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Thread: Mod Review: Skyrim - The Forgotten City

  1. #1
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    Mod Review: Skyrim - The Forgotten City

    And now for something different. Probably the best way to introduce The Forgotten City.

    I can't help wonder to what extent the recent batch of "campaign" mods for Skyrim have popped up solely based on their fan-driven development cycles coming to a natural end, or whether the imminent release of Fallout 4 has helped spurn dedicated modders into crunching down before a hefty chunk of their target demographic moves on to play in the radioactive sand.

    You'll find them listed under "quest" or referred to as "new lands" mods on Nexus. I prefer "campaign" - large-scale, ambitious content packs that come with their own locations, featuring one or more quest threads and aim to provide upwards of several hours of gameplay. Bethesda broke silence on Fallout 4 at E3 earlier this year and, in the following months, Skyrim Nexus got hit by a few such large scale releases, things like The Gray Cowl of Nocturnal, Summerset Isle, Darkend and now The Forgotten City.


    "The Forgotten City offers a unique gameplay experience: a murder mystery investigation set in an ancient underground city. It has a dark, non-linear story in which you'll explore the city in multiple timelines, interrogate suspects, navigate challenging moral dilemmas, and fight new enemies."

    This is how Nick James Pearce, a.k.a. The Modern Storyteller and main architect of The Forgotten City, summarises his creation. He pitches us on what sounds more like a story-driven adventure game than Skyrim's standard Action-RPG experience, and I'm happy to say that he delivers. I've spent a few hours over the past weekend delving into what amounted to a multiple-solution story-driven puzzle that made running around to piece info together and open up progression paths altogether engaging.

    The plot setup is quite straight-forward. City guards may have difficulty discerning whether you're a glorious hero or have fur coming out of your ears, but to Imperial deserter Cassia you're just the right person to fetch her brother from some dubious Dwarven ruins in The Reach. And so a courier reaches you with a desperate letter, also delivering a first bit of unexpected voiceover, and you get your plot hook. Once you arrive at the ruins, you end up leaping down the proverbial rabbit hole into a land of time-travel fiction, moral judgements, and thinly-veiled themes of social engineering and captive self-government right out of the Vaul-Tec playbook.

    The Forgotten City shows you the consequences of a mysterious disaster and sends you into the bowels of an underground Dwemer City, whose inhabitants live under the auspices of an uncertain, draconian law, tasking you with figuring out what happened and how to stop it. Lined with motifs of responsibility and prejudice and slightly darker than Skyrim's usual mannerism, the narrative is not without its leaps, but its execution and scope stand out among what we've come to expect from quest mods in general. The Forgotten City will have you explore the backgrounds of its inhabitants and appraise their characters, taking gambles upon choices the results of which you can only make educated guesses on.

    Indeed, different endings might take some trial-and-error, but not in the traditional sense of getting a fail state and loading. Rather, The Forgotten City leverages its time-travel theme in the form of an actual in-game mechanic. Depending on what choices you make, you may find yourself rushing back to when you'd started and, while the characters may have no recollection of you, the game and story certainly factor it in.

    It's not merely an option to pull a blank slate, some roads to completion rely on your harnessing this ability. I've explored two different paths to completing the adventure, one took me just over four hours and the other nearly seven. But in only one of them did I elect to cheat Chronos. And this is really one of the stellar points of The Forgotten City - time-travel isn't a "gimmick", it's a core mechanic that's clearly a focus of the design and development effort, yet it's also something that the author's perfectly happy to let you sidestep in the pursuit of your chosen solutions. For anyone worried that I might've just spoiled something here, rest easy, this state of affairs is suggested early on in the setup of the plot and it's contextualised.

    I can't say just how many different paths and outcomes the mod features, as I've only experienced the two and I haven't seen a comprehensive walkthrough anywhere. Based on a little reading I did in the comments after the second ending I got, I'm led to believe there's quite a few different keys to the puzzle and plenty I haven't discovered. What led me to try a different path in the first place was that, upon getting my first ending, there was still plenty I'd encountered but hadn't gotten to explore. And it looks like other players are referencing yet more things which either I'd not come across or simply hadn't figured out what to do with.

