Beauty in the eye of the beholder.
Take one look at the high-fantasy landscapes of Summerset and you might be fooled into thinking that all The Elder Scrolls Online’s newest expansion brings is simply “more of the same.” And it’s true that in many ways, Zenimax Online Studios has stuck to what has helped make TESO into one of the better MMORPGs out today. Yet underneath the beauty of the High Elven island lies a darker side, one TESO doesn’t shy away from. As a result, Summerset is both familiar and foreign; full of grace yet surprisingly sinister.
One of the aspects that The Elder Scrolls Online excels at is that even though its story is tied into the larger plot, new players can pick up the expansion and start from Summerset with no knowledge of the events leading up to this point. Improving on the stories that came before it, Summerset picks up after the events of last year’s excellent Morrowind expansion. The young and charismatic Queen Ayrenn of the High Elves has opened up the island of Summerset to outsiders, and most locals tend to look on newcomers such as yourself as so much chopped liver. This is felt not just in quest dialogue, but simply listening to the High Elves while passing by, such as an Altmer who was berating an Orc for not knowing the exact, proper way to challenge him to a duel. And Eight forbid you’re an Argonian, as you’ll be seen as nothing more than just barely above an animal.
The land of Summerset is beautiful to behold, but it’s a fairly conventional beauty with few surprises. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of interesting places to explore, such as the time-bending forest of Ebon Stadmont or the towering coral forests which hug the coastlines of the island, but the traditional fantasy cities and Tolkeinesque Elvish names and architecture make Summerset feel a little boring compared to Morrowind’s Vvardenfell. However, what Summerset lacks in originality, it more than makes up for it with its storytelling.
It’s great to see fan-favorite Razum-Dar take a central role.
Apart from the challenging new raid, Summerset’s compelling main story and prominent sidequests took about 30 hours or so to move through. The gameplay formula hasn’t changed much since Morrowind either: you move from one quest hub to the next, completing stories and side quests as they cropped up. Some of these stand out: I rather enjoyed my time as a thespian in Rellinthil going undercover a missing sibling in the House of Reveries, and the time-bending story of Ebon Stadmont kept me engrossed with the twists and turns it threw at me. You can also seek out public dungeons and encounters as you could in the previous installments of TESO, such as the Abyssal Geyers that pop up in parts of Summerset, though while excellent, repeatable sources of experiences, they don’t feel any different than the Dolmens found on the mainland. The main storyline, though, is the crowning jewel of the expansion.
It’s great to see fan-favorite Razum-Dar – a witty and incredibly capable Khajiit agent in Queen Aryenn’s intelligence network – take a central role in the overarching story of Summerset, but it’s the way that the underlying darkness contrasts with the idyllic beauty on display that makes the stories so compelling. The High Elves have never been shy about their thoughts regarding the other races – and indeed Summerset showcases this disdain thoroughly throughout the world around you. It makes for intriguing social commentary, such as a quest that has you searching for missing newcomers to Summerset, only to find that they’ve been kidnapped and held against their will by a group of High Elves for a more sinister purpose. The varying degrees with which the High Elves showcase their hangups with the current climate of Summerset – and the willingness of some to set aside their deep-rooted cultural thinking to work together – makes playing through the story a rewarding experience.
It’s TESO’s willingness to focus on the local and minute versus going back to traditional Elder Scrolls storytelling where the fate of the world hangs in the balance of every choice you make that really give these quests an impact. Diving deeper into the motivations of the characters around you and not simply praising your prowess as a world-class savior brings a human quality that gets lost in other MMOs. Helping Silurie investigate the unexplained deaths at Cey-Tarn Keep outside of Alinor exposed more about the Divine Prosecution – the lawkeepers in Summerset – and the Justiciars who keep the peace. As a result, the daily quests given by the Justiciars in Summerset took on a whole new meaning, making me feel as though I was part of that peacekeeping process more than in a typical quest. The characters – and the quality with which they are written – help make every nook and cranny of Summerset and the larger world of Tamriel worth exploring.
Every nook and cranny of Summerset is worth exploring.
At the center of the main storyline is the Psijic Order – a monastic group of mages that typically don’t play a major role in the events of Tamriel. With the Psijic Order comes a powerful new skill line that gives you control over time. Some standout skills include a time freeze, which can crucially slow down and stop additionally enemies harassing you, as well as an ultimate skill that lets you “undo” time and revert your stats to what they were a few seconds prior, replenishing lost health and magicka in the thick of a battle. The passive skills in the Psijic Order line are also pretty powerful and worth investing in, like a skill which can give you a shield to absorb damage while blocking, or spell charges which fling themselves at the closest enemy when you have enough of them.
Additionally, working with the Psijic Order gives you access to the island of Artaeum, an island removed from Tamriel years prior by the Psijic monks to allow them to study in peace. While small compared to other zones in TESO, Artaeum is fun to explore – especially realizing that this tiny island is set up perfectly to sustain the monks with wheat fields, vineyards, flowing fountains, and more. The central hub is The Ceporah Tower, a large structure that looms over the northern edge of Artaeum, and its otherworldly atmosphere and watery portals really drive home the point that this is a society untouched by the rest of the world around it and gives the Psijic Order a more distinct flavor.
While the Psijic skill line is overall pretty decent, the path to unlocking them involves one of the more boring bits of the Summerset expansion because the magey monks initially only let you level it by jaunting all over Tamriel to close various time breaches. Veteran players won’t find this as tedious, as they can simply port to wayshrines near the marks on the crudely drawn maps given to you, making the travel a breeze. Chances are, they’ve already found most of the wayshrines. For new players, though, this gives you a chance to travel Tamriel and see more than just Summerset. However, without having the wayshrines discovered to get you where you need to go quickly, these quests can become mind-numbing. I found myself turning on a video or two to listen to while traveling around The Rift looking for a few because I just could not concentrate on the quest fully without falling asleep at points. The story told while leveling the Psijic Order skill line is a good one, though, with characters whose motivations made me empathize with their choices throughout, and it makes leveling up worth the time in the end.
Along with the new skill line, Summerset introduces a new crafting profession: jewelry crafting. It’s nice to see another line of crafting supported, but given the amount of time it takes to research traits and max out a crafting line, its inclusion now feels primed to sell instant research scrolls from TESO’s Crown Store in order for it to make a difference with end-game gear sets right away. With some traits taking literal days to research, I don’t see myself continuing jewelry crafting right away, other than just making a few rings here and there to compliment a basic loadout. To me, though, for the higher-level gear specifically, being able to create my own and dealing with the time it takes to get to that point doesn’t feel worth it in the end versus just buying what I need in the guild store.