Review: The Elder Scrolls – Daggerfall
Doing these themed “special project” reviews is a treat. As many of my readers know, my current review project is a focus on late 90’s/early 2000 RPGs. My love for role playing games is well known. But, when you’re young and experiencing all of the things that life has to offer at that age, things like gaming often take a backseat. But now that I’m older and settled into a daily routine, I can finally catch up on many of the classic games I neglected to play back when they were brand new. Late last year, I had the pleasure of playing through the very first Elder Scrolls game, Arena. Before sitting down to play Arena for the first time, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But what I found was a classic CRPG experience that reminded me greatly of the David W. Bradley-era Wizardry games. Ever since I completed my playthrough of Arena, I’ve been looking forward to playing the second chapter in the Elder Scrolls saga. Well, earlier this month, that time finally arrived. I’ve spent the last four weeks taking a deep dive in The Elder Scrolls Chapter II: Daggerfall, and I have a lot of thoughts on it.
Before I get into the particulars, I want to take a moment and share a little personal anecdote about this game. I remember the first time that I heard about Daggerfall. I was catching up with a friend of mine when he started sharing some concerns he had about his buddy, Stuart. It seems that my friend hadn’t heard from Stuart for almost two weeks. This was unusual because Stuart and my friend had been extremely close since early childhood. In fact, hardly a day went by that they didn’t talk to each other on the phone. After listening to my friend’s concerns, I suggested that the two of us stop by Stuart’s house to do a bit of a welfare check. Thankfully, upon arrival we found Stuart in perfect health. It seemed that Stuart had recently purchased a new game called “Daggerfall” and from the moment he installed it on his PC, he was so engrossed in it that nearly everything else in his life had fallen by the wayside. I knew right then and there, that this Daggerfall game must be something special. Yet, despite my curiosity, it took me over twenty-five years before I finally sat down to experience it myself.
Like the first game in the Elder Scrolls series, Daggerfall was released exclusively on the PC. It is available as a free download from a number of sources; Bethesda software, GOG, and even Steam. Since this is an older title, these official downloads come equipped with DosBox (preconfigured and ready to go). But, there’s actually a much better way to enjoy this classic game today: Daggerfall Unity. This is a software project that completely rewrites the Daggerfall engine using Unity and runs it natively on a number of operating systems. What I like best about this project is that you are able to tailor your experience to suit your style of play. If you want the vanilla Daggerfall experience, you can have it. If you’d like to tweak the controls so that they match modern games but leave everything else alone, you can do that too. If you want to go all out and experiment with dynamic lighting, modded textures, or even add third-party content to the game, that’s also an option. Regardless of how you want to enjoy the game, my advice is to give Daggerfall Unity a try. There’s no better way to enjoy the game on today’s hardware.
When Daggerfall was initially released, there was a Special Edition of the game that was only available at CompUSA. This edition included a number of exclusive quests. If you download the game from either Bethesda or Steam. These quests are not included. However, there is a free patch available online that upgrades the game to the Special Edition. Both the GOG release and Daggerfall Unity already include this extra content.
The story of Daggerfall takes place nearly a decade after the events of Arena. Upon starting the game, players are treated to a cutscene (one that is very high-tech for the time, I might add) that shows the Emperor summoning the player to a clandestine meeting. During this meeting, the Emperor gives the player an important and secret mission. The Emperor explains that his late friend, and King of the providence of Daggerfall, recently passed away. Rumors have spread that king’s spirit has been seen haunting the capital city. The Emperor asks that the player visit Daggerfall and try to uncover the reason for King Lysandus’s restless spirit. He also mentions that he previously sent a letter to the Queen of Daggerfall, but he has since learned that it was never received. The letter contains sensitive information, and the Emperor also asks that the player locate and destroy the letter. Upon accepting the quest. the player sets sail for the city of Daggerfall. But before arrival, the ship encounters a terrible storm and wrecks somewhere just off the coast. The player falls unconscious, but awakes to find themselves in a dank cave. This is where the game begins.
As was the case with Arena, players are able to create their own character. Character creation follows the standard random-stat roll scheme that was common at the time. All of the races and classes from Arena are available options in Daggerfall. Once again, players can either choose from a list of classes or answer a series of questions that are designed to pair them up with the class most akin to their personality. This time around players also have an option to create a custom class. This is a feature that I found absolutely fascinating. When creating a custom class, you’re able to give it a name, select your skill proficiencies and advantages, but you also must select a number of disadvantages. If you try to get too liberal with the various perks of the class, the speed in which you level up and advance is slowed down dramatically. This feature allows a knowledgeable player to create the character of their dreams. But on the same token, it also makes it possible for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing to create a character that has almost no chance of survival.
Like Arena, this game starts with an introductory dungeon. The purpose of the dungeon is to teach the player the basics of the game and give them a taste of the danger that lurks around every corner. The gameplay in Daggerfall is very similar to that of Arena. The game can be played with either just the mouse or with a combination of the mouse and keyboard. (Personally, I found the mouse and keyboard combo to provide the best experience.) In fact, as far as most gameplay elements and the overall control scheme goes, if you’ve played Arena than you already know what to expect with Daggerfall. For gameplay specifics on things like combat, magic, and healing, I urge you to take a look at my review for Elder Scrolls: Arena. These aspects remain virtually unchanged from the original game.
Following the trend started by Arena, Daggerfall is an open world experience. Even though you start that game with a specific goal in mind, it’s totally up to you if you want to pursue it. Once you’ve escaped from the game’s tutorial dungeon, the entire gameworld is at your disposal. As was the case with Arena, the overworld is procedurally generated and is extremely vast. Walking from one area to another is virtually impossible. Getting around from place to place is going to be done using Fast Travel more often than not.
