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Review - The Elder Scrolls I: Arena -----

Jun 21 2013 04:45 AM | SkyBlueFox in Media Reviews

The Elder Scrolls’ history is a storied one, full of ups and downs that could, in a way, rival a few other well-known franchises. The first game, Arena, was originally slated to be, aptly, a game involving arenas, with the player managing a team of gladiators that would travel from city to city in Tamriel and making their way up the ranks of gladiator teams, culminating in a championship match in the Imperial City. Between arena matches, players could take on sidequests (likened to typical RPG sidequests) to make money, likely to be used to buy better equipment for the team of gladiators.

As the game’s development progressed, however, the idea of arena battles became less and less important as more focus was placed upon building up the world that the developers had dreamed up as the setting for the game. Areas outside of Tamriel’s cities were created, including towns and dungeons, more and more sidequests were created, and ultimately the concept of arena battles was dropped entirely. Despite this, the game was still titled Arena, which was one of the many issues that plagued the game’s miserable release.

Reviews for the game, not an arena-battler but a full-blown role-playing game, were lukewarm, criticizing the game’s high difficulty, as well as its bugginess and high system requirements for its time (sound familiar?). Alongside missing their planned Christmas release date, the fledgling Bethesda Softworks was in a precarious position, almost positive that the issues with Arena would lead to the company’s early demise. However, as patches were released and word-of-mouth helped the game’s reputation, the game became somewhat of a cult classic; while not a massive success, it was enough to plant it among the ranks of the other computer-based RPGs at the time.

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Don't worry, that's about the biggest impact the Elder Scrolls themselves have on the first game. And the second. And the third. And the fourth.

While the franchise has become one of the strongest footprints of the industry in current years, the first chapter was released as a freeware game by Bethesda to celebrate the series’ fifteenth anniversary, to be emulated under DOSBox. While it’s easy to find debates among the TES fanbase about which game in the series is the “best” (with the second game, Daggerfall, and the third game, Morrowind, being bitter rivals for the position), The Elder Scrolls I: Arena seems to be left out the most, likely owing to the major differences it has in comparison to its younger brethren, even though it is the original root where the rest of the franchise truly stems from.

Arena begins off with a rather simple introduction that sets up the setting of Tamriel and also attempts, weakly, to make sense of its own title: the Septim Empire of Tamriel, almost four-hundred years old at the time of the game, has become so embroiled in civil wars among its provinces that people have begun calling the world the Arena, due to the never-ending violence. It’s a flimsy excuse, only made worse by the fact that it’s extremely rare to hear anyone refer to Tamriel by its supposed nickname, or even refer to it at all; you’re more likely to hear NPCs talk about the cities they live in or spout off conspiracy theories about whatever lord or lady rules over the city.

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You have to wonder what in Tamriel made this guy more appealing than Ocato, the far-more-loyal Imperial Battlemage in later games.

When the player reaches the main menu and decides to start a new game, they’re thrown into another simple scene that sets up the game’s story. The Emperor, Uriel Septim VII, and his Captain of the Guard, Talin, are called to counsel with the Imperial Battlemage, Jagar Tharn, on rumors of treachery. Tharn betrays the pair and uses a powerful artifact called the Staff of Chaos to warp the pair to another dimension. He then kills Ria Silmane, his apprentice, who finds out about this plan (somehow – we’re never told how), and uses illusion magic to make himself look like the Emperor so he can take the throne. After this, the player is finally given their choices to start creating their character, starting with their gender, their name, and then their class (all to the tune of a low, heart-pumping song that excellently clinches the concept of creating a hero-in-the-making).

Character creation is one of the few aspects of the game that is more similar to the other games than it is different. You’re given the option to either choose a class directly, or answer ten questions that will assign you a class based on the answers you choose. Each answer corresponds to a different central class (Warrior, Mage, and Thief), and the average of each answer you get will give you your class. Someone with a warrior-like demeanor, but with some thief-y qualities, will likely end up as a Rogue or something similar, and so on and so forth. Each class has its own small advantages and disadvantages that make them at least slightly different: Knights are immune to Paralysis, Rangers have a massive boost to fast-travel speed, Healers have a faster healing rate when resting, and so on and so forth. One of the most notable omissions is the ability to make a custom class, the reason for which deals with gameplay aspects that I’ll explain later.

