As if to answer the decades-old query posed by Iron Maiden in the single "Can I Play With Madness," Bethesda Softworks brings you The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles, an expansion in which you most definitely can play with madness. Shivering Isles is an expansion to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and introduces a new world along with a lengthy major quest. It also includes several minor quests, new spells and items, and dozens of completely insane characters with which to interact. The theme of the new world is madness, which is manifested in the batty characters and the twisted yet beautiful landscape. Aside from the new realm, there isn't anything in this expansion that will significantly alter or enhance your experience with the rest of the game. So if you're content with Oblivion, you won't miss out on any integral updates if you decide to pass on Shivering Isles. However, even though Shivering Isles isn't a must-have expansion, it's an excellent value based on the amount of content alone, and a great excuse to revisit an already excellent game.
Once you've installed the Shivering Isles content, you can access it at any time with any character, regardless of your progress in the rest of the game. Soon after starting, you'll hear a rumor about a mysterious portal that suddenly appeared on an island in Niben Bay. As any adventurer worth his salt knows, the only thing to do with a mysterious portal is throw caution to the wind and dive right into it. You're greeted by an oddly dressed fellow named Haskill who explains that you've entered a portal to the Shivering Isles, which is the realm of the Daedric Prince of Madness, Sheogorath. The world is divided into the colorful, eccentric realm of Mania and the dark, paranoid realm of Dementia. The two different realms and their inhabitants share a less than harmonious, though not overtly hostile, relationship. The ruler of both realms is Sheogorath. It's up to you to act as Sheogorath's servant to carry out his delusional demands and rise in rank in the Court of Madness.
For the most part, serving as the right-hand man of the Prince of Madness is just as fun as it sounds. The prince will send you on a lengthy series of quests, and as you complete them, you'll gain rank, eventually rising all the way up to claim the title of Madgod of the Shivering Isles. Most of the quests involve crawling through huge, complex dungeons to gather artifacts and defeat enemies. Some of the quests are interesting and cleverly designed. In one early quest, you have to activate an ancient dungeon that serves as a trap for wayward adventurers who find their way into the isles. Once the dungeon is activated, you get to watch as a party explores it. You can press buttons to either send monsters to kill the adventurers or play tricks on the adventurers to drive them all insane. It's an entertaining way to indulge your sadistic side, which is heartily encouraged in the realm of Sheogorath.
Later in the story, the game resorts to sending you off on a seemingly endless string of simplistic fetch quests, which do get tiresome. It doesn't help that most of the dungeons you explore look identical, which will give you a strong sense of déjà vu. To help break up the main story quest, there are plenty of side quests you can pick up by talking to people in the two main towns. Many of these quests aren't particularly involved, but they're offbeat and weird enough to provide a nice diversion after hours spent in dungeons. You'll meet one gentleman who is afraid to sleep indoors because he thinks the walls will collapse on him, so he commissions you to find him a suitable place to sleep outside. Another man hates his life but doesn't want to commit suicide, so he hires you to kill him and make it look like an accident. At the very least, these quests lend a bit more character to the world by having you interact with the various interesting people who are each a bit crazy in one way or another.
The Carroll-esque world of the Shivering Isles is an entertaining place for a while, but after immersing yourself in a world of madness, you might start to feel a bit touched yourself. Most of the characters are harmlessly nutty, but some of them are downright annoying. Sheogorath himself is one of the most annoying characters you'll find in any video game. The prince almost always talks by shouting and rarely ever makes any sense. Screaming incoherently in a Scottish accent wasn't funny in Austin Powers, and it's not funny here. The prince's voice is so grating, and his dialogue is so inane, you'll probably want to either turn down your sound or click through the conversation as quickly as possible. On the other hand, Chancellor Haskill is a great character whose subtly sardonic tone and dry wit are often quite funny. The rest of the inhabitants fall somewhere between the two extremes, and most of the characters you meet are entertaining in their own ways.
The world of the Shivering Isles also takes on the physical characteristics of the scrambled psyche of the prince. The landscape looks quite different from anything you'll find in Tamriel or Oblivion, and it's all very pretty. From the starry pink skies to the towering phosphorescent mushrooms, there are plenty of great views to admire. But beneath the psychedelic sheen is a world full of monsters waiting to tear you limb from limb. You'll have to fight giant insects, crawling trees, primitive humanoid amphibian creatures, and an entire army of knights known as The Order. Most of the enemies look good, animate well, and put up a respectable challenge in a fight.
To combat all those enemies, you will get new weapons, armor, and spells. If that's not enough, you can make your own weapons and armor by collecting materials and recipes. You can collect amber or madness ore and take it to the blacksmith in Mania or Dementia, respectively. Using the material, you can have the blacksmith forge powerful weapons and armor. The items might not replace your current gear, but at the very least, these forged items will fetch a high price from any merchant. Of course, in addition to forged items, there are plenty of treasures for you to discover in the Shivering Isles' many dungeons. By the time you're ready to leave the Shivering Isles for the greener fields of Tamriel, you'll likely be a very wealthy hero. In addition to the new items, there are a few new magic spells in the expansion, including an amusing spell that lets you summon Chancellor Haskill to ask him for advice.
Shivering Isles looks fantastic and runs fairly well most of the time, although the stuttering frame rate problem from Oblivion carries over into the expansion as well. On the PC the game also has some stability issues. The game crashed multiple times on two different systems, and locked up one system several times throughout the course of the game.
It will take you a good 20 hours to complete the major quest line, but there's plenty more to do afterward. With all the side quests to complete and territory to explore, you could easily spend 30 or 40 hours or more losing your mind in Shivering Isles, and you'll find that your time there is well spent. The quests, characters, and world in Shivering Isles are all as creative and intriguing as in the rest of the game. Oblivion was huge before, but now it's bigger and better than ever.