Only a Sith deals in quality customer service! Source: IGN
Let’s not talk about that reveal just yet, even though it’s arguably the best thing about the game. Instead, let’s acknowledge the game’s legacy. Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) is not the game that put BioWare on the map, but it’s certainly one of their best, if not one of the most fondly-remembered. The Star Wars license probably helped a bit too.
To throw Star Wars out as the only reason KOTOR reviewed and sold so well is to miss what made the game special. It is, in my opinion, the first of the so-called ‘modern’ RPGs, one that blended gameplay, plot and excellent aesthetics together to create something more than the sum of its parts. It feels like the blueprint mainstream RPGs have slavishly followed ever since.
And look at Mass Effect – would it exist without KOTOR? Would BioWare have tried to create their own universe-spanning space epic if they hadn’t flexed their muscles in one of the best-known, best-loved universes of all time? Imagine the confidence that doing it right gives you.
Although, imagine if they had failed, imagine a world without Mass Effect. How vacuous and cold does that world look? Not Andromeda though, that one was total bobbins.
Replaying a classic
Memories of playing KOTOR for the first time were fresh in my mind as I reconnected my original Xbox (after blowing it free of dust bunnies and cobwebs). I felt a wave of nostalgic excitement wash over me as I powered up, inserted the disc and waited for the intro credits to roll. The iconic Star Wars title music boomed as the yellow text crawled up my screen, and I couldn’t help but go a little giddy. Here we go, it’s going to be amazing.
And there I was, a sort of cartoon-looking person lying on a bed as the ship I was on came under attack.
Explosions rocked the vessel, up-tempo music was playing, the atmosphere was brilliant. Then I found myself more concerned with the slow movement of the camera and the aging graphics. I had to pause for a moment to tell myself this wasn’t the point, most games you played over ten years ago will look bad today. It’s not your eyesight failing you in your twilight years.
Playing on, I found myself totally engrossed as I battled my way through the game’s first world, through my Jedi training and into the main quest proper. The camera and graphics disappeared from my mind, I was invested in the story, the characters and the world. I was completely consumed, and not by the dark side.
I say this now without a moment of hesitation: when I first bought KOTOR way back when, I came for the Star Wars but stayed for the game. It’s marvellous, even today.
Back in control
For a game that is over 10 years old, it plays pretty well. More modern games have refined the style of real-time, turn-based combat that KOTOR tried to champion, but it’s still incredibly good fun to get into a scuffle. You stack up offensive and defensive moves into a queue, and your characters play them out as you and your enemies take turns to whack seven shades of poop out of each other – you feel like a powerful puppet master, which is nice. I’ll admit that sometimes it feels a little off, especially when you hit a dude in the head with your lightsaber and he loses health instead of his face, but I found the combat easy and quick to adjust to, and easily forgave some of the more shonky moments that result from having to balance the game.
The writing is excellent, as you’d expect from BioWare, but as several reviewers said at the time: “BioWare don’t get points for good writing, it’s just a given.” The characters are fleshed out beautifully, and their backstories are revealed in a very restrained and well-paced manner. My personal standout character is the menacing HK-47 assassin droid, who regards all organics as “meatbags” and with whom you have some of the game’s most entertaining conversations. I am not alone in my opinion, because he is widely regarded as the game’s breakout party member.
The one task I didn’t enjoy so much was the endless swapping of bits of armour, items and buffs. It became a tedious chore, but that’s probably because I’m spoiled by modern games that take responsibility for that sort of thing away from you. Some people will love it, some people will not. My opinion is that without the excellent writing and compelling story, this sort of thing would have ruined the game, but it remains something I do because I have to.
The simple fact is that when we all first played KOTOR, we wanted to feel like a Jedi/Sith on a grand adventure, and we wanted to feel powerful. The game still delivers on that desire. You find yourself growing into your powers, becoming a crackling force of nature able to brush enemies aside with satisfying speed. And that’s how it should be, it’s the reason why I love this game even more now I’ve replayed it. And speaking of things to love, let’s get to that bit.
The BIG reveal
Okay, okay, here we are, at the section most of you have been reading this article to get to. KOTOR has one of the best plot twists in gaming history, seriously, it’s brilliant. And no, it has little to no impact on you once you know it’s coming, but I was still quite excited for the moment to come around.
It turns out that the mysterious Dark Lord of the Sith, Revan, whose trail you follow to end the game’s galaxy-threatening evil is you. Yes, you. You were knocked out and reprogrammed, eventually becoming an unwitting tool of the Jedi to root out your own dire plans. The first time I saw it, I was blown away. Every choice I’d made suddenly had new meaning, I have done all of this before. I am the root of the evil I combat, and now I can either reclaim my title or embrace the light and end the destruction forever.
The twist is revealed through a cutscene montage that reveals the implications of your actions, of your life before the story. You are no nameless hero, in reality you’re the very reason you find yourself on your current path. Like your amnesiac main character, you discover the true impact of actions you don’t remember taking, and the first time you realised what you really are was a moment few games have been able to match since.
Even today, KOTOR is a highly relevant game. It’s not only a blueprint for how an RPG should make you feel as the hero of a story, it’s also a blueprint for how to handle a license properly. Respect and love for the source material is evident in every facet of the world. It is a work of grand vision and a simple desire to captivate players.
And it succeeds, my goodness how it succeeds. Even on this latest of many playthroughs, I am enjoying every minute. To those who have played it before, I say revisit it and revel in it. To those who have never played it, pick up a super-cheap copy today and play a game that threw down a gauntlet and redefined the RPG genre.
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