Hack’n’Slash

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy

Academy1

Become a Padawan learner at Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Academy.

PC Release: September 17, 2003

By Ian Coppock

Well folks, we’re coming up on the end of Star Wars Month. How fitting that tonight’s game is the fourth and final chapter of the Kyle Katarn saga. It’s a bittersweet moment, because Kyle Katarn’s adventures are regarded as some of LucasArts’ best work before their eventual shutdown years later. At the same time, Jedi Academy shares a contentious rivalry with its predecessor, Jedi Outcast, so part of tonight’s review will also settle the question of which game is better. For now, though, get ready for blastoff into Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy.

____________________

Some old-school fans might take issue with calling Jedi Academy a Kyle Katarn game… and that’s because he’s actually not the player character this time. Players instead assume the role of Jaden Korr, a Jedi initiate who’s admitted to Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Academy after building a lightsaber with no prior instruction. Though Kyle is not the star of the show, he takes Jaden on as his Padawan and appears in many missions as an allied NPC. Jedi Academy can still be considered part of the Kyle Katarn series because it was built in the same engine as Jedi Outcast, features much of the same gameplay, and picks up from a few narrative threads left behind in Outcast.

Anyway, Jedi Academy is set 10 years after the Battle of Endor and two years after Jedi Outcast. Following his battle against Desann, Kyle decides to become a full-time Jedi again and takes a teaching job at the Jedi Academy on Yavin 4. Jaden Korr, the player character, can be customized from the ground up to be male or female. The character can also be human or one of several alien races, some of which are restricted to one gender or the other (of course the Twi’lek can only be female, and comes with some pretty risque clothing options). Players can also create their own lightsaber from a broad selection of blade colors and hilts.

Academy2

Players create their own Padawan in Jedi Academy.

After creating their Jaden, players arrive to Luke’s academy and are taken on as Kyle’s apprentice. Players learn a few basic abilities in the tutorial before selecting from a wide variety of missions set all over the galaxy. Some missions have to do with investigating a mysterious Sith cult that’s suddenly cropping up everywhere, but others are the type of benevolent superhero work that the Jedi have always been known for. Jedi Academy presents its missions to players in batches of five (playable in any order) followed by a story mission that closes off that act of the game and opens another. There are about 20 missions in total.

Jaden is not alone in his/her journey to become a Jedi. Kyle features prominently in the game as Jaden’s Jedi Master, and when he’s not giving orders over a comlink, he’s there fighting alongside the player. Rosh Penin, a fellow student, quickly becomes a passive-aggressive rival to the player and is the only other named student character encountered in the game. Jedi Academy also features cameos from Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, Chewbacca, Wedge Antilles, and other iconic characters from the Star Wars films. To further establish its place in the Star Wars universe, Jedi Academy uses a mix of iconic songs and sound effects from the films.

Academy3

Oh my God, that’s HIM! Can I get your autograph when you’re done barbecuing me?

On the surface, Jedi Academy‘s gameplay is nigh identical to that of Jedi Outcast. Players can use their lightsaber to deflect blaster bolts and cut down foes, but they can also use ranged weapons to keep the action at a distance. Jaden can use grenades (excuse me, thermal detonators) to blow s*** up, which, while not a very Jedi-like thing to do, is a great way to give a stormtrooper a spontaneous skydiving lesson. Players can also use the Force to jump higher, run faster, and get around the environment much easier than their non-Force-sensitive foes. Just don’t careen into a wall or over any cliffs.

Though all of that gameplay is borrowed from Jedi OutcastJedi Academy makes some hefty retrofits to it. Lightsaber combat has been refined and smoothed out to give players more control of their blade, which is especially important considering all of the Sith cultists running around. Jedi Academy also introduces new Force-powered acrobatics that allow players to wall-jump, cartwheel, and perform other elaborate gymnastics at the touch of a button. Not only does this make the combat far superior to that of Jedi Outcast, it also gives players much more freedom in navigating the battlefield. Outcast let players decapitate enemies. Academy lets players decapitate enemies by wall-running and then front-flipping over them.

Academy4

Academy’s gameplay is a huge improvement over Outcast’s.

