This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.
I don't understand the Khajiit in Elder Scrolls Online. They are a race of cat-like people who have long been a part of the Elder Scrolls universe. Elder Scrolls Online posits that the Khajit keep not one, but two sets of cat-like creatures as pets: the Seneche-cats, which are jungle cat-sized and used as mounts, and cats. Yes, the common housecat is a creature within the universe of the Elder Scrolls. And that's before you get into the various types of Khajiit, like the Alfiq, which can talk, but are still roughly cat-sized. None of these are just my own musings either, as there are a few quests directly tackling this weird dichotomy.
This odd bit of mythical taxonomy is part of The Elder Scrolls Online: Elsweyr, the latest chapter and named expansion in Zenimax Online's exploration of the Elder Scrolls universe. Elder Scrolls Online has taken a Star Wars: The Old Republic approach to it lore; the fact that it takes place hundreds of years before the events of the main series gives them freedom to define certain parts of that history. The previous expansions, Morrowind and Summerset, were focused primarily on the Dunmer (Dark Elf) and Altmer (High Elf), two of the races that comprise the universe. Elsweyr turns its focus towards the Khajiit, diving into their homelands and culture.
Khajiit Welcomes You
Elsweyr itself its split between two major biomes: the vast desert around the capital city of Rimmen, and a jungle that plays host to farms and ancient ruins in the south. There's a great degree of verticality to the overall level design, but I admit that Elsweyr doesn't hit me with the same impact visually as the past two chapters. Morrowind was full of giant marshes, mushrooms, and the looming angry god that was Dagoth Ur. It felt alien. Summerset was a direct contrast, with gleaming white cities and idyllic forests. Elsweyr is desert and jungle. It's more rocky and has more foliage and ground cover than the Alik'r Desert or Stros M'kai from the base game, but not enough. I wish Zenimax Online had pushed the zone a bit more to give the terrain more flavor.
The Kahjiit themselves fare a little bit better. Fantasy races often have analogs in real-world cultures because artists and creators tend to draw on what's around them to build something new. Khajiit have been speculated to be an analog for the Romani. These guesses have mostly been due to their negative racial stereotyping within the world of Elder Scrolls as wandering thieves, something that the real-world Romani diaspora deals with to this day. For their own home, Zenimax Online seems to have drawn on Asia for visual inspiration, probably based on the idea that the Romani originally hailed from various regions in India.
There's a lot of Indian and Indonesian architecture in Rimmen and Riverhold, the northern cities that the players originally strikes out from, while the southern farms are surrounded by what looks to be bamboo. (The Elder Scrolls drug skooma is made from moon sugar, which seems to be Tamriel's version of the byproduct of sugarcane, a bamboo family member.) This gives the cities themselves a distinct look that the rest of the environment lacks. This is also true of the Delves in Elsweyr, which offer more interesting sights in-between their non-descript hallways and caves. There's additional inspiration from Japan, with ancient amount clearly patterned from medieval samurai. It's a better mix of different cultures than the Altmer homes and cities of Summerset.
People don't necessarily play Elder Scrolls Online for the look though. Where the series has always excelled is in the stories, and Elsweyr doesn't disappoint. The city of Rimmen is no longer in control of the Khajiit people, as the Imperial Euraxia Tharn has set herself up as the new queen by conquest. She rules over Rimmen with the help of her necromancer majordomo Zumog Phoom and a host of dragons. The player is tasked by Euraxia's brother Abnur Tharn and Lord Gharesh-ri, the leader of the Khajiit people, with taking down the Ursurper Queen. This requires killing a lot of undead, dragons, and smugglers before the main quest line wraps up.
The quests in Elder Scrolls Online remain delightful. Yes, the main scenario will have you putting a new ruler on the throne of Rimmen and helping long-time characters like the soul shriven Sir Cadwell find out more about his past, but the side quests are equally interesting. One of the quests I mentioned in the opening of this review, the one involving the difference between Khajiit and housecats, has you helping investigator Mizzik Thunderboots determine who kidnapped a local Kahjiit's daughter. You'll see how Summerset super spy Razum-dar interacts with his family; play in a rock band with the dumbest Nord alive, and gather a crew for a heist. There's a sense of fun and life to quests in Elder Scrolls Online, and the voice acting remains great.
