Robert Tiemstra ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
If the VGAs are anything to go by, defining RPG as a video game genre seems a tenuous affair at best (they considered Pokémon, of all things, an RPG—a game to which “Role Playing” is as immersive as buying a unique selection of combat-ready parrots). Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, however, is an RPG classic—a gold standard that can prove to the most hardened cynic that videogames can tell complete and compelling narratives. This is inclusive of character development, subplots, and all that good stuff, which is really what RPG’s are all about (Role Playing Games, that is—not Rocket Propelled Grenades).
Star Wars is always a curious animal to discuss as an entity, so this author will mostly avoid direct comparisons with the films, save for this one tidbit: KOTOR works for the same reasons the original Star Wars films do and more. Bioware certainly has better writers in their employ than George Lucas had on hand back in those creatively lucrative years between ’77 & ‘83, but then again it is much easier to fully flush out characters when you have 20+ hours of content to spend with them, as any TV writer could tell you.
The comparison to narrative TV works more effectively for Bioware games than most other cross-genre comparisons. Their games have most of the usual elements you find in a classic TV show: recurring main cast, episodic structure, recurring guest stars (some of whom become main cast members, some of whom do not), and so on. By a curious coincidence, a relatively rushed play-through of KOTOR can wind up at around the same time as a TV season—20 hours. KOTOR plays out like the ideal manifestation of the Star Wars live action TV series Lucas was concocting around 2005 but has since abandoned. The “crew on a ship” conceit recalls the original Star Wars, but the character interaction is also reminiscent of sci-fi cult classics of the silver screen, such as Firefly and Farscape. The characters are broadly drawn enough to work in a Space Opera universe, but that does not impede the depth on display if you choose to explore their dialogue and backstories.
Bioware cleverly makes character interaction beneficial for gameplay mechanics and stat-building by having side-quests that are only available when players have talked a certain amount of times with X party member. This very healthy obsession with traditional character development includes Bioware’s controversial, but no less laudable, romance options. As one of the first games to introduce the idea of player-character romance, it is a little binary, but forgivably so (it’s clear from the get-go who the game has players set up with depending on if they are a man or a woman, but these characters are likeable enough for most to not mind).
Let’s step into the production value side of things—gameplay, graphics, the fun stuff! The graphics are decent for the time the game was made, despite clear seams down the center of some character’s faces like they were marked at birth by ineffectual lobotomy. This is a testament to the writers and voice actors that you can grow to ignore flaws like this in favor of seeing the character behind them. Curiously enough, this evokes the feeling of watching the original Star Wars movies in how we look past primitive visual effects because a story so completely sucks us in.
The gameplay is standard RPG turn based action (if disguised by some clever choreography by the game designers), but the action is merciful enough to pause right as combat begins, giving you time to plan your most devastating attack Sherlock-Holmes style before charging an army of proto-stormtroopers that (by another startling “coincidence”) look exactly like the henchmen in that Total Recall remake no one saw. Force Powers can be nicely addictive without being overpowered, the gameplay is developed well enough so that it doesn’t seem like padding between the story bits, and said story bits provide context that lends the action stakes which could have been absent due to graphical limitations of the time.
There is a binary moral choice that is essential to the appeal of this game—and, naturally, the crux of Star Wars as a series. Light or Dark side? Good or evil? It can be surprisingly stressful, as the actions have consequences both in the player’s standing with their party members, and how they can level up their own force abilities. And if they try and be clever about it—only doing the evil things with the morally compromised Non Player Characters—they are only postponing the inevitable, as the laws of drama dictate a crucial plot point in the third act when players must choose to morally align themselves with either Mahatma or Adolf.
Going back to characters, there are quite a few memorable voice and writing talents on display here—stand outs being HK-47, a delightfully twisted riff on “what if C-3PO was a psychopath” (Kristoffer Tabori in a role that can change how a person phrases text messages for the rest of their life) and Darth Malak, the principal antagonist who could have come off as just another Darth Vader imitation if his design and vocals (courtesy of Rafael Ferrer) didn’t strike such pitch-perfect menace. As one would expect in a Bioware production, there is a suitable amount of talent put in from the rest of the veteran voice cast as well, which includes Jennifer Hale (Bioshock Infinite), Raphael Sbarge (Mass Effect), and Robin Sachs (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
The plot displays excellent polish, embellished by top-notch writing, depth, humor, and genuine catharsis toward the ending, which works if players choose to go either light side or dark side. There is also a killer late game twist that is gut-wrenchingly effective if players have remained unspoiled these last 11 years. For those who enjoy heavily narrative and character based games, Star Wars, or some combination thereof, be sure to check this one out!
Game is available via Steam