Just as Academy gives players more physical freedom than Outcast, it also gives players more freedom in shaping their characters. Whereas Outcast dropped players off with a random assortment of weapons and Force powers, Academy allows players to pick their loadout of guns and grenades before each mission. Even better, Academy lets players select which Force powers they want to upgrade instead of upgrading predetermined powers a la Outcast. Some core powers only improve with each set of completed missions, but players are still free to upgrade powers like Force Lightning and Force Healing as they will. It’s a great way to let players shape their ideal Jedi.

Finally, and most awesomely, Jedi Academy eventually lets players trade in their lightsaber for a double-bladed one (like Darth Maul’s) or learn how to use two lightsabers at once. Want to recreate the final fight scene in the Phantom Menace with two unlucky Sith, or just chop everything up with dual blades? Jedi Academy lets players have at it. Each style of lightsaber combat comes with its own moves, which are further diversified with a selection of strong, medium, and fast fighting stances. Not only is this system versatile, it feels fluid and badass, and it remains one of the most fun melee combat systems in gaming despite being 14 years old.

Academy5

…Not quite sure what’s happening in this shot, but she has two lightsabers so it’s automatically fine.

Jedi Academy also dramatically overhauls one of Jedi Outcast‘s less admirable features: the level design. Academy replaces the maze-like, confusing level design of Outcast with much more intuitive set pieces. Despite being more linear, these levels are far easier to navigate and still allow for lots of fierce combat. It’s far easier in Jedi Academy to know where to go and what to do, especially when combined with a plethora of environmental hints that point the way. Most of Academy‘s levels still allow for some exploration off the beaten path, but finding the beaten path again is easy once the player’s ready to move on.

All of that said, Jedi Academy was built on the exact same engine as Jedi Outcast, so it shares its predecessor’s awkward character animations and muddled textures. Even the new animations added for using a new kind of lightsaber remain a bit stiff. It’s not a huge surprise that Academy had little time to innovate, since it was released only 18 months after Outcast, but players hoping for an improvement over Outcast‘s stilted designs will find no such thing in Academy. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but players won’t have to look at the packaging to see that this game came out in 2003.

Academy6

Seriously, wtf is she doing?

It might seem like Jedi Academy has Jedi Outcast beat at this point, what with its overhauled gameplay and far superior level design, but that’s not quite the case. For while Jedi Academy does gameplay and level design better than its predecessor, it comes up short on storytelling. Sure, Academy has a central plot, but it has less to do with evolving a character and more to do with tying up a few narrative loose ends from Outcast. At least half of the game is also spent on one-shot missions that have less to do with stopping a Sith cult and more to do with the Star Wars equivalent of helping an old lady get her cat out of a tree.

As a character, Jaden Korr is far less interesting than Kyle Katarn. He/she is little more than a blank canvas with a few token sentiments about bravery and selflessness to boot. Sure, the character cracks the occasional joke, but it’s usually in response to the far more jokey Kyle, who retains the gruff likability that made him a star in previous Jedi Knight games. Jaden’s remarks are propelled entirely by observations of the world around them, and both the male and female voice acting for the character is… uninspired, to put it politely. Funnily enough, the character retains human voice acting even if they’re, say, a Rodian.

Academy7

Jaden is a bit of a bore.

So yes, while Jedi Academy provides fun gameplay and level design, it does so at the expense of the narrative grit that put its predecessors on the map. Even though Outcast‘s game design had some problems, the game still presented a compelling story with an acute sense of character development. Jedi Academy lacks that narrative cohesion, preferring instead to be more of a Skywalker-era Padawan concept piece. The game’s central story isn’t bad, but it’s certainly several steps down from the deeply personal storytelling that characterized Jedi Knight and Jedi Outcast.

As with many video game disputes, it’s not that Jedi Outcast is better than Jedi Academy or vice-versa; they each do some things well and some things not so well. Jedi Outcast has a great story but confusing level design and alright gameplay. Jedi Academy has great gameplay and level design, but a much less interesting story and main character. Games are like that sometimes; developers see what made their first game popular or unpopular and compensate for it in the next title. Jedi Academy is a clear-cut case of a studio that did a great job of fixing what was wrong with the previous game, but at the expense of what made the previous game decent despite those problems.

Academy8

Did I mention that you get to drive a speeder?

