Back when Skyrim first released, rumors abound that one of the expansions would take place in good old Morrowind. Naturally, I was excited. My rose-tinted glasses show that game in a fine light. Fast forward a bit, and here comes Dragonborn, which—lo and behold—takes place on Solstheim, the island featured in Morrowind’s expansion Bloodmoon. But despite foreign shores, Dragonborn is still very much Skryim, for better or worse.
But really, that was to be expected. Solstheim is, after all, a Nord island, and much like the main area of Skyrim, it’s ripe with Draugr, Dwemer ruins, and icy caves. With this expansion, Bethesda was given free rein to reuse a lot of the art assets from the main game to help construct this landmass. While this all fits with the lore and with Solstheim’s location in the northern regions, a little more effort to differentiate Dragonborn from Skyrim proper would’ve been greatly appreciated. Because, honestly, if I have to plant my axe in one more Draugr… I’ll have no permanent misgivings.
But Dragonborn isn’t a complete rehash of old content. Bethesda has thrown in a fair amount of new stuff, from shouts, to enemies, to armor, to weapons. In addition to snow, which is still present in much of Solstheim, ash from the erupting volcano blankets the countryside. The main settlement, Raven Rock, feels plucked straight out of Vvardenfell. The goblin-like race of Rieklings fills the various icy caves. Ash spawn roam the ash wastes. Nostalgic armor previously found in Morrowind is now available once again, in sexy HD. There’s even a sword that fires lasers.
Then there’s Apocrypha, one of the more visually distinctive locations found in Dragonborn or Skyrim itself. Hermaeus Mora, the Daedric Prince of talking really slow and sounding tired, roosts here. I jest, but his voice is totally rad and I wish people in real life talked like that. Everyone. To enter Hermaeus’s domain, Black Books found throughout Solstheim must be read. Also located in Apocrypha is Miraak, the Dragonborn. No, not that Dragonborn. The other one. He claims to be the first, but he doesn’t show any papers to confirm such a claim, so he might be second or third Dragonborn, or maybe even the 752nd. Hermaeus has trapped Miraak in Apocrypha as his servant, and Miraak wants to bust out and wreak havoc for the people of Solstheim. Your job is to stop him.
But this main quest is really just a fraction of what Dragonborn has to offer. Most of the time, you can’t venture more than a few steps without finding someone who needs help with something. These are your average sidequests: going here, killing that. But as Solstheim is basically a concentrated version of the best parts of Skyrim, they’re mostly worth doing.
One of the selling points of Dragonborn was the ability to tame and ride dragons. In reality, that’s exactly what you’re doing. But if you’re expecting to fly around Skryim or Solstheim freely, going and doing whatever you want, then you’ll be sorely mistaken. Riding is all that’ll happen. The dragon will continue with its normal behavior, and you can tag along and tell it what to attack and where to land, but fly around freely? Nope.
There are two sides to Dragonborn. Visually and gameplay wise, it does little to set itself apart from Skyrim, but what’s there—with the exception of dragon riding—is all of pretty good quality. Dragonborn doesn’t reinvent Skyrim, or give you anything dramatically new to gander at, but it does offer another hunk of content to go and get lost in all over again.