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And far above, among the stars, the Warrior, Thief and Mage constellations watch you.

Once the player has their main details down, they’re given a choice of what race they should be. Unlike the modern games, there are only eight races, each of which have a slant towards a class and generally an extra advantage of some kind:
  • Redguards and Nords are good warriors, with Redguards getting a damage bonus with melee weapons and Nords getting a resistance to ice spells.
  • Bretons and High Elves are best as mages, with High Elves being immune to Paralysis and Bretons having a resistance to magic.
  • Khajiit and Wood Elves make work as thieves, with Wood Elves getting a damage bonus with bows and Khajiit having faster climbing out of water or pits.
  • Argonians and Dark Elves have no particular slant, with Argonians having fast swimming in water and Dark Elves getting a small damage bonus with any kind of weapon.
While these may sound decent enough on paper, certain advantages ultimately make some races extremely overpowered, while making others unfairly underpowered:
  • The Khajiit’s fast climbing is mostly useless as climbing out of pits is rarely an issue, the Nord’s resistance to cold is eclipsed as enemies with ice-based spells thin out mid-game, and the Wood Elves’ damage bonus with bows can become pointless due to the fact that Arena puts you in close combat situations more than it does ranged combat.
  • Meanwhile, the Redguards’ damage bonus is incredibly useful due to the constant melee combat that any character will be dealing with, and the High Elves’ immunity to Paralysis makes an entire class obsolete (the Knight) and removes the risk of one of the most dangerous status effects in the game, meaning less money needing to be spent on magical items or Potions of Free Action.
After this, the player then has their stats randomly picked, and is given a handful of bonus points to distribute. The stats can be rerolled if the player chooses, but the spreads of a starting character are more likely to be the same no matter what. After this, the player can choose one of various faces for their race, and once satisfied, they are thrown into… yet another small cutscene where they have a vision of Jagar Tharn’s deceased apprentice, Ria Silmane. She explains that she has been killed and is using what little magic she has left to keep herself alive as a ghost, and tasks you with getting out of the dungeons that you are imprisoned in, helpfully providing a key that will unlock the cell, as well as giving you directions to a Shift Gate that will warp you to a city in the province of your race (ie: if you’re a Breton, you’ll get warped somewhere in High Rock). The player then awakens inside of a jail cell (a trend that would become a recurring joke in the series), with nothing but the clothes on their back and a weapon (and, if they are a magic-user, some spells in their spellbook). In the corner of the cell is the key to their door, and once the door is open, the player is free to explore the tutorial dungeon.

The character is controlled via the arrow keys, and jumping is handled via the J key (or Shift-J to jump forward instead of straight up), though your cursor needs to be on the playing area in order for jumps to register. Ten buttons at the bottom of the playing area can be clicked with the mouse to perform various functions - however, these can also be done via keys on the keyboard, such as pressing the U key to bring up the list of magical items you can use, or pressing the A key to ready or put away your weapon. I feel like having the hotkeys makes the clickable buttons almost entirely pointless, as it’s much quicker, faster, and safer to use the keyboard hotkeys rather than to move your cursor to the buttons and click on them, which can take a few seconds, enough time to leave you wide open to any number of hazards.

Attacking with melee weapons is done by holding down the right mouse button and then moving the mouse around in various directions, with each direction representing a different type of attack. Moving the mouse from the bottom of the screen to the top will perform a thrust, the opposite will perform a vertical slash, left to right and vice versa will perform a horizontal slash, and diagonal movement performs diagonal slashes. While the different types of strikes have their differences, I found them to be negligible. Bows and magical spells, on the other hand, just require clicking on an enemy with the cursor. Arrows and spells follow the Doom style of aiming in that they will reach your target even if you are in a pit and they are up above you, but since magical items are more handy (and weigh less) than bows, it’s more efficient to carry a melee weapon at all times and use magic spells or items for range.