The Crescent Blade Makes Shallow Cuts
It's good that the quests are interesting, because the play of Elder Scrolls Online hasn't changed much since the One Tamriel update. In my look at Summerset, I noted that things hadn't shifted drastically, and Elsweyr does little more. Combat in Elder Scrolls Online feels like it lacks impact and it doesn't help that Elsweyr is probably the easiest zone I've play in these major chapters. I tend to start a new character to get the fresh experience for each chapter, and I found most of Elsweyr a breeze. I can't imagine how easy it would be if I used a character deep into Champion levels.
The lack of difficulty is surprising, because Elsweyr adds a new feature to Elder Scrolls Online. Euraxia has dragons on her side, and while you'll fight some in the main quests, many encounters will come from the open world. Dragons are world quest events that spawn at random. The presentation is fantastic, as you'll occasionally see an immense shadow flying by, heading to their chosen destination. The dragons themselves also appear on the map, so everyone can join in to take them down.
Unfortunately, they're not very interesting, as the dragons themselves don't really change. Once you've fought one or two dragons, you've essentially fought them all. The basics of the encounters are always the same. Watch out for the burning aura, tail swipes, and wing strikes. Block certain attacks. Stay out of the fire. Players simply zerg dragons as they appear, much like all the other world bosses. Zenimax Online could have played around with them more. They look great, but a random roll of elemental abilities and attack patterns would go a long way towards making the dragons themselves far more unique. Instead, every fight is exactly the same and your reward is some great materials and the same gear you've already received multiple times.
There is more difficult content in the form of the various Delves, the public dungeon Orcrest, and the 12-man Sunspire Trial. The ruined, plagued-ridden city of Orcrest is actually a solid challenge for a solo player, with several named bosses to tackle. There were a few that I couldn't tackle on my own, forcing me to get tricky to surpass them, or else wait for another group of players to come rolling by. Sadly, there's only a single quest related to the dungeon itself, which feels like a missed opportunity. Sunspire Trial pits you against a series of powerful dragons in the southern ruin of Elsweyr. This seems to provide some of the challenge I was craving, to the point that my pick-up-group actually didn't finish it. Given its nature as endgame content, I do wish it had more visual pizazz outside of the dragons themselves.
Since you're facing up against the undead in Elsweyr, it's only fair that you join in on the fun. This expansion adds the new Necromancer class. You'll draw upon the forces of life and death to punish your foes, with each of the three skill lines-Grave Lord, Bone Tyrant, and Living Death-focusing on attacking, defense, and healing. You can summon exploding skeletons, leech life from your enemies, raise your party members from the dead, and even become a mighty giant skeleton yourself.
While I've never been a huge fan of Elder Scrolls Online's combat, I love the flexibility of its class system, letting you push and pull every class to do what your want. I started the expansion playing my new necromancer as more of a mage, attacking from a distance and using minions to kill my enemies, but it never felt quite right to me. Eventually I turned into a death knight, wading into combat directly with a two-hander, covering myself in hardy bones and stealing life from enemies. Overall, I think the Necromancer is probably a better addition than the Warden, but that might be because it fits more within my style of play.
Elder Scrolls Online is still solidly good, but I admit parts of it are beginning to show their age. Following One Tamriel and Morrowind, it's clear that Zenimax Online knows its strengths lie primarily in the storytelling aspect. But for these named expansions-Elder Scrolls Online actually has quarterly DLC drops with additional regions and quests-I think it needs to take some more risks. There should be more interesting visual environments, alongside new and unique gameplay mechanics. It's not enough to just explore the history and culture of one of the races, because for veteran players, it has to feel like the game is continuing to improve. Instead, this expansion feels like its treading water a bit. Elsweyr is still good, but Morrowind and Summerset were better within the context of their releases.
ConclusionElder Scrolls Online heads to Elsweyr, the homeland of the Khajiit. While the environment isn't as impressive as Morrowind or Summerset, Zenimax Online's storytelling is still impressive and entertaining. Unfortunately, the combat mechanics need a little more punch and the addition of dragons ends up be less impactful than advertised. It's a good expansion, but feels like a step down from the previous few.