Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – An Examination

Here’s the thing about the classic BioWare games (Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, etc.); in many respects, they’re all the same. They’re party-based RPGs in which the player creates a main character, and other, pre-made characters provide support. Combat occurs in real time, but can be paused so that the player can issue specific directives to their main character and cohorts. They aren’t open world games, but there’s always a certain amount of exploration the player can do. The emphasis, however, is on the story, and that story also tends towards a certain formula. The main character you create is a person of great individual significance to the game’s world. Perhaps this significance goes so far as being a Chosen One of sorts, but perhaps not. You meet the first additional party member very early on, and recruit the rest as you go through the game. Some degree of inter-party conflict is common. There is a legendary ancient evil that the villian(s) are trying to awaken/restore/control/whatever. Play enough of these games, and all of these beats will start to look quite familiar, indeed.

I’m pointing this out now, before I dig into my thoughts on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, so you can understand that I went into this game with a detached, veering on jaded attitude. I did not expect KOTOR to show me anything I haven’t seen before, but I remained optimistic. After all, I’ve gained familiarity with the classic BioWare formula through playing lots of classic BioWare games, and I’ve played lots of classic BioWare games because I dig the style and I think they’re tons of fun. I fully expected to have fun with KOTOR as well, and I have, for the most part. I think. It’s complicated.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic takes place a few good millennia before the events of the films. You spend the early portion of the game as a normal person before training in the ways of the Force, at which point you gain a lightsaber and the ability to use selected Force powers. The game mechanics are derived from what is known as the d20 system, which in turn is derived from Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Tempting as it is for me to derail this entire post and turn it into a lecture on the d20 system, suffice to say that the d20 system builds characters with the six core abilities from D&D, which are then supplemented with Skills and Feats.

Skills are the character’s non-combat abilities. They determine the character’s ability to perceive their surroundings, break locks, disarm traps, and so forth. At each level up, you assign points to each character’s Skills, and these points are added to a d20 roll made whenever that character attempts to use a Skill. The more points placed in a Skill, the better chance that character has to successfully use it.

Feats are the combat abilities. Almost all feats have direct combat implications; they either provide passive increases to a character’s attacks, damage, and defenses, or grant a character access to certain combat maneuvers (such as Power Attack, which allows a character to decrease the hit chance of an attack in order to increase the damage of that same attack). A small handful of Feats give bonuses to character’s Skills. Unlike Skills, you do not assign points to Feats; they operate on a tree system. Taking a Feat gives a character access to the improved version of that same Feat, although many improved Feats also require the character to be of a certain level, and unlike Skills, you do not necessarily get to select new Feats each and every level.

Once you gain access to the Force, the Force Powers operate like Feats. You select a discrete Power, which will give you access to the improved version of that same Power later on, which you may select next time you can choose a Power. (Unlike Feats, all Jedi select a new Power at each level up.) Powers provide either passive boosts, active boosts (such as increased speed), or combat abilities that can be used against your enemies (such as Force Throw).

Got all that? No? Tough shit, I’m moving on anyway!

Perhaps because the game uses a D&D-derived rules system, and perhaps since the game was released after Baldur’s Gate II and before the first Mass Effect, I’ve found it alarmingly easy to view KOTOR as a bridge game between those two franchises. At the risk of starting a flame war about what is and is not Star Wars – one of the best things about the Star Wars universe is how much it contains, and how many kinds of stories it can accommodate as a result – the things you do in KOTOR feel more like Heroic Fantasy things than Space Opera things. I say this acknowledging that the distinction between the two genres is perilously thin, and largely a matter of how much of the events transpire In Space. You go on dungeon crawls. You fight lots of monsters. You find treasure and better weapons.

You do all of these things in Mass Effect as well, of course, but Mass Effect sports a bespoke world and a bespoke rules system, as well as more organic level design. In short, Mass Effect feels like its own thing even though it really is just dungeon crawling In Space. KOTOR, by contrast, just feels like D&D In Space. Obviously, this comparison is a bit unfair to KOTOR. Mass Effect came out a few years later, and on the next generation of consoles. It is more sophisticated because the technology allowed it to be more sophisticated, particularly when it comes to level design. But, I have tasked myself with discussing KOTOR from a 2021 perspective, not a 2003 perspective. I admire the ambition of KOTOR a great deal, but I can’t help but notice, and report on, its limitations.

And frankly, the limitations of KOTOR are many, and cannot be ignored. KOTOR has lots and lots of small problems; many of these problems aren’t a big deal on their own (and, in fairness, are excusable given when it was made), but they’ve added up for me over the course of my playthrough, and I’m now quite annoyed with almost all of them. The game is fully voice acted, which was still pretty impressive by itself back then, but the voicing is often perilously, almost insultingly slow. What’s worse, when this voice acting is accompanied with facial close ups, you’ll quickly notice the character’s lips aren’t even sort of moving according to what they’re saying.

On top of that, the dialogue trees themselves are often redundant and unhelpful. Asking an NPC for information will almost always result in that NPC saying they know of nothing except for key words or phrases you’ve already been given, and that you should direct all questions to a more prominent NPC whose existence you’re also already aware of. As a result, most of the dialogue in the game is a waste of time. The inter-party conflict banter is not up to the same standard as other BioWare games. The other party members all seem like they have a bone to pick at all times, so these conflicts feel less like a natural result of placing multiple characters with their own values and agendas together, and more like grievance for its own sake. It makes the characters less interesting, which is the opposite of what’s intended.

