Sometimes, you feel like challenging yourself. You want to see how well your build works. You want to see if all those gear upgrades you worked so hard to craft make any difference. You want to see if you have mad skillz to brag about.
Apparently, so do a lot of other people. Enough that game developers will often put in some kind of solo challenge or gauntlet to put their players through hell – places where grouping up is disabled and you have to face the dangers all alone.
In The Secret World, there were nightmare solo scenarios. In Guild Wars 2, there’s the Queen’s Gauntlet. I put myself through those and emerged victorious. But then I found the Veteran Maelstrom Arena in The Elder Scrolls Online… a place so challenging, frustrating and infuriating that it took me months to finish and gave me repetitive strain pains in my hands.
But it was so worth it when I finally defeated it.
Move Like This
In The Elder Scrolls Online, Maelstrom is a pocket dimension of Oblivion which you can visit as part of the Orsinium DLC pack. There, you meet the Daedric Demiprince Fa-Nuit-Hen, who challenges you to fight through his arenas and recover his “Barons Who Move Like This”.
In the creation of each of the nine differently themed arenas, the Baron Who Moves Like This associated with it was absorbed into its creation and forgotten. But if Fa-Nuit-Hen can remember them, he can reform them and bring them back. That’s where you come in. By fighting through the arenas and performing the martial styles and moves required to beat them, you can jog Fa-Nuit-Hen’s memory and help him out.
There’s a “normal” mode where you can run through the nine arenas and experience the story. It’s pretty easy and gives you a sense of each arena’s particular gimmick and how the enemy creatures within will behave.
None of that prepared me for the “veteran” mode designed for end-game level players. People have described it as the hardest solo content in the game and really designed to test you to the limits.
In veteran mode, almost everything can one-shot you dead. Have one foot in an AoE – dead. Let an enemy hit you with a charged attack – dead. Get sprayed with poison from an exploding mushroom – dead.
There, you will die
Different classes will have varying experiences. I’ve seen people saying that they had an easier time running the arena as a magicka-based sorcerer; and I’ve seen others saying that running it as a stamina-based dragonknight is insanity and all hope should be abandoned.
I fall somewhere in-between those, with my main character and only one at the correct level and geared-enough to try it being a magicka-based templar. One of the benefits of that class that I use liberally in solo open-world content is the plentiful abilities providing self-healing. Being able to heal through massive amounts of incoming damage is highly beneficial for survivability.
Over several months of sporadic play, I worked my way through the nine arenas. Fortunately, once you complete an arena, it saves your progress, so that next time you return you can continue from the same stage.
I wasn’t even “max level” in terms of champion points (which can give you stat boosts and ability cost reductions) – I think I had around 400 when I started. The current cap is somewhere over 700? I also had gear that wasn’t fully upgraded and composed of unfinished sets. I can’t really say if that increased the difficulty I experienced, but it probably did?
I died so many times. Too many to count. At several points I completely ran out of soul gems to resurrect with. They come in stacks of 200. That means I died over 200 times. I had to ask guild members to donate me some in disbelief. My levels of gold were depleted from all of the repair costs…
Hitting the wall
Then I eventually reached the final boss fight with Voriak Solkyn in the aptly named Theatre of Despair. That’s when I hit a brick wall that I couldn’t get through. No matter how many times I tried, I’d just die.
It’s a fight with three main stages. First, you start with attacking the boss and dealing with an annoying daedric mage who’ll try to heal the boss and a menacing fire-breathing daedroth. You have to deal with these while also being attacked by the boss and trying to deal enough damage on him to force him to retreat upstairs.
The second stage happens above the arena. After killing an electric clannfear, you power a teleporter pad and go up to face the boss, who’s floating in the middle generating a storm that is whittling down your health, which gets worse the longer you’re up there. Meanwhile, the boss is throwing skulls at you trying to knock you off the platform and there are stunning fireballs raining down that you have to avoid.
You can’t attack the boss directly – instead you have to destroy three large animus crystals powering him. If you get knocked off the platform, you have to deal with daedroth minions downstairs while trying to kill another electric clannfear to teleport up again.
If you manage to destroy all three animus crystals, then the final confrontation begins. You get blasted back downstairs and Voriak Solkyn will also be forced back down to face you. You have to kill him before he kills you.
But of course it’s not that simple. Floating around randomly crisscrossing the arena are several ghosts which you have to avoid or they’ll put a damaging chill on you. More annoying healer mages and daedroths will also eventually appear. In addition to this, other mages are making their way to the middle where they’ll perform a ritual that will summon a giant bone creature unless you stop them. And the boss is also still trying to kill you too.
