The interesting thing is that the combination of the twisted environment and the primarily unpleasant population has you making moral choices that you wouldn’t normally make in the regular game. In the main game my character has been a bit of a goody two-shoes, but let loose in The Shivering Isles he’s been forced to take a more, shall we say, pragmatic approach to getting the job done. If someone needs to be poisoned, pushed off a high wall or murdered in cold blood, then so be it, and if villagers have to be massacred or one faction needs to be betrayed, then that old adage about omelettes and breaking eggs may well apply. As it’s hard to proceed without adopting Sheogorath’s ‘flexible’ values, you could argue that this removes some of the freedom of choice that Oblivion provided, but it certainly makes for a deliciously dark tale. The side-quests, meanwhile, are enmeshed in the region’s nutjob lore and petty squabbles. There’s none of the guild-related, sword for hire stuff that made Oblivion such a time-sponge, and the landscape is nowhere near so vast, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find plenty to keep you busy if you choose to veer off the central path.
There are, of course, rewards for doing Sheogorath’s bidding. Early on the expansion pack starts dishing out unique special weapons and items – you just have to love a schizophrenic sword with day and night forms – and by collecting the island’s distinctive madness ore and sorcerous ‘matrices’ you can have the local smith create weird new arms and armaments that should have you cutting quite a dash once back in Cyrodil. However, the real rewards of The Shivering Isles lie in something less tangible. The more the adventure moves on, the more you realise how far ahead of most other RPGs Bethesda’s classic was. In The Shivering Isles, as in Oblivion, levelling and looting aren’t the real reasons you keep on coming back: it’s the experience not the XP that counts. You want to explore the world to its full, try everything once, or just see what happens next. Few games combine fighting, sneaking, diplomacy, exploration and a spot of detective work with this much grace, and there aren’t many RPGs that give you such a sense of immersion in a magical world.
True, the illusion is often broken. Even though Oblivion’s character AI was cutting edge, it still stopped well short of creating truly believable characters. Why? Because the cast seemed unable to recognise changing contexts or react to your activities beyond a simple knee-jerk response. The same remains true of The Shivering Isles, where the Golden Saints in New Sheoth will still hail you cheerfully even though you were directly responsible for the butchery of their comrades in the eldritch halls of Cylarne, and where the duke of Mania will eat his dinner untroubled despite the fact that his cook will have waded over several corpses on his way to the kitchen. Me? I think I’d order takeaway that night.