After meeting with Gwendis, we proceeded to fight through Arkasis’ facility, taking on stone husks and werewolves to uncover the malevolent schemes the alchemist has been cooking up. “Greymoor discussed The Gray Host, which was an ancient army of vampires and werewolves which was defeated by the Bangkorai Legion centuries ago,” explains Finnigan. “In both of Stonethorn’s dungeons we wanted to highlight this [piece of lore]. Stone Garden focuses on werewolves, and Castle Thorn leans into the vampires. The dungeons represent both sides of The Gray Host, essentially.”
What’s been particularly enjoyable about “Dark Heart of Skyrim” is its tone, which is dark and Gothic but actually has an irreverent, genre movie appeal to the dialogue and story elements. Which is to say, while the story presents a darker side of the Skyrim we know, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. The underground expanses of Blackreach are actually some of the most vibrant areas in Skyrim, and the dungeons are fun and a little wacky in tone, which is a good thing. There are mushrooms that you can pick up throughout the dungeon and essentially experiment with, boosting your stats, and there’s even an opportunity to drink a potion and turn into a werewolf behemoth yourself. It’s all a bit off-kilter (Arkasis’ voice acting is theatrical to say the least) but I had a really fun time with it.
Gameplay-wise, the developers recognized that some players were looking for more of a challenge in the game’s dungeons, so the team were more than happy to oblige. “Traditionally, in dungeons, we have five bosses with one hard mode at the end,” says senior content designer Shane Slama. “We heard feedback from players that they wanted more control over the difficulty of the dungeons. There are three bosses in these dungeons, but in veteran mode, there is a hard mode for every single boss that you can activate and increase the challenge.”
One of the most notable aspects of “Dark Heart of Skyrim” so far is that each chapter feeds into the larger narrative while also acting as a self-contained experience should the player choose to approach the game that way. “The more [content] you play, the more you learn about the story,” says lead content designer Jeremy Sera. Stone Garden, for example, is a fun romp for anyone to jump into and enjoy, revolving around Arkasis’ experiments. But if you’ve been following along with “Dark Heart of Skyrim,” you’ll notice little references sprinkled throughout the dialogue and even the menu system that fill in or make reference to the overarching story. It’s a nice detail, for example, that if you’ve encountered her previously, Gwendis will make reference to the fact that you’ve already met.
The art design in Stone Garden are compelling and detailed, too. The machinery and overall aesthetic are familiar in that they are distinctly Dwemer but have been corrupted by Arkasis’ mind. There are giant, glowing vats of inexplicable goo lining the walls of the dungeon with all manner of bizarre creatures floating inside, which not only foreshadows the terrors you’re in for as you fight your way through the facility but makes reference to monsters you’ll see out in the wild, terrorizing Skyrim’s denizens.