The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles
So What's The setup for this first Oblivion expansion pack? Someone's left the door open in Nibben Bay, and there's a cold draught rolling straight through it and freezing the locals to the bone. Honestly, whoever it was must have been bom in a bloody barn. Someone had better head on into that mysterious door (comprised of linked faces - one looking sullen, the others a bit mad), walk through its open, gaping mouth and do some questing or we'll all catch our death.
Beyond it you see, is the realm of Sheogorath - the god of madness and dementia who you could watch raining burning dog corpses onto a village of terrified cat people in the vanilla game. It's all a bit wrong in this torn realm you see - and while you'll get to meet the bearded mad-deity in person and plough through his trials - rather excitingly your adventure may well end in his usurpation.
What with this (actually rather sane) god in charge of these islands devoting much of his time to sending people plainly bonkers, you can expect some odd goings-on in the Shivering Isles, alongside the expected new dungeons, quests, creatures and freeform niceness.
Who Goes There?
Seen left, for example, is a Gatekeeper golem of sorts - comprised of bloodied spare legs, arms and heads that you can find lying in pieces on tables and hanging on walls in a nearby store-room, Red Dwarf Kryten-style. Elsewhere, there'll be Knights of Order to battle, creatures comprised of tree roots and some green chaps called .
Grummites who are a little grumpy, but also quite grudgingly sweet at the same time.
With more than 30 hours of material promised, quest-lines that branch more than before and a land that you can watch change according to your vital life-or-death decisions, we're all a-quiver. To say that the Shivering Isles creates a 'shiver' of excitement would not only be lazy journalism, but also a marked understatement Expect a goliath feature...
Download The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles
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So Here I am, standing outside the curious-looking, double-faced entrance to the Shivering Isles. Having started at the nearest town, I jumped on the first horse I could find (which got me kicked out of the Mages Guild - whoops) and settled into a Daniel Radcliffe pose, hugging its neck as it paddled its way across Niben Bay to the small island in the middle. Before I enter through, I have a confession to make.
Hook, Line And Sinker
When Oblivion was released, my social life went to pot. I wandered the world of Cyrodiil, picking off goblins and trolls with my sword and immolating mountain lions with my trusty fireball spell. I developed an unhealthy interest in botany as I journeyed to far-flung locations, scouring the land in order to complete my bizarre alchemical collection. I progressed quickly through the ranks of the Mages Guild, eventually becoming Archmage and moving into the complimentary pad at Arcane University. I travelled to every Daedra shrine on the map, garnering blessings and mysterious artefacts. I had a unicorn for a steed - at least until I drew out my weapon and it turned on me. Not happy with just the Archmage title, I also worked my way to the top of the Fighters Guild. As you can tell, I was completely hooked.
One thing I neglect, however, was levelling-up. When the telltale arrow at the bottom of the screen indicated that I'd gone up a level and needed to sleep, I ploughed on regardless. When I eventually succumbed, I went up not one level but nine. Overnight, the world of Cyrodiil went from being my fantasy playground to a horrible nightmare. Bandits that were now dressed in glass armour seemed to revel in giving my character a beating with their glass weapons. I was forced to perfect a new style of combat, namely back-pedalling furiously while casting spells until my magicka ran dry.
Duly chastened, I began spending hours at the beach, scouring the sand for mud crabs to punch. I bounced around towns like some demented space hopper and cast hundreds of life detect spells while huddled in a town square, all in order to maximise my stats when I levelled-up. Shortly afterwards, the strain on my time and senses became too much and I gave up playing altogether. As such, it's with some trepidation that I stand here at the portal to the Shivering Isles. Once I cross the threshold, there's no turning back. Will I find myself being sucked in and losing contact with the real world again? Or, perhaps more worrying, will I be unable to attain that same level of immersion for a second time?
It's A Mad, Mad World
Well, it's with some relief that I can confirm that Bethesda's addition to the Daedric realms has grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and shows no sign of letting go. Sorry friends/family/pets, but there's a realm to Im? saved.
After stepping through the portal, I'm met not by a lush landscape as exacted but a small sparse room containing nothing but a table and two chairs. A well-spoken, smartly dressed chap by the name of Haskill occupies the other seat. After lie's greeted me and politely explained that I will soon be entering the realm of the mad god, my curious face turns to an amazed "ooh" as the far wall dissipates into a mass of butterflies. As the fragile creatures fly away, that in turn makes way for an "aaah". I'm still sitting at the bare table, but huge spiky mushrooms now tower above, framed by a stunning and colourful night sky. I spend the next few minutes just admiring the view. Oh yes Oblivion, I'm back.
