Forgive me gamers, for I have sinned. I have, for the past two decades, wilfully ignored Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, inwardly mocking anybody who put it as one of their favourite video games of all time—scoffing them away as simple-minded plebeians who knew not what truly good science fiction was. I confess, after having now played more than twenty hours of the game, that I was wrong.
Apologies if this is not how a traditional confession goes (I am a non-practicing Muslim). But it’s true, for the longest time I never thought of Knights of the Old Republic – or KOTOR as fans call it – as a game that I needed to play as an avid fan of both science fiction and RPGs. “It’s just Star Wars” would be the ongoing phrase I’d mutter to myself, accompanied by a smug eye-roll, every time I’d read an article that put KOTOR on their “Greatest RPGs of All Time” list. Star Wars was never something I enjoyed. Much of that can be chalked up to the fact that I didn’t grow up with the franchise in any meaningful capacity. I knew of it, of course, as a billion dollar franchise such as Star Wars is nearly impossible to not have impregnate ones mind through osmosis. But it wouldn’t be until 2016 that I’d sit with my wife and watch through all six of the films. This was shortly after the release of The Force Awakens, a movie we’d would watch only after I’d done my homework. And homework I did, for that entire weekend. Watching through the original and prequel trilogies, reading through Roger Ebert’s review of A New Hope, and watching countless YouTube videos of men with similar facial hair talking about the lore of these six films. Yet, even after all that, Star Wars still didn’t resonate with me.
If I’m honest, I was a little underwhelmed. I’d expected something…more. Instead, I got a fairly straightforward story of good versus evil, with a Marty Sue protagonist in Luke Skywalker; don’t come at me, Star Wars fans. You have to understand, I watched these movies as a science fiction fan in my early twenties. By this point I had already read the great literary works of Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler, watched the stories of Avery Brooks and his officers aboard the Deep Space Nine, and played as Fem-Shep in Bioware’s highly coveted Mass Effect series. Star Wars, then, in comparison came across as incredibly milquetoast. There was a line in Roger Ebert’s review that stuck with me, he wrote, “…there’s entertainment so direct and simple that all of the complications of the modern movie seem to vaporize”, following to describe how the film focuses on the basics of classic fables, simply moving those ideas to space to capture the wonders and imaginations of the unknown. Though I can agree with Ebert in that there’s a charm to Star Wars’ simplicity, it’s just not enough for me; especially when seeing that Kubrick’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey, came out a decade prior and did things with the genre that are still pertinent to this day.
I’d go on to watch both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, the latter of which at least had some ideas that conceptually challenged the standard tropes I’d gotten used to seeing from the past movies. I tried out The Clone Wars, though that only lasted for half a season as I found it far too juvenile. It wasn’t until the second season of The Mandalorian that I had found a piece of media within this vast universe that truly connected with me. I loved the second season of this show. From the soundtrack, to the focused narrative, to the cinematography and editing, and most importantly: Pedro Pascal’s beautifully restraint performance. Even if the overall plot of the series didn’t fully grab me, and I was still uninterested in the wider lore of its universe, it was exciting to finally have a character that resonated with me. So with this newfound excitement, I decided to leave the cinematic universe of Star Wars and try, for the first time, to experience the IP within a different medium that I was also passionate about: video games.
My first foray would be with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Terrible naming scheme aside, I was pleasantly surprised as to just how much I enjoyed this game. From its FromSoftware inspired combat, to its Metroidvania inspired exploration, it was an enjoyable ride through and through. The story, however, was more-or-less forgettable. Not bad, by any means, but I couldn’t tell you any particular beat of what actually transpired in the couple dozen hours it took for me to roll credits. It would be here that I would take a break from Star Wars as a whole. I had come to accept that this was a universe that simply wouldn’t connect with me on a deeper level in terms of lore. This was a sad realization because, if it wasn’t clear, I wanted Star Wars to work for me. I wanted to be entrenched within its universe, to understand the deeper mechanics of its politics and history. But aside from The Mandalorian, nothing resonated.
A few years passed, and we began approaching the release of Jedi: Survivor. I signed up to do the review for us over here at GameLuster, but as reviews began trickling in, it became apparent that Survivor was a bit of a mess on the technical side of things. Us not having received a review code, and me only having an Xbox Series S to play the game on – the least optimized of the consoles from what I could tell – I made the decision to not be a hundred Canadian dollars poorer and wait for Survivor to inevitably come to Game Pass. Yet, there was an odd itch to get back into Star Wars. So, with May the Fourth bringing in a slew of sales across all the games within the franchise, I decided to take the plunge and finally play the game I’d been putting off for years – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
The opening hours of the game didn’t do much to impress. After a run-of-the-mill BioWare character creator, I was thrust into the familiar sounds of blaster beams and duelling lightsabers. I was introduced to yet another cloaked and gravelly-voiced Sith villain, and somewhat mediocrely written lines of dialogue delivered with stilted voice-acting. None of these things came as a surprise, of course, as I had ridden this ride many a times before. What did come as a surprise, however, was the gameplay.
