Horse armor. ‘Tis a seemingly innocuous phrase to some, but to certain gamers, it is an opening salvo in a battle for the soul of the medium that’s still going on. It refers to an early bit of downloadable content (DLC) for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Charging gamers $2.50 for purely cosmetic in-game seemed egregious in 2015. Now, of course, such microtransactions are why Fortnite is worth more than Fiji. But is there another end of the spectrum? Did Oblivion have any DLC that was actually really good ... maybe the best ever made?
Yes, yes, and yes. The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles is widely regarded as one of the best DLC expansions for any RPG franchise, not just Elder Scrolls. An Alice in Wonderland-style tale that takes players deep into the realm of the mad Prince Sheogorath, Shivering Isles introduces a whole new map and characters with lore to delve into.
Time has not been kind to Oblivion, nor to us. That’s not through any fault of the game per se, but rather because of the ubiquity of its successor The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Gamers don’t feel compelled to look all the way back to March 2007 for their Elder Scrolls fix.
This is a grave mistake.
Shivering Isles is a wild DLC for a game that makes Skyrim look rather drab by comparison. I’m not disparaging the Dragonborn, but if you want to talk about biomes and palettes and visual style, then Oblivion has a lot more to offer than the gray/brown/green of Skyrim’s Nordic towns and forests. Here we get a massive, colorful open world peppered with looming Oblivion Gates that lead to the fiery Daedric realms.
Shivering Isles was the final DLC and final realm that players got to experience — the last gasp of a bygone era.
And what an experience it was.
The story centers around Sheogorath (masterfully voiced by Wes Johnson), who invites you to his realm to serve as an assistant of sorts. This lends itself to a number of memorable quests, including a turn as dungeon master to an unwitting party of adventurers that you torture and terrify to your twisted heart’s content.
The Shivering Isles themselves are a chaotic landscape full of absurd sights and sounds. Divided between the realms of Mania and Dementia, each side has a distinct style alongside loads of new plants, creatures, and enemies.
The writing for Shivering Isles is a cut above most games, even by today’s standards.
It’s a genuinely funny place that’s also loaded with action, too. And unlike the aforementioned horse armor, Shivering Isles delivered plenty of bang for its buck. A quick playthrough runs about 8-10 hours, but it's easy to spend double that time in Sheogorath’s realm if you want to discover everything he has in store for you.
If Skyrim was your first love, you’d be wise to revisit Oblivion and this DLC in particular. A lot of the mechanics will be familiar to you, with some notable improvements. The dialogue system (now confirmed to be the basis for a dialogue system in Starfield) is a fantastic spin on in-game conversation. Instead of just spamming buttons, you make mood choices and have to read NPC’s faces to discern how they'll react. Like everything else in the game, it’s loads of fun.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles is available on Xbox Game Pass, and for sale on Xbox and PC via the Steam store.