Dragonborn is a microcosmic manifestation of Skyrim, strengths and weaknesses alike. An unrepentant love letter to the Bloodmoon expansion pack of Morrowind, Dragonborn brings you back to Solstheim, the Nord colony besieged by a malevolent, unknown force. It also features an atrociously controlled, roller coaster-like addition in the form of dragon riding, where ‘overwhelmingly disappointing’ is an underwhelming statement.
The plot of Dragonborn begins when you’re attacked by cultists, revealing a character by the name of Miraak, the first Dragonborn. By ship, you arrive to the island of Solstheim, where you’re greeted with the dreary husk of a colony and the lifeless murmurs of zombie-like workers toiling away. Through a moderately paced series of quests, Dragonborn takes you from the deep cavernous undergrounds of Solstheim to the R’lyeh-esque depths of Apocrypha, chasing the taunts of your ancient predecessor and droll groans of a lumbering demigod.
Compared to Hearthfire and Dawnguard, Dragonborn feels new. Much of this is attributed to the new geography, the music, and the faintly different accents. Though the north is reminiscent of Skyrim – craggy rocks beneath layers of snow, broken intermittently by plains and forests – the south turns to ash. Red Mountain looms in the background, spewing out smoke and the towering mushrooms reveal the structure of Tel Mithryn.
New weapons and armor, such as the Stalhrim Armor and Nordic weapons, complement a variety of new shouts, powers, and abilities, ranging from summoning to Werebears to yes, dragon riding. Compared to Skyrim’s previous plot-driven DLC, Dawnguard, Dragonborn feels much more like an expansion pack. It’s meatier and more tangible. You aren’t somewhere else in Skyrim. You’re somewhere else in Tamriel.
Enemies reflect that. From floating squid-headed conjurers to giant fish-faced brutes, Dragonborn crafts a brand new set of enemies in entirely foreign environments, changing the pace and feel for the game. Apocrypha is no joke: the books tower over you; the tunnels shrink and expand, and the tongue-like ledges move as you descend into the belly of the beast. This DLC isn’t Skyrim. This is a perverse Morrowind, melded together with Haunter in the Dark and The Dunwich Horror.
Yet despite the showering of my accolades on Dragonborn’s exceedingly capable presentation and novelty, the plotting and design is disappointing. Though it builds up to a fantastical showdown with Miraak, Dragonborn never effectively establishes a strong climax, and the resolution is half-hearted, rushed, and out of your control. You never feel satisfied taking down the first Dragonborn because the combat never feels like a boss fight. He’s simply on an island; you fight him, you kill him, and all else is done.
Much of the strength of the plotting comes from the involvement of Hermaeus Mora, the floating mass of boneless appendages and eyes directly in opposition to the Skaal, the major Nordic group in Dragonborn. Even so, Hermaeus Mora never establishes himself to be a threat, but rather a partly disinterested, lumbering monstrosity. Perhaps Bethesda was aiming for that. Perhaps there was no intended antagonism between you and Hermaeus Mora. However, because the game never provides a satisfactory confrontation between you and Miraak, the main quest of Dragonborn falls flat and ends with a deus ex machina.
The design is another problem. Though Apocrypha is an excellent realm of traversing and exploration, the previous two areas – Nordic and Dwemer ruins – were dry, dull, and repetitive. Despite the new enemies, Dragonborn never sufficiently utilizes them in those places, and instead opts with the regular Draugr and automatons. The results are canned, crammed, poorly lit, and claustrophobic tunnels with puzzles too short and simple to prove a challenge yet too lengthy and involving far too much backtracking that you cannot help but feel the purpose is to eat time.
Dragonborn’s alternative quests, such as those you find at Raven Rock and the Riekling tribal quests, are infinitely more entertaining because it never proposes any gravity for you. While the Miraak quest line suggests some profound, tantalizing revelations on the nature of the Dragonborns and ends up empty, those that you find in Tel Mithryn, Raven Rock, and the Thirsk Mead Hall are small, contained stories beautifully woven into the backdrop. The lack of implied gravity on these stories is what makes them powerful.
However, these problems can be extended to the rest of Skyrim. The dungeons in the continent of Skyrim are quiet thick with Draugr, the main plot is weak compared to alternatives such as the Dark Brotherhood and the Thieves Guild, and the puzzles were never compelling. To fault Dragonborn and not fault Skyrim is disingenuous, so the final verdict is that if you love Skyrim, you’ll enjoy Dragonborn. For the most part, it’s new, fresh, and enticing, but follows the same formula that made Skyrim successful. Though there isn’t much fixing done, not much was broken in the first place.