It is no secret that I’m a fiend for old school CRPGs. I grew up playing games like Wizardry and Ultima, so I’ve been a fan of the genre from its earliest days. But, as is the case for anyone who loves a particular type of game, you can’t play them all. So even though I considered myself to be a CRPG pro, there were some truly legendary games that I simply never had the pleasure of experiencing back in their heyday. The Bard’s Tale trilogy is a great example of this. Despite being classic games that were heralded by many, I never laid my hands on the Bard’s Tale games until I decided to review them for this site. This is also true for The Elder Scrolls.
These days, The Elder Scrolls is an extremely popular series. This is largely due to their release on home consoles. But, The Elder Scrolls weren’t always console games. In fact, the first two games in the series were exclusive to the PC. I hinted above that I have never played an Elder Scrolls game before. That’s not exactly true. I admit to putting more than a few hours into Skyrim on the PS4 and I’ve also spent a great deal of time playing The Elder Scrolls Online. But when it comes to the earliest games in the series, I never had any hands-on experience. That is, until now. I’ve spent the last month playing through The Elder Scrolls: Arena and I have quite a bit to share about my experience.
Before getting into my thoughts on the game itself, I’m going to take a moment to talk a bit about the legacy behind it. The Elder Scrolls: Arena is the name of the first game in The Elder Scrolls series. It was developed by Bethesda Softworks with the original intention of being a gladiator-style fighting game (hence the name, Arena). However, as the game was being developed, more and more RPG elements were added to the mix until the developers decided to scrap the original concept completely. I remember hearing about this game when it was first released, but I never really paid it much attention, because I always assumed it was some sort of cheap pit-fighting game. It wasn’t until a few years later, when The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall became popular with some of my friends that I finally realized what I was missing out on.
Arena is indeed a full-fledged CRPG. But, as is the case with many of these classic PC games, it wasn’t designed for modern computers. Thankfully, getting this game to run today’s hardware is relatively easy. The Elder Scrolls: Arena is now packaged with DosBox and is available for free. You can get it from Steam, GOG, or even directly from Bethesda. The official release plays pretty good right out of the box. Of course, as is usually the case for DosBox games, there may be certain tweaks that will help it run better on your specific hardware.
Being the first game in an entirely new series, Arena does a fantastic job of introducing players to a completely new world. The introduction that plays after the title screen gives the player some background lore into the gameworld and also sets up the story for the game itself. Arena takes place in a fantasy kingdom known as Tamriel. Tamriel is ruled by an Emperor named Uriel Septim VII. However, the Emperor is tricked by one of his advisors, a battlemage named Jagar Tharn, who imprisons the Emperor in another plane of existence. With the real Emperor gone, Tharn takes over the empire using illusionary magic to impersonate the former ruler. Only one person is able to see through the ruse, a young mage by the name of Ria Silmane. However, before she can alert anyone, Tharn has her put to death. To cover his tracks, Tharn also either assassinates or jails a number of Imperial advisors and officials.
The game begins when the player assumes the role of one of these jailed officials. One night, while imprisoned, the ghostly image of Ria Silmane appears to the player. She explains the truth about Tharn and Emperor’s fate. Using her magic, she gives the player the means to escape their cell and then sends them on a quest to recover an ancient artifact that will help free the real Emperor from his magical bonds.
That’s a pretty epic story! The game itself does a decent job of providing the details that I’ve summarized above during the introductory movie. But if you’re really interested in all of the lore this game has to provide, I urge you to take the time to read the manual. The original booklet that came with the physical game has been digitized and is typically included in PDF format whenever you download the game itself. The manual includes a plethora of detail behind the game’s lore-rich story. In addition, it’s also crucial to understanding many of the game’s complicated mechanics.
Being an old-school CRPG, Arena begins with a pretty complex character creation system. If you’ve played games like Wizardry, Bard’s Tale, or Ultima, you might have an idea what to expect. You start off by choosing a name, gender, and starting area. In Arena, the starting area determines the race of your character. The area/racial combinations are listed below:
Black Marsh – Argonian: Humanoid reptiles. Known for their agility, intelligence and speed.
Elsweyr – Khajiit: Feline-like humanoids. Extremely agile.
Hammerfell – Redguard: A race of dark-skinned humans. Known for being hardy fighters.
High Rock – Breton: A race of humans with ties to the druidic arts. Known for being excellent magicians.
Morrowind – Dark Elf: Dark-skinned elves. Proficient with both weapons and magic. Excels at using both in tandem.
Skyrim – Nord: Viking-like humans. Known to be excellent melee fighters.
Summerset Isle – High Elf: Very agile and intelligent. This race of elves is proficient with anything arcane and magical.
