I’m back with an old classic (unlike the new classics, whatever that means) duo games of KOTOR (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic). These are a series of RPGs under the Star Wars license, the first one developed by Bioware, and the second rushed out by Obsidian. Now, it’s been quite a few years, and I’m obviously playing KOTOR 2 with the restored content mod (Google it if you’re interested), so it’ll be these games at their best state. It’s funny how I keep chewing threw Bioware games, but that’s something else for another day. Regardless, Bioware and Obsidian have done plenty of wrongs, but let’s just go ahead and talk about the games. There will be spoilers, and the disclaimer is I’ve watched all the Star Wars movie only once, and I’ve not played The Old Republic MMO, instead only reading its plot.
First, if I were to take it from a video game point of view, I’d say that both of these games (in their final form, no pun intended) are quite good for their time. They do not have the extensive RPG systems of old, signalling Bioware’s movements to more mainstream RPG – which ultimately cumulated into the travesty that is DAI, but I’ve talked about that already. Still, they have the dice rolling, the stats manipulation, the mix-maxing, and the extensive dialogues, though nothing compared to non-cut scene RPGs like Divinity OS or Pillars of Eternity. The game has its semi-unique half real time half turn-based system, with a good variety of characters to choose from. However, as a Star Wars licensed game, it suffers greatly from variety in game play. If you’re a Jedi or a Sith (and you’d be), your choice of style is limited to pretty much the Lightsabre. While this isn’t bad per say, it’s basically just an extension of the dual, single, double, unarmed, and ranged system, while limiting your choices. Characters hardly ever stray from their designated style, and you won’t get too far from being creative. There aren’t a large amount of enemies either, and scaling difficulty just involve throwing more bosses at you. There were some fun strategies to take here and there, but the gameplay itself was relatively simple. You mass your designated stats, you buy-craft the best weapon you can, and you then spam skills. With the way the controls were, the positioning becomes entirely preparation and very little micro management. That isn’t bad, but it’s not what you’d expect from an RPG. All in all, the mechanics were solid, if not somewhat simplistic, but it was fun no matter how I look at it.
Now let’s go to more controversial territory, and talk about the freedom of plot. Don’t worry, I plan to get the plot later, but let’s do this first. From an RPG in the mid-2000s, the integration of plot into gameplay weren’t really expected to be good, and it wasn’t, but no one really cared. Plot was injected quite jarringly, and developers were super shameless when it comes to shoehorning nonsense dialogue to make the action flow. That’s fine, it’s an old video game. However, these two games also feature a very nice semi-freedom of progression, with the ability to progress at your own interpretation of the plot stack. Characters and events are dynamically coded to respond (mostly) accurately to your ventures, and you really feel like you’re the hero (or the villain) taking the world over at your own pace. This is not what defines an RPG (say Jedi Academy), but a lot of them have level gates that makes it impractical to do things like this (Pillars of Eternity for example), and some segment content into chunks of movable plot points (DA 2 comes to mind). Of course, the caveat is a game that utilises a system of choice such as this needs to have a coherent driving sensible integrated plot, or else you end up like Skyrim, at utter failure in anything plot related (among many other things). So as far as the open world aspect goes, KOTOR deserves its fair share of praises as well.
But it’s time to get to what really sets it apart. It wouldn’t be a good Star Wars license game if it didn’t incorporate the best aspects of the world to its core. The force powers, lightsaber, dark side, light side, crystals, space politics, FTL travels etc. As it stands, that’s all well and good, and something practically replicated in something like Jedi Knight. Both KOTOR and KOTOR has something special however, and that’s their plots, which were then undermined completely by TOR, such is the fate of prequels to a MMO (I’m looking at you too World of Warcraft). Obviously we’re stepping into spoiler territory here, so considered yourself warned. I’ve been someone who openly criticise the Bioware’s goodness-o-metre repetitively in the past, due to its unnecessary existence in Mass Effect, or its binary-switch implementation in Jade Empire. In fact, one of the best things about Dragon Age was the lack of this stupid slider. However, in a Star Wars game, a good-bad slider actually makes perfect sense due to the canonicity of the good side dark side continuous struggle (which was why Jedi Academy’s press-a-button-to-choose thing was literally as dumb as it gets), where the player characters and even her teammates becomes influenced in a particular way of living and a particular perspective. While the technology just isn’t there to accommodate the shifting of companions’ dialogue (which is something DAO actually did well enough, and one of the reason why I loved the game), your own change is easily felt through the decisions and its consequences. Even further, the best thing about KOTOR 1 and 2’s plot was its ambiguity, something that the Star Wars main series itself completely lack, and the reason why those films, while excellent representation of fine cinematography for the original trilogy, will never be good. Star Wars, as traditions go, feature literally zero subtlety, and is one of its biggest downfall. The fact that it has a light (good) side and a dark (evil) side means that its plot will never be anything worth talking about. Indeed, the series has amazing world building (albeit completely fantastical and lacking in any shred of shame) and what it pioneered was nothing to scoff at. However, characters and the story itself was laughable at best, and I doubt the upcoming 7th movie was going to do it any better. What the KOTOR game (especially KOTOR 2, bless Chris Avellone) did was to introduce actual nuance into the struggle of power and perspective, injecting the reality of war into the plot. This was not done by the humanisation of the Sith (because they cannot be humane, or else the entire premise of the war will not work), but instead describe the light side as what they really have ought to be: impractical extremist, and dogmatic zealots. The Jedi represent a kind of uncompromising upper class that wishes for very little but the attainment of their own validation, whether through violence or politics, and ‘morph’ into Siths as their power become threatened. Sith are made, not born, as one may say. You never empathise with the Sith, as previously said they’re not made to be empathised with, but you eventually become too jaded with the so-called light side that it forces you to think. You never really join the Sith, instead you take over them for your own benefits. It’s quite clear when you think of it like that, since the light path forces you to subscribe to someone else’s dogma, while the dark path allows you to take matters into their own hands, promoting that personal freedom everyone loved so much.
The problem with the Star Wars film’s representation of this was to paint the actions of the Jedi teachings as unnaturally good, and their fighting is some sort of righteous revolution. It has never worked like that, and only introduced the binary shoving of principles. Even Darth Vader’s shift of loyalty didn’t last, for he’s redeemed in the end with practically no effort, and nonsensical a deus-ex-machina undermined any sense of weight the movies had left. That said, it’s not enough to not have clear good-bad choices (not that many stories even offer a choice). Skyrim, for example, didn’t really feature a strong good-bad dynamic, but its story was still terrible. That’s because of the non-committal attitude to its own plot. The plot is never in the foreground, instead they focused everything on the sandboxing aspect of the game. Thus, now that the plot is relegated to the side as nothing but decorations, there exists no sense of urgency, essentially making it utterly boring and lifeless. So, I guess I’m kind of in love. It’s only fair. If you noticed, I made no special mentions of specific characters, but that’s mostly because TOR’s lore and its terrible and streamlined canon regarding all of them hurt me far too much, and I’d just rather not remember it.
Headline is official art.