Enderal: Forgotten Stories (PC)

What distinguishes a free man and a slave?

This is the opening question of Enderal: Forgotten Stories and informs the basis of the games narrative. Leading from Nehrim which challenged political and religious structures, Enderal continues to explore this concept further by focusing on alternative philosophies of freedom and slavery such as slavery to one’s own desires.

This is easily one of the most tightly knit narratives within an RPG, nearly every quests relates to the primary theme. Moreover each quest establishes and builds upon the world, from small domestic dramas that play out as consequences of the imposition of societies structures upon individuals in the early game, to the larger consequences of responsibility when one is in charge in the late game. Enderal does not shy away from difficult material and right from the outset exposes the player to its visceral drama.

The quests are organic and build naturally, escalating in importance as the tale unfolds. Seeing how the secondary and side quests all bear impact upon the main game at later stages, many foreshadowing future events is fascinating and a testament to the focus of the writing. Even quests that at first glance don’t seem related still expound upon the central themes of freedom. Ultimately though the game never quite resolves or comes to a conclusion despite having branching endings, including a secret one.

Instead the decision is left up to you the player.

The premise of Enderal is a struggle against the enigmatic High Ones, beings (or forces) that impose their will upon the world for a purpose -at least initially- only known to them. Their indirect manipulation of desires and the subconscious of their agents in the world gives them power to unfold their will over others, essentially turning their human tools into unwitting slaves. It is the player’s purpose to attempt to thwart this, and free themselves. Much of the scenario is a continuation of Nehrim’s tale (their previous mod) however understanding the tale of Nehrim is not essential as Enderal stands sufficiently on its own, those who have played it however are in for a few surprises and nostalgic flashbacks.

“From the forces that all creatures bind, who overcomes himself his freedom finds.” ~Goethe

First amongst such is the inclusion of notable characters from Nehrim, with Tealor Arantheal most prominent among them. His nobility here is shown as flawed and though he strives for perfection his very human failings set him up as the tragic hero. Accompanying him are a new cast of characters, including romanceable options Jespar Dal’Varek and Calia Sakaresh. Both have extensive companion quests that develop over time, and a new introduction to the Creation engine is displayed in building favour with them, whether to become friends or lovers. This mechanic bears fruit in other aspects of dialogue as well, since other characters have important arcs where befriending them is useful. Most importantly is the Rhalata side-quest were actually disagreeing with one of the characters leads to some significant character growth that would not be possible if you’d pleased them all the time. This break from the ‘Bioware’ dialogue reward system was incredibly refreshing to see, and sets up the idea that game dialogues are possible to more extensively develop interactions and change companion’s ideas (something I’d only really seen in Pillars of Eternity so far). This leads to far more satisfying relationships whether they are romantic or platonic.

Mysterious places await discovery

The story and background of the world is extensive, and revealed in various ways. Since the game does make use of Bethesda’s Creation Engine, all the hallmarks of the Elder Scrolls games are here. From books in the form of poetry and scholarly treatises, to notes that expound on behind the scenes occurrences, and through normal means such as cut scenes, scripted segments (which sadly detract from player agency at certain times) and of course the old staple of dialogue, the game is quite diverse in conveying it’s narrative. In addition there are various motifs and symbols within the world that have significant impact to the observant player this environmental storytelling plays a significant role here as well. After all this, the game still does adhere to the hallmarks of Western RPG’s with its large open world, and a plethora of dungeons and locations to adventure in, emergent storytelling through the players creativity is possible as well.

“Always act according to that maxim that you can will as a universal law of nature.” ~Immanuel Kant

Despite being a mod, Enderal significantly overhauls the character progression system. Not only are the classes and skills renamed, but many systems are significantly overworked. The challenge is significantly harder here, and in addition is actually scalable, selecting harder difficulties will spawn more enemies to fight you, and at times the mobs can become quite overwhelming. The feel of combat will still be familiar to veterans of Skyrim though.

