Oblivion: Shivering Isles

Welcome to the mountain of madness

Expansion packs don't come much more expansive than this. This is a lot more than just an add-on for Oblivion - this is a 180-degree directional shift for Bethesda's epic RPG. When this 30-hour-long pack is available for download on Xbox Live Marketplace at the end of June, you'd better pack your possessions in a box and have a straightjacket on hand, because Shivering Isles will have you foaming like a dog on a boat full of sausages.

So let's brief you on what you can expect to do in Shivering Isles while you're still sound of mind. Consider that Oblivion consists of a number of planes of existence - one ruled by each of the seventeen or so Daedric Princes, the divine beings so powerful that many in Tamriel worship them as gods. Pluck Shivering Isles from its hiding hole on Marketplace and you'll open up a new portal linking to the eponymous islands, located on a landmass that's popped up off the coast of Bravil. These isles represent the plane ruled by Sheograth, the Daedric Prince of Madness. Surely an enticing proposition for any would-be quest merchant, be they fresh off the character creation screen or one of the countless 1000-hour veterans.

Rookie or legend, anyone's free to wander into this brave new world, but if you think you've seen enough shrubs and greyscale castles to last you a lifetime, then you'll be pleased to know that Bethesda are bored of drawing them. The Shivering Isles, at approximately 25% the size of Cyrodiil, is geographically unlike anything you skulked around in the previous edition. These isles are more vibrant, more offbeat, more interesting and generally just more swan-stranglingly crazy than anything you will ever have encountered before. Imagine Alice in Wonderland meets Rampton and you're about one-third of the way to understanding how banana-bakingly bonkers this realm actually is.

It is, you see, the Realm of Madness itself, and the unlucky inhabitants find themselves permanently in the grip of insanity. Precisely which breed of psychosis it is that looms over the heads of its incumbents depends entirely on which part of the isles they originate from, as this is a land that's split down the middle in two - both geographically and psychologically. A giant ridge runs straight through the isles, and is the political barrier between the two semi-autonomous regions - Mania in the highlands and Dementia in the lowlands. The difference between the two sectors is far more pronounced than whether their road signs read in miles or kilometres; their people, and indeed the landscape itself, takes the form of the area's name.

Mania is a bright, vivid technicolor world, home to bizarre, hyperactive artists and kleptomaniacs, each one, to a man, utterly insane. Dementia, on the other hand, is a miserable, dank, misty world packed with paranoia-stricken emotional wrecks. The names of each region embody the neurotic behaviour of the locals; in Mania, you'll encounter a charming obsessive-compulsive sufferer who just absolutely must have one of everything in the islands - you could lose days humouring her illness. Dementia, meanwhile, is an unpredictable, dangerous place due to the psychotic behaviour of the locals. Let's just say that which region you're in isn't likely to slip your mind any time soon.

The geographical divide has serious consequences for those towns that straddle the border, including - yes! - the capital city, New Sheoth, cut into two like a magical Berlin. Dementia plays East Berlin to Mania's affluent West, with the Crucible district run-down and in ruin, with living conditions that make even the dingiest Edwardian haunt look like a night at Caesar's Palace. Certainly, you'd be more likely to flaunt your white iPod headphones around Mania's Bliss district, despite the fact that their mental health hospital is similarly overworked. Then there's the town of Split - where each inhabitant has seemingly separated into two separate individuals. There's no way any good can come from something like this.

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