The controls of Arena are, to be blunt, indicative of its time. Putting aside the small details such as not being able to look up or down, the best way I could describe it is that it feels like the controls would suit me better if I was left-handed instead of right-handed, as having my right hand on the arrow keys and keyboard hotkeys all the time would free my left hand up for the mouse, meaning I could attack and use hotkeys at the same time. While the controls are clunky and hard to get used to, they’re at least workable, though, and there was never a point in the game where I felt like the controls messed me up. However, anyone going into Arena from the later games in the series is going to find it hard to get used to, and it may even turn people away completely from playing the game at all, something which I can hardly blame them for.

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It's common in many of the main quest dungeons to be confronted with DM-style flavor text. Unfortunately it tends to disappear a bit too quickly for my liking.

The Imperial Dungeons were initially somewhat daunting due to the game’s reputation for being hard, but I feel like much of this was simply bluster, as I found traversing the place to be fairly easy. There’s no particular gimmick to the Dungeons and the only enemies that inhabit the place are rats and goblins, meaning that unless DOSBox is running the game slowly or you’re getting confused with the control scheme, you’ll likely do fine. The worst-case scenario is that a rat ends up giving you a disease, something which would be worrisome if it weren’t for the fact that the dungeon is small and you can easily find enough money in the dungeons to buy a cure from a city.

The game is also nice enough to have some small hand-holding messages pop up from time to time, the most important one pointing out platforms that are safe to rest on, as they decrease the chance of getting ambushed in your sleep. Resting will restore the player’s health, magic if they have any, and stamina, the last of which drains at a slow, fixed rate instead of draining whenever performing actions such as running, jumping or attacking. This is probably the most “realistic” implementation of a stamina meter the series has seen, and I have to admit that it’s probably my favorite; it drains no matter what you do, but it doesn’t affect how well you perform your actions, and unless you are extraordinarily careless, you’ll likely never fall unconscious from a lack of stamina.

The player will likely defeat enough enemies in the dungeon to gain their first level, which highlights the first major deviation from the rest of the series: levels are gained via experience points instead of increasing class skills. This, I feel, is the main reason why a custom class creator was omitted from the game, as there would really be no point to it. It’s also the main reason why I feel like Arena is more like a traditional CRPG instead of what the Elder Scrolls is more well-known for nowadays, alongside the fact that the lore contrasts heavily to the current setting; this isn’t something that detracts from the game per say (can you really criticize an older game for not being faithful to lore that was thought up later on?), but it is something that may contribute to Arena’s status as the black sheep of the main series.

After gaining at least one level and sleeping somewhere, you’ll receive another vision from Zelda Ria Silmane, who compliments you on the fact that you went from level one to level two and finally explains your main objective to you. As it turns out, Ganon Jagar Tharn has split the Triforce Staff of Chaos into eight pieces and scattered them across the kingdom of Hyrule various provinces of the Empire of Tamriel, and it’s up to the player to find the pieces and reassemble the staff. She tells you that the first piece can be found in Fang Lair, and that you should ask around about where in Oblivion the darn place could possibly be, because she hasn’t got the slightest idea.

Once you eventually make it to the Shift Gate and get flung in front of the gates of a randomly-chosen city, the game starts to resemble the other games much more. You can blow off your quest to find the Staff of Chaos all you like; maybe you can chat up the townspeople and look for work, or sell some of that crusty old junk you found in the Imperial Dungeons. Maybe someone might have a general rumor about someone who knows about a powerful magical artifact you could find! Or you could just do a 180, exit the city, and just start hoofing it down the countryside on foot.

Unlike the later games in the series, Arena offers you the entirety of Tamriel to explore, from the very corner of Summurset Isle to the tip of Morrowind on the opposite end of the continent. This vastness of the playable land is expressed nicely during fast travel, where it can take upward of a month to travel from one particular province to another – going from a city in Elsweyr to Lillandril in Summurset took 63 in-game days to get to. In fact, it’s impossible to get from one specific area to another without fast travel, as the wilderness loops on itself and you’ll eventually end up in the same place, even if it means holding the movement keys down for hours on end.

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For reference, Mid Year is the equivalent of June. Frostfall is October. That's a long walk!