Most obviously different is the progression system, experience is gained from enemies in order to level up, which increases the grind, since you can only progress to the next area once you are of sufficient level as the areas scale as well. Once you have leveled, you acquire various points to spend, named learning and crafting respectively. Reading books allows you to develop these further. These skill books can be obtained from vendors or found scattered about the world. In addition if you are a caster spells will need to be learned in a similar manner, making mages one of the more expensive classes to develop in the game.

Crafting is familiar though, many of the ores retain the same names, except for the high level ores, and you will be able to craft potions through alchemy. New to Forgotten Stories is the phasmalist class, an interesting riff on the games themes of freedom since the phasmalist captures and binds souls to amulets to summon them in battle. The enslavement of these souls is a lengthy process since they must be discovered within the environment of the game, and are invisible without a special detection spell.

“But to manipulate men, to propel them toward goals which you—the social reformers—see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.”

Isaiah Berlin

Magic has been divided into different schools and at first glance is more limited than Skyrim. This is compounded by the fact that in the early game caster classes are heavily penalised by the Arcane Fever mechanic which advances every time you use powerful magic and drink potions. It is only mitigated by drinking Ambrosia, and if left unchecked will cause death and a terrible transformation. Once a certain story point is reached the Arcane Fever is less problematic but it is certainly a major hindrance in the early stages. Elementalism is the most prominent magic school, as it is your primary means to deal damage, but other magic skills such as the Thaumaturge take the place of supplementary spells allowing you to enhance damage or armour values or alternatively debuff enemies. The most interesting variants are the Sinistrope fields that deal with mind control, and are considered to be a forbidden school. These are obviously most at variance with the games theme, so make an interesting counterpart to the narrative. Many of the skills create an enhanced challenge since they drain your own health, and increase damage based on how low your health is. Using them carefully is an interesting hurdle to overcome.

The combat system in Enderal is in essence not much different from that of Skyrim, but does add some new interesting elements. The weapon types are the same however there are some notable additions such as set item bonuses. Unlike Skyrim combinations of specific specializations (like great-sword and light armor) will unlock additional bonuses. These abilities take the place of Skyrim’s shouts and can be unlocked as part of the skill trees. These abilities are gained through meditation and unlocking memories. A strange ability unique to the player character that ties into their role as the Prophetess and are hidden abilities of past lives. Without them combat can become difficult, and using them strategically is important as many have cool downs. Since the enemies are significantly harder in Enderal, playing strategically and combing abilities to gain advantages is important when developing battle tactics. This is made somewhat easier by carrying a liberal amount of health potions and pausing to drink them.

The old water-works

Using these skills take place in a variety of environments. Dungeon crawling is still a staple , and descending into narrow hallways and tombs is essential for both experience and loot. Sadly these tombs, whilst visually impressive are old fashioned in execution. Many are linear and don’t offer alternative exists, meaning you need to backtrack to the exit rather than emerge at the cleverly hidden exits that Skyrim was so famous for. It does however make these spelunking adventures more realistic. There are a few notable dungeons that do break this mould, with the Ark Crypt being one such with it’s labyrinthine corridors and multiple approaches to various rooms and some do offer platforming and jumping challenges which were notably absent from Skyrim.

The monsters that inhabit many of these areas are slightly overhauled, whilst many of their attacks are the same as Skyrim, there are special boss monsters that occur in quest encounters. These are fairly significant encounters, in one scenario you choose who becomes the boss, in another there is a scripted sequence with temporary opportunities to attack. Something not usually present in Elder Scrolls games but familiar to players of JRPGs. To see this sort of battle presented on this engine is a testament to the skilled adaptation of the coding.

Ancient ruins hide untold secrets

Getting to locations is also artificially delayed. You’re encouraged to explore the landscape. Teleport scrolls are available to various quest hubs, and the large creatures known as Myrads also offer transportation similar to Morrowind’s Silt Striders, except Myrads can fly! (They are overhauled Dragons after all). This does mean the length of the game is increased since you will need to travel and get lost when climbing mountains yet it does allow you to continually enhance your skills and level, so that by the time end game arrives you are of sufficient skill to handle it. This forced exploration does lessen the feel of the grind since you are usually in pursuit of an item or travelling to an event.

