Save the galaxy from being conquered by the Sith.
PC Release: November 19, 2003
By Ian Coppock
Holy guacamole, has it really been 14 years since Knights of the Old Republic released?! Doesn’t feel that long ago that so many Star Wars fans got swept up in this epic tale, which pits a group of Republic heroes against a Sith Lord with a colander for a mouth, but that’s life. Grand adventures happen, years go by, and hopefully that adventure gets a fond remembrance down the road. Knights of the Old Republic‘s legacy has gotten continuously more curious over the years, but the impact it had on the Star Wars universe is comparable to that of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn novels or even the release of The Force Awakens. Why? Great question, let’s find out!
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is a role-playing game developed by BioWare, the studio best known these days for creating the Mass Effect series. Knights of the Old Republic was the very first Star Wars game BioWare ever made and was created with the involvement of such inveterate developers as Casey Hudson, who would go on to direct Mass Effect, and Drew Karpyshyn, who also wrote the excellent Darth Bane novels. In addition to being the first Star Wars game developed by BioWare, Knights of the Old Republic is also arguably the first Star Wars role-playing video game to have been made.
Knights of the Old Republic is set a whopping 4,000 years before the events of the Star Wars films, marking one of the first times that the old republic era of the Star Wars expanded universe was explored in video games. Knights of the Old Republic is set in an age when the Galactic Republic and its Jedi defenders fought fiercely against the Sith, who hadn’t yet adopted the Rule of Two and were as numerous as their light side counterparts. Both powers struggle in a galaxy-wide war for supremacy, though as Knights of the Old Republic opens, the Sith are winning.
Knights of the Old Republic (or KOTOR, as it’s commonly abbreviated) lets players create their own character from a mix of physical features and classes (much like Mass Effect later would). The story begins as the player character barely escapes a crashing Republic warship with their fellow soldier Carth Onasi, and the pair lands on a Sith-occupied world called Taris. It turns out that the Sith are looking for Bastila, a powerful young Jedi who can use the Force to demoralize her foes and empower her allies with confidence. Certain that Bastila is the key to the Republic winning the war, Carth and the player set out to find her.
It also turns out that Bastila isn’t the only Force-sensitive member of the group, as the player also demonstrates an affinity for the Force and becoming a Jedi. What started out as a simple quest to find a lost Jedi quickly turns into a galaxy-wide race against the Sith and their insidious cyborg master, Darth Malak. Along the way, players can explore a small but vibrant palette of worlds and recruit a team of squadmates to aid them in their struggle against the Sith. Finding a way to stop Malak may be the galaxy’s last hope for survival.
Knights of the Old Republic‘s epic quest across the galaxy takes the form of a third-person RPG. Players can choose one of three soldier classes at the beginning of the game, as well as one of three Jedi classes later on. Each class features different emphases on combat, diplomacy or circumventing dangerous obstacles. Combat in the game is turn-based, but never fear; turns fly by so fast that the game almost seems ashamed of them, and the various fighting moves make for some awesomely animated combat sequences. Players can use a variety of melee weapons like quarterstaves and lightsabers, as well as more conventional blasters and grenades.
Like any decent RPG, the player can also call upon some special abilities to help turn the tide against the opponent. As the player levels up, they can learn powerful abilities like Force lighting and even a stasis shield that freezes enemy combatants. Players can also level up and execute their party members’ abilities as well as directly control them, putting them on point instead of the main character if so desired. Players can swiftly accumulate a squad comprising fellow Jedi, seasoned gunslingers, and even droids.
As with Mass Effect, it’s up to players to manage their own actions as well as relationships with squadmates. Generally good or generous actions will sync the player to the light side, while being a galaxy-sized dick to everybody will turn them toward the dark side. Squadmates take notice of these actions and their relationships with the player are affected accordingly. Jedi party members and the aforementioned Republic sidekick will be taken aback by dark deeds, but dark deeds’ll probably impress the Mandalorian gun nut and the sarcastic assassin droid. Each character has their own light-dark alignment, but it’s just a reference point. Players can only alter their own alignment.
The conversations with squadmates form much of KOTOR‘s narrative backbone. Between missions, players can speak with their buddies to get their take on the last mission or just to get to know them. Some characters hand out little freebies depending on their combat specialty; the Mandalorian gives out battle drugs and the Wookie (yes, players can recruit a Wookie) hides what seems to be an entire grenade armory under his shaggy exterior. Each character has his or her place on the player’s ship, but the interaction they have with each other is minimal.
