Falskaar is a folly. It really shouldn't exist. It's a ploy by a 19 year-old modder to prove to Bethesda that he can make something that rivals their DLC, but with a fraction of their resources. That's a bold claim for an amateur to make. Can it be done? Skyrim's built for adventurers and sightseers, not just quest hunters. It's a place as much as it is a game. Is Falskaar a place? I spent the morning playing it to find out.
It is a place. A new land separated from Skyrim. It's had peace for a while, but the main land's strife is slowly being mirrored here. It's about a third of the size of the main game, which was enough for me to play it the way I usually play Skyrim: like a buffoon, skipping through the meadows. I'm on holiday in these games. There's no point in taking on the main quest if I can't simply walk off into the woods looking for adventure. If all it had were Jarls shouting at other Jarls, it wouldn't interest me.
It begins not far from Riften. You enter a cave that could be any dungeon in Skyrim, which is the first statement of Falskaar: this isn't a campy theatrical reworking of the main game. There are no vampires, here, just more Skyrim. I carefully plundered my way through a linear, bandit-protected corridor sliced into the earth, the deeper it goes the more Dwemer influenced design seeps in, like it's somehow leaking in from the groundwater. A boss fight with a giant mechanical Dwemer confirms this is their territory. He was protecting a portal.
Falskaar is on the other side of the portal. In the tradition of all portals everywhere, this one breaks the moment it sends you to Falskaar. You're met at the gate and led through another dungeon, then roped into a rescue mission in another dungeon before finally being allowed to explore. Before getting drawn into the local politics, I went for a wild wander. It's immediately apparent that Falskaar doesn't quite have the noise of Skyrim. Where Skyrim would have dungeon openings or angry wizards, there is mostly forest. But it's not empty: I found the remains of a battle between bandits and guards; I angered a giant and his mammoths by skipping through their camp; I was rewarded for a taking a dip in the icy sea with an island of wolves and a dungeon. But you can tell the difference between a world created by the the many skilled hands of Bethesda's game masters and an excitable if incredibly talented amateur. I just knew where to look.
It's also damned pretty, in a functional kind of way. That's enough of a reward for me 50% of the time, and I took some postcard shots when I should have been on the main quest, because there's nowhere quite like Skyrim for screenshots.
If the exploration is a little bit lacking, it's only because the quests have been obsessed over. It's a remarkably well-crafted soap opera of men fretting over what they have and trying to defend it. It begins with a few bandit raids, but soon I was escaping from burning cities through secret passageways. Or I was raiding armouries for secrets, fighting my way though a multi-level bandit-hovel that took a few tries to get right. I don't know if the AI has been tweaked, or if it was the fact that my character was brand new, but that dungeon was a tough fight, with multiple opponents crowding around me, and it wasn't the only time I had to redo a dungeon. That said, they're well designed, and most will allow you to leave without backtracking.
Even if it is just a Nordic head-butting contest, those heads are wearing crowns. A lot is at stake, and it manages that odd Skyrim trick of presenting interesting challenges through interminable speeches. But the fact that those are happening at all is proof of the ridiculous steps that have been taken to make Falskaar what it is: hours of dialogue have been recorded for the mod. Vast speeches spill out of mouths that should be silent. The writing even manages to capture Skyrim's weary Nordic pretty acutely. Even NPC barks have been recorded, with one commenting on my Elvish appearance. This is ridiculous: a fully committed cast of hopeful amateurs very nearly catches up to Bethesda's efforts. They should be proud, and Bethesda should be a little bit ashamed.
Leaving the main story path and investigating the lives of the townspeople is a good way to get out of the headspace of angry Nordic politics. There are interesting diversions to be had: the story of a missing cow that leads to a cave full of necromancers. I helped a farm hand discover his parental lineage, and hunted down a missing family heirloom. Space for smaller, family dramas while the rest of the world is at war shows an understanding of the main game's structure, and there's been a lot of care lavished on the dungeons they'll often lead to.
That it doesn't quite scale the heights of a professional effort isn't damning in anyway. Falskaar's existence is remarkable, and Bethesda really should be talking to modder Alexander J. Velicky. He's a design lead in the making, and the proof is right here. I'm a few hours in, not as far as I should be thanks to my desktop crashing a few times (not the mod's fault) and my inability to leave mountains unclimbed, but I get the feeling that there's still much more to uncover. At this stage, I've left the story with a lot at stake, but I'm not going to tell you why. The story and how it's presented is Falskaar's biggest boon, and you should experience that for yourself.