Retro Review: The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall

Before the Elder Scrolls franchise evolved into the titan of fantasy that it is today, there was Daggerfall, a remarkable game with even greater ambition and scope than those that followed it.


Daggerfall was a hugely ambitious game when it was released in 1996, with a rich and massive world unlike anything gamers had seen before it. The sheer scope of it is still a wee bit difficult to comprehend, and Bethesda pulled it off in an era when games were comparatively very small and straightforward.

This title is the second in the Elder Scrolls series, after The Elder Scrolls: Arena, but it’s the first that fully represents what fans have come to love about these games and the way they continue to be played today.

It’s a great, big world out there…

At the time of its release, Daggerfall was far and away the largest world ever to be seen in a video game. To put that into some perspective today, almost 20 years later, the largest fantasy game world we have is… still Daggerfall.

We’re not talking about a big map with small regions you can teleport in and out of; You can actually walk the entire breadth of the land, roughly twice the size of Great Britain, with more than 15,000 towns populated by over 750,000 characters. If you’re into exploration in video games, this could be a life’s work.

For another example, using World of Warcraft‘s popular fantasy world, you could fit roughly 780 copies of Azeroth neatly inside of Daggerfall’s open and explorable borders. The size of this game should not be understated.

However, not much of that content is designed, or all together unique. Bethesda was able to create a land of this scope in the mid-90s by cheating a little bit and having the majority of the world generated from a set of parameters. Many things are designed, but most of the game is the fairly random result of that process.

I can see the argument for this being a horrible thing, but it really doesn’t feel that weird. It’s not as if you will come across towns that generated in nonsensical ways, with houses smushed together or doors that open into rivers. The world generator did an amazing job, and if you were never told about it you might not even notice.

The locations and the people you come across can get to be a little repetitive, but not as much as you might think. All of the cities have the same basic amenities, just laid out a little differently, but towns in different regions have completely different architecture. The NPCs tend to share a pool of dialog, but it changes depending on specific problems afflicting a particular town or region, or quests you are on at the time. There is enough here, and enough that changes, to keep you from losing interest.

What do I do with all of this everything?

The main storyline of the game takes you on a carefully designed journey, and the tale you are told is as strong as any in the series. You are not told much at all to start out, but have to unravel the plot as you investigate on behalf of the emperor. There has always been an unprecedented depth to the storytelling in the Elder Scrolls series, and this is a story with many limbs.

If you follow the main storyline of Daggerfall you should be kept very busy, but it’s safe to say that the majority of playthroughs do not involve reaching the end of the main quest, or “beating” the game in any discernible way. It would be impossible to give any kind of average completion time since completing the game really isn’t the objective, and even when it is, it is too large a game, with too many variables, to even attempt to estimate a range. There are times when the main quest will simply tell you to bugger off and do something else for a couple of in-game months.

The richness of Daggerfall’s storytelling goes beyond what important characters actually have to say to you, and allows you to discover its mysteries and lore yourself. Any time you hear about something interesting, even if only in passing, there is a way to discover more about it–potentially a lot more.

There are many different books to to find and read in the game, which may not sound like a crazy fun time to certain people, but to those of us who appreciate the lore of a fantasy world as rich as this one those books are what drive our adventuring. In fact, I found myself reading about things in books and then going off on quests to discover the locations and items mentioned in the story. Not a quest that is a part of the main storyline, or even a sidequest, but an actual quest, where all I have to go by are some hints I’ve gleaned from ancient texts. it doesn’t always lead to much, but it’s pretty fricking cool when you can find something this way.

I remember once deciding to walk off into the distance just to see what was out there. After some 10-15 minutes of hiking out into the middle of nowhere, I found a circle of dudes in robes surrounding an altar. This didn’t end well for me, and I could never find the place again, but it’s one of my best gaming memories.

The game world is very much alive, full of secrets and fine details to discover years after you thought you’d seen everything. We take things like a Day/Night cycle for granted in RPGs these days, but here it’s an example of something Daggerfall didn’t have to do, but did. There are even seasonal world events to catch, if you know when and where to find them.

Oh! You can also kill things.

The combat mechanics of the game are essentially what you would expect. The first-person perspective lends itself to some different classes and playstyles better than others, but it all works. It can feel a little clunky, but you quickly find yourself in tune with your character.

Ranged characters enjoy a huge variety of spells and abilities, which have to be found, learned and leveled up. Some of these abilities work similarly to a first-person shooter, but there is a lot more subtlety and grace to combat in most cases. Many of your abilities and the things you have to consider go well beyond anything you would expect from an FPS.

If you decide to play melee, the perspective would seem a bit of a hindrance, but it actually works quite well. You charge in and land a blow, then backpeddle or jump out of the way to avoid the counter. It’s a bit like fencing, albeit with a massive waraxe. The camera can be a bit of an issue at times, when small enemies are nibbling at your ankles, or large enemies are blocking your view, but by the time these kinds of problems might kill you it’s likely that you will have become quite spatially aware and nimble.

Sound queues play an important role here. You will very often hear your enemies long before you see them, allowing you to begin making decisions like what weapon to have at the ready, where to fight, or what exactly you are about to be fighting. This works both ways, as enemies will leave their posts and search for you if they hear you nearby.

Dungeoneering can be a stressful and tense experience, but also very rewarding. Many of the game’s dungeons are massive and labyrinthine, requiring several hours to complete, and they can sometimes be a little bit frustrating. Then, that is sort of to be expected, and anyone looking to play an oldschool dungeon crawler will be looking for exactly this experience.

On the importance of nipples.

Often in modern games you’ll come across some scantly clad young lass who appears unaware of the fact that she is wearing a bra and panties, even if you happen to be in the midst of amorous congress. It sort of breaks immersion (I’m looking at you, Dragon Age). It doesn’t make any sense for strippers in a town full of murderers and criminals not to, well, strip.

The times were a little different when Daggerfall came out, and Bethesda was a little less worried about ruffling any feathers. There isn’t a lot of nudity in the game, but there is a bit, and it’s not treated as being a big deal at all. Skyclad witches are much more realistic than those in pointed hats, and the nude women in certain temples are only there to worship. When you strip your character’s equipment off in your inventory they are completely naked, because nobody likes to have their underwear chosen for them.

The reason this is important isn’t specifically that nudity is important, but that not being afraid to go there shows exactly what sort of game Daggerfall was striving to be. It’s not for kids at all, and should appeal to fans of high fantasy as much as a novel or a movie. Daggerfall wanted to be taken a little bit seriously, and it should be.

This is less obviously illustrated, but still apparent, in the demonic and religious ideas and imagery the game allows itself to explore, and to exploit. In no way does Daggerfall strive to be offensive or edgy, though, it just so happens that these things are a part of a completely realized world.

At the end of it all

There are few games that have ever come close to what Daggerfall achieved, and most of those, if not actually a part of the Elder Scrolls series, learned a lot from it. In my opinion Daggerfall is the best of its line, and while it’s not a game without its quirks it is certainly one of the most engaging and immersive worlds ever imagined.

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