The wider narrative of finding a way to stop the Sith takes this team of all-stars all over the galaxy, to worlds that brim as much with secrets as they do enemies. Some of these worlds, like Tatooine, are instantly familiar to Star Wars fans. Others, like Taris and the water world of Manaan, are planets that were created expressly for KOTOR. Each planet has its own assortment of story missions and side quests that take players to exotic locales and pit them against all kinds of unsavory foes. Not “just” the Sith Lords and their legions of troopers, but also criminals, unfriendly local governments, and hungry wildlife.
Because this game is an RPG, all of these planets have lots of treasure and items for the discerning explorer. Between crates full of credits and soon-to-be-corpses adorned in weapons and armor, KOTOR has a lot for players to find. This resourcefulness is second only to leveling up in terms of success in KOTOR. The amount of items out there isn’t quite on the order of Mass Effect, but it’s a lot—certainly enough to kit out the player’s squadmates in enough weaponry to make the state of Texas collectively blush.
The planets the player can visit in KOTOR don’t hurt for spectacle. From the deep blue oceans of Manaan to the verdant green fields of Dantooine, each planet in KOTOR is painstakingly detailed with beautiful visuals and sound effects. These worlds also don’t lack in level design variety, from tight city streets to vast deserts. This amount of variety is not only important for the game’s artistic value; it also means that there’s an ever-expanding palette of exotic environments to explore. Indeed, KOTOR‘s planets arguably have more variety than the main worlds visited in the first Mass Effect. The game also boasts a beautiful, dramatic score that gives even John Williams a run for his money.
Having said all that, though, the finer details of KOTOR‘s visual design have not aged well. For the admitted variety provided by the game’s options menu, KOTOR‘s in-game objects and characters are stiff and have blotchy coloring. The anti-aliasing is basically nonexistent, giving every object and detail in the game that annoying serrated look, like everything has bristles on it. Some of the character animations are pretty painful to watch, especially when NPCs attempt to laugh. These problems don’t sink KOTOR‘s entire motif, but they do shoot the game’s much more ambitious sense of scale in the foot… as palm trees that look like dead spiders often do.
KOTOR avoids any truly catastrophic problems, like game-breaking bugs, but the title still has lots of little back-end quirks that can form a cumulative headache. The game’s menus are pretty clunky, especially the inventory, which makes little effort to categorize all of the player’s possessions. The storage system is also laughably unwieldy, forcing players to only be able to store one item at a time. Empty containers are also not marked as such, even once the player’s looted them, so combing rooms for items becomes needlessly cumbersome.
And although KOTOR‘s turn-based combat is so fast that it almost doesn’t register as turn-based combat, fighting as many enemies as the game throws at the player with this system can quickly become a grind. A base full of Sith troopers will only go down in a battle with each individual soldier, so even if the turns are fast, a bunch of turns together aren’t necessarily also fast. Still, this system’s a damn sight quicker than something as awful as, say, the gameplay of Final Fantasy XIII. Just one more heads-up about the combat: each weapon does have a chance to miss, so don’t get too angry if the player’s 90% chance to kill misses. KOTOR was pulling XCOM: Enemy Unknown misses on 90% kill chances before XCOM: Enemy Unknown knew it was cool.
KOTOR‘s main narrative has aged considerably better than its menus or combat, and it warrants giving the game a try. Although the game does feel like Star Wars, it’s so long ago and far away from the films that it feels like a universe in its own right. There are echoes of other Star Wars themes in this game, but KOTOR establishes a ton of its own lore in the process, even minimizing references to other Star Wars media to boldly further its own identity. Indeed, KOTOR‘s impact led to the development of a direct sequel, the The Old Republic MMO, and a slew of other media set in its ancient pre-New Hope setting. It’s one of the most important pieces of Star Wars media ever made.
All of this was only accomplished because of the game’s strong story. Characters develop believably over the course of the game, and as players get to know more about them. The mystery of the Sith’s resurgence builds up to a revelation just as if not more impacting than Mass Effect‘s plot twist. The game alternates between light and dark tones as only Star Wars media can before sticking the landing with a satisfying, climactic ending that is genuinely affected by whether the player chooses the light or dark side of the Force. Drew Karpyshyn’s simple but elegant prose gives life to these characters and has continued to do so over the 14 years since this game hit store shelves. Funny how a well-written, galaxy-wide search for the truth inspires such grandiose feelings.
In the end, KOTOR‘s narrative may very well be enough to supersede the rest of the game’s problems. The game does have issues, but KOTOR‘s remarkable saga causes most of them to fall by the wayside, forgotten in the face of a beautiful Star Wars odyssey that the player is at the heart of. The story is not rendered less enjoyable because of the occasional miss on a 90% chance to kill, nor even Disney’s declaration that the entire KOTOR era is no longer canon. If KOTOR remains influential enough to be referenced in Rogue One (the Hammerhead-class cruiser originally appeared in this game) perhaps the rest of the title is worth a visit from fans new and old.
You can buy Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.