No major spoilers.
Naming any one piece of art that you’re heavily into as “your favorite” is difficult and, depending on who you ask, a bit of a fool’s errand. My answer to what my favorite video game or film is might depend on my mood, what year it is, or what I ate that morning. That said, the game that usually makes the top of my list is the subject of this retrospective – BioWare’s seminal 2003 RPG, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (or KotOR for short).
As for my bias, I have loved this game since I was a kid, and there are very few games of this scale that I find myself having replayed as much as this game. I know every aspect of it like the back of my hand – every dialogue option, every quirk, every nook and cranny – which is why I decided it to be the piece that kicks off this project. Given that it’s been five or six years since I’ve completely played through the game, I think I was able to come at it from a relatively fresh outlook.
I chose to come at the analysis from the perspective of someone who has never played the game before, yet has heard of its lofty reputation. With that said, let’s do an anti-clickbait TL;DR: having replayed the entire game for research purposes and the thesis of this website in mind, I must, begrudgingly, admit that KotOR does not hold up particularly well overall for someone experiencing it for the first time today. Let me explain.
What Holds Up?
Let’s start with positives! Despite my enormous claim in the previous section, there’s a lot to this game that is great and will likely always stand the test of time.
This era of BioWare’s history is ubiquitous with great writing – powerful stories and strong characterization tend to stand out. Having cut their teeth on RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, KotOR had little opportunity to be anything other than an RPG fan’s dream, and, in the context of its writing, it doesn’t disappoint. I’ve always loved its story and characters, but even under heavy scrutiny while researching the game for this piece, I found myself genuinely impressed by how great the dialogue, story, and characters remain to this day.
The game was written by Drew Karpyshyn (a name rivaling only Kashyyyk in y-power), who would go on to write Mass Effect (BioWare’s sci-fi followup to KotOR and Jade Empire), its sequel, and the well-respected Darth Bane series of Star Wars novels. The writing in KotOR is really strong, and stands out, even among the best RPGs. Every character has an interesting story to tell, from your teenage Twi’lek companion and her Wookie companion, to the hilarious kill-bot HK-47, to Jolee, the cantankerous morally grey former Jedi. Some of the writing is a little corny, but nothing out of place for Star Wars fans.
Another strong point people like to bring up is the story. Despite the concept being a little tired (it’s another story where a Sith Lord has a doomsday machine to stop), there’s enough nuance to set it apart from similar stories. Famously, it also features one of the greatest twists in the history of video games. Darth Vader’s declaration of fatherhood to Luke remains the most famous Star Wars twist, but KotOR‘s reveal certainly gives it a run for its money.
The game is also fairly detailed for an early 3D RPG of its type. There’s plenty of loot to discover, interesting characters to find, and more side quests than you can shake a lightsaber at. If you can get past its visuals and slower-paced gameplay (we’ll get back to those in a bit…), there’s a cool universe to explore that’s genuinely engrossing and elaborate.
I would describe its story as serviceable. It’s a simple plot we’ve seen a million times, even in the Star Wars universe – bad guy has a superweapon and you need to go stop him, though that isn’t necessarily a detriment. Like the best entries in the series it comes from, the plot serves as a wraparound for the more important character stories. In that regard, KotOR excels, to the point that I think any fan of solid writing should make a point to experience this story one way or another.
What Doesn’t Hold Up?
So we’ve reached the kicker. It’s why you’re here, right? What could I possibly have to say negative about a game that I, and many, consider to be one of the greatest works to ever grace the medium it’s a part of? Well, despite my gushing over the writing in the previous section, there is a big, big issue the game has that tips my view to the side of not holding up.
The biggest hurdle for a modern gamer (even a hardcore RPG fan) playing this game in 2020 is the gameplay. The gameplay is functional at its best and somewhat monotonous and frustrating at its worst. It’s just not a particularly fun game to play. If you’re coming into this game to have “fun”, you are almost certainly going to be disappointed. Even Mass Effect, BioWare‘s sci-fi follow-up whose gameplay is also often criticized, looks like Super Mario Bros. 3 in comparison.
The combat is turn-based and uses logic derived from Dungeons & Dragons (the 3rd edition, if you nerds were wondering). Despite giving you a lightsaber and a genuinely impressive amount of force powers to use and strategize with, I found that, when paying close attention to the gameplay, I was pretty bored by it.
Now, obviously, it’s difficult to detach myself from my biases. I’ve played through the game a hundred times and know its combat like the back of my hand. Suffice to say, I’m just kind of used to it and don’t really think too much of it during my personal playthroughs. It’s just not what I turn the game on for. But, when playing the game for research purposes and paying close attention to these aspects, I definitely feel as though the gameplay could be a near-insurmountable hurdle for a new player.
With only a couple of exceptions, the gameplay of KotOR is limited to you walking around enclosed areas and fighting. Relative lack of enemy variety also proved to be a noticeable detriment in my recent playthrough. While there is some nuance to the combat (standard stuff like certain resistance checks and minor varied enemy types), you’re really just moving from one group of humanoid enemies shooting at you or bashing you with melee weapons to the next. The non-humanoid enemies are far and few between – usually one or two per planet.
The visuals are not something to write home about, either. Granted, this game came out in 2003 and virtually no 3D games looked good at the time. The art and production design are generally solid, but this game certainly ain’t winning any beauty pageants. If you’re a graphics snob, you’ll probably find the game downright ugly. I would say generally poor graphics are forgivable if all of the other parts work, but, man, KotOR just looks rough, and I can see it being a big enough hurdle to turn off a lot of modern gamers.
So, yeah. The gist is that, despite the strong RPG elements, the game just isn’t particularly “fun” to play, and I think that that’ll be a big enough detriment for the average gamer to be put off by the game today. There is a reason that it has the reputation that it does – but it’s not for its gameplay. The writing holds up exceptionally well, and, as I said, will likely hold its own as the years go by. But for someone picking it up today for the first time, the gameplay and visuals will show their age.
If you’re an RPG fan who hasn’t played it, I’d still say check it out. The story is fairly interesting, the characters are great, and it’s generally very well-written. If you like Star Wars, there’s plenty of Star Wars-y stuff for you to ogle at (and, thankfully, the game is far more informed by the original trilogy than the prequels). But if you find yourself bored or frustrated by the gameplay (I’m looking at you, underwater section on Manaan), you shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to put the game down and rewatch The Empire Strikes Back for the thousandth time.