The main takeaway from all of this is that Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy are both good games, for different reasons. One has a great story, the other has some of the most fun Star Wars gameplay ever devised. Because of that, Jedi Academy is worth any Star Wars fan’s time, and still provides a hearty conclusion to the Kyle Katarn saga even if he’s not the star of the show. The star of the show is able to take on a horde of stormtroopers with a double-bladed blue lightsaber and lots of Force Lightning while wall-running over a waterfall. If that doesn’t sound fun, then nothing will.

____________________

You can buy Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy 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 ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

Out1

Re-learn the Jedi way… while seeking revenge.

PC Release: March 26, 2002

By Ian Coppock

The Jedi are portrayed as humanity at its best, always being mature and relying on positive emotions without getting angry or sad. This caricature is pretty uniform across the Star Wars universe, but it can make Jedi characters seem emotionless and difficult to relate to. Sith characters, like Darth Vader and Clone Wars-era Darth Maul, are easier to empathize with because they both try to seek justice while battling personal demons, which is something most of us endure every day. Trying to do the right thing without resorting to baser instincts is a common character arc in Star Wars, but no Star Wars video game does it better than Jedi Outcast.

____________________

Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast is the third title in the Kyle Katarn saga. The mercenary who took down an evil army in Dark Forces and learned the ways of the Force in Jedi Knight returns for a third bout of action in Jedi Outcast, which was originally released back in 2002. Like all the other Star Wars games being reviewed here this month, Jedi Outcast is no longer considered canon, but Star Wars fans ignore expanded universe narratives at their peril.

Anyway, Jedi Outcast is set eight years after the Battle of Endor. Even though he became a Jedi in the last game, Kyle becomes afraid of falling to the dark side and severs his connection to the Force, trading in his lightsaber for his old collection of guns. Kyle runs missions for the New Republic against the remnants of the Empire, accompanied by his longtime partner Jan. Jedi Outcast begins when Kyle’s asked to investigate a seemingly abandoned Imperial outpost, and if video games have one rule, it’s that “seemingly abandoned” means “filled with bad guys”.

Out2

It’s back to guns and grenades for Kyle.

Kyle discovers that there’s much more to the outpost than meets the eye and eventually encounters Desann, a fallen Jedi who is intent on conquering the galaxy. Without the Force, Kyle is easily defeated by Desann, who murders his beloved Jan right in front of him. Enraged, Kyle is left for dead but vows to kill Desann, and enlists Luke Skywalker’s help in reconnecting with the Force. Luke reluctantly gives Kyle his lightsaber back, but fears that in his quest for revenge, Kyle might end up falling to the dark side after all.

Kyle’s journey to avenge Jan and stop Desann can be played from first- or third-person. As in Jedi Knight, Kyle wields a wide arsenal of blasters and other weaponry against his enemies. The lightsaber is the star of the show, of course, able to deflect blaster bolts and turn enemies into chop suey. As players progress through the game, Kyle’s Force powers reawaken, and he’ll start out each level with new and improved abilities. These will be critical to stopping Desann, as well as the underworld criminals and stormtroopers he’s lined up against Kyle.

Out3

Kyle is not a flashy about his abilities.

Players embark upon a series of linear missions to stop Desann, set in locales both new and old across the Star Wars universe. Gameplay involves exploring levels for clues and dicing up enemies who get in the way. Kyle can protect himself with personal shields but will need medkits if he gets hurt (eventually he learns how to heal himself through the Force, but not before players will have gone through enough medkits to necessitate a repurposed drinking hat). Players can also access better and more effective powers as the game progresses, including Force lightning. It’s a decent mix of gameplay that remains surprisingly fluid after 15 years.

Kyle’s high-stakes journey of personal growth is not dissimilar to Jedi Knight. In that game, Kyle was becoming aware of a higher state of being while avenging a murder long committed. In this game, he’s reluctantly returning to that higher state while being driven by much fresher wounds. He’s a character who’s had it pretty rough in that galaxy far, far away, but that doesn’t stop him from cracking a few jokes and making glib comments about his odds of success. Jedi Outcast also features an appearance from Lando Calrissian, who serves as Kyle’s companion for a good chunk of the game and responds to Kyle’s bleak sarcasm with his own stylish wit.

Out4

Lando’s optimism is a foil to Kyle’s anger.