This both makes the world fun to explore, but also tedious to explore. While the game looks nice and likely looked excellent considering the time period (1994, remember), the limitations of the engine mean that the entirety of the world is flat, with the occasional raised platforms over pits of water to simulate bridges and rivers, buildings occasionally popping up near roads for players to sleep while traveling on foot (if they choose to do so, for whatever reason). The terrain of each province is basically identical save for a different coat of paint: there are snowy areas, grassy areas, desert areas, and rocky areas, with various little bits of background clutter like trees, rocks, strange altars or statues, cacti, and occasionally the entrance to a dungeon. It’s big, but both samey and uninteresting to explore, meaning that for all the randomly-generated wilderness the game can give you, you're more likely to just use fast travel.

The towns and cities themselves are nothing to sneeze at, though. They can range from being a decent size to being huge, and services are harder to locate through the massive mazes of houses that can be found within the city gates, despite the fact that some places can have upwards of eleven shops to buy and sell things at, along with multiple temples to get your diseases or poisons cured. NPCs themselves can be found walking through the streets, and you can ask them for their name, for directions, or you can ask them about general rumors (flavor text or an artifact quest) or work rumors (normal sidequests).

This realistic portrayal of cities comes at the price of, once again, being tedious: you can ask the wandering NPCs for directions (if it’s daytime; if it’s nighttime, you’re out of luck and just have to wander aimlessly until you find an inn to snooze at), and the game thankfully provides options for “nearest store, nearest temple” and so on, but unless you’re very close by you’ll be given a vague answer of one of the eight compass directions. It can become especially frustrating on foggy days, where you can run around the city like a headless chicken, talk to an NPC that emerges from the fog, only to be told to go “west for a while and ask there”. This is only exacerbated by the slow chatting interface, where dialogue boxes have a dissolving effect when appearing and disappearing. It’s easier to just look around a town, find a shop, find an inn near the shop, and then never explore any more of the city.

The best compliment I can give to the game’s non-combat aspects is that there is a broader sense of atmosphere in place. The game has a full day-and-night system, complete with the twelve months and a good handful of holidays sprinkled throughout the year, with various benefits (if you’re quick getting out of the Imperial Dungeons, for example, you might end up in a city on Tales and Tallows, letting you buy magic items from the Mages Guild for half price). Unfortunately, due to the abundance of fast travel and the sheer size of the world, it’s uncommon to be hanging around a settlement when a holiday rolls around, unless you talk to a townie about general rumors. Even then, they may not mention a holiday, and won't, if there isn't one coming up soon.

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Well, he's got one of those right, at least.

If nothing else, the cities provide the two most important pieces of the game: sidequests, and services. The services that can be found in the cities take on four different flavors:

Inns provide a place to stay inside of cities, with five different tiers of rooms to stay in, though I’ve never found any advantage to taking the Emperor’s Suite instead of just snoozing in a Single. More importantly, if you’ve heard a rumor about a sidequest from an NPC, they’ll point you in the direction of a specific inn, and you can initiate the sidequest offer by talking to the barkeeper. You can also buy drinks, but they just give you flavor text. Artifact quests are also started here, but unless you use an exploit, you can only have one artifact at a time, something that feels very much like a cheap way to keep the game balanced in some way or form.

Shops are where you can buy various types of equipment, such as armor and weapons. The game kindly keeps you from buying items you can’t equip (so if you’re a thief, you’re never going to see chain or plate armor in stock), and you can also sell off the spoils of war to the smiths. If your weapons need repairing, you can also get them fixed up at shops, though it will take the smith some time to do so (meaning you’ll likely spend that time resting in an inn). The items that shops offer are fixed, meaning that you can travel to Ebonheart and gaze longingly at that Ebony Dai-Katana of Passwall as soon as you finish the tutorial.

Mages Guilds are perhaps the second most important service after the shops. For those who prefer the bite of steel to slinging spells, you can pay them to detect the enchantments in magic items you pick up, as well as buy whatever enchanted items they’re offering (though you can’t sell them your enchanted items, for whatever reason). They also sell Potions of all types, meaning everyone will visit a Mages Guild at least once to stock up. Those with an affinity for the arcane can also buy spells for their spellbook from the guilds, and can use the Spellmaker to create their own customized spells.

