If there’s one thing I’ve taken from this current Disney era of Star Wars, it’s the nostalgia. It’s an inherent aspect of the new Star Wars films – The Force Awakens leaned on it like a crutch, too afraid to experiment or divert in anything other than small, unsatisfying ways, Rogue One was drenched in it thanks to its setting and timeframe and The Last Jedi spat on it, eagerly casting aside the old while still sneakily stuffing some of the familiar stuff into its pockets just in case it needed it back later. All three (and I’m sure the future entries) rely on nostalgia for the original trilogy, desperate to take us back to that first enchanting time those big yellow words scrolled past our eyes and the never-ending bulk of a Star Destroyer crawled across the screen. Sure I got caught up in that, but it also made me nostalgic for something else. A game, one I loved long ago but had since been shelved, consigned to gather dust and be fondly half-remembered. If nothing else, Disney’s Star Wars made me replay Knights of the Old Republic.
KOTOR is one of the best pieces of Star Wars Expanded Universe material ever. Let me tell you why.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (PC, Xbox [reviewed])
Released July 15 2003 | Developer: Bioware | Publisher: LucasArts
Genre: RPG | HLTB: 29 hours
Set roughly 4000 years before the events of A New Hope, KOTOR is Bioware’s take on the Star Wars franchise. Much of it feels familiar to the modern gamer and Star Wars fan; the galaxy is united underneath the banner of the Republic while the warrior-monks of the Jedi Order stand beside them. But this is no heyday; as always both organisations are locked in a bitter and destructive war against the encroaching and seemingly all-powerful Sith Empire, lead by the evil Darth Malak.
The decision to set the game so far removed from the films was made to allow Bioware more creative freedom with their vision yet interestingly KOTOR is still deeply connected to then already-extant Star Wars material; the Tales of the Jedi comic books detailed the events of the Great Sith War which underpins the history and attitude of characters in Bioware’s game.
Like the best of Bioware’s RPGs before it, KOTOR is built around its characters and the game peaks when delving into them. Though the imposing Darth Malak commands the Sith armies as he lays waste to the Republic, it is his predecessor, Darth Revan, that forms the game’s central focus. Revan is an enigma within the game; almost every character has heard of them thanks to their efforts in uniting a band of Jedi to rebel against the Order and save the Republic from a mighty Mandalorian warhorde some years before the events of the game before disappearing off into the unknown reaches of space beyond the galaxy. Revan then returns at the head of a vast and unending Sith army, declaring war on the galaxy as the new Lord of the Sith. Before the events of the game Revan is defeated by Bastila Shan, a young Jedi with a talent for Battle Meditation, an exceptionally powerful technique that uses the Force to influence entire armies. In retaliation, Bastila’s flagship is shot down above the planet Taris. Surviving the wreckage is our player character and a Republic pilot named Carth Onasi. Together, they work to find Bastila, escape Taris and return her to the Jedi Order on Dantooine before working out how to stop Darth Malak.
The plot of KOTOR does capture the feel of Star Wars. Bioware do a grand job of recreating the flashy space-opera excitement of the franchise though it perhaps comes at the cost of nuance. KOTOR’s narrative is fairly predictable, though that’s hardly a bad thing; instead the comfortably familiar backdrop of evil Empire with faceless stormtroopers vs good Republic and Jedi is used as a springboard for Bioware to explore the power dynamic of a galaxy at war through its characters in a genuinely compelling way. Funnily enough, that exploration doesn’t really come from the main cast; instead it’s the ambient chatter and extended dialogues one can have with NPCs that start to deconstruct the standard Star Wars paradigm of good Republic, bad Empire. While the Sith are cartoonishly evil, the Republic is given more depth as we see the problems with a galaxy-spanning political alignment laid bare and explored. It could certainly have been done more thoroughly (and the sequel is by far the more comprehensive and effective deconstruction of Star Wars) but it does lend the game more substance than might be expected.
Though I mentioned that the main cast aren’t hugely involved with the most interesting points of discussion raised by the game, that’s not to say they aren’t well-written. The party all have intriguing facets to their respective personalities and histories, from the tragic downfall and oppression experienced by the stumbling Jedi Juhani to the endearing and plucky facade that the teenage urchin Mission Vao puts on as she struggles with abandonment issues. If there’s a sticking point, it’s in the moment-to-moment dialogue and its delivery; some of the voice acting is stilted (Carth is a particularly insistent offender) while the way the characters interact with one another is somewhat clunky and robotic. There are some exceptions; personally I’m a fan of the Mandalorian veteran Canderous Ordo, who recounts the destruction he wrought while at war with a sneering contempt for the Republic while the standout is by far the rusted assassin droid HK-47 who leaps at any opportunity for sarcasm and constantly calls to blast away enemies with gleeful pleas to violence.
When it comes to the gameplay, KOTOR is reminiscent of earlier CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate; to a modern gamer discovering an older title it might instead feel like a precursor to Dragon Age: Origins. Combat takes place in a pseudo-real time, D&D-inspired system; you click on your enemy, cue up abilities and then let them take place as behind-the-scene dice rolls determine your accuracy and damage. On easy difficulties it can feel quite hands-off; on harder settings it instead rewards the more involved player that tinkers with AI tactics and reacting to the movement of fights with well-timed abilities and Force powers. And there’s certainly a lot of tinkering to be done; KOTOR is very much a game of inventory management and stat meddling, built as it is in the old-style of RPGs. It’s almost overwhelming coming to it after playing today’s more streamlined RPGs but once you’ve adjusted to the ungainly UI and constant need to scour your items for the right equipment I found I’d settled back into it like an old home.
And that’s what KOTOR is for me: an old, familiar home. I still recognise everything about it though it’s been so long since I last played it. From the open plains of Dantooine to the foreboding tombs of Korriban the game still has the shine of quality. Though the visuals are a little dated, that doesn’t matter compared to the aesthetic and design. The Shadowlands of Kashyyyk are still claustrophobic and eerie and the deserts of Tatooine still stretch out before you, vast and endless; experiences like that are an intrinsic part of why I loved Bioware’s vision of the Star Wars universe so much and why I love this game to this day.
It’s not without problems; it suffers from a lumbering pace that can easily put players off, particularly given how long the first planet can take to beat. The combat doesn’t have a good middle-ground; it’s either hands-off and slightly dull or it’s overly intense and requires the player to immerse themselves in party AI tactics amidst ugly menus and the dodgy UI. Between planets you’re forced to play an abysmal turret-shooting section as you pick hard-to-see Sith fighters out of the sky. There are a number of alien languages that are fully voiced, none of which sound particularly pleasant to listen to. And while Bioware’s narrative and themes play out well, they only scrape the surface, threatening a deconstruction of the Jedi and the Sith, of the Republic and the Empire, but never managing to get any deeper. That honour is reserved for the sequel.
Those gripes, however, fail to detract from just how marvelous Knights of the Old Republic is. It’s a tremendous game, easily one of the finest of the multitude of Star Wars games out there and one which I wholeheartedly recommend. The effort put into it is undeniable, its charms are inescapable and the end result is magnificent.
7/7 – TOP TIER.As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.