Jedi Outcast‘s narrative is cut from the same gritty cloth as Jedi Knight. Like that game, the story is a very personal tale that focuses less on ramifications for the Star Wars galaxy and more on how Kyle Katarn evolves as a character. His thirst for revenge gradually evolves as he learns more about Desann’s plans, and as he lets more friends in to help him through his grief. The character is written and voice-acted well enough to present believable evolution; he’s a hard-boiled mercenary learning to open himself back up to the galaxy that gave him so much pain. This character study is the focus of Jedi Outcast, and though the dialogue writing is awkward in places, it makes for a compelling story.

Kyle receives the most writing and attention throughout the narrative, but Desann is not far behind. A product of tragic circumstances himself, Desann is a character who teeters between being a careful planner and a maelstrom of rage. His backstory is tied up in Luke Skywalker’s first attempt at a Jedi Academy, and he approaches galactic conquest in a manner fundamentally different from Emperor Palpatine and other scheming bad guys. He’s arguably the most tragic villain of any Star Wars game, and his story bears much resemblance to a certain ex-Jedi who appeared in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Out5

Jedi Outcast’s storytelling is deep.

The Star Wars universe always makes for a great storytelling backdrop… but Jedi Outcast‘s visuals look dated by contemporary standards. The awkward character animations look like ghosts posing mannequins rather than natural human movement. Similarly, the game’s clone-stamped textures are pretty soft. The lighting effects are decent, and the environments are pretty, but Jedi Outcast‘s looks were only cutting edge in 2002. The game’s soundtrack benefits from borrowing John Williams’ classic songs from the Star Wars films, and the sound design similarly makes use of the films’ weapon and starship sound effects.

Jedi Outcast‘s level design also leaves a lot to be desired and is by far the most regrettable facet of the game. Kyle starts out missions with an objective, but the game doesn’t do jack to point the player in the right direction. Oftentimes players will be left scouring dizzying mazes in search of where to go or what to do next. Rather than casually hinting at the next area with, say, an open door or a well-lit doorway, the game simply drops players into a large area with a vague objective and says “have fun”. Jedi Outcast is content to let Kyle hop around aimlessly. It’s a great way to practice those Force-aided jumps, but not a great way to keep the game moving.

Out6

Surely someone in the Star Wars galaxy invented Google Maps…

It’s lucky for Jedi Outcast that a good story doesn’t require cutting-edge visuals. The level design kerfuffle may be more of a deal breaker, but Star Wars fans who are confident about their sense of direction should consider Jedi Outcast. It has the grand scale of a Star Wars narrative, but its intimate focus on a single character makes it a much more personal tale. Kyle Katarn’s inner battle between doing the right thing and resorting to baser instincts may not make him a perfect Jedi, but it makes him the most human one, and makes Jedi Outcast a pivotal installment in his story.

____________________

You can buy Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast 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 ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Sith1

Stop the Sith from wiping out the last Jedi.

PC Release: December 6, 2004

By Ian Coppock

For anything that can be said about the Star Wars prequels, that sequence in Revenge of the Sith in which countless Jedi are getting murdered is a real gut-punch. It’s arguably the most pivotal scene of the entire prequel trilogy, where the Star Wars universe violently changes hands from Jedi to Sith. Tragic as that scene is, though, it’s not the first time that the Jedi were driven to the brink of extinction. If the old Star Wars canon is to be believed, there was an even darker, grittier period for the Jedi that began with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords.

Take a seat, young Skywalker. This game makes for quite a tale.

____________________

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (let’s just call it Sith Lords, that title’s one hell of a mouthful) is a third-person RPG set in the Star Wars universe, and the direct sequel to BioWare’s wildly popular Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Unlike the first KOTORSith Lords was actually developed by Obsidian, a studio that makes bank developing sequels and spinoffs on behalf of other devs. Like KOTORSith Lords comprises a mix of quick turn-based combat and open-world exploration across a variety of planets. The game allows players to create their own character, pick a class, and recruit squadmates to fight alongside them.

Sith Lords takes place five years after the events of KOTOR, which is itself set an eye-popping 4,000 years before the Star Wars films. Neither game is considered canon anymore, but that doesn’t stop them from being good Star Wars stories. KOTOR detailed a galaxy-wide war between the ancient Republic and an entire empire of Sith warriors led by a cyborg with a chip on his shoulder (or is it his jaw?). Anyway, even though the Republic eventually won out over the Sith, the galaxy was left a pile of smoldering wreckage. Most of the Jedi were wiped out in the conflict, leaving only a small handful still standing when the dust settled.

