Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Pilgrimage of Kate & Maurice, Pt. 3: The River of Death

     I'm Kate, a wood elf warrior with no gold who can only use bows. My companion Maurice is Breton pilgrim on the verge of death. Together we're traveling halfway across Skyrim's massive world, on foot, to Eldergleam Sanctuary. There's just one catch: if Maurice dies along the way, we have to reload and try again from the beginning. After surviving a gauntlet of wolves and painstakingly sneaking past a predatory tiger, we're immediately greeted by another of the feline menaces.

     The Sabre Cat is looking right at us. It's dark out, but it's not that dark out. How are we not being detected? You're just pretending to ignore us, aren't you? We're beneath your notice, is that it? Don't you mock me, kitten. If I didn't have to look after this profusely-bleeding excuse of a traveling companion, I would crush you. With arrows. In the face.

     I'm sorry dear I didn't mean it when I called you names, don't look at me like that, let's just go.

     In an unexpected and not entirely logical twist, I've started to develop survivor's syndrome with someone who keeps dying. Initially, Maurice's idiotic berserker charges into the gas-piston jaws of death annoyed me, but I started finding it a weird kind of endearing after a while. Eventually, my gut response morphed into what it is now: absolute terror. When he pulls out his comically large war axe and bull rushes a pack of wolves or giants that will surely slay him, I can't help but feel reminded of that time one of my dogs ran into the street as a puppy.

     Banishing thoughts that doing this might be bad for my mental health, we finally reach the halfway point: Valtheim Towers. It would be a scenic place - two giant towers on either side of the river, joined by a stone bridge suspended in the air and standing directly in front of a massive waterfall with a view that extends for miles - were it not for the bandits swarming all over it. The first few times we made it this far, we had taken so long that the sun rose. That let the archers on the bridge spot us, which in turn resulted in me having to snipe them all before Maurice's bloodlust kicked in. I've gradually started taking the Whiterun stretch of the journey faster and faster since, and it's paid off; we've made it right before dawn. We have just enough time to sneak by and smoke a piece of venison in the bandit's cooking pot (an act of defiance I like to make whenever we get here - it's like a good luck ritual) before the sun comes up. The vast unknown of the eastern world stretches out before us.

      This is where our pilgrimage finally gets truly difficult. Wolves are still a common occurrence, but now they occur in an area with seemingly infinite giant camps and our worst enemy of all: elevation.

     There's a quirk in Skyrim's pathfinding AI where slopes past a certain degree of steepness are treated as impassable, and it instead tries to find a way around. This isn't a limitation of the engine, though - player characters can easily overcome these "obstacles" by just pressing forward. This means that while I can descend a mountain in a few seconds by sliding in a straight line, Maurice has to take several minutes to carefully walk down the winding, zig-zagging road the game world provides. When that path takes him past the hunting grounds of trolls, spiders, and wolves, that's a problem. One such mountain greets us immediately after Valtheim Towers. I take a deep breath, and we begin our long descent down the mountain path.

     At first this was slow as to be infuriating beyond belief, but after a couple mental breakdowns it's become sort of a zen thing. I keep myself in the center of the road with my head on a swivel, ready to shoot anything in a 180 degree arc in front of us. A fox runs across the road, and after staring down an arrow haft at it for a few seconds I decide it's done nothing to deserve death. I drink in the scenery while I can, trying to enjoy the hike and not think about what's coming next.

     Once we reach the bottom of the hillside, there's a river, and in that river is our arch-nemesis, the one entity worse than wolves and elevation put together. The road that takes us past it doesn't provide enough visual cover, and the sun has invariably risen at least a little by this point. Each and every time, without variation, without reprieve, our enemy detects us and forces a fight. This creature blocking our path has the outward appearance of a generic grizzly bear, but the soul of a demon.

     You know how the Sabre Cats were so tough I didn't even try to fight them? They're a cakewalk compared to this guy. Cave bears don't do as much damage, nor do they move or attack quite as fast, but they have three times as much health. Three times. He's a monster.

Let's just say this isn't an unfamiliar sight.

     The one thing that makes this doable is that the bear always has to wade through the river in order to get at us, which gives me enough time for a couple shots. If they're both good hits, we have a chance. Maurice and I finally make it to the bottom of the hill without incident and I steel myself for the upcoming battle. There it is - I see our nemesis, vigilant as ever, through the few trees that dot the riverside. We're far away enough that he can't see us, but that invariably changes about 15 feet down the road.

     Now, Kate was made from the ground up to do one single thing really well - shoot unsuspecting creatures in the head with arrows. My sneak attacks with bows do triple damage, my armor bonuses and skill perks further increase that output by about 95%, and I can zoom in and slow my perception of time before each shot. Even so, I need help. I don't have any paralysis poison and the copious amounts of frenzy potions I do have are of no use to me here, but I do have some Frostbite Venom I can put on my first arrow, which makes it do a little more damage. I coat it, and I'm as ready as I'll ever be. I breathe in deeply, take aim, and fire.

     It's a fantastic hit. The bear's health is instantly cut almost in half, and the poison will knock it down even further for the next few seconds. He detects me now, meaning I can inflict at most a third of the damage I just did, but I still have time to make another shot. Unfortunately, I did so well with that first arrow that the bear does something he's never done before: he retreats. This might sound like a good thing, but it's actually one of the worst possible things that could happen. There are two reasons why.

     The first is that Skyrim's bows fire in an arc. Within a certain distance, arrows will go above the reticule, meaning a perfectly lined up headshot can actually soar well above the target's head. The bear is already moving from side to side at an irregular pace, but having to continually correct my aim to account for the ever changing margin of arc error as he flees is really throwing me off. I miss the next four shots I take. The second reason this is bad is that while I'm fine with not pursuing this demon bear, my berserker pilgrim companion is probably not, and-

     Yup, Maurice is already on the other side of the river, headed straight into the claws of the death bear. Exactly like that time with my dog, I swear.

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