The Elder Scrolls IV: The Shivering Isles

11Turning crazy into computer code.

If Satan had a butler, he’d look a lot like Haskill, Lord Chamberlain of the Shivering Isles. Big bald head. Red shirt. Giant gold necklace. Lots of sarcasm and snarky putdowns. So when he asks you to sit down, you do it, because you know there’s little choice in the matter. Then, once you agree to do what he has asked, the entire room shatters away and you find yourself on a strange island. Welcome to the Shivering Isles expansion pack.

The Shivering Isles are the planar realm of Sheogorath, the Daedric Prince of Madness. His kingdom is under attack from forces that will transform his not-quite-peaceable land into something that could transform him, too. And he doesn’t like change. Hopefully, Oblivion players do, however, because Shivering Isles is a clear break with the more traditional fantasy stuff of the core game. To access it, you’ll have to visit the large island in the lake near Bravil. The entrance to Sheogorath’s realm is hard to miss.

Rolling hills of goblins and limpid pools of mud crabs are replaced by a continent divided down the middle and populated by skinned hounds, nasty insects, and the mysterious Knights of Order, who have been sent to bring Sheogorath to his knees. The continental divide reflects the mad kingdom’s split personality. One half is Mania, a world of artistic eccentricities and peculiar obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The other half is Dementia, which is darker, seedier, and a little more disturbing. In short, it’s like living in Vincent Van Gogh’s brain. One half paints, the other half sends ears in a box.

Nelson says that the psychological aspects of the kingdom are reflected everywhere. “Both sides of the Isles have the same wildlife, but they look different. An insect in Mania, for example, will be brightly colored where the Dementia version is all gray.†Both are dangerous, though, and will kill you on sight. Just because Mania is bright and shiny doesn’t mean it’s safer.

12Using madness as a theme also means you will meet some ruly unusual NPCs. Many of the quests will be related to these various neuroses and psychoses, so you can help find a claustrophobe a safe place to sleep outdoors, or collect specimens for a compulsive who’s writing an encyclopedia of everything. This is all background to a larger plot involving something called The Greymarch, a divine threat to all Sheogorath holds dear. He needs a mortal champion to beat back the Knights of Order and protect the insanity that means so much to him.

Right-hand man Haskill will give you your marching orders, slowly warming to you as you do his lordship’s bidding. This is the path to the strongest weapons, and the most troubling sights, as entire towns are ransacked and giant crystal spires erupt from the ground.

The realm of madness is certainly more amusing than the world of Oblivion. The border town is called Passwall, in a tribute to an overpowered spell of Elder Scrolls past. There’s a small quest that’s an homage to the classic Dungeon Keeper games: Adventurers pouring through the gate to pillage the realm are proving to be a nuisance, and only the Prince’s champion can stop them. Other quests have you playing Igor to a creepy Frankenstein type, and stocking (or robbing) a museum. Not only will the quests have multiple solutions, but many are very involved. Nelson says there is a 50:50 ratio of main quests to side quests, but a lot of the main quest is intricate, with multiple steps to take on the way through the story.

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Thanks to the scaling of enemy difficulty, there is no need to hang on to that old character you saved from the original game, either. Any level of character can jump straight through the portal to Wacky Land and have adventures. Of course, better equipment will make you more of a menace to the creatures you encounter, but there’s lots of new loot in the Isles. New lands mean new flora for you to practice your alchemy on, and super-rare “matrix†boxes can be turned into powerful weapons with the right skills and tools.

Shivering Isles looks to be more of the same in a very different place; all the fun physics, odd-looking faces, and compelling quests in a land where you are the only sane person. The geography is tighter (fewer plains and more cliffs), so it feels like there’s less to explore, even as it’s more convincing to the mind’s eye. Bethesda has done its best not to collide with any of the mods out there, so there seem to be no worries on that front either.

System Requirements: Pentium III 700 MHz, 256 MB RAM, WinXP

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