Sith2

The Jedi victory over the Sith came at an awful price.

To make matters worse, the remaining Sith simply fled underground and spent the next few years ambushing and assassinating the remaining Jedi from the shadows. A new generation of Sith Lords is now but a few steps away from galactic domination, and only one more Jedi stands in their way: the player character. Sith Lords begins as the titular baddies ambush the protagonist, and the unlucky Jedi wakes up dazed and confused in a derelict mining colony.

Like KOTORSith Lords allows players to create their own male or female character, and choose from a couple of different cosmetic options. Unlike in KOTORSith Lords’ character starts out as a Jedi, so players nix picking a soldier class and can start leveling up Force abilities from the get-go. Canonically, the character is actually a female Jedi named Meetra Surik, a name that Star Wars: The Old Republic players might recognize. To the game and most NPCs, though, the character is known simply as “the Exile.”

Sith3

The Exile! (jazz hands)

After wandering out of the colony’s medical bay, the Exile encounters a strange old woman named Kreia, who claims that the two share a bond through the Force. The Exile finds a few more characters strewn throughout the colony, but the group is forced to make a quick escape when the Sith show up to finish their dirty work. Kreia believes that the Exile is the galaxy’s best chance for stopping the Sith, though stops short of endorsing such a mission herself. Indeed, the old woman’s motivations remain delightfully vague for most of the game.

As the Exile travels around space running missions and picking up more oddball squadmates, he/she notices a few particular Force abilities. For a start, the Exile can form bonds with squadmates through the Force, strengthening their trust in him/her and even influencing their sense of morality. The Exile also learns that these abilities may or may not be tied up in why they were, well, exiled from the Jedi Order so many years ago. The Exile decides to try to seek out the Jedi Masters who oversaw his/her banishing — not just to learn why it happened, but to enlist their aid in stopping the Sith.

Sith4

Yay, they brought back this sarcastic clunker!

The Exile’s journey around the galaxy plays out a lot like the main character’s quest in KOTOR. Players have a ship (the same ship from KOTOR, in fact) that they can use to putz around the galaxy and visit a few planets. Those planets are chock full of story missions, side quests, and lots of money and items. Combat is third-person and turn-based, but as with KOTOR‘s combat, the turns move quickly enough to keep the fight interesting. Attacks do only have a chance to hit, though, so be sure to level up that accuracy and critical hit damage as much as possible.

Each squadmate in the Exile’s party has his, her, or its own combat specialty and unique abilities. Some squadmates have latent Force powers and can eventually become Jedi apprentices (though lightsabers are rarer than gold dust in this game). Others are trigger-happy shootists that would rather put a blaster bolt between someone’s eyes than give them the time of day. Still others are more specialized in their abilities, adept at hacking into places they shouldn’t. Regardless of their specialties, the Exile’s team has that Mass Effect 2 ultimate badasses vibe to it. Who knows? Maybe a Sith ends up joining the team! That’d be crazy, right?

Sith5

Right.

The changes that Sith Lords makes to KOTOR‘s gameplay are relatively few. Players can now craft their own components for their armor and weapons, rather than having to find them out in the field. The Exile can also make a few basic guns and battle drugs, given the proper materials. Sith Lords‘ range of hand-to-hand combat moves is expanded for some reason, and the conversation system is a bit more dynamic, giving players more freedom to persuade the weak-minded through the Force or just be a really good debater. Players can also access a palette of new and interesting Force powers. Force Scream, for example, is logistically similar to Force lighting but lets players flatten people like that little kid in Linkin Park’s music video for From the Inside.

Anything else? Not really. Money is a lot easier to come by, that’s for damn sure. KOTOR had an approximate game-wide limit on its money, and players had to be really choosy about where to drop that coin. Sith Lords makes it far easier to pick up some extra cash, and it’s not like there aren’t tons of weapons and armor to buy anyway, right? That’s pretty much all there is to be said about the changes Sith Lords makes to the KOTOR formula. That is to say… not many.

Sith6

Punch him in the lightsaber! That’ll show him!

