny Fist?” Heh heh. Horny Fist… Beyond this, many of the levels are ridiculously dark and confusing to navigate. Gone is the 3D map from Daggerfall. Now you only have a top-down 2D image, so passageways above and below you are confusing to decipher. And I do enjoy me some complex level designs, but these often feel complex just for the sake of doing so. There are also levels that are so sprawling that you need a boat to navigate them, which is at least better than running around at a snail’s pace. In addition, you don’t just have to worry about keys to progress, but there are tons of hidden switches, doors and anal beads that have to be pulled in order to unlock the next area. You’ll also come across a few logic puzzles and obscure machinery that has to be assembled and activated in order to progress. And I quite enjoyed these once I figured out that that’s what they were and it wasn’t just set dressing. And I’m sorry, but did I mention that the combat sucks, because it does. And part of this has to do with the overall performance, which isn’t great even at recommended specs. It uses the XEngine, same as Daggerfall, but in a higher-resolution SVGA mode. This makes it look much better, but prepare for low frame rates across the board. The fact that they planned to include 3Dfx acceleration and ditched it at the last minute is pretty unforutunate. And this is all made so much worse if you play as a character that isn’t optimized for fighting from the get-go. Remember how I said there are only a handful of classes that make sense? Well, that’s because Battlespire puts some of its most challenging levels at the beginning of the game instead of the end, resulting in a badly-designed trial by fire. If you’re not set up from the start to take advantage of the weapons and environment of the first few levels, then you may as well just not play at all. Enemies will swarm you right from the beginning rapidly draining your health and finding more health isn’t really a common thing. Since you can’t rest to heal yourself, you better hope you have the spell and the energy to do so. Otherwise, you’ll have to track down a potion or a health gem somewhere and both are scarce at first. Then there’s the leveling up mechanic, which isn’t really a leveling up mechanic. You do gain proficiency in skills as you use them, so that’s good, but you don’t level up like you do in previous games and instead you’re given a handful of points at the end of each completed area. These points are used to buy more stats and skill points, but you can only apply them in between levels. There are only seven levels in the whole game, so, yeah, unless you gave yourself a good build to begin with, you don’t have much of a chance to correct yourself. Unless you cheat, which I eventually did, because screw it! You know, at this point you may get the impression that I hate Battlespire, and you know, sometimes I do. It’s just such a tedious game with very little in the way of payoff. You have to min-max like crazy to have a decent time, hope the game doesn’t glitch out when you do, and pray that the level design improves. And that’s the thing that makes me pause when I’m evaluating this. It DOES improve. In fact, it opens up quite a bit later on with a huge island to explore and plenty of really fun locations. In addition, the atmosphere is great, the dialogue is enjoyable, and the Elder Scrolls lore is fun to dive into if you’re a fan like me. But, augh! The first half of the game is just a chore to complete, and the latter half is better, but it’s not much better. So do I hate it? Well, no, but lemme put it this way: I have no desire to ever play Battlespire again after doing so for this review. Grab it on GoG if you really wanna give it a shot. Just manage your expectations first. An Elder Scrolls Legend, indeed. But a legend for all the wrong reasons. And if you enjoyed this video, why not check out some of my others here on the Elder Scrolls games. And there’s always videos coming to the channel every Monday and Friday here on LGR, so subscribe if you would like to. Also, give me a shout on Twitter and Facebook if you wanna talk about some stuff, or just… whatever, man. 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