I’m traversing across the plains of Skyrim, on my way to my next objective. Lydia, my Housecarl, is behind me, ready to aid me at a moment’s notice. As I crest a particularly tall hill, I see a dragon soaring in the sky. Knowing what I must do, I begin slinging arrows at the beast to establish my presence. It turns and blasts my party with its fiery breath, scorching the hillside. The dragon swoops down and lands as I volley arrows at its scaled body. As Lydia and I press our foe, two giants—likely from the nearby camp, surely angry to have been disturbed—begin assailing the dragon in tandem. Before I know it, the dragon lies dead at our feet. With quick sideward glances in my direction, the two giants shoulder their war clubs and saunter off into the distance, their job complete.
It’s impromptu stories like this that make The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim so epic.
For the uninitiated, Skyrim is the fifth installment in The Elder Scrolls series, one of the longest-running high fantasy RPG series’ to date. The game world, Tamriel, is inhabited by ten races, and in Skyrim, you use a rather robust character creation system to create your own character. There is a particularly epic main storyline to follow, but the main draw of The Elder Scrolls is the absolute freedom you have to explore, level, and build your character as you see fit. This is true of nearly every game in the series, but Skyrim takes that a step further by ditching defined character classes seen in previous titles in the series.
If, like me, you’ve played Skyrim ad nauseum on other platforms before, the opening sequence and subsequent tutorial might feel like going through the motions. Fortunately, some new additions to the Nintendo Switch version breathe new life into the tutorial. One of the first prompts you’ll see after first equipping a weapon or spell is about motion controls. Whether you’re using the Switch Pro controller, Joy-Cons, or playing in handheld mode, you can aim using these devices’ built-in accelerometers. If you’re a magic or bow user, once you begin casting a spell or nock an arrow, you can then tilt your controller or console to aim. It took some getting used to, but after a while I preferred using motion to aim over traditional controls. You can still use traditional controls to aim while also using motion aiming, and sometimes this combination proves useful, particularly if you need to spin your character around to assail someone attacking from behind.
If you’re using split Joy-Con controls, you also have the option to use melee weapons and shields using gesture controls. A sideways flick of the wrist will unsheathe your sword or weapon, an upward flick will raise up your shield or weapon in a defensive hold, and a forward punching motion will cause a shield or weapon bash to stagger your opponent. And, of course, swinging the Joy-Con will also swing your weapon, and a more forceful swing will perform a power attack. None of these gesture controls are 1:1, like in Skyrim VR, but they mostly work and are surprisingly satisfying. While gesture controls also took a bit of practice to master, using split Joy-Cons in this way has become my preferred control method when playing Skyrim on Switch. Traditional combat controls also work, even in tandem with gesture controls, but both motion and gesture controls can easily be turned off in the game’s settings.
Motion and gesture controls aside, Skyrim on Switch is essentially the same massive, gorgeous, and ambitious game we saw back in 2011. It should be noted that this version of Skyrim is not the Special Edition released on consoles and PC last year—that means you won’t find mods or any of the graphical enhancements included in the Special Edition. The Switch version does, however, include all three expansions—Dawnguard, Hearthfire, and Dragonborn—and, in fact, does include some UI features from the Special Edition, including the Quicksave function and the ability to load your saves by character, which are absolute welcome additions to the otherwise base game.
The other Switch-exclusive feature is native amiibo functionality. From the start, the game gives you a new Power, simply called “amiibo,” and you aim it at the ground to cast. Any amiibo figure will work, and when you tap it, a chest will appear with various items to loot. If you use an amiibo from The Legend of Zelda series, there’s a twenty-percent chance of the chest containing one of three special items: the Champion’s Tunic, the Master Sword, or the Hylian Shield. If you don’t own any amiibo, though, fret not; there is a certain place on the map with a chest that contains all three items if you want to explore Skyrim in Hyrule style. This integration of amiibo is one of the best in games so far, and it’s absolutely delightful to tap an amiibo and hear that magical sound.
Beyond the Switch-exclusive features, Skyrim is still Skyrim. You can run around at your own leisure, complete the quests you want and ignore the ones you don’t, or just explore the myriad caves, delves, and towers teeming with bandits, necromancers, and creatures of the dark. There’s still the general criticism of Skyrim’s floaty combat and its third-person camera issues, but fans of the original will find largely the same experience on Switch—with, of course, the added bonuses of motion and gesture controls, as well as amiibo support.
In terms of visuals, despite the Switch version not housing the visual enhancements seen in the Special Edition, the game looks great on Switch, even while docked. In going back and forth between the Special Edition on Xbox One and the Switch version, I didn’t notice all that much of a difference. Sure, the Switch version might not boast “volumetric God rays” or the “new water shaders,” but the game still looks damn impressive, even six years after its original release. The only criticism I could levy against the game is a seemingly shorter draw distance with a fair amount of pop-in, even with not-so-distant objects, but it’s nothing to bring out the torches and pitchforks over.
That said, the game looks absolutely stunning on the Switch’s 720p screen. Textures look crisp and animation fluid—helped, no doubt, by squeezing all that detail into a smaller screen. The controls in handheld mode work surprisingly well, considering I generally find first-person controls using the Switch’s Joy-Cons more cumbersome than practical, and motion aiming during handheld play is now a necessity for me. If Skyrim on Switch’s main selling point is portability, the visuals, form factor, and controls therein make one hell of case for it.
As a port, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim holds up beautifully on Switch. The addition of motion aiming, gesture controls, and one of the best uses of amiibo on a Nintendo platform to date—not to mention the ability to take the adventure with you anywhere on the go—all take an already fantastic adventure and make Skyrim for Nintendo Switch a true masterpiece.
Disclaimer: A review code for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was provided by the game’s publisher.