But not everything about Daggerfall is identical to Arena. For starters, this game features an extremely updated graphics engine. The 3D rendering of Daggerfall was unlike anything else of the time. Also, major improvements were made to the dialogue system used to communicate with NPCs. When initiating a conversation, players can choose a tone that ranges from polite, normal or blunt. This time around, NPCs not only respond to the player based on their local reputation, but also in response to the demeanor used when asking the question. Talking to NPCs is important as they can often provide directions to various locations, offer advice, share rumors, or even send the player on various quests.
Questing is a huge part of Daggerfall. When the game begins, the player has two main quests in mind. But as you adventure and talk to various people, you’re going to rack up a number of side quests. These side quests are completely optional, but they are helpful in gaining experience and also improving your reputation with the locals. Also, they expand on the various lore and background that makes The Elder Scrolls series so unique. The main quests in the game are predetermined, but many of the side quests players will uncover are often randomly generated. These can include tasks as simple as retrieving an object from a specific location, delivering letters, rescuing a kidnapped child, or even outright assassination. It is important to note that not all quests are initiated by NPCs, sometimes you might find an item or stumble upon a letter that sets you upon a new task. When questing, it is important to keep an eye on the particulars. Most quests have a time limit, so learning to prioritize is crucial or might put in a bunch of work only to be denied your reward.
Daggerfall includes other improvements over Arena aside from just a deeper story/quest system. The actions that you take in the game often have unforeseen consequences. Players who like to prowl around and pickpocket or burglarize may draw the attention of the Thieves’ Guild. Players who slay innocents will not only be considered outlaws by the local guards, but may also receive an invitation to the assassin’s guild. The guild system is a big part of Daggerfall. By joining and rising through the ranks of various guilds, players are able to obtain new and powerful abilities and also receive exclusive quests. This game also allows players to purchase their own house (a great way to establish a permanent base of operations). Players can even become afflicted with magical diseases like vampirism and lycanthrope. At first, these sound like terrible curses that should be avoided. But these two statuses also have their perks…
With all of this content to explore, it’s no wonder so many of the game’s original players were completely enthralled. Much of what I described above may not sound that impressive today. But back in the mid-nineties, this was groundbreaking stuff. Even today, sitting down to play this game for my review, I found myself hooked on all of the endless possibilities. Everything about this game just feels so open and it’s all too easy to become distracted from the main plotline. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Part of the allure for this game is the exploration – it’s a real ROLE PLAYING game, not just a playable story.
For too long, this game was just out reach of mainstream audiences due to it being an older title. DosBox is great, but playing Daggerfall through DosBox emulation left quite a bit to be desired. Thankfully, we have things like the Daggerfall Unity project now. This project allows Daggerfall to played by anyone who has the desire to give it a try – however they want to enjoy it. It has truly breathed new life into this classic. On top of that, Daggerfall is completely free! With that in mind, this is one classic RPG that I recommend to almost anyone.
Version Reviewed: PC
Difficulty: Medium – Daggerfall starts off pretty tough, especially to someone who might be new to this type of game. But once you get your feet wet and start to understand how things work, it does get considerably easier. When it comes to completing the tutorial dungeon – remember to save often. 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 or forget to map out that random dungeon. Getting lost is a real possibility even with the in-game map.
Story: The basic plot hook for this game is unique and intriguing in itself. Combine that with the various side stories and political intrigue that you uncover as you dive deep into the game and you end up with an extremely rich and engaging experience.
Originality: It is easy to see that Daggerfall is very much an evolution of Arena. But there’s enough about this game to make it stand apart. The guild and quest system is unlike anything else that came before. But that’s not really what makes this game feel unique. The overall atmosphere of the game is filled with wonderment and adventure. There’s just something about it that sparks the imagination.
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. Daggerfall Unity let’s choose between General MIDI or a Soundblaster Sound Font. Either way you go, it’s a very retro experience and I love it. The tavern themes are classical pieces but when played on a MIDI synth, they transform to have that nostalgic RPG feel. But, despite my fondness, Daggerfall doesn’t really compete with many other games of the era when it comes to in-game music.
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: Stellar 3D rendering for its time. I know it looks very dated by today’s standards. But graphically, this game was top of the time for 1996.
Playcontrol: Personally, this is my biggest gripe with the game. The mouse-based combat is an improvement over Arena, but it still carries many of the same flaws. The original control scheme is archaic and pretty cumbersome. Thankfully, if Daggerfall Unity defaults to a more modern control scheme and you can even disable the “swipe style” combat completely and replace it with a simple click-to-attack if you wish.
Downloadable Content: “Special Edition” content is available as a free patch, or included in some releases.
Mature Content: Violence, Nudity, Adult Themes
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): 90 – It is no wonder that Daggerfall has gone down in history as a truly legendary CRPG. It was as revolutionary as it was ambitious. Even today, it still managed to captivate and surprise me. I can’t believe I waited this long to experience it. I understand that this type of game may not appeal to all audiences. But, if you have any love for classic western-style RPGs, this is one title that you don’t want to ignore.
Original System: PC
Available today on: PC – (Updated as of Spring 2023)
Best Experience: PC – (Updated as of Spring 2023)
Other Reviews In This Series:
Arena – Daggerfall – Morrowind – Oblivion – Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls Online (Original Release) – The Elder Scrolls Online (Tamriel Unlimited)