Crossing into this realm has dropped me into an area known as The Fringe. This is where adventurers who've braved the portal collect (a bit like a dentist's waiting room), with those few blessed by the mad god Sheogorath allowed to pass through the Gates of Madness to the Shivering Isles proper. Those without permission are prevented from doing so by a particularly charming creation called the Gatekeeper, a behemoth made up of assorted body parts with the sole purpose of guarding the entrance to Sheogorath's realm. This is where my guest really begins in earnest.
After a sneaky bit of scheming, eavesdropping and fighting, I eventually find a way through the gates. And upon walking out the other side, I'm instantly smiling like a loon. For though Oblivion's world was undeniably beautiful, after 80 hours or so I just couldn't help but get tired of the same familiar fortresses and wish for something a bit more... Well, dramatic.
Here, the land of the Shivering Isles is separated into two discrete and contrasting zones: Mania and Dementia. Given this opportunity to flex their creative muscles, Bethesda's designers and artists have really come up trumps. Mania's bright and colourful world is full of bizarre new plants and huge mushrooms that tower over the hills and valleys. Meanwhile, Dementia's low-lying land is covered in perpetual gloomy mists and is interspersed with dark swamps riddled with giant roots. In fact, this divide goes right through the land, including the twinned cities of Crucible and Bliss.
Bliss, the Mania side of the city, gleams in the sunlight and is filled to bursting with colourful flora and picturesque waterfalls. The scantily-clad Golden Saints patrol streets filled with cheery obsessives and compulsive creative-types and the city is ruled over by the Duke of Mania, a hedonistic druggie. One Redguard roams the streets, spouting useless bits of information such as how many minutes he spent sleeping last night and delirious beggars rub shoulders with self-conscious jugglers. A claustrophobic chap cowers in terror in the main square; speaking to him reveals that he's terrified of the walls falling in on him. On the other hand, Crucible's streets are a different matter entirely. Even during the day, what little sunlight penetrates to the streets is murky and barely illuminates the stagnant puddles, sewers and gloomy overhanging buildings. The citizens aren't much better, reflecting the darker side of madness. One woman's mutterings about Uncle Leo seem pretty innocuous until you sneak into her house and climb the stairs, only to be met with a tame zombie. Yep, you guessed it, that's Uncle Leo. The local tavern's run by Sickly Bernice, an eternally coughing and spluttering old woman who, if you listen to the rumours, should be avoided like the plague. Probably because she's carrying it.
The aggressive Dark Seducers keep control here and the city is presided over by the paranoid Duchess of Dementia. In a brilliantly sadistic mission later on, Duchess Syl makes you her inquisitor and hands over control of her chief torturer, with hilarious results. I know I was supposed to be finding out who was plotting against the Duchess, but I just couldn't help laughing as I instructed the torturer to dish out punishment after punishment to the unfortunate inhabitants.
Good God, Bad God
Sheogorath, the mad god-king of the realm, is a regally outfitted but otherwise pretty normal-looking bloke with a beard. But as soon as his thick Scottish accent (well, Scottish-ish accent) begins to fill the air, it quickly becomes clear that he embodies every different type of madness going. Hilariously swinging between lavish praise, threatening to throttle me with my own intestines and talking about the smell of clowns in mere moments, he's definitely one of the highlights of the much stronger characters to be found in Shivering Isles.
Standing alongside his throne is his deadpan chamberlain Haskill (the one who admits you through the portal). The contrast between the deranged prince and the altogether too-sane Haskill provides some wonderful moments, though they're topped later in the game when Sheogorath grants you a spell to summon Haskill to your side for advice. He's the Daedric version of MS Word's paperclip if you will, only far less likely to provoke violent shouting. While the crazy prince thinks it's all a barrel of laughs and recommends summoning him at least three times a day. Haskill's deadpan and less-than-impressed responses could have come straight from a Zapp Brannigan/Kif Kroker moment in Futurama.