Temples (not to the Nine Divines or the Daedra Princes, but just meaningless denominations) offer Blessings, Cures and Healing for a price, but they’re possibly the most meaningless service to exist in the game. Cures are used to cure diseases or poisons that enemies may end up transmitting to you, but Potions of Cure Poison or Cure Disease can be easily bought from the Mages Guild (or spellcasters can just buy the spells and cast away), and Healing just restores your hitpoints… even though it’s easier just to get a room at an inn instead. As for Blessings, I've never found any benefit from donating for them.

Also found in the major cities of the provinces (represented by castles on the world map, instead of small houses that represent towns and villages) are Castles, where you can speak to the rulers of the particular city. Just don’t walk around where you shouldn’t, or the guards will crawl out of the woodwork (or stonework, as the case would be). The kings and queens, too, are sometimes the subject of sidequests, though you’ll need to be a higher level to start receiving jobs from the nobles. However, they offer much more coin for their quests, and much more variety to boot, from escorting other nobles to towns (and being attacked by thieves or assassins if you try to rest in an inn on the way) to the more typical dungeon crawl, whether it be to kill a monster or to rescue someone.

TES-fans may notice something missing, and they're right. This highlights the second major deviation from the rest of the series: the lack of guilds to join. There are guilds mentioned (the Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood, the Blades, and so on), and the Mages Guild makes its aforementioned appearance, but there are no factions you can align yourself with or take jobs for. The idea of alignments towards guilds or certain factions wasn't quite set in stone yet (hence why you can't double-cross the Empire and join Tharn or something like that), and even if you could join guilds, the game lacks enough variety in its sidequests to merit it. There are no quests to break into houses and steal things, no quests to guard an area and defeat any enemies that try to trespass. Just dungeon-crawling.

Dungeon crawling makes up the brunt of the gameplay, and unfortunately, if you skimp on the main quest and just do sidequests, you’ll likely grow tired of trudging through the same randomly-generated places over and over again. Unfortunately, given that it’s the best way to make money, it can become a necessary evil.

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Wouldn't be a Bethesda game without bugs. Thankfully, the Neoquest II-esqe glitchy tile graphics are the worst I've encountered.

The problem with the randomly-generated dungeons is not so much their size or inhabitants – most of the dungeons, while they can be anywhere from two to four floors, are small enough to make filling out the map pretty easy, and while the enemies can scale to your level, if you learn to prepare for what you might find, you’ll be in much less danger than you might think. Potions of Resistance and certain magical weapons can be an enormous help, especially a weapon with Lifesteal. If not, then save often, rest, and pray you don’t get ambushed by something twice your size.

Where the dungeons flounder is, similar to the overworld, their design. Particularly with artifact quests, where you go to a dungeon to find a map, and then go to another dungeon to find the artifact, the floors of the randomly-generated dungeons end up looking the same, which makes the crawling feel bland and boring. Floor one is dark gray walls, floor two is light green circular stone walls, floor three is brown stone walls, and so on and so forth. To add to this, the pieces that are mishmashed together to create the dungeons seem to be picked from a fairly small pool, meaning you’re likely to find familiar structures over and over (in particular, I remember seeing a 3x2 cluster of rooms, only accessible by swimming under the walls, in more than five dungeons).

A lot of this can be forgiven due to the time period (again, 1994), but it’s still a difficult thing to ignore and press on with your objective when you’ve seen this place a dozen times before. I’m actually a big fan of dungeon-crawlers and roguelikes in particular, so I was able to focus myself on my objective and turn a blind eye towards the repetition of the graphics, but not everyone has that kind of willpower, especially if you started playing TES with the games where dungeons were handcrafted, more detailed, and more streamlined (or linear, in some cases).

By contrast, the dungeons for the main quest are all hand-crafted, and they all have a unique and memorable design in some way or form. The first couple dungeons are at least a little interesting – Stonekeep is a ruined castle that leads into a large cavern system, and Fang Lair is a brightly lit abandoned mine – but the dungeons really start to pick up when you get to places like the Fortress of Ice or Elden Grove, with the former’s icy interior contrasting the dull rock of other dungeons, and the latter is basically a foggy, outdoor dungeon with wide open areas. The Crystal Tower in particular is one of the most memorable dungeons in the game, with each floor having a different design or setpiece.