The changes that Sith Lords makes to the KOTOR aesthetic are also few in number. This game was only released a year after KOTOR, so there wasn’t time for Obsidian to get to work developing new assets or visuals. There are plenty of new character models, which is neat, but the game retains KOTOR‘s awkward character animations and not-so-well-aged object details. Textures remain blurry, colors are still a bit blotchy… fights have a few new animations, but they’re mostly restricted to the fisticuffs. Still not sure what the purpose of that skill tree is when the player can use a lightsaber.

Sith Lords has a few original creations, though, that outshine everything the game borrowed from KOTOR and even give its beloved predecessor a run for its money. The first is the game’s sound design. Guns, lightsabers and spaceships return in rip-roaring audio glory, and they still come through cleanly despite being over a decade old. Far better even than that, though, is Sith Lords‘ soundtrack, which is one of the greatest Star Wars soundtracks of all time. Alternating between quietly haunting melodies and dramatic, triumphant strings, Sith Lords‘ score is an audio masterpiece. The music is so good that LucasArts was using it for videos and promotional material up to the very last second before the Disney acquisition. Seriously, it’s damn good music.

Sith7

I find your lack of musical taste disturbing…

The final and grandest piece of Sith Lords is the game’s narrative. With the game’s war-torn set pieces and the bleak notion of being the very last Jedi, Sith Lords is the closest that Star Wars has ever been to having a post-apocalyptic setting. Some aspects of the game, like invisible Sith assassins that crawl around like animals, even give off a horror vibe. Sith Lords‘ atmosphere is impressively dark, and that bleakness is carefully arranged in every war-torn city, every battle-weary NPC. The Exile cannot trust anyone; even the Force is arrayed against them. Players are as hunted by these grim signs as they are by in-game Sith assassins and bounty hunters.

More than just the apocalyptic vibe, Sith Lords benefits from having some of the best writing of any Star Wars game, far superior even to that of KOTOR. The writing results in some truly memorable characters with believable development arcs and heart-wrenching motivations. Kreia, the aforementioned old woman, is one of the most interesting video game characters ever written, Star Wars or otherwise. Her reserved character and constant criticism of the player no matter what they do smack of a depth rarely seen in RPGs anymore. Similar things can be said about the bounty hunter who’s secretly afraid, and the Mandalorian getting too old for this s***. It all makes for a batch of believable characters… characters that become very dear to the player very quickly.

Sith8

That Kreia is a mysterious one…

It’s impressive that Sith Lords manages to tell a great story despite not being a finished game. It’s true; an entire planet and a few other side quests were left out of production so that Obsidian could meet a deadline. While it’s unfortunate that some content was left out of the game, the studio did a good job at covering those loose ends up (not sure if that’s commendable or unfortunate) and the rest of the game doesn’t feel short, clocking in at a few hours longer than KOTOR. A few mods are floating around that add bits and pieces of that content to the base game, but finding and downloading them is another story.

Sith Lords also deserves some leniency for the creative risks it took in penning its narrative. Rather than merely giving staple Star Wars concepts a new face, it twists those staple concepts around in interesting and terrifying ways. The idea of the Force undergoing a metamorphosis is an exotic concept, and the game’s portrayal of the Sith as hungry animals rather than cunning tacticians makes for a refreshing change. The point is that Sith Lords isn’t afraid to bend some of Star Wars‘ rules or tinker around with concepts enshrined as untouchable, and that’s what makes it such a great game. Perhaps even better than KOTOR.

Sith9

Just another day in space-pocalypse.

Sith Lords isn’t the most well-known Star Wars game ever made, but it is one of the best. Its dark, rich story introduces bold new ideas to the Star Wars universe, rounded out with terrific music and some of the best writing of any Star Wars media. Don’t let Sith Lords‘ aged aesthetic or its relegation to non-canon status by Disney stop a playthrough. Pick up a copy (the Steam version’s nice and updated) and delve into some of the darkest, grittiest Star Wars storytelling ever penned.

____________________

You can buy Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords 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 ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

JK1

Stop a fallen Jedi from becoming more powerful than can be possibly imagined.