To use the words ‘outdated’ or ‘janky’ would be saying the least about KOTOR’s gameplay. If you thought the first Mass Effect didn’t hold up in terms of how it played, imagine doubling that feeling for this game. Especially during these early hours when you have yet to unlock any force abilities or acquire any proper weaponry, the gameplay feels like an absolute slog. Much like BioWare’s other titles, each time you come in contact with an enemy the screen freezes with a JRPG-like interface popping up to show a selection of actions you can perform. The interface, however, isn’t nearly as neatly presented as many of the great JRPGs that came in the years prior to this game’s release. It’s also not entirely clear what approach works best in each combat encounter—half the time I felt that simply smashing the ‘attack’ button instead of messing with the ‘critical strike’ or grenades was the easier course of action to get to the next story beat. Which, was something I wanted to do as the story did eventually grab my attention.
While on a mission on Taris to save a Jedi woman named Bastilla, I learned of Taris’ history; how the rich nobles of this planet relegated the poor rebels to what would become known as the ‘Lower City’, a là Midgar from Final Fantasy VII. This created factions within the Lower City who fought against one another for survival. I learned of the anti-alien sentiments that existed amongst the residents of the Upper City, making life difficult for all non-humans and, with the addition of the recent Sith occupation, furthering tensions between the two cities. I learned of a disease called Rakghoul that was plaguing the Lower and Under City residents, with the Upper City doctors told to not send medication down to help them. I learned all this while meeting an array of characters, each of whom had their own thoughts on the Sith and the history of their planet—from underground mafia leaders, to nobles, to Twi’lek club dancers.
I also learned more about my human companion, Carth, who had severe trust issues and wasn’t fully set on putting his faith in me due to him seeing his past Jedi friends turn to the dark side. Once we’d successfully saved Bastilla, I was expecting to be met with a strong and Yoda-esque character who was not only a master of the force, but would have an aura that commanded respect. Instead, I was met with a snippy woman with an unbearable arrogance. This was just the beginning of my adventure, because after a tragic event on Taris my companions and I flew off to our next destination: the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyk. It’s here where my Wookiee companion, Zaalbar, would come face-to-face with his family that banished him from their home. It’s also where I’d see that the planet was being run by a Sith subsidized corporation named Czerka, who were not only occupying Kashyyk, but using its residents as slaves, and doing so with the support from Wookiee Chieftain, Chuundar, who also happened to be Zaalbar’s brother.
All of this storytelling and world-building was done in just the first seven or so hours of the game. And I mention all of it because, up until this point, I hadn’t really seen world-building or characterization be executed with such detail in my previous experiences with Star Wars. I finally felt like I was a part of a proper universe with systems, structures, histories, and of course, nuanced characters. Sure there were still some Star Wars clichés, like the conversations regarding the dark and light sides essentially boiling down to, ‘dark side bad, light side good,’ without ever delving deeper into questioning that mindset or the nuances of it—something I’m told developers Obsidian tackle with KOTOR II, which I’m very eager to see. Still, even those moments are delivered through genuine character moments with well-written dialogue and voice acting that gets progressively better. Add to that my personal decision to play my character as I did all of my other BioWare characters – predominantly light-sided (paragon) with ‘justified’ dark-sided (renegade) tendencies – and I found myself immensely engrossed with the narrative that surrounded me.
The gameplay never really changed, though I am used to it at this point, and dare I say even find myself having fun from time to time. Once I unlocked a slew of force abilities, got good at chucking the right type of grenade to start each battle, and learnt to switch between characters on the fly to apply needed status effects, I found myself in an almost zen-like rhythm with each combat encounter. It’s far from perfect, and doesn’t have nearly the polish that many games even around its time had, but there’s a good sense of progression and customization; and the moment-to-moment gameplay never gets in the way of everything else that makes this game truly shine and stand the test of time.
Knights of the Old Republic is a special game, and one that I’m eager to see unfold. I’ve been sceptical of this IP for a very long time, but I’m beyond glad that it was through a video game, this video game, that I was finally able to see all the wonders that encapsulate the universe of Star Wars.