Valenwood – Wood Elf: A well-rounded race of elves. Excellent thieves and fighters.
Once you have selected a race, the next step is to choose a class. There’s two ways the game will let you accomplish this. First, you can simply select from a long list of available classes. From there, you can assign a number of randomly generated bonus points to your character stats. Alternately, you can choose to answer a number of questions. The answers you provide to the various questions are designed to match you up with the class most suited to your personal style. The following playable classes are available in Arena:
Warrior – The standard melee fighter. Can use any armor or weapon.
Knight – Noble warriors. Can use nearly any type of armor or weapon. Can also repair weapons/armor.
Ranger – Hunter and tracker. Can use any nearly any armor or weapon. Has reduced traveling time.
Archer – Excels at ranged weapons. Can use light armor.
Monk – Disciplined fighters. Cannot wear armor, but can use any weapon. Excels at critical attacks.
Barbarian – Exceptionally hardy. Can use most armor and any weapon.
Mage – Excellent magic users. Cannot wear armor, limited weapon use.
Sorcerer – Powerful magic users that absorb magic points from enemy magic-attacks. Can use most armor and any weapon.
Healer – Defensive magician. Excels at healing.
Battlemage – Weapon wielding mages. Can use any weapon, but limited armor.
Spellsword – Similar to battlemages, but with fewer spell points. Spellswords can wear almost any armor.
Nightblade – A thief/mage combo. Limited weapons and armor, but can pick locks.
Thief – Your standard Thief class. Limited weapons and armor, but extremely agile. Can pick locks and level faster than any class.
Burglar – Lockpicking masters. Limited weapons and armor.
Assassin – Can use any weapon but limited armor. Very agile but not as proficient at lockpicking as other Thief-based classes.
Rogue – Can use any weapon and most armor. Limited lockpicking ability.
Acrobat – Exceptionally agile. Limited weapons and armor. Can pick locks.
Bard – Jack-of-all-trades. Can use limited weapons but most armor. Has basic spellcasting ability and basic lockpicking skills.
Just by reviewing the information above, it should already be pretty obvious that The Elder Scrolls: Arena is a vastly detailed game. Out of all the oldschool CRPGs I’ve played to date, this game probably has more character options than any I’ve encountered yet. This enables you to really build the type of character you want as long as you’re willing to research the various racial and class combinations.
The game begins in a large tutorial dungeon. For a first-time player, this dungeon will likely take a few attempts to escape from. But it does a pretty solid job of teaching you the base game mechanics. Like a handful of other CRPGs from the era, Arena has an auto-map that also allows the player to take notes and highlight areas of interest. This is a very helpful feature and one that pretty much becomes a staple for CRPGs going forward.
The game itself is best played using a combination of the mouse and keyboard. Technically, the majority of the game could be played using mouse only, but I personally find this option to be overly cumbersome. Even when using both, the controls are pretty archaic and will take some getting used to. Interestingly enough, melee combat is done using only the mouse. Swords and other weapons are swung by dragging the mouse from left to right, or by thrusting it forward to stab. I found this scheme to be pretty unique, but it really takes a little getting used to.
The magic system in the game is one of the most complex I’ve ever encountered. Spells can be found or bought from merchants. Once obtained, they are added to your spellbook. There’s a huge range of spells available to players in the game. But interestingly enough, players also have the ability to create new spells from scratch. This is done by visiting one of the many Mage Guilds found in various locales and using the “spellmaker” service. This service allows players invent a totally new spell. They can give it a name, select up to three effects for the spell will have, and also determine options for resistance. Yes, it is possible to build an extremely powerful spell using this method. But this service comes at a cost, and designing a spell that’s insanely powerful would end costing more money than the player is likely to have very early in the game.
Players are able to heal themselves and regenerate spellpoints by resting. Players can chose to rest virtually anywhere, but while they are sleeping they will often be ambushed by monsters. This is true nearly anywhere; dungeons, the wild, and even in town. Of course, places like inns and taverns offer characters a safe place to recover their wounds for a cost.
Once players have escaped the starting dungeon, the entire gameworld is available for them explore. The open world is procedurally generated – something that’s absolutely mind-blowing for a game from 1994. This means that you can literally walk for hours and hours and never see the same thing twice. This also means that walking from town to town is virtually impossible. Getting around the world in Arena usually involves fast-travel. This option enables the player to speed-along to nearly any location on the map. The only downside to this is that it encourages a lack of exploration.
When it comes to quests, there are two types in Arena. The first are main quests that advance the storyline. These typically introduce players to important NPCs and send them to various towns and dungeons. Completion of these quests are crucial if you actually want to complete the game. When it comes to the main questline there are actually only ten quests. However, there’s a nearly endless slew of optional side quests for players to undertake as well. These quests are randomly generated and are great way to earn experience and find treasure. But sometimes they can also lead the player to out-of-way places where players may find themselves overpowered by dangerous enemies.