PC Release: September 30, 1997

By Ian Coppock

Writing nothing but Star Wars reviews these past few weeks has been fun, and the tourney of said fun continues with a look at Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. Awkward arrangement of the title’s segments notwithstanding, Jedi Knight was well-received when it launched in ’97 and remains notable for being one of the first Star Wars games to let players wield a lightsaber. How well that and other mechanics have aged has been a subject of debate, and it’s one of the subjects of tonight’s review. That and, well, being able to slash people with lightsabers. Don’t worry, those people usually shoot first. Usually.

____________________

As can be inferred from the Dark Forces II subtitle, Jedi Knight is a direct sequel to Dark Forces featuring the return of Rebel mercenary Kyle Katarn. Jedi Knight is set one year after the events of Return of the Jedi, as the Rebel Alliance transforms into the New Republic and the Empire’s various leftovers squabble for Emperor Palpatine’s vacated throne. Sadly, this game’s story was classified as non-canon when Disney bought the rights to Star Wars, but that certainly doesn’t stop the game from setting out with its own vision of how things shook out after the destruction of the second Death Star.

Anyway, the story of Jedi Knight begins as Kyle receives new information on the death of his father Morgan, whose murder by the Empire was what convinced him to join the rebellion in the first place. Kyle learns that his father was killed by Jerec, a fallen Jedi who served Palpatine as an Inquisitor and struck out on his own after the emperor’s death at Endor. Unafraid of Jerec’s ruthless reputation or the dark Jedi’s skill with a lightsaber, Kyle strikes out to find his newest nemesis.

JK2

Dark Forces II: The Return Of The 90’s

As Kyle begins searching for Jerec, he receives a vision telling him that the dark warrior is searching for the Valley of the Jedi, a nexus of Force power that will make him invincible if he taps it. Kyle also finds an old lightsaber left behind by a friend of his father’s and activates it, discovering that he has a connection to the Force. Kyle’s mission against Jerec becomes both a quest for personal vengeance and to stop Jerec before he becomes all-powerful and conquers the galaxy. With Jan by his side, he sets out to stop Jerec and his dark apprentices, all while learning what it means to be a Jedi.

Jedi Knight‘s audacious start helped get the game off the ground as much as its upgrade to fully 3D graphics and more dynamic gunplay than that of Dark Forces. Indeed, all three of these elements helped propel the game to dizzying heights when it first hit shelves in 1997. Audiences were smitten by everything from the 3D character models to the live-action cutscenes interspersed between levels (strange to think that such mundane things were once the toast of the gaming world). For every gritty investigative vibe that Dark Forces gave off, Jedi Knight has a much more character-driven narrative.

JK3

Ah yes, these must be the infamous Triangle-Faced Troopers. A truly deadly variant.

Jedi Knight is a shooter/slasher that can be played from either a first-or-third-person perspective, though generally it’s best to use the former for guns and the latter for the lightsaber. Kyle starts out with his blaster pistol, but he can quickly upgrade his arsenal with more advanced guns and grenades. Some of these weapons return from Dark Forces. The lightsaber is found relatively early in the game, and Kyle gets progressively better with it as the game goes on. Before long, the mercenary Jedi becomes pretty adept at deflecting blaster bolts and slashing enemies out of his way. Every so often the player can sever an enemy’s arm, which was considered ghastly and shocking in the 90’s.

Jedi Knight‘s other gameplay component is simple puzzles. After Kyle’s done shooting and stabbing his way through an enemy regiment, players have to solve a few simple physics conundrums in order to progress in the game. These include opening doors, balancing fuel tanks… nothing too mentally taxing but just varied enough to keep things interesting. Some levels are thinly disguised key hunts, but Jedi Knight puts enough variety into its level design to keep those from becoming too rote. Through puzzles and gunfights, Kyle has to find health and shield pickups to stay alive. Ammo is also ludicrously plentiful, even for top-tier weapons.

JK4

Put ’em up, you insidious marshmallow man!

Jedi Knight provides a solid, unpredictable mix of shooting and puzzling, but that doesn’t stop a few glaring design flaws from, well, glaring out of the woodwork. The lightsaber is a bit OP, especially later in the game when Kyle can just deflect all the blaster bolts and cut down every stormtrooper between him and the next level. This can make the game a bit easy; even the Empire’s hardest-hitting troops go down in one lightsaber strike. This, coupled with a few basic Force powers, can make short work of even the hardiest Kyle-hating combatant.  The initial fun that comes with cutting enemies to shreds with a lightsaber starts to feel old alarmingly quickly.

