Elder Scrolls Legends Review
Legends is an Elder Scrolls themed card game with a simple ruleset – you and your opponent have a deck of cards and a health pool, and the last one standing at the end of the round wins. The cards in the deck include things that attack, things that bring random buffs and debuffs, and stuff that affects the health you or your opponents directly (oftentimes, the best cards have some combination of these going on at the same time).
Each card, when not purely an item or an action, has health and attack power. The cards themselves fall under five colors/attributes (representing the attributes in traditional Elder Scrolls games prior to Skyrim), and your deck can be made of, at most, two of them. On an extraordinarily basic level, each play is choosing whether to attack your opponent’s cards to chip away at your opponent’s chance to use their cards to attack you, buffing yourself or your own cards, or choosing to attack your opponent directly and edge closer to victory. Legends also brings some unique wrinkles into the game that separate it from its contemporaries.
One unique feature of Legends is its laning system – there are two lanes to place cards, and cards can typically only attack cards in the same lane. Within each game, there is a cover lane, and cards placed in this lane cannot be attacked in the opposing side’s next turn.Having to decide where best to place your cards adds a welcome layer of depth to games, and is a basic enough system that even new players can utilize it.
Another unique feature is the rune system. Over your health bar, there are runes that break once your health drops to certain thresholds. Each rune break results in you drawing one “prophecy card” to use for free. Prophecy cards can come in all the usual card types, and do a good job of not only helping struggling players have a shot at redemption after poor play, but also offering yet another layer to keep track of in high level play.
This can be a lot to take in for a new player, but thankfully the game does a good job of teaching – it’s tutorials are not only quick and effective, but well paced throughout the experience, spread throughout the first 6 or so games you play of the main story campaign (or in the case of menus tutorials, whenever you use the menu).
This is in stark contrast to a lot of modern games that try to front-load all their rules and minutia in one momentum killing swoop (a death of many an attempt of mine to get into strategy and card games) and I was happy to see that common pitfall avoided. The fights throughout the main campaign have you fighting a good variety of deck types and have you unlocking different pre-made deck combos along the way (though you are always free to mix and match whatever one or two-color combos can help you reach the 50-70 card range your deck requires). This ensures that, by the time you finish the game, you know the basics, and have seen the basics of most of decks you’d see in online play.
There are also some rounds that modify the game board or the rules themselves in the form of special run-ins, like a memorable bar fight in a Nord Tavern that has bottles flying over both sides, hitting random cards or players with damage. Each round – particularly in the campaign, where you can replay the same fights over and over – plays out like a puzzle to solve. Different decks and strategies do better against one another, and combining that with the aforementioned modifiers many of the fights have made for a campaign that had a bit more variety than I’d expected. The story of the campaign, however, does not quite live up to either the variety the campaign offers, or the potential offered by the lore.
The story of the campaign mode of this game is like taking the most boring, sterile Dungeons & Dragons campaign, replacing all relevant universe terminology with Elder Scrolls lore, and handing it to the most bored voice actors they could find. It’s HarmonQuest on Xanax, which is a shame, because the actual time period itself is ripe with possibility. The story takes in one of the most interesting time periods in Elder Scrolls history – The Great War.
For those who are not super well versed in the lore, this was a time after the events of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that led to the tense political climate of Skyrim. Instead of focusing on some cool behind the scenes stuff with the war, or maybe covering this time period in more detail, it becomes window dressing for the real plot – chasing after an evil mage they don’t bother establishing, talking about a prophecy called The Culling that no one knows about, to unleash another demon apocalypse that was already trite when Oblivion did it. I could go through the entire plot, but to do that would require me to copy and paste the wiki verbatim, and I am typing this paragraph literally having just alt-tabbed out of the credits.
There are two things that stuck out about this campaign – it’s short (~4 hours, give or take, for players newer to card games, 2-3 if you are a veteran) and a modern gaming staple that is a personal annoyance of mine. On the latter – Legends’ campaign has story choices scattered throughout. In these story moments (always between two choices), which option you choose has no bearing on the main plot, and really only serves to contextualize the choice between two different cards as rewards for the previous battle.
My main problem with this is that the moment you link gameplay rewards and story decisions, you end up cheapening the story, as inevitably players will feel compelled to prioritize one or the other, and will usually pick the one that gives them the best long-term value.