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It's also handy to have a spell or item of Light with you, both to have better vision and to appreciate the dungeons more.

Unfortunately, the game does see reuse of some of these themes, with Murkwood being an outdoor dungeon similar to Elden Grove, and the Crypt of Hearts and Vaults of Gemin share their looks with some of the randomly-generated dungeons. The main difficulty of the dungeons in the main quest is that they are often enormous, and unlike the dungeons of the later entries, Arena’s large dungeons grow very tedious to navigate, and I often found myself checking my map every few seconds to make sure I was going the right direction. Later dungeons will also introduce new requirements or recommended abilities for the player, such as a dungeon full of pits that you need to levitate over.

However, this also means that players will end up having to grind cash to collect certain abilities, from magic items or potions, in order to avoid some traps; I like Levitation, and its usage during the main quest in Morrowind was wonderful, but it feels annoying to have to buy Potions of Levitation just so I don’t overshoot my jump and land in a pit of lava. In Morrowind, and to a lesser extent Daggerfall, the dungeons were unique enough in their design that using Levitation felt exciting and mystical. In Arena, it feels barely any different from walking.

There’s little else to really say about the story and main quest, however, as it plays out exactly as you’d expect: you find the dungeon, find the piece of the Staff of Chaos, have Tharn taunt you in a dream before sending one (yes, just one) enemy to try and kill you, and then have Ria send you another vision that tells you what ancient dungeon to ask about next. In the end, Ria uses up all her magic and passes to the afterlife, you collect all the pieces of the Staff of Chaos and storm Tharn directly in the Imperial Palace, kill the treacherous Battlemage and save the Emperor, getting named the Eternal Champion in the process. And then you get booted outside of the Imperial Castle gates, free to continue doing sidequests as much as your heart desires in true TES fashion.

I do have to give some praise to the usage of sound and music in the game, as they’re both some of the best parts of the package. I know many people have a disdain for General MIDI (I know I’ve heard plenty of hideous renditions of songs off of VGMusic), but Eric Heberling’s compositions for Arena are fitting for whatever situation they tend to play in, whether it be the various town themes, the four moody dungeon pieces, or (a particular favorite of mine) traveling while the moons are high in the sky. Combined with the usage of sound to alert players to enemies in dungeons or around the wilderness, it creates a very effective experience that can lead to some legitimate jumps of shock or surprise, especially if you turn a corner and run into someone – or something – that smacks half of your health away within a few seconds.

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Ironically, not only would giant robots be reintroduced later, they would also make more sense, too.

Ultimately the question boils down to “is The Elder Scrolls I: Arena worth my time”? And ultimately I would answer “maybe”. The game is difficult, and there’s absolutely no question to that, but it’s difficult in both good and bad ways. At its good times, it’s difficult because you’re prepared for the dungeon but still having a tough time, but you’re still able to make it through. At its bad times, you’re dying constantly, have no money to repair your gear or get supplies, and all you can do is save-scum or cheat yourself a bunch of gold and health so that you can take more than one or two hits. A lot of times, the difficulty of the game can come down to if you’ve got the best equipment and if you’ve got the magical items that are practically a requirement at higher levels, and sometimes your equipment can come down to the luck of what the random-number-generator generates for you when you check that treasure pile in the corner.

What Arena demands from its players is patience. Even though you need to get that Staff Piece, you don’t have the funds to properly supply yourself, so just be patient and force yourself through the randomly-generated dungeons; you’ll get there eventually. Even though you’re low on health and save-scumming your rests is a risky proposition where you are, just be patient, because it’s more of a risk to go running around with your health that low. Even though the controls are frustrating and it’s bothersome to deal with the slow dialogue system with NPCs, just be patient, because you’ll get back to dungeons soon enough. If you’re a TES fan that’s interested in learning about the series’ roots, or if you’re an aficionado of older games and wanted to give Arena a try, it will be frustrating, clunky, and occasionally entirely unfair or tedious, but also rewarding, fun, and engaging in its own way. But, above all else, if you want to play The Elder Scrolls I: Arena, you will need to arm yourself with patience.