Playing Skyrim in November 2011 felt like joining an expedition into the unknown. We were experiencing strange things for the first time and excitedly sharing them. Rumours abounded. Was there really a headless horseman on the roads around Whiterun at night? A giant who mourned over his dead mammoth pal? Hunters bathing in a hot spring in their underwear? The joy of discovery dimmed over time, and another kind of joy replaced it. When I play Skyrim now I do it knowing what can happen there. There are mods to enhance these playthroughs in so many ways, but , a total conversion years in the making, is a different kind of mod. It’s not here to make my Nth new Skyrim adventure better—it’s here to wipe the slate and give me back something like the experience of playing it for the first time. We can be explorers again. enderal word of the dead puzzleFive years in the making, hobbyist studio SureAI has now released the English language version of Enderal: The Shards of Order, a total conversion mod for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Off the back of its multi-award winning Oblivion total conversion Nehrim: At Fate’s Edge, Enderal is easily the small studio’s most ambitious project to date—one which not only offers players an entirely new playground to explore; but also a host of new characters to interact with, 30 hours-worth of campaign to plough through, and some completely overhauled systems to tinker with. Enderal is a theocracy where citizens worship immortal wizards who set themselves up as gods, and where people are born into castes called Paths. Someone born into the Manufacturer Path is unlikely to ever join the ruling class in the Sublime Path. It’s not a place where someone can be the head of every guild at once, and it doesn’t have those classic Bethesda faction storylines (no Dark Brotherhood here, sadly). What it does have is a central questline about saving the world that’s a bit Mass Effect (and I mean that as a compliment), surrounded by short sidequests that show off different aspects of the setting. One moment I’m rescuing someone from a goatman, the next collecting rare eggs by following birds back to their nests or hunting bounties found on a bulletin board.
But before that I have to go through a long tutorial covering my arrival in Enderal as a Pathless foreigner, the kind of traditional fantasy RPG outsider who needs to have the setting explained to them while being mildly discriminated against. The opening gives me a backstory and deposits me on the beach, but then it stops and starts a couple more times before letting me really cut loose, which is when Enderal gets good.
The landscape has plenty of variety, from fields full of flowers to the desolate Powder Desert, all of which it shows off with vistas where the sun edges around an outcrop of jagged stone or a gigantic statue while butterflies or glowbugs dance past. Everything’s been carefully placed by hand for maximum effect, including the enemies.
Collectibles like red magic symbols worth experience points and blue Ice Claw mushrooms that give a tiny boost to carrying capacity are scattered about to encourage exploration. They’re better motivation to explore than another bloody Nirnroot, but I already want to look around every corner because it’s just so pretty.
Last year, we caught up with a few members of the SureAI team to learn about the making of the mod which is a relatively long but interesting read. Expect more words about of Enderal: The Shards of Order at some point later this week, however learn what Jody Macgregor thought after spending 20 hours wandering its sprawling bounds last week.Still, Enderal’s flaws are minor compared to what it achieves. Even though it’s crashed on me a bunch of times and some of its decisions are frustrating—I’m not enthusiastic about finding new merchants to buy skill books from and would happily have Skyrim’s leveling back—the 50 hours or so I spent finishing the main quest and various bits of side stuff were plenty enjoyable, and there’s still more left to do. The standard of writing is high, with dialogue that’s chatty and has none of the fusty formality that sometimes plagues translations. The voice-acting’s also far beyond what you expect from a fan project, aided by a couple of professionals like Dave Fennoy (Lee from The Walking Dead) making cameos.What it’s not is a stick to beat Bethesda with. If you’re the kind of dissatisfied Elder Scrolls fan looking for an excuse to say “Here’s what Skyrim should have been!” this isn’t it. In fact, Enderal makes me appreciate Skyrim even more for reminding me of that initial burst of discoveries and letting me experience something like it again. Whether it’s a couple of skeletons in strange poses, a collectible in a hard-to-reach spot, a gambler in the tavern, or a buried treasure marked with an X, I keep finding things that remind me I’m in a world that hasn’t been catalogued in a wiki yet. Everything feels fresh and each time I crest the top of a hill there’s something different on the far side.