You have to keep an eye out for golden spirits floating around. If you can absorb three of them, they empower you to release a spectral explosion that temporarily wipes out the annoying frost ghosts and incapacitates every enemy in the arena for a few seconds. This can give you the precious time you need to destroy them all.
But if you’re unlucky and Voriak Solkyn manages to absorb the golden spirits, not only does this seem to increase his damage resistance, when he gets three of them he can also release a spectral explosion that one-shot kills you.
All of this complexity, as you can imagine, results in a lot of things that can go wrong. They went wrong a lot. I only barely made it to the start of the second phase with the animus crystals. I couldn’t even destroy one of them before dying.
My hands were hurting from repeatedly clicking the mouse and hitting keys. I had hit a wall I couldn’t get past, so I gave up and stopped trying.
It looks like the challenger is trying again!
After several months, I’d found that I’d levelled up a bit and I had over 500 champion points. I’d finished upgrading my gear to max quality and got myself some matching sets that were providing their full bonuses.
When doing group content and soloing open-world bosses, it felt like I had learnt to play better – like things were dying faster and my damage output had increased. I was doing things like pre-emptively laying down my AoEs and weaving in light and heavy weapon attacks. I’d started consuming magicka potions more regularly for that extra boost. Were these things I’d learnt from my Maelstrom Arena experience?
Meanwhile, the Maelstrom Arena had become a running joke in my guild. We’d often ask each other, “so when are you going to do the Maelstrom Arena?”. The answer was usually “someday”, as none of us had ever beaten it.
I felt that it was time to try it again.
My progress had been saved, so all I needed to do was work my way through the Theatre of Despair until I got to Voriak Solkyn again. It was still difficult, especially as I was out of practice, but it did feel like I was performing better than before.
When I got to the animus crystals, I was able to destroy them faster. Had my damage output increased? I was trying new tactics like saving my ultimate attacks for use on them, so maybe that helped.
I finally got to glimpse the final confrontation stage. As I’d never done it before, I died a lot of times. By this time, I’d learnt to just resurrect outside at the wayshrine. It took a few extra seconds to run back in, but I’d never run out of soul gems again.
Annoyingly, I’d have to go through the previous boss phases again before getting more chances to practice the final phase. The arena provides four different helpful boosts which you can use only once per round – they give regenerating health, a reflective shield, faster movement and increased damage. I found that I’d want to save all those for the final phase, to give me the boost I needed when I needed it most.
Then it finally happened. The boss died.
You did it!
Several things went through my mind – the feeling of elation from having beaten the hardest content in the game; getting to excitedly tell guild members about it; quickly recording a highlight clip of the moment and sharing it on Twitch.
It didn’t even matter that the loot was stuff I didn’t want (because my character doesn’t use them). I think it was an axe? It was more important that I’d finally conquered the arena, got a nice title to prove it and all of the months of pain and frustration were validated and it was all over.
Or was it? Was it just a fluke? I had to know. So the next day, I started again from scratch and entered the arena again.
It’s never the same twice
I’d often heard from people who’d completed the arena that the first time is the worst, but after you beat it, then it becomes easier. I was highly skeptical, but strangely it did seem easier the second time, third time and fourth time.
While in the arena, you can often hear background comments from Fa-Nuit-Hen saying, “pay attention daedra, it’s never the same twice”. That isn’t quite accurate though. Sure, a lot of random stuff can go wrong with the hectic stuff happening around you, but the arenas follow the same patterns every time.
If you play them often enough, you can learn the optimal places to stand, the spawn points for certain enemies, and things to anticipate and prepare for by preemptively grabbing one of the arena buffs (like the reflective damage shield whenever there are waves of ranged enemies). So I guess practice does make perfect?
It felt kind of addictive defeating the final boss and then checking the stats to find that you did it faster than yesterday, and managed to complete several arenas without dying. I felt a sense of progression and improvement – on my first scored run it took four hours and included countless numbers of deaths. My best ever run was only around 90 minutes and I even managed to reach Voriak Solkyn with two vitality bonus left – which means I only died 13 times. Sadly I died a few more times before completing that run. But someday I will complete the arena with less than 15 deaths! Someday.
I did eventually get myself a Maelstrom inferno staff, which is said to be very desirable if you’re a destruction staff user. After getting that, I decided I’d had enough for now. But there are plenty more Maelstrom weapons to try for…
I do encourage anyone thinking of trying Maelstrom Arena to give it a go. It can be painful. It can break your spirit. But that feeling you get when you do beat it…
…there’s nothing like it in all Oblivion.