As The Elder Scrolls Online’s year-long adventure, Dark Heart of Skyrim, rolls on, Bethesda has announced and is launching the Stonethorn DLC. Stonethorn includes two new dungeons for players to tackle, new storylines and a bunch of other new content. However, after having the chance to chat with Lead Encounter Designer Mike Finnigan, I was offered the chance to play through one of the two new dungeons on offer.
As Stonethorn’s two dungeons are both inspired by classic Hollywood horror, both appealed to me. Having dealt with so many vampires and such vampire focused shenanigans in Greymoor already though, I opted for the Frankenstein inspired Stone Garden.
Located deep inside Blackreach, Stone Garden is an ancient, secret Dwarven lab, now used by the mad alchemist Arkasis as he builds his deformed, twisted Stone Husks.
What better setting could you have for an ESO dungeon? And what better way to experience it than by playing with the designers and creators themselves. I was lucky to have Creative Director Rich Lambert and crew take me through.
The Elder Scrolls Online – Stone Garden
As Mike Finnigan explained in our interview, Castle Thorn is Stonethorn’s typical ESO dungeon. Which means Stone Garden is a more experimental, freeform dungeon experience. Visually distinct from other spaces I’ve seen in The Elder Scrolls Online before, it’s really clear that the 1930s horror vibe is alive and well. Being Dwarven ruins, there are pipes and tubes, glass cases and weird technology all over the place. It’s perfectly suited to Arkasis’ needs and he’s obviously made himself right at home.
However, Stone Garden isn’t just limited to the weird experiments of Arkasis and his Stone Husk children, there are also a shit-load of werewolves. But it works. Stone Garden has this weird Ed Woodian feel to it and while we were playing I was secretly hoping to hear some Theremin playing. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
As my crew and I headed into the beginnings of the dungeon, Lambert talked about how excited he was for this new DLC and in particular, this cool new mount; the Duo Dynamo Dwarven Spider. This thing is the very first group mount for ESO and will allow players to take their mates for a ride. Best of all, you can give the guy on the back seat fall damage.
Back to Stone Garden, as we’re making our way through the opening sections, something new and slightly unusual for dungeons is pointed out to me. A collectable/acquirable item. Like Unhallowed Grave, Stone Garden has some secrets and the key to unlocking them is in collecting these items. I’m told the secrets were less hidden so players would have a sense of exploration and to also feel part of the world.
The outskirts of Stone Garden are rocky and alien, much like Blackreach itself, though it steel feels natural and not manmade or manufactured. Gradually, as we get closer to the actual entrance, we start to see Dwarven structures and machines, weird instruments and that classic Dwarven colour scheme of The Elder Scrolls. On reaching the front gate, we come face to face with a giant werewolf and the first boss of the dungeon.
As mentioned by Mike Finnigan, this guy is huge and he keeps carrying on, screaming and yelling while we’re giving him the business. Throughout the chaos, Gwendis is picking the lock on the massive front door and keeps chiming in with comments about keeping the mangy wolf quiet. She’s a real charmer.
Given that I’m playing with the devs and that our characters levels are through the roof, there’s never any fear that we’re in danger, nor is there any doubt that we’re going to absolutely mash every enemy we come across. I’m basically along for the ride, watching as these ESO pros obliterate everything that comes their way. Occasionally I’ll chuck a spell on top of the already hectic battle but it’s like throwing a lit match onto a bonfire your mate started by dousing some logs in petrol.
The first boss is downed, Gwendis picks the lock and we’re on our way to boss number two. Before we get there though, we’re now fully inside this secret lab of Arkasis and the mad scientist vibe is truly on show. I recommend players take their time and look around in Stone Garden. Look at the ceiling and take in all the details of the environmental artwork, it’s really special stuff. It looks ripped directly from the sets of the best campy horror films of the 1930s-50s. I even commented on the inclusion of Tesla Coils but was quickly corrected that Tesla didn’t exist in this universe.
Still. There are Tesla Coils, Jacobs Ladders and plenty of other great old school sci-fi set dressing.
After battling some unique Stone Husks, changed by Arkasis’ experiments, we reach the first of three locations where we can activate the secrets of Stone Garden. I’m not going to spoil it here and explain how it works, but I’ll give you a hint. You’ll need to be thinking about alchemy to unlock the secrets of which there are three and three special buffs you can unlock.
There are also some Blood Knights you can find and murder in order to make the final boss fight easier for yourself. If you’re after a challenge, you could leave them be and have extra bad guys to take on when you finally reach Arkasis.
Before you can fight him though, you’ll need to get through a gauntlet of his creations. Which is where I find myself following the ESO devs. Arkasis appears periodically, taunting Gwendis and explaining how much smarter he is than everyone else. Classic bad guy stuff. Pride comes before the fall Arkasis. He stands high up above the explorable area and drops potions on the Stone Husks to augment their abilities. For example, we’re fighting a few when Arkasis drops and ice potion and gives them ice abilities.
As an aside, the voice actor for Arkasis is channeling Peter Lorre and it’s perfect.
One very interesting mechanic included in Stone Garden is the ability to periodically become a werewolf behemoth. By taking potions that appear in the dungeon, limited at first and then enough for everyone, players can become a gigantic werewolf for a limited time. While playing as a werewolf, your moveset is completely different and you can stomp, bite, claw but can also synergise with the other members of your party.
The devs explain to me that while you can get by doing your own thing, when players start to figure out werewolf synergies and how to combo certain moves, they’re going to see some really impressive damage output. The devs also tell me that on hard mode for the final boss, without synergies, players aren’t going to make it out alive.
On finally reaching Arkasis’ main lab and the final room of the dungeon, we stop to look around again and the devs praise their art team for the incredible work they’ve done. It’s well earned. There are suspended tanks filled with goo and creatures. Steam pipes, sarcophagi, valves, jars and electricity everywhere. Think Frankenstein’s lab and you’ll be partway there. It really has to be seen though and it’s such a departure for ESO that it has even more of an impact.
While you’re fighting Arkasis and his Stone Husks, Gwendis runs around sabotaging the lab, which is important. After every wave, Arkasis retreats to his glass case to heal and transform. Each time he emerges he’s stronger than before, but thanks to Gwendis’ meddling, not everything goes to plan. Again, I don’t want to spoil what happens, but it’s the perfect melding of old school sci-fi horror and the high fantasy of The Elder Scrolls Online. It’s just campy and silly enough while still be kind of terrifying to neatly fit into the theme for the DLC.
During this final battle, all four players are able to use the werewolf behemoth potions and go to town on giant, mutated Stone Husks. I mention Rampage and the devs quickly agree that was the vibe they were going for. Looking around and seeing four giant werewolves pounding on some giant rock monsters is not something you’ll see in every game, but it’s perfectly suited to ESO and to a DLC rooted in campy horror.
Once Arkasis is dealt with, the dungeon is over and the loot is mine. Because we’re playing on the PTS I only have a short time to admire the loot before I know it’s going to vanish into the ether. While I do have it in my possession though, it’s proof of my badassery…or at least that some devs absolutely rolled this dungeon while I tagged along for the ride.
Fans of ESO and those players who love to run dungeons will have a blast and with the special difficulty levels, those who enjoy a challenge are going to have something to set their sights on. There’s no solo mode for players to slowly experience the story but, the environmental storytelling is top-notch.
Stone Garden is a great addition to The Elder Scrolls Online. It’s creepy and it’s kooky, mysterious and spooky, it’s altogether ooky, the dungeon laboratory.
Stonethorn DLC is available in The Elder Scrolls Online now.