My love of the original Knights of the Old Republic is already documented. Bioware’s planet-hopping Star Wars RPG is a brilliant experience; not only is it a solidly enjoyable CRPG in the vein of Bioware and Black Isle classics, but it is backed up by cracking writing and a marvellous understanding of what makes Star Wars as a franchise and as a setting so much fun. I loved playing it back in the day, I utterly adored replaying it earlier in the year and it still stands, in my opinion, as a beacon of quality among the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
And yet it wholly pales in comparison to KOTOR II. I say this without hyperbole that this game is my undisputed favourite piece of Star Wars media outside of the original trilogy and one of my favourite games of all time. Does it still stand up? You bloody well better believe it does.
Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (PC, Xbox [reviewed])
Released Dec 2004 | Developed: Obsidian | Published: LucasArts
KOTOR II begins in an awfully un-Star Wars-like way. Our hero is a former Jedi, exiled from the Order for their involvement in the Mandalorian Wars some years prior and in the years they have since spent wondering the farthest reaches of the galaxy the Exile has become numb to the Force. They wake in a small fuel mining facility orbiting Peragus, a planet that hangs lifeless and shattered in space, its core exposed after its unstable natural fuel exploded. There are no signs of life at all; the facility staff have all been killed in mysterious circumstances, leaving the Exile to trek through the steel-grey chambers and craggy mines accompanied only by the holographic ghosts of the miners, locked into a cycle of broadcasting their final words to empty, echoing halls.
It’s a distinctly different feel to any other Star Wars material I’ve ever tried; it’s almost as if the writers were aiming for a pseudo-survival horror vibe. In many ways it reminds of the opening of Planescape: Torment, an apt comparison given that both games were written by the excellent Chris Avellone. This attempt at capturing ideas that aren’t typical to Star Wars is a theme that underpins almost everything great about KOTOR II, and it’s what makes it stand out so much against everything else in the Expanded Universe.
The central concept to Avellone’s writing is a focus on the nature of the Force itself, the dichotomy between the Light and Dark sides, and the perception of it from a range of perspectives. Many Star Wars titles strictly emulate the Force as it is presented in the films, in which the Light is a strictly heroic and morally upstanding champion of goodness while the Dark side is wholly negative, obsessed with fear, hatred, and abilities Jedi consider unnatural. Even Bioware’s fantastic predecessor to this game draws from that same background. However, KOTOR II takes a more subtle, nuanced approach. It is unafraid to question the choices made by players, and invites them into conjecture and consideration of why they took those options, and what the consequences might be. It’s a grand idea and one that many games fail at representing well but as far as I’m concerned KOTOR II is one of the better attempts at that idea in gaming.
The key to all this is the character of Kreia. A haggard and cynical old woman, we first meet her as she rises seemingly from the dead at the beginning of the game. She’s bitter, twisted, and frighteningly intelligent, far more so than any other character in the game. She also takes it upon herself to become the Exile’s teacher, slowly pushing them back towards the Force while constantly offering them counsel – she’s essentially a spiteful, manipulative mirror to Ben Kenobi in the original trilogy. As the sole party character locked to a neutral alignment, she becomes the vector for Avellone’s deconstruction of the Force as an abstract notion. If the Exile swings too far in either moral direction, she snidely undercuts their decision by criticism their slavish devotion to an alignment; for individual acts she offers a critical analysis of the outcomes, trying to draw the player into rejecting the game’s call to move either entirely to the Light or Dark side. As a Jedi historian she discusses the Exile’s role in the Mandalorian War, and the actions of Revan from the previous game’s backstory.
In delving into the ethics of the Star Wars universe, the game invites the player to explore the option that neither the Light nor the Dark side of the Force are inherently good or bad. Instead it wants to consider whether both paths can do as much good as bad; too much of the Light’s carefree charity could lead to a weak Republic that relies on help to survive, whereas the right application of the Dark side could create a powerful, self-reliant galaxy that can stand up to threats without succumbing entirely to hate and evil. It’s an interesting thematic standpoint that would later be revisited in Bioware’s Jade Empire but here in KOTOR II it’s explored extremely well, offering an engaging and provoking discussion that you tend not to get in Star Wars.
