I’m supposed to be stealing keys from several merchants in Leyawiin, but things haven’t exactly gone to plan. I accidentally wore my Grey Fox mask, a piece of armour that immediately marks me as a wanted criminal to every guard I pass. Even after finally sorting out my armour situation and making my way into Southern Books, the shopkeeper Bugak gro-Bol isn’t in bed when I enter and won’t stop following me around and trying to kick me out of his shop, because it’s midnight and I look like exactly the kind of shady character who might be breaking in to steal from him.
These are the same hapless adventures that I remember going on in Oblivion, but this time my Khajiit character isn’t out thieving at the behest of Cyrodiil’s Thieves Guild. I’ve already worked my way to the top of that organisation and become the Grey Fox myself. I’m back at the bottom of the totem pole now, working for a brand-new guild based in the modded territory of Elsweyr.
Meet the Khajiit
Wherever game developers leave loose lore on the ground, modders are always sure to pick it up and incorporate it. Khajiit lore in the Elder Scrolls games is varied and colourful, but has almost always been relegated to tomes and dialogue from cat-like merchants. Although the Khajiit homeland did appear in The Elder Scrolls: Arena, it didn’t show up again in a proper Elder Scrolls game until an expansion to The Elder Scrolls Online in 2019. In the meantime, modders have soaked up all the spare Khajiit facts available and designed the territory themselves.
One of the earliest fan-made forays into the Khajiit homeland is ‘Elsweyr The Deserts of Anequina’, originally published in June of 2009 by a Nexus Mods user called Iliana and including the work of dozens of other modders. I didn’t play Oblivion in 2006 when it released, but even 13 years later I can still intensely feel the awe that its opening fanfare and drawn-out 3D pan around the Imperial City must have inspired. In the same way I can appreciate how great a feat Elsweyr Anequina’s giant open expanse and huge cast of NPCs and quests are, despite playing through them ten years later.
Anequina begins with a book, as plenty of mods do. It appears in my inventory to describe all the cities and quests available to me in the new territory. I also have to make sure I’ve turned off Oblivion’s default in-game borders that prevent me from exploring beyond the normal bounds of Cyrodiil. With that done, I’m able to wander across the southern border of the world and directly into Elsweyr over a bridge west of Bravil.
The first town I travel through is Riverhold, just over the southern border. It’s not immediately different from Cyrodiil—still lots of green, with bushes and waterfalls like other areas of Oblivion’s base game. Inside town though, I’m quickly face to face with all the various ‘furstocks’ of Khajiit. Most had never been seen in an Elder Scrolls game before, only described, and were left up to the imagination and resourcefulness of modders involved with Anequina.
Riverhold is full of Khajiit that lore-buffs will recognise, though they can’t possibly compare with the renditions from Bethesda’s own creations in The Elder Scrolls Online. Cathay, one of the playable races of most Elder Scrolls games, mingle with Ohmes, which have physical and facial features of Bosmer elves, just with fur on top. The house cat-like Alfiq and big cat Senche both seem to be based on the same cougar-esque large cat model, but scaled down and up respectively.
Whether by design choice or technical concern, neither Alfiq nor Senche can be spoken to. Other Khajiit speak plenty, though of course their voiced lines are only greetings like “Hello there!” and other small phrases that already existed in Oblivion’s base game for its Khajiit characters. Their more specific lines for quest giving are all text only. Elder Scrolls lore suggests that the scholarly Alfiq dislike speaking in front of outsiders, creating rumours that they are actually mute. I suppose my Khajiit thief is an outsider to them after all.
Beyond Riverhold, green shrubbery gives way to the arid desert that the northern region of Elsweyr—Anequina, as the mod is named after—is known for. Grassy hills quickly turn into steep sand dunes ringed with narrow walking paths that, to Anequina’s credit, feel as if they belong with the rest of Oblivion’s topology. Thanks to its notoriously floaty physics, it’s easy to break a leg stumbling down a dune while pursued by one of the many new monsters added in the mod.
The desert is dangerous, it turns out. In true Oblivion fashion, I learn the region’s fauna by running away from them at full tilt, turning back every so often to fire arrows into their knees. The desert is swamped with giant tarantulas, aggressive Alfiq, elephants that seem majestic and calm but absolutely are not when you get close enough, orc bandits, and many other things that want to kill me. It brings back fond memories of being chased by two very persistent wolves all the way from Bruma to Skingrad. Even a few remote villages of tribal Khajiit are hostile as soon as I got near their gates.
In between running from oversized arachnids, Anequina’s fully featured towns each have their own distinct design. In Dune there are camels for sale, and giant golden towers that look like a mosque on a postcard presiding over the open market in the lower half of the city. Riverhold is a treetop city of wooden homes all climbing the same waterfall topped with a modest lodge that calls itself a palace. Corinthe is a small town maze of back streets all branching from a central market, and its mostly single-story architecture crisscrossed with makeshift plank bridges between rooftops is the perfect hunting ground for the local Thieves Guild.
Compared with the Elsweyr I know from The Elder Scrolls Online, Anequina offers something a bit different. ESO’s wide-open world and detailed cities are beautiful, but all give me architectural fatigue. The steeply curved roofs that I’ve come to associate with the Khajiit thanks to that game are a constant presence in all of its cities in Northern Elsweyr. Anequina features so much more contrast and more varied sources of inspiration thanks to all the different modders contributing to the buildings and city designs of the area.
Khajiit has quests
It isn’t all just exploration, of course. There are two dozen new quests and a few guilds to join. As in Oblivion, not all quests are of grand scale. In Riverhold my first encounter is with a man looking for his lost child. Solving this small mystery involves asking around town and using Oblivion’s odd speechcraft minigame to increase residents’ disposition towards me to eventually pry information out of them.
Outside town is a Khajiit highwayman not so committed to his task who simply gives up when I refuse to hand over the 400 gold coins he demands. Further into the desert I stumble over the dead body of a Khajiit lying next to a golden lamp. Having learned no lessons from pop culture whatsoever, I pick up the lamp and a dremora genie pops out to offer me a wish. Apparently I’m not averse to deals with demons because I wish, of all things, for love. I’m granted a random NPC friend for my trouble and the genie, now contractually freed from caring about my wants or needs, proceeds to attack.
With that problem behind me, I pull out my Anequina guide book again, the tome that started it all. I seem to remember seeing mention of the Thieves Guild. As the Grey Fox of Cyrodiil I find it only right that I should visit the local chapter and see what dark work needs doing. That’s where my great struggle lifting keys from the pockets of merchants in Leyawiin begins. In all my time traipsing about Elsweyr I’ve entirely forgotten how to be a proper thief. I do eventually manage to steal all three requested keys and return them to my new dispatcher Jinsiraga in Corinthe. After that I’m off to steal some horses, naturally.
These are only the beginning of my adventures in the Oblivion version of Elsweyr. Anequina understands Oblivion’s playfulness with its lazy highwaymen and desert genies. If not for having to install Anequina, I’d have never known it wasn’t part of Oblivion in the first place.