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The Dark Heart of Skyrim: Wrap-up Review

  • Mr. likes this
  • Member
    November 11, 2020

    Warning: Here be spoilers!

    At the end of the 2019 Game Awards, we got our first glimpse of 2020's year-long adventure.  It was a short cinematic right after the sucker-punch goodbye to an old friend, the scene cuts to the Nord Hero as he gazes out over the dramatic landscape of Tamriel's north with the overlaid caption, "explore the Dark Heart of Skyrim." The delivery could not have been more perfect. Needless to say, I was hyped.

    As more details emerged that we would be exploring Western Skyrim, a region encompassing Haafingar, Hjaalmarch and the new Karthald, my hopes and expectations went into overdrive. What would we learn? What secrets will be revealed about the mysterious Dragon Bridge? What would the Temple of Meridia at Mount Kilkreath show us about Nordic religion? Will investigating Morthal finally reveal the hinted Morihaus connection?
    In hindsight, maybe I should have tempered my expectations.

    In February, we got the Harrowstorm patch which really started the Dark Heart storyline. The two dungeons, Icereach and Unhallowed Grave, were fun and Unhallowed was lauded for its implementation of the grappling traversal system introduced in Dragonhold the previous year, and for introducing Fennorian, an Altmer vampire who would go on to become a fan-favourite. I enjoyed both dungeons, although I often dislike group content because I can't go at my own pace and so much prefer soloing them whenever possible to experience them properly.

    So it's fair to say that the story didn't really start for me until the prologue quest, The Coven Conspiracy, arrived, which I absolutely loved. I think Lyris has taken a bit of flack recently, but I can't help like her. That's probably because of Bioware games and great voice-acting. I mean, Jennifer Hayle has been a big part of my gaming life: Bastilla Shan in Knights of the Old Republic, Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, and Lyris Titanborn in Elder Scrolls Online... Kinda grown up with her voicing some of my favourite characters. Not only did we get more Lyris, The Coven Conspiracy quest established Blackreach as a place of legend in Nordic folklore, mysterious and often dismissed as superstition. I really appreciated that, which only made me more eager for the main chapter, Greymoor.

    I confess, just before Greymoor launched I was a bit underwhelmed by the score. However, once in Western Skyrim, I started to appreciate the music more. It's sombre, dark and a little bit melancholly which I think compliments the zone beautifully. The zone, in turn, is beautiful, with a wonderful colour pallet that seems the direct oppsoite of Summerset's high-fantasy vibrancy. Western Skyrim really is among the most visually stunning areas in the entire game.

    As for the story, though, I personally felt it was among the weakest in the game. I'm not sure why that is. It could be the focus on vampires which I'm not really into (Greymoor also gave us an overhaul of the vampire skill-line), or that I felt disappointed the lore-things I really hoped for were absent, or that I felt it undermined itself in places. It's like, I reckon they totally got the idea of Blackreach spot-on and filled a gap left by TES V by showing us what the folk of Skyrim think about the place, but when I got there it was a bustling hub of activity complete with several characters, such as the ghost-hunters, who had heard about it and decided to explore. While perfectly acceptable, I couldn't help but feel as though Dusktown didn't jive with how the prologue quest had set Blackreach up.

    I can't complain about Greymoor too much, though, as what I felt was lacking from the chapter in terms of lore was more than compensated for by Antiquities. Man, I love antiquities! The idea is pretty genius, I think, as (in most cases) each artefact unearthed comes with commentary from three antiquarians (a buncha ex-University of Gwylim nerds) who offer different opinions on that which has been dug up. In true unreliable Elder Scrolls fashion, often these opinions contradict each other while still providing valuable insight into the item. This gives the player a lot of interpretive freedom to pick the opinion they prefer or to make up their own mind, all the while gaining insight into a particular period or cultural slice-of-life. Also, the furnishing items in particular are exiquisitely detailed and of very high quality.
    So yeah, Greymoor: Loved the zone visually, felt let down by the story and some side-quests which didn't really tell us anything we didn't know about the people and cultue, but think Antiquities is the best thing ever.

