When the remastered version of The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim landed in 2016, I jumped in with both feet. Same with the version made for virtual reality that arrived in 2017. Each time, my journey through the homeland of the Nords ended abruptly. I traipsed through the same starting villages and towns that I had explored back in 2011, then up the mountain to the first big dungeon, only to walk away bored each time.
This time around, a free total conversion mod has me completely hooked. It’s called Enderal: Forgotten Stories, and it’s the most fun I’ve had in an Elder Scrolls game in years. That’s because it looks and plays very differently from a traditional Elder Scrolls game.
Enderal is a new fantasy world all its own, created by the team of experienced non-commercial game developers at SureAI. I begin as a castaway stranded on an unfamiliar shore, plagued by horrifying dreams filled with madness, murder, and flame. Before long, I learn that my latent powers are emerging through a sort of late-blooming magical puberty. The opening few hours include a roughly linear set of introductory quests designed to ease me into its new gameplay systems. The goal is to link up with a group called The Order, and then embark on a quest to uncover the mystery of the Red Madness, a mental illness running rampant.
The story itself is interesting, but what makes Enderal resonate is an original and fully voice-acted cast of characters. Combined with enhanced graphics and revamped character models, the game feels fresh and much more lifelike than anything Bethesda Game Studios has put out in years.
The game is also tough as nails. In the original Skyrim, specialization was the key to quickly leveling up and ultimately overpowering your enemies. Enderal, on the other hand, requires a much more multi-classed approach. Expect to use magic and melee in equal parts if you want to survive the first few hours.
Skills have also been completely reworked. As I advance, I earn learning points which can be spent to improve individual skills, like lock picking and heavy armor. But, in order to cash those learning points in, I have to explore the nooks and crannies of the game world, hunting for the right manuals and other documents for information. Whereas characters in Skyrim are largely self-taught, in Enderal, knowledge is just another resource out in the world that I have to earn through exploration.
Thankfully, exploration is a reward in and of itself. I’m only a few hours in, but already Enderal is proving to be a beautiful world with incredibly varied topography. While The Elder Scrolls games can be fairly flat and open at times, this mod features twisting roads that rise and fall. I’m never quite sure what I’ll find around the next corner, and so far nothing’s simply popping into existence in front of me as I advance. I’ve been ambushed by bandits hiding in tall grass, wrestled with trolls along the shores of a cool mountain stream, and beat back spiders inside a dimly lit cave.
Also, thanks to the maturity of Skyrim’s modding community, there’s a whole host of enhancements and technical improvements baked into the game. The density of the animations and particle effects in the open world and inside dungeons is simply astonishing. Of course, a lot of SureAI’s wizardry involves layering multiple hacks and workaround over on an eight-year-old game engine. Expect plenty of crashes while you manually dial in the settings that are right for your PC.
More than anything, I’m impressed with how grounded and tactical the combat is. It feels more like a game in the Gothic series, but with the ease of use and simplicity common to Elder Scrolls games. The result is something that feels much more engaging. I’m having fun with a sword and a shield again in a way that simply isn’t possible for me anymore with Bethesda’s classic. While I may never finish another playthrough of Skyrim, I can’t wait to spend more time with Enderal’s 30-plus hour campaign over the next few weeks.
Enderal: Forgotten Stories is available as a free download on Steam. All you need is a copy of The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, which can be had these days for only $19.99, when it’s not on sale for much less.