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Reviews

The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim - Dragonborn

Our final verdict on Bethesda's benighted isle

Leave Solstheim's western port of Raven's Rock and head north, past the Spriggan hunting grounds near the mountains at the island's centre, and you could be forgiven for thinking that you're exploring Skyrim's iceberg-haunted coast. Head in the other direction, however, and the terrain takes an unearthly turn.

Ash from the perpetually smoking Red Mountain due south has reduced the island's forested vales to a muted grey desert, broken by the monstrous caps of fungal buildings erected by Dunmer wizards. The fauna is equally bizarre - among other creatures, you'll encounter magic-wielding clumps of sentient dust, huge aerial jellyfish, and writhing, tar-soaked Lurkers. Setting for both Skyrim's Dragonborn pack and Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind's Bloodmoon add-on, Solstheim literalises a transition of sorts between the weirder, cultish Elder Scrolls of the Xbox era, and the roaring populist beast the franchise has become.

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Thanks to this compelling environmental dynamic, plus the usual labyrinthine dungeons and quests, Dragonborn is handily Skyrim's best DLC pack to date. It's got all the scale of the previous Dawnguard offering, but where the latter's wobbly tale of rubbish Vampire Lords and Van Helsing wannabes was ravelled, somewhat boringly, into the existing landscape, Dragonborn's quest to stomp the rogue Dragon Priest Miraak unfolds in a world of its own. Several worlds, in fact. As with Dawnguard, a trip to one of the myriad planes of Oblivion is on the cards, along with jaunts into Tamriel's seemingly inexhaustible underbelly of Dwemer ruins.

Hitting the books
The plane of Oblivion in question is Apocrypha, home of the pseudo-intellectual Daedric prince Hermaeus Mora, and it leaves Dawnguard's mildly disappointing Soul Cairn for dust. The landscape is composed of sedimented, molten lore tomes, their spines protruding from sickly mats of tendrils. Whirlwinds of loose pages drift along undulating walkways, and clogs of Lovecraftian matter known as Seekers spit balls of twisted light from afar. There are reasons to explore beyond enjoying the revolting aesthetic - the words of a new Shout can be prised from Hermaeus Mora's clutches, with a little help from a friendly tribe of Nordic survivalists known as the Skaal.

The Shout in question eventually gives you the power to ride dragons, directing them to targets rather than controlling them directly in the manner of a flight simulation. That's the cherry on a fearsomely large cake of new spells, Shouts, weapons and items. Enterprising blacksmiths will make a beeline for the new armour varieties - couple a nice thick sheet of Stahlrim and Bonemold with the Dragon Aspect shout, which applies a Mr-Hyde-esque layer of prowess to your existing capabilities, and you'll be untouchable in a fray.

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Those who like to pick fights on behalf of their minions, meanwhile, will dribble at the chance to conjure demons from Apocrypha. Dragonborn's toolset hits on most of the established Skyrim playstyles - if you're a mage who likes to get his hands dirty, for instance, the opportunity to coat a target in paralysing ash isn't to be missed - though stealthier types may feel a little under-served.

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