The Fall of the Dark Brotherhood expansion, however, fairs a bit better with both the campaign and it’s decisions. A smaller scale story of infiltrating the brotherhood to destroy it from within and avenge a man who lost his daughter works a bit better than the world ending bore of the campaign for this genre. While the story choices do fall into my pet peeve of also being gameplay choices, they pull it off a bit better by making the choices occur before the fight starts and changing the modifier of the round (i.e. choosing between half damage or double damage for you and your opponent) as opposed to taking place after and being an excuse to contextualize card rewards. These modifiers create even more interesting scenarios than the main campaign, and the choices themselves almost make sense with the modifiers (in one particularly memorable scenario, using a disguise gives you a premade deck, whereas not using a disguise lets you pick your own).
The visuals help distract from the lackluster stories, made up of hand-drawn/painted stills with voice actors talking on top of them. While barebone, they fit the visual style of a the cards, making them, in some ways, more appropriate than actual cutscenes would have been. Overall, with a few notable exceptions, the presentation was spot on, barebones or not.
The card viewing UI could have used some sorting options instead of just the search filter offered, and I feel like the option to make the cards a little smaller could go a long way, but the flow of all the actions, clicks, searches, and effects were mostly satisfying, with a few exceptions. One of these exceptions is, of all things, opening card packs, which always seemed just a little bit finicky – not to the point of inaccuracy, but to the point where it became noticeable. I would also be remiss to not comment on the backdrops that you play on.
Regardless of whichever environment you are in according to the campaign story or who you are fighting, the table the cards are laid on never changes in any fight you have. I understand that a sterile, tan-brown paper backdrop is probably the best color choice to contrast with the cards, but games like Hearthstone get around this by providing a nice border to their game boards that changes depending on who’s fighting, and Legends not following suite makes back to back fighting wear on you that just a little bit more.
Finally, the quality of the art in the cards are a mostly hit but sometimes miss. You can have some that look like they were hand-drawn and colored, some that look painted, some that look like real photos with an iPhone app filter, and some that look like they took a bad 3D model and pumped up the blurriness in photoshop. I like the look of most of these cards, but the inconsistency in design direction even within the ones I do like can be distracting when trying to appreciate the cards’ aesthetics.
This, of course, becomes no more than a nitpick as the visuals become background noise for the strategies you use the cards in themselves. The variety of cards and effects offer a fair bit of build depth – though in my cursory research comparing the amount of high level builds (and the detail and strategy offered within) of this game to those of its contemporaries, it ended up looking just a little bit shallower (although, to be fair, it is still relatively new, and I am still new to the genre). Still, I was overall pleasantly surprised at how quickly I picked up new strategies and how many strategies I have left to learn, given my research in community sites post campaign completion, and my experience playing online.
That brings us nicely into where you will be spending the bulk of your time – online play. For better or worse, it’s functional, but barebones. You have casual, versus, and training mode. That’s it. I would have wanted to see more of the special types of rounds seen in the campaign as multiplayer offerings. Maybe making custom matches, or a game mode where each game has a random modification in the round. It would switch things up a bit and add a good break from the “pure” type of rounds, and it would be good practice to have to know how to respond to different situations on the fly.
I may be in the minority for wanting this, however – I know from my Smash Bros days that the less “pure” type rounds don’t usually peak anyone’s interest but the casual player, and can even be seen as a good way to ensure more players are playing in the mode that is, “the way it is supposed to be played.”
What does peak both parties’ interests is the card shop, which, in my experience/research with how much these things typically cost, is not the predatory mess modern gaming had me expecting. You can earn two different types of currency – soul gems and gold. Soul gems are more abundant, and can be used to unlock one of a particular card.
Gold is used to purchase card packs and play in the arena mode, and is a bit rarer. You can also earn cards in-game, but the rate you gain cards/purchase resources in game is too tedious for me to say that it’s a viable option for building a deck for most players.
The game is free with good store prices, so it is not too egregious to expect players to purchase in the shop, making in-game rewards more a nice touch than a viable path to purely take. They also, thankfully, let you purchase card packs directly, as opposed having you purchase gold first or some other psychologically manipulative consumer data nonsense. There is also an Arena mode that has you fighting your way through 9 opponents with a (sort of premade, sort of not) deck of 30 cards.
As previously mentioned, each play in this mode requires gold, but the rewards for playing are also good as well. In a way, it almost feels like playing a card game at an arcade that gives you tickets regardless of whether you beat the whole game, and taken like that it is not as worrying as it may sound.
I know a lot of this is all standard or similar to standard fare for a lot of these types of card games, and that the game may not have quite the same depth as some other card games that have been established for longer, but I am sure many card players will be satisfied with the level of play possible in what could have easily been a forgettable cash in on the Elder Scrolls license. While there could certainly be more content and ways to play, I was presently surprised with a lot of what this game had to offer. The lore nerd in me left disappointed, but the gamer in me left as a fan of one more genre.