There is said to be enough Elder Scrolls content to last a lifetime, which is a statement that no doubt fills the hearts of the most dedicated RPG adventurers with a sense of challenge and yearning. But with Elder Scrolls Online's newest expansion Summerset, I would recommend players to maybe hold off on their next exciting world saving adventures for just a bit and take in the sights instead. Summerset is, after all, absolutely beautiful.
At the Game Developer's Conference this year, I spent a few hours with the newest Elder Scrolls Online expansion. The first impression I had from the still in-development build of the expansion was how much Summerset felt like a classic fantasy adventure. Not for older Elder Scrolls games like the Morrowind expansion last year, but rather, it made me nostalgic for the classic, high fantasy from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
This is no accident, according Elder Scrolls Online Creative Director Rich Lambert. During a casual conversation, Lambert tells me that unlike Morrowind, which is very nostalgic because it's a historic place in Elder Scrolls fans' hearts, Summerset is set in "A place you've never really been able to explore, something a little different." He also says that Summerset "isn't your typical Elder Scrolls," but rather a "traditional high-elf fantasy."
The story of Summerset is as follows: Queen Ayrenn, the ruler of the High Elves, has opened up the Summerset Isles to foreigners for the first time. There's a bit of royal intrigue as the High Elves play a little game of thrones amongst themselves. Meanwhile, players can finally meet and interact with the mages of the Psijic Order, a long-known entity in the Elder Scrolls canon, but Summerset will be their official debut.
That classic fantasy feel is on full-display during Summerset's opening minutes, as the player is guided by a tutorial and has to follow a mystic guide as they try and lead the player out of some kind of astral plane. The other dimension looks like some kind of black velvet painting of a fantasy world, complete with tall spires and a night sky full of blazing stars.
Then the player escapes, and lo and behold it's Summerset, a breezy, beautiful paradise that is as temperate as the name suggests. Forget the volcanoes of Morrowind, Summerset is practically a vacation destination. And with that spirit, I opted to ignore the main story quest and focus on a few side missions.
There were many, many side quests provided to us. I settled on a storyline called "Old Wounds," something a developer at the preview told me was a murder-mystery adventure set in the High-Elven kingdom. Funny enough, I was told that out of all the different side quests available to us for preview, me and my two other fellow previewers all chose the same murder mystery-themed side quest during our limited time. I suppose the pull of solving a murder in Summerset was too strong.
There's something refreshing, if not downright enjoyable, about playing what feels like a classic high fantasy adventure, but with all the joyful gameplay and RPG mechanics of an Elder Scrolls game. That feeling comes to a head in Old Wounds as your character, a relative stranger in the land, is suddenly tasked by Summerset's magical authorities to be a detective.
The setup is a little weird, but your actual duties of juggling between two bickering detectives with a long, shared secret quickly becomes enthralling as you get caught up in the murder of a local vineyard owner. The main suspect is someone the detectives call "The Ghost of the Green," the same serial killer the two detectives caught years earlier.
The mission is a mix of gameplay. At first, you're just traveling across the different vineyards, talking to neighbors and suspects and gathering clues. It's not as engaging as a true mystery game like Phoenix Wright, but the storyline is well-written enough that I found it to be fairly enjoyable unfolding the mystery in a rather linear way. The twist is a little predictable, but it's still fun.
The second half of the quest is more of a classic dungeon run, with the player chasing the murder down into the catacombs and fighting their way through until the final boss encounter. Rather than cause any tonal issues, I found it clever that ESO turned the basic qest structure on its head by wrapping it around the central murder mystery.
I didn't have the time to play any of the other side quests or main story missions, but if all other side missions are similar in length to Old Wounds (which clocked in at around 45 minutes), then you can expect to be busy with Summerset for a good while.
Other additions announced for Summerset that I didn't get a chance to try out during my preview include a new Psijic Order combat skill line themed around time manipulation, a 12-player trial called Cloudrest, and a new Jewelry crafting mechanic to further enhance your character customization.
Still, based on the setting and the lone side quest I did play, Zenimax Online Studios looks to be in top form here. Summerset isn't only just a fun experiment with classical high fantasy elements, but the compelling story of a side quest like Old Wounds hopefully means that the full meat and bones of Summerset will be equally exciting.