The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Dragonborn DLC review: That old black magic

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Let’s just clear the air right off the bat: riding on the back of a dragon is not fun at all. There, I said it. And I feel so much better now. The new Dragonborn DLC for Bethesda Softworks’ 2011 RPG hit The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim introduces dragon mounts at the end of the moderately lengthy campaign, but the reward isn’t really a suitable cap on the journey you’ll take. Fortunately, that journey is an excellent one, highlighted by a brand new land to explore and an assortment of secondary quests that add up to a great, big chunk of “more Skyrim.”

Much like the earlier Dawnguard DLC, there’s no indication when you first fire up your post-Dragonborn download save that there’s new content to be had. All of the pieces are there, and a knowledgeable player will be able to immediately head to Windhelm and hire a boat to the island of Solstheim, but the more proper DLC introduction comes when a gang of dragon-masked cultists attack without warning. They’re dealt with easily, and a quick search of their leader’s corpse reveals that they’ve been sent with one specific purpose: killing Skyrim’s Dragonborn hero.

Tracing the cultists back to their point of origin brings you to the island of Solstheim, a sprawling, mountainous landscape that was last seen in the Bloodmoon expansion pack (remember those?) for Morrowind. Longtime Elder Scrolls fans will no doubt pick up on familiar links between this DLC and the earlier expansion, but no prior knowledge of Solstheim is required. This is, for all intents and purposes, and entirely new open world environment for you to explore with lots of secrets to be found and 30+ new fast travel locations to unlock on your map.

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It’s clear as you explore early on that something is amiss on the island of Solstheim. The natives seem normal for parts of the day, only to suddenly zone out and wander off to a nearby construction site established around an unusual rock formation. The island is dotted with these and the situation is the same wherever you go. Try to talk to someone working near a rock formation and they’ll respond in a flat monotone with some obscure phrase that sounds almost like a prayer.

You eventually come to learn that Miraak, the very first Dragonborn of legend, has returned in some form, and that he’s up to something nefarious. As the full picture comes into focus, your quest brings you from the shores of Solstheim to the surreal Daedric realm of Apocrypha, the home  of Hermaeus Mora. This god-like being and his home realm are a clear homage to the works of H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos. Tentacles stretch down from the yellow-tinted sky and fantastical nightmare creatures – the likes of which you haven’t seen in Skyrim before – wink into existence without warning.

Solstheim and Apocrypha together are the marquee features in Dragonborn. This is the heftiest DLC offering for Skyrim yet in terms of purely new content, and the new locations in particular are a joy to explore. New enemy types, such as the giant-sized, Creature from the Black Lagoon-faced Lurker and the aggressive, pack-oriented Ash Spawns throw up some added challenge, but the new land is the clear-cut star – as it should be for a game like Skyrim, whose greatest rewards are built on exploration.

The entire island can be circled in fairly short order, but an assortment of quests ensure that you’ll see every inch of it. The main quest is good for 5-6 hours of play, but a faction-length second questline focused on the bloody politics of dark elves offers another sizable chunk of narrative as well. Then there are the many one-offs tasks that you’ll acquire as you talk to people, including a couple of faction-specific ones for Thieves Guild members and werewolves. Rounding things out is a new player house, built into the most unusual of locations.

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Once again, we come back to the environment. Solstheim is just as much a joy to discover as Skyrim was before it. There’s a markedly different flavor to the snowy, mountainous terrain, especially in the handful of settled areas that you’ll visit. It’s more than that though. A great disaster befell Solstheim at some unspecified time before your arrival, and evidence of the catastrophe is spread across the whole of the island. You’ll come across many unfinished stories as you explore, and while some feed into the secondary tasks that you can take on, many others are simply left a mystery, allowing you to fill in the blanks based on what you see and read. Bethesda’s talent for filling its open worlds with a sense of discovery is very much at the forefront of Dragonborn.

The only real mis-step, as mentioned before, is the dragon riding. The quest-related shout that allows you to tame the great beasts can be used later on any standard dragon spawn (i.e. not a named dragon). Saddling up is easy enough, but Lair-comes-to-Skyrim this is not. Your tamed dragon will always fly along a set flight path in a lazy circle, and while you can fast-travel to new locations while on the back of the winged lizard, you can’t actually steer its movements in any way. The feel is ultimately that of a high fantasy Disney World ride, with the added bonus of being able to shoot spells at enemies if they happen to fall within range of your mount’s flight path.

To put all of that in another, more concise way: horseback riding is more exciting than dragonback riding. It’s a shame, the lone proper negative in an otherwise commendable expansion of Skyrim‘s world. It isn’t enough to make the DLC entirely skippable — there’s a lot of great content here for sure — but you’ll definitely want to think carefully about your purchase of dragonback riding is a major factor in your decision-making. Other than that, The Elder Scrolls’ return to Solstheim is a triumphant one and it makes a good case for immersing yourself once again in this fan-favorite 2011 release.