    To be fair, Greymoor did give us some really good stuff about the Clever-Craft in the form of Old Mjolen the Clever-Woman, along with thoughts regarding her offered by various NPCs. For me, Old Mjolen is the highlight of the chapter, bringing with her a deeper understanding of the old ways and a certain Loki/Odin vibe to the figure of Shor. We knew from TES V that Shor was very deeply respected, but I think the trickster element of Lorkhan wasn't really explored. The dialogue surrounding the character of Old Mjolen and her magic acts as a nice bridge between the trickster Lorkhan and the warrior Shor.

    After Geymoor came the anticipated return of Verandis Ravenwatch in the Ravenwatch Inquiry prologue quest for the Markarth dlc. I enjoyed that, can't lie. I've always liked Gwendis as a character so it was enjoyable spending more time with her, and I like the new voice actor portraying Verandis. Whie the reunion of these characters wasn't as emotional as I thought it would be given how distraught Gwendis was in the Rivenspire storylne, I felt it did reflect a greater maturity to her character along with a rare and subtle acknowledgment to the passage of time. There's no two ways about it this time, I think Greymoor is intended to be set a fair while after the base game and works best having played through Rivenspire first.

    Finally, the year wraps up with Markarth, a dlc zone set firmly in the Reach. I've been a big fan of that which ESO has done for the Reachfolk over the years, establishing them as being a people comprised of various clans, each with their own traditions and values. With The Horns of the Reach update a few years ago, we got the sense that the people of the Reach were the ancestors of the Nedic tribes in Northern Tamriel who had been pushed out of their ancestral lands in a sort of mirror to the history of the British Celts.

    Without effort he tore the talisman I wore from my neck and regarded the ruddy stone carving with recognition.“Keptu" he uttered. Though the word meant nothing to me, the omen was a good one.

    As it is to The Song of Pelinal I owe my Elder Scrolls fandom, any Nedic-related lore excites me to a riddiculous degree. So I went into Markarth hopeful. It did not disappoint! While the focus of the dlc is very much on the modern people of the Reach, breadcrumbed throughout the zone are hints at the Reachfolk's origins, bringing into question the whole Nede =/ Nord debate once again. Despite the number of sources being in favour of humanity being the result of Atmoran migration, I have always preferred to think it was Nedic migration to Atmora and back again - the whole Starry Heart being where life started, not Atmora or Aldmeris. While the dlc does not (thankfully) difinitively answer the question, I think it leaves it far more open to personal interpretation than before.

    Off the top of my head, here are some amazing things Markarth has given us:

    Ancient vampires possibly occupying Blackreach prior to even the Dwemer? Check. Namira as a Spirit Mother goddess representing the duality of life and death? Check. Reach Witches using Void matter to do some serioiusly cool and creepy shit with? Check. Daedric Princes subverted and reimagined as believable figures of respect and veneration? Check. Briarheart Warriors created in respect and re-enactment of the Shezarrine concept of Lorkhan (Lorkh)? Check. Red Eagle lore? Check. And unexpectedly, Sword-Saints!

    As for the Dark Heart storyline, Markarth twists it up in unexpected ways, bringing all the missing mystery absent from Greymoor back to TES with style and making it personal by showing us more of Rada al-Saran's story and his interplay with Verandis. The story isn't afraid to take risks, either, with one highlight moment of discussion with the Ashen Lord allowing you to choose how much to tell him and whether you meet his Yokudan honour with your own, or lie to his face. Also, the Blackreach area beneath the Reach is much more like the way it was established in the Greymoor prequal quest. It feels ancient, empty, and full of mystery and secrets awaiting discovery.

    All in all, Markarth has made the Dark Heart of Skyrim storyline into something deep, complex, and more than just a play on words.