The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle is the latest chapter in Zenimax‘s titanic MMO endeavour and introduces a brand-new story and location in ESO, among other new additions such as a fantastic card game and enemy types.
Full disclosure: I haven’t kept up with Elder Scrolls Online since its earliest days in 2014. While I had spent a good chunk of my time exploring the MMO’s world and its rich storytelling, Elder Scrolls Online simply did not have enough polish or meaningful content to hold my attention.
High Isle, the latest expansion, serves a double-purpose, almost, as it not only gives long-time players of the MMO a large, new area to explore with all sorts of cool questlines and activities – it also attempts to lure in fans of Elder Scrolls stories, by bringing a familiar type of narrative into the MMO.
The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle – Political Scheming, Monster-Slaying, and Tales of Tribute
While grinding is still very much the core of an MMO experience, it isn’t exactly why I have loved the Elder Scrolls franchise since the first time I played Oblivion. High Isle introduces the fantastic and scenic location of the Systres Archipelago, which houses some of the most beautiful locales I’ve ever seen in the franchise – but underneath the idyllic beauty is suspended on brutal and dark political scheming – which is where you find yourself.
The archipelago is inhabited by the Bretons, a formidable group of people that are as cunning and brutal as they are ingenious and industrious. The location itself is a visual marvel, but an MMO lives and dies by its content and gameplay opportunity. Safe to say, High Isle is packed to the brim with all sorts of new content, the least of which is “Tales of Tribute”, a card game that manages to stay fresh despite seemingly every RPG now having at least 2 of those to boot.
The new mini-game isn’t all that is new as neighbouring the high-class vacation spot is also Amenos, a massive island that is home to all manner of depravity and creatures. The location forms the balancing counterweight to the High Isle’s story-heavy location with plenty of interesting gameplay opportunities and potential for grinding.
The High Isle expansion packs a lot of new content but underneath the shine of the beautiful new location is a feeling of familiar territory that isn’t exactly inviting for new, first-time players.
Story and Narrative
The big focus, this time around, is clearly the story and in a very Witcher 3 kind of way. Sure it is fantastic to go prancing about slaying all sorts of monsters with friends in ESO, but you’d feel equally rewarding navigating the murky, political waters of High Isle.
The story, here, is one that takes players into the deep underbelly of the islands and forces them to consider grey moralities and put on their detective hats. The main crux of the story is the player investigating the disappearance of three important Tamriel leaders.
Although I assume this is a nice change of pace for longtime ESO players, the story is largely predictable and feels like a Witcher 3 cancelled DLC that doesn’t have quite the same levels of intrigue. The story is engaging only in parts and the majority of its quality and impact are predicated upon how much the player has kept up with the Elder Scrolls and if they’re familiar with its roots.
My favourite part of the story was teaming up with and helping a new character called “Isobel Veloise”. Isabel, a Stendarr follower, is the game’s newest companion, and the player can assist her in her journey in competing in the Sapphire Tourney. Being voiced by the legendary Laura Bailey certainly goes a long way in making the character compelling and her questline was easily my favourite part of High Isle.
The story ends at a weird cliffhanger that sets up future content that is due to arrive later this year, but the feeling I had once I was through with it, was one of mild satisfaction. While I would love to see how it all finally ends, the sheer level of predictableness of the story should leave players with a solid-enough idea of where it is going to go next.
A first-time player is more than likely to miss key revelations and/or not recognize key plot points. High Isle’s new story is designed, first and foremost, for long-time players and Elder Scrolls fans, which is fair, since the MMO has a large, hardcore fanbase that is sure to enjoy the “return to roots” style of story in High Isle.
Presentation and Gameplay
I tried the game out on both PC and PS5, and even though my PC were barely strong enough to hold a consistent performance, the experience wasn’t too dissimilar from my time on a PS5. Elder Scrolls Online isn’t exactly the best-looking game around or even the best-looking MMORPG around.
It looks pretty much exactly how you remember Skyrim looked although High Isle is certainly pretty no matter which part of the archipelago you find yourself in. This is no technical marvel but it does the job decently well as a decent-looking MMO with an endless amount of content.
The occasional bug is pretty much par for the course, at this point – judging from the community’s reaction to the expansion on the subreddit. In a bizarre case of fans embracing the game’s flaws, the community has not only accepted the numerous bugs and visual glitches but considers them endearing at this point.
There is a lot of jank to be found here but not nearly enough to pull you completely away from the game as its main story and new content does enough to pull your attention the other way.
In terms of gameplay, and more specifically combat, Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle is much of the same. For years, now, the community has been clamouring for changes to the combat as it has remained fairly standard and daresay mediocre since launch.
The combat hasn’t seen much evolution in High Isle but it is still functional and showy in parts to keep ESO veterans satisfied. Combat is the standard ESO affair and if you enjoy the standard ESO grind, you’re more likely to enjoy High Isle, more so than the first-time player.
The biggest gameplay addition in High Isle has to be the “Tales of Tribute” minigame. The minigame is surprisingly fairer than most other card games in RPGs (I’m looking straight at you, GWENT). It is easy to pick up and get good at with enough practice and there is a quasi-coach around to help you learn the ropes.
Verdict, The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle
Although enjoyable, I don’t see myself returning to High Isle once the game has new content and a conclusion to the story as it feels fairly predictable. Although I had fun teaming up with other players thanks to level-scaling, ESO: High Isle simply does not do enough to lure in players that have yet to try the game.
Simply put, if you were hoping to give ESO a try and High Isle was going to be your way in, this might not be what you’re looking for. With more content arriving later this year, perhaps then, it appears like a much better deal – but in its current state, the game requires more work.
ESO is a fantastic MMO experience, one that has stood the test of time and has fashioned itself as one of the most resilient games of our time. A few much-needed changes to combat is perhaps the thing it needs the most right now, but until then, players might have some hours of fun with the new storyline, but it still doesn’t warrant a purchase from new, first-time players as they are much better off playing the base game only.