Dragonborn doesn’t work around Skyrim. It adds to it. Whereas previous DLC Dawnguard and Hearthfire gave players reasons to return to the Nordic countryside – new side quests, beast-like transformations, and real estate – the newest content invites them to leave it.
If you’ve played Morrowind, Skyrim’s newest DLC will seem eerily familiar. The giant mushrooms, alien architecture, and ashen landscape of the island Solstheim more closely resemble the third Elder Scrolls game; think Morrowind with an HD overhaul.
Unsurprisingly, this new environment is packed with locations and quests and characters and creatures – Ash Spawn, humanoid beings born from the debris of the Red Mountain eruption, and Rieklings, gremlin brawlers, are the most pervasive. Despite their unique appearances though, not many of the enemies will present you with a challenge. I arrived in Solstheim as a level 61 character, departed at level 65, and only twice had to worry about saving before a fight.
Like Skyrim, Solstheim is littered with Dwarven ruins and subterranean caverns. Despite their familiar aesthetic, they do present better puzzles and design this time around. A sunken temple in particular succeeds somewhat in the logic department by creating key-based challenges that lower and raise the water level. The most memorable location in Dragonborn isn’t actually part of Solstheim, however. Read one of several black books you find, and you’re pulled into it body and all. Here you’ll traverse hallways consisting of pages upon pages of dark knowledge. Lovecraftian creatures stalk the doorways. Lakes of black ooze, or ink as I like to imagine, surround the eerie catwalks. This is Apocrypha. It’s dark, it’s gorgeous, and the best deviation from the Skyrim norm. The villain residing within is a twisted new addition to your enemy list.
Inevitably though, you’ll leave this realm, you’ll continue exploring the island – this is an Elder Scrolls game after all – and you’ll find a copious amount of loot; there isn’t much reward for this though.
That’s a huge problem with Dragonborn overall, really. For all of the exploration it offers, your character won’t end up changing profoundly. Dawnguard, and even the more trivial Hearthfire, showed you tangible results in their vampire/werewolf abilities or weekend retreats. Aside from a few new shouts and equipment, my character remained static throughout Dragonborn. The armor I was wearing when I began the new content was the same I had on when I left. Sure, the new Stahlrim material – essentially metallic ice – is visually pleasing and somewhat sturdy for armor, but again, it’s not a game changer. A new house is helpful, but it’s nothing to marvel at, especially given Hearthfire’s build-centric nature.
Don’t worry though. Dragonborn lets you ride dragons. There’s always that, right? In a way, yes, you can ride dragons. Will you want to? Almost definitely not. You’re much better off on a horse or on your feet. Once tamed with a new shout, dragons offer you as much use as a city bus; you suffer the ride until you need to get off. Pressing a button tells the dragon to search for a place to land. The bus is more responsive in this respect though – the scaled behemoths seem to have a problem alighting in obvious areas. Dragon attacks are satisfying the first time around, as they breathe fire or ice on your opponents’ faces, but it soon becomes frustrating to deal with the clunky controls and unresponsive commands. Again, rely on your own legs for travel or combat.
Dragonborn is great for those who have exhausted as much as possible in Skyrim. It offers a whole new area with a variety of new environments to explore. The fact that I can look at my character after having thoroughly explored Dragonborn and not notice a difference is the problem. Dragonborn adds to Skyrim, but it didn’t do much to add to my character. If your Skyrim quest log is somehow dwindling though, all roads lead to Solstheim.