    What isn't quite as appealing, however, is the amount of time you'll spend running around trying to find that one NPC that you need and you just saw earlier, but now just can't seem to run into. The gameplay's designed around exploration and the player drawing their own conclusions. To this effect, it doesn't throw any quest markers your way, and this certainly makes sense for a lot of the tasks involved. Tracking down average inhabitants, though, dipping in and out of loading screens, trying to anticipate where their prescribed daily routines might have them idle about at a given time of day, is neither exciting nor challenging. I wouldn't be surprised if I'd spent more than half an hour of my total playtime just zipping past others, looking for this citizen or that, whom I really thought had the solution for whatever I was doing at the time. It's never a deal breaker, but it can put the occasional damper on your momentary excitement, since you'll spend quite a bit of time charging between characters as you piece together your understanding of how deep a pile you've gotten yourself into this time.

    Combat, on the other hand, does not feature heavily. I've only gone through a handful of encounters, most notably one area with several groups of opponents strewn throughout. That's not to say that there isn't more of it along different paths, it's just what I found. It's also not a looter's game, so don't expect to go in and trip over unique items and mountains of valuables. Either that, or I wasn't paying attention. There are but a few things to be pilfered and they're tied into the story context.




    Moving on to more technical and assets-related aspects, The Forgotten City is nicely self-contained and comes with no additional third-party dependencies. Just a .bsa and an .esp and you're good to go. And how does it hold up in actual play? Surprisingly well. Whenever I try mods like this, of this scope, I'm always treading carefully, fearful of breaking progression with an unanticipated step and only realising it further down the line. But this pack's solid - with 1700 hours claimed to have gone into its making and a small crew of beta testers hammering on it, it's given me nothing to gripe about. The select few bugs I've seen mentioned in the comments section I did not encounter, and the mod's potential for conflict is very limited, hooking into only on the standard courier character and a cell in The Reach before it gets going in its own worldspace.

    And that worldpace is constructed primarily on standard Bethesda visual assets. Aside from a select few texture reskins, nothing drew my attention as being "new", most of the City's spaces being a thoughtful arrangement of the same old run-of-the-mill Dwemer ruins and caves tilesets. The spaces feel good, though, detailed and sensibly drawn. If you're using an ENB mod, you may find yourself relying on torches more often than usual, as some of the City's interiors employ a powerful contrast of light and shadow, which is an excellent touch.

    On the audio side we're faced with a completely different situation. First off, featured prominently on the mod's page, new soundtrack. And it's very, very good! Fits the mood, doesn't distract, covers a wide range of moods and makes for an excellent impression.


    And yes, The Forgotten City also comes with a complete package of voiceovers. Here things are a bit more of a mixed bag. Some performances are superbly delivered and recorded whereas others, though not for lack of effort, feel much more homebrewed and hamstrung by the limitations of available recording equipment. Still, practically everything's accurately voiced and even things you didn't quite expect, like some letters.

    What I mentioned earlier, about the time-travel mechanic clearly being a priority in development, stems from a definite standout feature of the mod - its scripting. In the context of one particular event, I saw an area swap time states in a literal flash... lighting, clutter, population. I'm still wondering whether it was an elaborate sleight of hand, a camouflaged level load with a position reset but, either way, it was a marvellous trick done to great dramatic effect. There's plenty going on in the City, and it manages wonderfully.




    Bottom line, where do we stand? It's an excellent piece of work - creative, polished and stable. You won't find much of the regular Skyrim gameplay in The Forgotten City, but if you want a change of pace with an interesting plot, plenty of exploration and impactful character choices, this is an absolute gem and stands above the competition I've seen. If you can gloss over the varying grade of the voiceovers, there isn't much to single out The Modern Storyteller's creation as a fan-made piece of content rather than a first-party piece of DLC. It's pretty great, really, and worth checking out!
    Last edited by Ostriig; 14th Oct 2015 at 19:45. Reason: The Edit function - time travel for your posts.

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