Even by RPG standards, Skyrim total conversion Enderal [official site] deserves some kind of prize for a depressing opening. A happy summer's day twisting into a nightmare of dead family, fire and flesh. From there, starving aboard a ship with a friend, all in the hope of finding a new life across the sea. Discovery. Murder. Near drowning. Waking up to find that you have special magic powers... and almost as quickly that in Enderal, that's pretty much the local equivalent of coming down with the clap. An illness to be treated, which will probably lead to insanity and an agonising death. Anything else, world?
On second thoughts, better not ask. Just play this excellent mod.
Has it really been five years since Skyrim came out? Firing up Enderal, it's surprisingly tough to tell. It's the total conversion that players have been waiting for - a complete new RPG in the Skyrim engine, and the follow-up to the popular Oblivion mod Nehrim: At Fate's Edge. Shamefully, I never got around to playing that one for myself, but this one? This one I've been looking forward to for a while. Some fifteen hours in, I'm nowhere near done, but I don't mind saying it's the perfect reason to both pull your adventuring boots on, and give Skyrim back its hard drive space.
One of the most interesting things about mods is that they can be seen through two lenses - how close they are to their core game, and how they differ. Enderal feels like Skyrim. It uses Skyrim's menus, Skyrim's combat, and while it uses a different metaphor (stones rather than constellations) it uses a lot of Skyrim's raw systems. At the same time though, play it like Skyrim and you're going to find yourself eating dirt within quite short order. Much of its DNA comes from games like Gothic and The Witcher, and most of the systems are changed up in some way.
There's no levelling-by-doing for instance, just by purchasing or discovering expensive spellbooks. If you want to rest to heal, you'll need a bed, and not just to hit the Rest button and giggle that the Elder Scrolls universe has a day of the week called 'Turdas'. There's no level-scaling either. Be careful where you wander. As befits its German origins, Enderal feels far more European in style than American. Less forgiving, albeit not hardcore.
It's in overall design philosophy that things really stand out though, for better and worse. I've been trying to put my finger on why Bethesda's RPGs haven't really done it for me in recent years, while the same basic game served up by the likes of Obsidian would go right to the top of my wishlist, and why The Witcher 3 had me hooked for over a hundred hours despite my barely making it to ten in Fallout 4.
There's lots of specific reasons, sure, but increasingly it feels like... and this is just opinion, not fact... Bethesda aims for a consistent level of quality. Predictable. Safe. Consistent. A town is more or less a town, with maybe some fun quests in it, but nothing that's going to stand out too much. Conversely, every area in something like The Witcher or New Vegas feels like its designated designers' chances to shine - to show off, to make their mark. Graphed, the Bethesda model is a bit of a wibbly line with occasional bursts for something like the Dark Brotherhood or Skyrim's Daedric quests, while the competition is peaks and troughs. In the first, you generally know what's round the corner. In the second, it could be anything. Which isn't to say that the second is automatically better. It's much riskier, as you can pretty much guarantee that if one person really adores part of the game, someone else is going to bitterly hate it. It's Newton's First Law of Embuggerance, the bane of designers everywhere.
Playing Enderal offers a similar comparison, for better and worse. It's a much more linear experience than Skyrim - though you can go wandering off if you like - and a much more controlled one. Much of the open world, for instance, is very obviously corridors, albeit lined with cliffs and trees rather than conventional walls, and the lack of levelling controls where you can go much more than anything in the base game ever did. As gorgeous as it all is, the old-school design peeps through quite often.
One good example of this comes early on, near the bottom of a ravine that you're funnelled through on the way to the start of the quest proper. You meet a healer who helps out with your hero-flu (made worse by stumbling through magical areas or drinking potions), but your controls are locked off while his friend arrives. Then, you get a vision of bandits attacking... again, you're unable to move. Then the bandits attack and you're still stuck to your chair, because the plot needs you to get knocked on your ass and rescued by the first proper friendly NPC. Forget any clever choices, like trying to defend the guy or trying to join the bandits instead. Sit! Stay! Good hero!
For the most part though... and the big exceptions being early on... Enderal is worth the occasional frustrations that come of its own making and the ones inherited from Skyrim. It helps that it genuinely feels like a world in and of itself, and a very different one. While Skyrim wasn't the cheeriest game in the world, Enderal can be quite depressing when its plot kicks off and you start working through its mysteries and realising just how bad things are. Still, at least it's pretty! Not only does it make great artistic use of the Skyrim engine, not having to worry about consoles has led to a boost in system requirements to allow for better textures out of the gate, splendid draw distances on open areas, and absolutely glorious scenery to capitalise on how much a decent PC can do now as compared to the Dark Ages of 2011.
It's still not as pretty as The Witcher III, but it is wonderfully detailed with both gorgeous stuff like multicolour grasses blowing in the wind, and less pleasant stuff like the near monochromatic cold areas of the map, and corpses hanging from trees. Even if exploring per se isn't really the focus, the further you get, the more of it you can do, and it's a pleasure to wander around this world and admire everything from the dungeon design and detailing to the vistas carefully arranged near every cliff. No expense has been spared, from the number of location types, to the collectibles on offer as you explore, to tiny environmental details in the buildings and caves.
Despite this being a German mod, Enderal also features a strong English language cast and translation. If you want to play Spot The Typo, you can, but that's being mean. The voices vary, but overall are at least as good as those in Skyrim, and often a notch better. Certainly there's nothing I've found so far that has jarred or gotten in the way as a result of translation or acting. Were it not for familiar Skyrim elements, from SkyUI to the re-used assets, it'd be easy to just consider Enderal an entirely brand new RPG. And it would still be one of the more enjoyable of the year.
Enderal doesn't reinvent the Skyrim style genre of questing by any stretch, and if you're not a fan of Bethesda's original, this probably won't change your mind. It does however take regular advantage of being able to do whatever it wants for the story it wants to tell, filling in where Skyrim stumbled, while still stamping its own world and identity on top. If you don't mind its tendency to take the controls or insist on a specific approach particular quests, it's one of the best additions to Skyrim so far. Certainly, it kicks the living snot out of the official DLC that Bethesda yawned out for Skyrim before moving on. Seriously, all that potential, and what did we get? Hearthfire. Bloody Hearthfire.
To download Enderal, head here. You'll need the installation package, the launcher, and an installed copy of Skyrim - don't worry, a base version will do. The installation will automatically backup the original game and any mods you have running, starting you out clean. A few mods are Enderal compatible, but check first. It's about a 10GB download, with patches already available in the launcher. It runs pretty smoothly on my system, though I did hit a few bugs, including not being able to change screens in the character creator and the menus sticking off the bottom of my ultrawidescreen monitor. Overall though, it was fine. It's worth keeping it up to date though because even more content is on its way very soon - a quest chain called The Golden Sickle, starring Dave Fennoy (Lee from The Walking Dead games), once it's been debugged properly. There's also plans for more, including a story pack later this year.
All of which is very cool, though the game itself isn't exactly short on content as it is. Now that The Witcher 3 is over, we've got a bit of a gap before the next big fantasy game hits, and Enderal is a great way of bridging that gap with something fresh yet familiar, pretty yet complex, and with old school sensibilities but a reluctance to flay the skin from your bones and turn it into a grisly coat. If that's not worth a download, I don't know what is. WinZip, maybe. Useful program. But this is definitely more fun.