The quests are fairly standard, most being fetch quests, yet the experience never feels tedious due to the well written dialogues and advancement of the story. Encounters within the quests also help to make them feel more varied despite the fact you’re doing the same thing over and over.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing completely straight was ever made”

Isaiah Berlin

All of this takes place in a world that is remarkable considering the age of the engine. Being a total conversion Enderal does make significant use of various graphical overhauls, that create some truly remarkable environments. Some assets used will clearly send the player into reminiscing over Skyrim, however many new objects and textures are introduced, leaving a distinctly new feel to the world of Vyn you are adventuring through. These overhauls do come at a slight cost though, as performance does suffer. I noticed significant frame drops when wandering through highly vegetated areas, whether tropical or temperate forest. It is recommended to play this on a machine that is more powerful than that required for Skyrim as the resource demands are significantly higher for Enderal.

Another notable aspect was the heavy use of visual effects. For the most part these were impressive, however at times the flashing colours and lights did create significant eyestrain and during one sequence in particular the combination of blurring and flashing brought on a headache quite quickly. There is no epilepsy warning, not that I suffer from it, but considering many games do hold such a warning it’s absence was rather notable considering the usage of these special effects.

The demesne of Vatyra

Some of the monsters are renamed and recoloured into new variants, yet there are a few new unique monsters created for the game, that showcase some of the teams creativity. It would have been nice to see a few more such creatures, like the special bosses that need specific methods to combat and defeat whilst being utterly unique to look at.

The film sequences are not used extensively in the game, and sadly do look a bit like machinima productions, which was disappointing since the opening cinematic was highly stylised and reminiscent of Bioware’s Dragon Age opening. This wasn’t used again instead transitioning to the machinima pieces, I’d have enjoyed seeing more of this type of skilled artwork,, especially since it harkens back to many classic RPG opening sequences

Accompanying the visuals is an overhauled sound system. New music has been composed for the game, and whilst it clearly draws inspiration from the works of Jeremy Soule and Inon Zur it does manage to stand on its own. There’s also some Skyrim and Dragon Age inspiration creeping in again as bards are able to play various songs that reveal more about the world and its myths. Requesting songs at taverns led to a nice counterpart when relaxing, and the instrumentation of the game was beautifully used, with even bands of musicians playing during particular scenes. Yet all of this paled when compared to the way the game introduced its leitmotifs. They blend in so well at climactic moments, and as soon as one begins to hear them, tension begins to escalate, even if the music being used is a simple lullaby. Sadly the soundtrack doesn’t quite have the large orchestral impact that other games have yet it is still superb considering the budget and constraints that a free game is made under.

Childish pursuits

The voice acting is notable as well. Having played the English version some of the voices seemed slightly poor at first, and the dialogue did not always match the written texts, but for the most part the voices matched the characters. Whether it was the strident, authoritative tones of Arantheal, the confidence of Lishari Peghast or the hidden vulnerability Calia the characters are excellently portrayed and to see this aspect blend with the characters animations at various points was incredible to witness.

Enderal is a significant accomplishment, being one of the first total conversion mods released as a standalone product on Steam, but due to the consistent quality throughout. Whilst there are many areas that show some amateur design decisions, the tightly executed narrative and new possibilities revealed in the Creation engine code make this an interesting landmark in the history of videogames. In addition to this is the fact that it released for free, in the face of Bethesda’s consistent attempts to monetize mods via their workshops. SureAI has shown incredible skill here, hopefully their passion will lead them to new success in the future.

Score ~8/10~

Pros

*Beautiful overhaul of the Creation Engine

*Tightly woven narrative

*Incredible environments to explore

*Wonderful soundtrack with some excellent vocal performances by the ‘bards’

*Different endings to sidequests as well as the main game add replayability

Cons

*Some areas can be quite linear

*A lot of visual effects that create eyestrain

*Graphics overhaul increases the system requirements, which makes for a decreased performance when compared to Skyrim on lower end systems.

*Crashes are still fairly frequent

Publisher: SureAI

Developer: SureAI

Platforms: PC, Mac

ESRB: / PEGI: Not rated (Skyrim is rated M/18+)

Available from: Steam,


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