Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic review
The Force is Strong With This One
The greatest games of all times are the ones that age gracefully, the ones that don’t simply take advantage of the newest technology in order to ‘wow’ players but somehow manage to transcend those limitations in order to create something that stands the test of time. Despite their archaic controls and primitive graphics titles like A Link to the Past and Super Metroid there is in indescribable ‘it’ factor at the heart of these games that makes them just as fun to pick up and play as they were two decades prior, while titles like Sonic Adventure age about as gracefully as a dead frog on a hot summers sidewalk. The point of this seemingly meandering preamble is that Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic does indeed manage to stand the test of time; and stands out not only as a great addition to the Star Wars universe but one of the greatest RPGs ever created.
Now I know that’s a bold claim to make and before you start telling me to shut up and try Fallout 3 allow me to explain. The best RPGs in my opinion are the ones that manage to hook the player on an emotional level, the ones that really bring out the role-playing in role-playing games. And as expansive and immersive as titles such as Fallout 3 and Skyrim are, they never managed to get remotely close to resonating with me emotionally. Even the death of your characters dad in Fallout got shrugged off by me as the freedom to deviate from the main quest within the first half hour of play greatly diluted my investment in both the narrative and its outcome (along with the fact that the guys relegated to like ten minutes of screen time).
KOTOR on the other hand is a lot more focused and a lot more intimate. Part of this is due to technical limitations. The games worlds are nowhere near the size of the capital wasteland but as Arkham City has proved size isn’t everything. The different planets that you travel to are home to a variety of side quests that complement and often parallel the main plot rather than draw your attention away from it. A few of them even tie into it in unexpected ways. What it lacks in size it more than makes up for in depth, and because the player isn’t constantly being tempted with yet another location to explore the side quests never threaten to eclipse the story. Yet even within these constraints the player is given some freedom as your ship the Ebon Hawke allows you to hop from planet to planet and decide in what order you tackle the quests.
The other two reasons that KOTORs plot excels at getting an emotional response out of the player is due to the fantastic writing, and the killer party that you end up assembling. Video game characters with actual chemistry are sadly still somewhat of a rarity, so being able to watch Bastila and Mission Vao snipe at each other is both appreciated and hilarious. Voice acting is often underappreciated in video games with most reviewers choosing to harp on it when it’s done wrong but that’s because when it’s done right it just seems so natural. The voice actors perfectly fit not only the look but also the attitude of each character; if the nonchalant threats from HK-47 don’t tickle your funny bone then you might want to see a doctor. Longtime video game players might recognize the voice of Jennifer Hale whose contributions to diverse titles such as Metal Gear Solid, Mass Effect , and Halo have made her somewhat of an icon.
The other thing that an RPG needs to succeed is a world that players will want to spend time with. Bioware accomplished this with KOTOR and ironically enough they accomplished this by removing it as much from its source material as possible. While there are jedis, lightsabers, and sith, the game is set 4,000 years before the events of the original trilogy and as such there won’t be any cameos by an off sounding Obi-Wan or Mace Windu.
As someone who is only a casual Star Wars fan (I like the movies well enough but that’s about where my knowledge of the franchise ends), I can’t say for sure how many alien species or events were of Biowares own invention and how many they just cherry-picked from the innumerable Star Wars Comics or novels but what I can say is that they use them in a way that never feels as if anything was just shoehorned in because just because it’s Star Wars. Hell you don’t even get a lightsaber until about after the 5 hour mark! References to past events such as the Mandalorian Wars or learning the legend of Bendak Starkiller on Taris might not be exactly move the narrative forward but they do help to create the feeling that these people and their problems have existed long before you’re character escaped the destruction of the Endar Spire.
But while it might remove itself from the movies and free itself from having to connect a bunch of dots that don’t even exist (Looking at you Force Unleashed), it doesn’t completely remove itself from the rich universe that George Lucas has created. Fans of the films get to visit a few familiar locations and the influences from the movies are apparent pretty much everywhere you look. But these little winks and nods never become too much to the point that the whole thing is basically a big inside joke for fans, instead serving as a backdrop to the story that Bioware is telling.
Of course it is preferred for the gameplay to match up and luckily KOTOR remains deeply satisfying to play a decade after its initial release. Combat is turn based but plays out with real time animations which make it stand out from other RPGs from the time even though it doesn’t actually push the genre forward. The gameplay is based off of Dungeons and Dragons so anybody who’s ever played that game should feel right at home. But even if you’re like me and you’ve never actually played that landmark title you’ll probably be familiar with the mechanics which seem to have influenced pretty much every western RPG ever.
But like its spiritual successor the meat and bones of KOTOR lies in the numerous conversations that take place and the decisions you are forced to make that go along with them. Elevating the source material to a level of maturity that the franchise has failed to reach since; KOTORS own sequel aside, the game takes place in a much more morally complex universe than the films it’s based off of. George Lucas might have created a universe where everything is black and white but KOTOR manages to inject some shades of grey into the established mythology and it works wonders. If you thought Bioware hadn’t yet mastered the craft of being able to break your heart over the fate of pixelated characters then you’re in for a rude awakening.
A few technical issues can’t deter from the experience. KOTOR is a great game that both Star Wars and role-playing fans shouldn’t miss.
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