The rest of the cast are no slouches either. In keeping with the theme of the writing, they often appear to be standard Star Wars tropes at first before revealing themselves to be astute subversions as you converse with them. There’s Atton, a roguish Han Solo-type with an ability to withstand Jedi powers which suggests something more than his supposedly mundane self lets on; Hanharr is a powerful Chewbacca-esque Wookiee but with a warped view of a life debt, causing him to view it as a slave’s yoke and leading him to hunt down and violently murder anyone he owes his debt to; even the droids are distorted franchise archetypes, such as G0-T0, a scheming criminal who offers a mechanically cold and calculating alternative to the series’ staple Hutt crime lords, while the fan-favourite HK-47 returns, bringing with him an even more comically psychotic worldview.
Outside of the phenomenal writing, much of KOTOR II’s design is similar to the previous entry, a fact that owes a lot to the incredibly short development cycle. Plenty of assets are recycled, with some planets returning from KOTOR albeit in a slightly altered state. Dantooine’s maps are recognisable though the planet has started to rebuild following the Sith attack 5 years prior and we return to Korriban once more, although there’s an eerie feeling to walking through the ruins of a Sith Academy that in KOTOR was teeming with life. There are some new planets to explore – this game’s version of the ecumenoplis of Nar Shaddaa is suitably cramped and crime-ridden though it’s not a patch on Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast’s depiction of it – but you can see the effect of the forcibly-rushed development as many places are humdrum boxy environments linked by reasonably nice-looking corridors. It’s a shame but as far as I’m concerned it’s mostly a nitpick.
The combat is much the same as before, using a system not unlike traditional CRPGs with hidden dice rolls determining whether your attacks hit or miss. Like before you get access to a range of weaponry that allows you to attempt a number of different builds, whether you want to go in guns blazing or if you’d prefer a more melee-focused approach. The unarmed combat is revised in KOTOR II, turning it into a totally viable option, while more wily players can talk their way out of a number of conflicts with a Persuasion build. The range of Force powers is expanded from the first game while certain characters will now teach the Exile forms of lightsaber combat that apply specific passive buffs and debuffs depending on the combat situation, such as favouring 1-on-1 encounters or setting up for dealing with hordes of blaster users, allowing for a touch more tactical nuance.
The game also features a new Influence system whereby your actions and conversation choices can have an impact on your party. Characters in your party will support specific actions or dialogue choices, such as offering support to your shell-shocked war veteran mechanic by empathizing with his mental state, or in happily indulging in combat to impress Mandalore, the leader of the war-obsessed Mandalorian clans. By gaining influence, you draw characters’ moral alignment closer to your own, convincing them to share the Exile’s worldview; conversely characters that disagree with your actions will be pushed further away from you. There are in-game benefits to doing this but I think as well it’s just great from a role-playing perspective, giving you a reason to be invested in your dialogue and action choices.
Additionally, the soundtrack to KOTOR II is a gem. Composed by Mark Griskey, it expertly captures the darker tone of the game. The title theme uses a very common Star Wars soundtrack arrangement, with light airy woodwind juxtaposed against huge, low brass though it’s used to create a more mysterious, sombre tone than other main themes in the franchise. This uneasiness is clearest in both of Kreia’s themes, fittingly, while the battle themes eschew bombast for a more threatening orchestration. Some themes feel like they could be at home in the huge war scenes of the prequels, particularly Onderon Battle, a personal favourite of mine. Aboard the Ebon Hawk and Rebuilt Jedi Enclave are probably the lightest tracks in the game, trying to express a sense of hope and calm but both use morose minor tonalities that suggest far darker and grimmer things that lie waiting for us. It’s a brilliantly sullen soundtrack that grinds down upon the player; like Peragus at the opening of the game it almost feels built for a horror or thriller game than a Star Wars game. Even the end credits theme that is topped with John William’s infinitely popular franchise motif spills into dour and oppressive moments, polluting our triumph with an sour taste of apprehension.
You do get a banging jazz theme in one cantina in the game though so perhaps that evens it all out.
It’s impossible to discuss KOTOR II without at least touching on the cut content. Because the game was so legendarily rushed to its release by LucasArts, Obsidian had to cut a tonne of content. I played this version on the Xbox release but if at all possible I highly recommend you play it on PC and pick up the Restored Content Mod. While any version of this game is still brilliant, take the opportunity to play it at its best if you can and grab the mod for it. Regardless, it should be clear by now that I adore Knights of the Old Republic II. It has flaws and faults, sure, but I couldn’t give a toss. The writing in this game is, in my humble opinion, among the best gaming has to offer ever. You’ll get far more out of it if you’re already a committed Star Wars fan but even without that it’s still a very enjoyable RPG and I urge you to give it a go.
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.