The game also starts out quite slowly. You’ll spend the first several hours stuck an introductory planet, and while not every quest there is a bore it is a good deal longer than it needs to be. Once you’re off that planet, your main character still won’t have access to the Force for quite a while, which is frustrating since the chance to be an actual fucking Jedi is a huge part of the game’s appeal. You’re forced to go to Tattooine at some some point; as my older brother pointed out, the whole point of Tattooine, in universe, is that it sucks and no one wants to be there for any reason. How can I possibly be excited to go there, especially since this game has no direct connection to the events of the movies? From a game perspective, the Tattooine segment is a slog.

There are gameplay issues, as well. Object detection isn’t always the best. There have been multiple times where I’ve clicked on a mine’s disable button, only for my character to simply walk into said mine and detonate it, with no indication of what I did wrong to cause this turn of events. Doors and crates don’t always open when clicked on, either. Inventory management is a baffling ordeal. You’ll obtain hundreds of items in a playthrough, but you’ll never be able to view more than a few at a time, and there’s no way I’m aware of to sort them. It is therefore impossible to examine your inventory in an efficient manner, although I believe there are mods out there that make inventory more manageable.

There are a handful of mandatory mini-games that are no fun whatsoever. In particular, the space combat mini-game is a mess, and the worst part of the entire game. You man the turrets of your spaceship, and must destroy the enemy fighters before they destroy your ship, just like the Millennium Falcon/TIE Fighter battle in A New Hope. Sounds kind of awesome, right? Wrong! It sucks, and it sucks mightily. You must control your aim with the WASD keys, which are finicky, overly sensitive, and cannot be inverted. Mouse aim is not allowed. The fighters are small and often extremely difficult to see, forcing you to use a radar which only specifies position along the x-axis relative to your ship, and not the y-axis. They also enjoy swooping through areas of the battlefield your gun cannot hit. You aren’t given any indication of how beat up your ship is until it’s in critical condition. To top off this shit sundae, whenever you die in these sections (and you will die, probably many times), you must restart from your last save, which was invariably a while ago, and prior to an unskippable cutscene or two that sets up the space battle.

Then there is the combat. Again, combat happens in psuedo-real time. Characters act in turn, but the turn order is hidden, and you don’t take turns for each character, individually. You control everyone in your party, all at once, pausing at any time to direct your main character and/or party members to attack specific enemies, use specific Feats/Powers, heal themselves, and so on. This is all well and good, but comes with its own suite of issues. First and foremost, the party member AI is awful. Unlike Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age, you can’t alter this AI beyond setting a character to one of a small handful of vague presets. Left to their own devices, party members often act in the least effective manner possible. When you do direct them to take specific actions, they will often waste time in order to take up the worst positioning imaginable before taking those actions (such as moving to close range to fire a blaster pistol), and there’s a small chance those actions won’t take, or that they’ll glitch out and get stuck on a rogue air pocket or something equally bizarre.

You can queue up the next actions for each character, but you can’t queue up more than four at a time, and if a character is already in the process of taking a certain action, they’ll still take that action even if you clear their entire queue. I believe there is an option for the game to auto-pause at the end of each round. Since I insist on micromanaging every party member to the best of my ability in BioWare games, I should probably experiment with this, but I have yet to do so. Outside of occasional annoyance and catastrophe, I haven’t needed it to get through the game on Normal mode. I’d imagine it’s all but mandatory on higher difficulties.

The most annoying bit of jank, however, has nothing to do with the gameplay at all. KOTOR is an old game, one that was not designed with modern PC graphics architecture in mind. In particular, it doesn’t like AMD architecture very much, which is what I’m playing on. This means that it has an unfortunate tendency to crash when transitioning to cutscenes, unless you’ve set specific, non-default graphics options. In addition, you’ll need to do some additional futzing with some files in order to get certain textures (specifically grass) to render correctly. I apologize for explaining all of this in extremely vague terms; these problems exist at the very lunatic fringe of my understanding. Anyway, the fix for the cutscene bug is described here, and the slightly more involved fix for the grass bug is here. Super special shout outs and thanks to the Steam KOTOR Community for both!

That’s the bad news about KOTOR. The good news is that KOTOR is fun despite all of this, and I have enjoyed my time playing it, despite all of this. I’m certain I would have become obsessed with it had I played the game when it came out, or shortly thereafter. The story isn’t perfect, and it hits almost all of the classic BioWare beats I pointed out above, but a game doesn’t need an original story to be fun. The big late-game twist was well-executed, and the game picks up admirably after a slow start. Combat isn’t always perfect, but it’s still a blast to use the Force to freeze enemies in place before cutting them into ribbons with a lightsaber. There are mods out there to patch up some of the game’s issues, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Ultimately. I think KOTOR is a fine game, albeit one that would benefit greatly from a proper remaster, one that would fix both graphics and gameplay bugs, and provide other quality of life improvements (in particular, more than one quick save slot would be much appreciated). I don’t know that we’ll ever get one, though. Seems like most of the games from those days that are going to get the remaster treatment already have, including the impending Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. Therefore, I am stuck recommending KOTOR as is, warts and all. Play it by all means, just know what you’re getting into.

3 thoughts on “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – An Examination

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