With The Backlog, every week we take a look at a game from yore. This week we're talking about one of the most beloved and belittled Star Wars games of all time. If you missed last week's article on Fable, check it out here. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________
Overwhelmed by its award-winning predecessor and entirely overshadowed by its underwhelming successor, Obsidian's Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords holds a strange position within the pantheon of Star Wars video games. Released in 04' and only recently accepted into the Star Wars catalog on Steam, KOTOR II's anomalies make it one of the most fascinating products of the license to go back to and dissect the grizzly tone that is pervasive throughout Obsidian's glimpse into the Star Wars universe.
Whereas KOTOR I and The Old Republic dole out typical, blue skies and Boy Scout-for-Jedi experience of the franchise, the RPG of KOTOR II feels rather antithetical to the universe since it deals primarily in the one sensation that Star Wars usually avoids: dreadful isolation. As The Jedi Exile, you begin excommunicated from nearly every sect of society, but the journey contained within is even more lonesome as you travel through war-torn worlds ( the universe is still suffering in KOTOR II from the Jedi Civil War the previous game detailed) and encounter the most terrifying and compelling villains to ever grace a game bearing the franchise's logo. There's no limit to the emphasis that can be placed on that fact: There is no Darth Vader rip-off waiting in the wings of KOTOR II's universe, nothing even remotely similar to Palpatine or the wealth of copycat characters that Star Wars' cast of villains typically employs. You are given instead the challenge of navigating the deep, deep grays of the world Obsidian painted for players; a dense sort of rare neutrality between the stark blues and reds of past Star Wars experiences.
It's crucial for any modern-day analysis of KOTOR II to survey the story and its successes, if not simply for the fact that to this day the Star Wars brand has still not evolved or taken risks in the way Obsidian's story-tellers did. It's unfortunate that the lens of hindsight is tinted by KOTOR II's numerous technical flaws, a problem that does derail the story rather terribly for console players near the end of the game. It's not an easy thing for any KOTOR II fan to admit, that a portion of their game is simply absent, hastily stripped thanks to a rushed and time-constrained development that has left a permanently scarred legacy for both the game and its creators. Though the game does its best to unravel at every possible seam, the dense morality of the game is the impetus for any interested player to return and give it one last shot on PC, where fixes are available and the closest thing to a fully realized KOTOR II experience can be had.1
It's clear that the game realizes its strengths immediately, as in the first five minutes it introduces you to one of the most exemplary Star Wars characters to date: Kreia, an old force-user whom players become the pupil of. Under Kreia's tutelage the player learns the more captivating side of Star Wars philosophy: Is the act of healing simply a more positive connotation of manipulation? Why haven't the Sith or Jedi ever bothered questioning the force rather than question each other? Why did Revan truly betray The Republic? Kreia stands as the most inquisitive Star Wars character to date, clearly fueled by her own agenda but never hesitant to question the happenings around her. Contrasted with Han Solo-lite Atton Rand and the other weak supporting characters, Kreia's vigilance and complexity makes for a valid reason to try and play this poorly-aged game.
Kreia's foggy morality may make for KOTOR II's most interesting topic of discussion, but the game's villainous leaders (and the namesake for the game), The Sith Lords, make the game the closest thing to a Star Wars horror game that will ever exist. Darth Sion, and his cracked skin and abrasive voice in particular, is one of the chief reasons for the terror that this game struck personally in my teenage heart upon playing it for the first time. Sion's monologue in the first hour-and-a-half of the game is terrifying, visceral evidence of how macabre the game's tone can be:
"The failure is yours. No longer do your whispers crawl within my skull, no longer do we suffer beneath teachings that weaken us. And now you run in search of the Jedi... They are all dead, save one. And one broken Jedi cannot stop the darkness which is to come."
The game manages to retain the tone of horror while still oozing Star Wars fiction from its pores. Players coming to the game for a traditional Star Wars experience were likely disappointed the first time around: there's nothing truly desolate about Star Wars fiction, but KOTOR II squeezes every pore of the bloated franchise, siphoning core Star Wars tenets while poisoning them with dread and corrupt figures. Players navigate this universe of deceit and villainy with one of the more complex morality systems to date.
The game's morality systems go deeper and less binary than most modern games, governed both by the KOTOR I binary system of "Make your decisions, and then your light/dark meter will sway accordingly," and the influence mechanic that allows you to lose or gain impact on your party members depending on what players do or say. Good characters will not always agree with good decisions and vice versa, which complicates matters for those looking to influence their party members to significant stages of relationships (i.e. start a romance, train force-sensitives on your team to be a Jedi). It's one of the more punishing examples of morality in an RPG to date, and given KOTOR I's legacy for being the prototype for the Mass Effect series--one of the worst examples of a binary morality system to date--it is astounding that KOTOR II descends as far as it does in the realm of player decision.2
One could bother going into the outdated gameplay of KOTOR II, but it would be the same as detailing any action-RPG that precedes the still-clunky Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age 2--it's turn-based combat that so closely resembles action that the inability to actually commit that action simply frustrates. It's not the reason to return to the game, and even gameplay innovations of lightsaber fighting styles, detailed lightsaber modifications, and other Star Wars nerd-centric improvements fail to make the game feel better to play in 2012. Instead, why not evaluate how the game adumbrated Obsidian's entire legacy?
Comprised of ex-Interplay developers and RPG enthusiasts, Obsidian's buggy, poorly-developed legacy begins with KOTOR II. Obsidian has crafted more sequels to other franchises passed off by other developers to date than it has bothered to produce original content. Fallout: New Vegas, KOTOR II, Neverwinter Nights II, Dungeon Siege 3 all stand as some of the developer's biggest games, while original content such as Alpha Protocol (which was intensely derivative of Mass Effect) remains buried under the weight of franchise sequels. To their credit, Obsidian is in the process of developing a South Park RPG and recently made record-making success at Kickstarting its new game Project Eternity. Unfortunately, Obsidian's buggy work with KOTOR II has persisted today, and was perhaps most famously immortalized in the now famous glitch that threatened to overshadow Fallout: New Vegas' launch week.
KOTOR II is a capsule of Obsidian's talent: splendid, gripping story-telling handicapped by crippling mechanical issues. It flies in the face of nearly every Star Wars trope imaginable, casting a long dark shadow that's nearly as thrilling as The Empire Strikes Back. If you've felt ruined on this franchise by Angry Birds crossovers, Clone Warssaturation, and a menagerie of other money-making happenings at Lucasarts, then you owe it to yourself to take a trip to KOTOR II's view of Star Wars. The jagged edges and numerous flaws are present, but quite unlike the franchise itself, the spirit of the adventure remains.
1 The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod allows players to enjoy a version of the game that restores plenty of missing content.
2 Editor's note: I'm aware that Dragon Age: Origins possessed a similar influence system, but as KOTOR and Mass Effect possess a similar lineage I decided on omitting Dragon Age from the discussion.
And that's another backlog wrapped up. What did you think of KOTOR II? Are you excited for Obsidian's new project? Let us know your thoughts below and come back next week for another entry in the Backlog.