The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles Review
Pentium M 2GHz CPU
2GB DDR2 RAM
GeForce 7800Go GTX
128MB DX9 Video
When The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was released a year ago, it almost immediately split the RPG community in half. Its simultaneous PC and Xbox 360 release along with a more accessible style of gameplay really became popular, but hardcore gamers wondered what happened to the all the usual things they were used to in most RPGs. Oblivion offered no experience points, abilities that only get better if you use them, and a system that allowed the whole world to be accessible to any player at any level. While these elements have really shaken up the RPG world, the game itself did exceptionally well in stores. And after months of minor add-ons from Bethesda in the form of downloadable content, we've now got a full expansion: Shivering Isles. Let's dive in and see if this one lives up to the Oblivion name.
Shivering Isles is a traditional expansion pack for Bethesda's RPG that takes place in a special plane of Oblivion where the Daedric Prince Sheogorath resides and rules. It's a very unique land, split up into two halves: Mania is colorful and crazy but still dangerous, while Dementia is dark, overgrown, and full of paranoid and depressed people. The whole expansion plays on these two halves very nicely, as you'll eventually have to choose a side for some of the quests.
The start of Shivering Isles is simple enough: an island with a doorway has popped up in the middle of Niben Bay, east of Bravil in Cyrodiil. It's up to you when you want to go ahead and walk in, and much like the rest of Oblivion, you can do this expansion at any level. After a stern warning from a guard, you walk in the doorway and are met with a very interesting and unique introduction. Soon you'll find yourself in The Fringe, a small area of the Isles where you'll be tested in your abilities before you can get in.
And this is how it starts. Many of the conventions of Oblivion hold here, and while you won't find much in the way of new spell effects or new skills, you'll get a nice range of new weapons, armor, and items. The host of monsters and enemies you'll fight are almost totally new; the only enemies from the original game you'll see in the Isles are a few skeletons here and there. The new ones are the tree-like Gnarls that mostly inhabit the root system deep under the Isles' soil, the frog-like Grummites who have evolved into a humanoid race, Hungers (from Morrowind), Flesh Atronachs, Skalons, and quite a few more. Golden Saints serve as the guards in Mania while Dark Seducers watch over Dementia.
It's not long before you find out what your purpose is here: Sheogorath himself, the Daedric Prince of Madness, is searching for a champion to help stop the Greymarch. If you don't succeed, the whole of the Isles will be swept over and killed by the Knights of the Order as it has been every thousand years. It's almost time again for the Greymarch, and this time the Madgod has decided to try something new (a mortal champion) to break the cycle. Of course, you'll find that it's not nearly as easy as it sounds and there are plenty of unique and original quests. Unfortunately, most of them still end up with you going into a dungeon, fighting through enemies, and picking up an item to bring back - for such an imaginative world, the quest structure often has you doing the same stereotypical RPG stuff from one quest to another. In that respect Shivering Isles isn't exactly the most original of games, but the same could probably be said for most RPGs so I can't really complain too much.
But it's the interesting designs that went into both the world and its characters that really make this expansion so endearing. From Sheogorath's constantly amusing dialogue to the larger degree of emotion and mood that goes into the world design and its inhabitants, I think you'll find that while Oblivion was more of a traditional RPG setting, this expansion channels a bit of that alien weirdness from Morrowind and then takes it to a new level with the Mania/Dementia angle.
The isles themselves aren't quite as big as Cyrodiil but it's still pretty good and there are, as before, quite a few sights to see. There's only one real city in the Isles, called New Sheoth, which itself is split into Mania/Dementia sides (called Bliss and Crucible, respectively). You'll find plenty of quests and things to do in New Sheoth, but the few villages out in the wild of the Isles are unfortunately pretty devoid of much to do. And with few random quests dotting the landscape, there's not really that much reason to randomly go and explore, either.
So it comes down to doing the main quest and the side quests that can be found readily. Add all that up, and you'll probably get something like 15 hours of gameplay out of it. For someone who spent $10 on the Knights of the Nine add-on for Oblivion and got a good eight to ten hours of that, then Shivering Isles probably doesn't sound too appealing. But it's the huge wealth of new voice acting and the really interesting land of the Isles that really make this one worth grabbing.
Besides all this, there are a few partially new things one can do in the Isles. After collecting Amber and Madness Ore, you can take them to one of two smiths in New Sheoth to make new sets of armor. Bring in special molds along with it that match corresponding pieces, and you can have a magical piece made - but you don't get to choose what the enchantment is, which is why I still prefer to get the plain armor and then head to the Mage's Guild on Cyrodiil to enchant it myself. Both types of armor are interesting to look at and you'll also get a couple of other sets on your way towards helping Sheogorath fight off the Greymarch. There are a few amusing customization options that coincide with the main quest, but to talk about them would be a pretty big spoiler - so I'll hold off.
It's not right to review an Elder Scrolls game on the PC and not mention mods. Mods set apart the PC version of Oblivion from the console versions, and I'm happy to say that even with the new 1.2 version of Oblivion that Shivering Isles needs to run, most mods still work fine. Many still fully function inside the Isles themselves. Some of the more complex ones, like Francesco's Leveled Creatures and Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul require updates to get working (out of those two, currently only Francesco's has such an update), but there are some great, simple mods that really improve the experience in Shivering Isles. For example, BTMod gives the game a smaller interface that PC gamers will appreciate, while AF_Leveling institutes a new level-up system that removes the hassle of choosing skills to increase every time you level up. Natural Faces gives the NPCs of both Cyrodiil and the Isles smoother-looking skin, and the Unofficial Oblivion Patch continues to fix the smaller bugs that the Bethesda guys haven't gotten around to.
It's really nice to see that most mods still work with Shivering Isles and while the new lands and monsters mean that a bunch of mods out there don't affect the expansion at all, they will still work while you're in Cyrodiil. Plus, I'm sure we'll see the larger and more active mods include new functionality to improve new elements of the Isles as well.
Despite a few issues, Shivering Isles is still a great addition to Oblivion. The relatively short playtime and lack of new music or any major Hollywood voice talent are all a letdown, but the gameplay is great and the imagination that went into the Madgod's world really makes this expansion pack shine. If you weren't that impressed with the original game then Shivering Isles won't turn your opinion around, but fans of Oblivion will find this one to be worthy of the return to the world of The Elder Scrolls.