As the mad god eventually gets around to explaining, his realm is under threat from the Greymarch, a once-in-an-aeon event where Jyggalag, the Daedric prince of order, and his Knights Of Order invade and destroy huge swathes of the Shivering Isles. Sheogorath's pretty keen to prevent this and enlists your help, sending you on various tasks around the realm in order to help out and occasionally making you choose between the different sides of madness. I won't reveal any more of the plot, but rest assured that the main set of missions is pretty lengthy (around 30 hours in total) and features a wealth of innovative and amusing quests. These include fixing and taking control of Xedilian, a dungeon designed to lure in unwanted visitors before sending them insane via a series booby-trapped rooms (a clear lomage to Dungeon Keeper), as well is reassembling the Gatekeeper from pick 'n' mix selection of body parts.
The latter is particularly rewarding, as you then get to watch him unleash his new powers on a group of plucky - but doomed A adventurers.
There's a bunch of bizarrely inventive side quests too, from a ruined fortress populated by ghosts who are doomed to repeat their last, unsuccessful defence for all eternity, to citizens who are too afraid to commit suicide. One of Bliss's resident lizard-men asked me to seek out the Fork of Horripilation, which he insists sings to him. After retrieving the unremarkable-looking fork for him, I discover that his entire house is dedicated to the humble eating utensil. One room's centrepiece is a large statue holding a pitchfork, while cupboards lining the walls are all packed to the brim with forks of different kinds and yet more sit in locked display cases.
While I often found myself seeking quests and restocking supplies in the twinned cities, there's no lack of opportunities to wander the surrounding countryside. Even the dungeons are different in this kooky land, being either dark stone dungeons, far more sinister than those in Oblivion, or subterranean root systems. The latter are entered through the bases of gigantic mushrooms and feature a dark and organic world where tangled roots criss-cross in front of you as barriers, brightly coloured flowers on the floor serve to warn of giant thorn traps and luminous mushrooms adorn the walls. They provide a hugely welcome change to the underground world of adventuring, although you'll no doubt find yourself getting lost at least once in their twisty corridors.
In keeping with the distinct themes, the monsters that inhabit each are also noticeably different and, bar the odd skeleton or man in robes, are unique to this unhinged realm. Mania's bright and beautiful countryside is patrolled by the insect-like Elytra with their shiny, multi-hued carapaces, Gnarls that look like angry walking trees and the ugly-as-sin Hungers. Meanwhile, Dementia's swampy territories are patrolled by skinned hounds (which quickly made me realise the importance of the Dangerous Dogs Act), the dumb and ugly Grummites and the hulking great Scalons, which can turn invisible at will and are found in smaller form as the heel-nipping Balliwogs. My first Scalon encounter found me in the middle of some murky swamp water when I noticed a telltale water ripple on the surface. Thinking I'd outwitted it, I drew my sword, prepared some spells and waited for it to draw closer, only to nearly fall out of my chair as it leapt at me from great distance, attempting to gouge my eyes out.
Of course, there's a host of extra little bits and pieces thrown in too. If, like me, you're just an alchemist at heart, there are plenty of weird and wonderful new ingredients to add to your concoctions, including the oh-so-pleasant-sounding Letifer Orca Digestive Slime. Fancy new spells and sets of armour are also available, but the best thing you'll get your hands on is likely to be Duskfang/Dawnfang, a magical sword that levels up and gains abilities the more enemies it kills, before resetting itself to contrasting skills as dawn breaks or dusk falls.
What it all adds up to is a massive dollop of imaginative content. But it's not without its issues. For one, despite some gloriously inventive missions, Shivering Isles still features more than its fair share of tedious collecting tasks. Perhaps more annoying is that the choices you make in the main quest seem to have little consequence on either the world or your character. Many seem to affect nothing more than which items you're offered -even making your way up to ruler of one of the cities doesn't change the way the residents react to you.
Anyone expecting any changes to gameplay will also be sorely disappointed. That means you can expect many NPCs to still sport ridiculously ugly faces and the same six voices, the controversial levelling system to remain unchanged and the inventory and menu systems to feel as clumsy as ever, with text that your gran could read - without the use of her glasses.
Despite these problems you'll rarely feel disappointed with Shivering Isles, as it's overflowing with creative vision and imagination, and features far stronger characters than you'll find anywhere in vanilla Oblivion. The split personality of the realm, strong storyline and welcome toncjue-in-cheek humour offer a very different experience from Oblivion and one that all adventurers, perhaps even those slightly put off by the niggles in Oblivion, would be crazy not to try.