I’m not certain about this, but it seems to me that many of the various dungeons and NPCs found in the game are also randomly generated. Each town you come across is filled with countless NPCs, each with their own name and personality. You can ask NPCs a variety of questions from a list, and the answers they will provide will vary greatly. (Often depending on factors like; how long you have spent in town, have you completed any local quests, etc). Of course, the majority of townspeople only roam around down during daylight hours. Yes, Arena has a full day/night cycle. All of this combined is absolutely ground-breaking for the era in which this game was released. You could literally play this game for years and never see the same thing twice.
For a game that was supposed to start out as an gladiator-combat simulator, it’s crazy to see just how deep Arena dives into RPG territory. Nearly every aspect of the genre is present in this game; rolling characters, various races and classes, first person dungeons, interactive NPCs, a sprawling overworld to explore – it’s all here. What is also present is a level of immersion and depth unlike any that has ever been seen in the genre thus far. Interestingly enough, this game’s innovative features also end up being its greatest weakness. The vast openness of everything can leave players feeling overwhelmed and lost. Completionists will have to cast aside their habits. It’s literally impossible to complete every quest and see every sight this game has to offer.
I have to admit, as a veteran CPRG gamer, I was both impressed and a bit put off with this title. I had no idea what to expect going in. I knew the reputation that The Elder Scrolls series had developed over the years, but I didn’t really expect to find so much of it present from the very first game. Had I played this game during its original release, it would have no doubt made me an Elder Scrolls fan from the very beginning. But the sheer complexity of it would have also been difficult to digest without the help that the internet offers today.
Version Reviewed: PC
Difficulty: Medium – As far as CRPGs go, the difficulty here is pretty standard fare. If you’re willing to put in the time and patience to generate high rolls during character creation or grind away at experience, the main scenario shouldn’t prove too difficult. The biggest difficulty comes when you veer off the beaten path and get lost in the wilderness, it’s often easy to explore too far and bite off more than you can chew.
Story: Some will argue that the basic plot of the game is pretty standard. But I personally found it to be rather unique. But all that aside, there’s plenty of cool lore and sidestory content scattered throughout the game. It’s obvious that Bethesda put a lot of work into their worldbuilding – and it paid off in a big way.
Originality: Arena is the perfect amalgamation of practically every CRPG that was released prior to 1994, but with its own special ingredients added in. The nearly endless cast of townspeople and randomly generated locales really give this game a sense of wonder that goes above and beyond what’s normally found in these types of games.
Soundtrack: As is the case with most DOS games, the soundtrack consists of various MIDI tracks. The quality of these songs would vary greatly depending on your hardware. The emulation included with moderns distributions is set to portray the music using a fairly standard synthesizer. Personally, that’s the way I like it. The music has a very simple but nostalgic feel to it. Many of the songs are pretty catchy and fun. But admittedly, it doesn’t really compete with many other games of the era.
Fun: The complexity of this type of game can often overwhelm most players. But for those gamers that enjoy this type of thing, there’s quite a bit of enjoyment to be found with this title.
Graphics: For its day and time, Arena featured some pretty top-of-the-line PC graphics. Of course today, it looks pretty crude. But at the time, it was actually pretty impressive.
Playcontrol: Personally, this is my biggest gripe with the game. The mouse-based combat is supposed to be revolutionary and engaging. But I found it to be a bit awkward and clumsy. I’m not sure how much of that is due to emulation issues. Perhaps on an old 386 processor with a classic serial mouse, the experience would have been better. I don’t know. But I found it a bit cumbersome. In the end, I found myself rebinding keys in DosBox and using a combination of keyboard and mouse to make the game playable.
Downloadable Content: N/A
Mature Content: Violence
Value: I originally acquired this game as part of an Elder Scrolls boxed set. But today, this game is available for free from a number of platforms (Steam, GoG, direct download). You can’t beat that. So even if you’re not sure if this type of game is for you, you have absolutely nothing to lose.
Overall score (1-100): 85 – All in all, Arena is a pretty innovative and solid CRPG. It does suffer from a number of oddities that prevent it from outshining other similar games, but considering this was Bethesda’s first foray in the RPG market, the end result is nothing short of impressive.
Original System: PC
Available today on: PC – (Updated as of Summer 2022)
Best Experience: PC – (Updated as of Summer 2022)
Other Reviews In This Series:
Arena – Daggerfall – Morrowind – Oblivion – Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls Online (Original Release) – The Elder Scrolls Online (Tamriel Unlimited)