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The Best Game I Played This Year Is Free on Steam

"Walk blessed!"

Official art for the total conversion mod Enderal

This has been a pretty good year for me, as far as content consumption goes. Part of the joys of writing online content is you have more of an impetus to indulge in your homebody hobbies, and gaming is no exception. I’ve finally had a valid excuse to play all these games on my list, including the Mass Effect trilogy, Disco Elysium, and Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. All of these have ended up being some of the best games I’ve ever played.

But I felt like one of them in particular deserved extra praise. It’s free on Steam, provided you have a copy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim installed, and it blows its contemporaries so far out of the water that those contemporaries end up floating in space.

It’s called Enderal, and yes, it’s still got my heart shattered into a million little pieces, even several months after initially finishing it.

Welcome to Vyn! Enjoy your death?

The High Ones approach the Prophet in 'Enderal'
(SureAI)

Enderal takes place in a home-brewed world called Vyn, with its own lore that has been explored using toolsets from Skyrim developer Bethesda since Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The game opens with a dream sequence that quickly disorients you. You know, logically, you’re just playing in Skyrim with extra steps, but the eery music in the background, and the soft pitter-patter of your child feet running up the hill, make you start to wonder. If you take time to explore the surroundings, you’ll find journals in burnt down homes detailing the best ways to eat human flesh. Okay, wig. Sure hope I don’t have to meet the weirdo who did all this.

Except that weirdo is your dad—”Daddy,” to be clear, and Daddy is the scariest man I’ve ever seen using Skyrim‘s engine. Not only does he look like the sort of serial killer you always fear you’ll run into on a hike in the woods, but his voice acting is astoundingly unnerving. It’s weirdly sweet, even without reading his journals, and as you enter the house and are greeted with raw flesh in bowls, jars full of parts, and Goya paintings on the walls, all you want to do is get the hell out of there. But you can’t. You have to progress to the next point in this “quest,” which takes you to a room smeared with blood, and an elk carcass smack dab in the middle of it.

Daddy comes back and you ask him where your “mommy and sister” are. And he confusedly points out that they’re dead. You killed them, silly. The more you deny it, with only one dialogue option repeated several times, the angrier he gets, until finally, he prostrates himself in front of the elk, the room sets ablaze, and he starts to scream one line, over and over again, tearing into the body raw: “Bring me a nice, crisp piece of meat.”

It might sound campy and ridiculous on paper, but when you play it, it’s brilliant. It’s a perfect example of how effective video games can be with storytelling. The atmosphere is established with little to no effort or grandstanding, and your limited control as a player only serves to heighten the tension. You’re frozen in place, unable to say much, as this horrifying man screams and screams.

This sets the stage for the entirety of Enderal, more or less.

I truly don’t want to spoil the story, because I think everyone should play this game, but even with all its faults, I found myself thinking about this game long after I was done with it. I’d wake up sad about how it ended. Sad! I never get sad about media for that long, I’m usually over it by the next day or so. It tricks you into thinking it’ll be just another fantasy epic, and then it instead gives you one of the most vibrant, down-to-Earth, and well-executed stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing through.

Yet what really sells the story, and the game as a whole, is how the gameplay seamlessly ties into it. You are a “Prophet,” someone who manifests intense magic seemingly out of nowhere, and with the capability to alter the continent’s seemingly doomed fate. But with these new powers comes a total strugglefest for the next few hours, because WOW, this game amps up the difficulty. Unlike Skyrim, where you pick up a sword and are capable of killing wolves with no effort, Enderal goes the extra mile in reminding you, again and again, that your body isn’t used to this kind of thing. You have to be smart about your combat, and by extension, how you build your skills.

The magic system is fascinating, in particular. You can’t heal yourself with reckless abandon to mitigate the difficulty; if you use restoration spells, you’ll raise your “Arcane Fever” meter, which will eventually start killing you once it surpasses 40%. It’s kind of like how radiation works in Fallout, and similarly to that mechanic, you can only cure it using specific substances. It might sound annoying, but honestly, it makes the game feel more immersive, because you have to be smarter about how you go about your travels.

And speaking of travels, I have never felt so immersed in an open-world fantasy environment than I have in Enderal. I don’t even know what to say; I just think of all the places you can go to in this game and I feel this cozy, familiar warmth. You really get the sense that Vyn is alive and full of history, which I cannot applaud the devs enough for pulling off. In particular, the main city of Ark is absolutely astonishing, and it’s become the standard to which I compare other RPG cities. It just feels alive, with people going to and fro constantly, and my god, the music in the taverns? The sound design in general? Ohhhhh lord.

Of course, there are things about the game that aren’t perfect—no game is, after all. But it’s a total conversion mod. Obviously a couple things are gonna be half-baked. I’m willing to put them aside to look at the greater picture, which is, essentially, the sort of RPG experience that all AAA studios ought to aspire to.

Related: Most Played Games in 2022, Ranked by Average Monthly Players on Twinfinite

So: should you play it?

Enderal's companion, and potential romance option, Jespar Dal'Varek.
Jespar, one of the game’s companions and potential romances. (SureAI)

I mean of course, especially if you already have a copy of Skyrim. Obviously it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’ve ever enjoyed a regular Bethesda game, or a BioWare game, or anything remotely in those realms, then I have no doubt you’ll get some sort of enjoyment out of Enderal.

Play the game, take your time with it. It’s a perfect cozy winter game, in my opinion. Follow SureAI as they craft their newest masterpieces. And if you can, show some support for the lead writer, Nicolas Lietzau, who got ZA/UM’d by larger corporate IP claims. It’s good to know he’ll still be writing for games, but it’s important to remember who helped make the heart of such a phenomenal game.

(featured image: SureAI)

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Madeline (she/her) is a writer and dog mom. She aims to use her writing to positively represent mixed-race people like herself, and is currently working on a novel. However, when she isn't writing, she's either battling insomnia or taking too many naps. You can read her stuff at https://madelinecwrites.com/