Jedi Knight also comes with a few platforming sections that could’ve done with more development and less reliance on micro-precise jumping. This is especially true of some of the game’s early levels, like Kyle’s father’s farm, where the player has to jump between precariously tiny ledges over an endless abyss. Similar jumping obstacles pepper many of the game’s levels, some of them with fans, anti-gravity, or something else to make hitting a square foot-wide target even more challenging. Even if Jedi Knight‘s level design sheds some of the convoluted corridors that plagued Dark Forces, its abundance of invisible walls and twisting paths can still leave players’ heads spinning.

JK5

What, jumping on a brick that juts out from the wall isn’t fun all the sudden?

Just as it would be a lie to say that the original Dark Forces‘ graphics have aged gracefully, so too would it be false to say the same of Jedi Knight. Make no mistake, the latter title’s 3D graphics are a tremendous improvement over those of Dark Forces, but some of the in-game objects are still pretty hideous. Blurry textures and awkward character animations are nothing in the face of blotchy in-game illustrations and some of the worst character model details ever devised by man or machine. Each character’s face, for example, looks like an orgy of colorful pixels with perhaps a semblance of normal facial features.

Jedi Knight manages to fare quite a bit better in the sound department, with a wide palette of crisp, impacting sound effects. Some of them reek a bit too much of static, but the sounds of blaster fire and the swoosh of the lightsaber have some satisfying weight to them. The same goes for walking on various surfaces and the rip-roaring sound of an exploding fuel barrel. The game’s score comprises the music of the classic Star Wars films, which, while a bit of a cop-out, also means that Jedi Knight isn’t hurting for great songs.

JK6

What the hell is that?! A seahorse in a tunic?!

The narrative at the heart of Jedi Knight is by far the game’s most admirable quality. It swaps out the investigative vibe of Dark Forces for a story that lets players get to know the real Kyle Katarn — not the quiet secret agent from the first game, but a stoic and rapidly evolving warrior finding his true place in the universe. Kyle’s mission to avenge his father’s death carries much more personal weight than his fight against the Dark Troopers in Dark Forces; this allows for a believable character development arc that takes him from detached mercenary to courageous champion.

…Or does it? Depending on certain actions the player takes during the course of the game, Kyle may very well be driven to the dark side in his quest for justice against Jerec. If Jedi Knight is to be believed, the path to darkness comprises killing every innocent bystander that Kyle happens upon during his journey. Unfortunately for dark side enthusiasts, though, the game doesn’t do jack to tell players that slaughtering random NPCs alters the course of the story. That’s a pretty crappy way to alter the story anyway, though; just cutting down NPCs who are otherwise unmentioned and have no bearing on the plot is a weird idea of changing the narrative’s trajectory.

JK7

It’s okay if the NPCs try to kill Kyle, though.

Even though Jedi Knight is by all accounts a direct sequel to Dark Forces, the games’ stories are two very different animals. Dark Forces is a tale of investigation and subterfuge that has little to do with the player personally, while the other is simultaneously a revenge story and a coming-of-age narrative. Jedi Knight ultimately wins out in narrative weight because of the aforementioned character development in Kyle as well as his allies and enemies. His relationship with Jan continues to evolve, as does his adversity against the brutal, greedy Jerec.

It’s difficult to say that Jedi Knight‘s narrative is strong enough to make players ignore the game’s ghoulish visuals and bad level design choices, though. Worse still, most players won’t ever get the chance to find out, because Jedi Knight is difficult to run even on Windows 7. The Steam version of the game is dead in the water due to an embarrassing bug that makes the game request putting in a disc, which… wow. The GOG version is a bit more up-to-date but still rife with  problems. Some players have gotten Jedi Knight to run after spending hours in the forums, but Jedi Knight might not be worth all those hours.

JK8

Bugs are even worse than fallen Jedi.

Unfortunately, these problems are also endemic to Mysteries of the Sith, an expansion pack that was released for Jedi Knight in 1998. The expansion is set five years after the events of Jedi Knight and follows both Kyle Katarn and Mara Jade, an Imperial agent-turned-Jedi apprentice and one of the expanded universe’s most popular characters. Despite the implementation of in-game cutscenes and a few performance updates, Mysteries of the Sith suffers the same performance and running snafus as its larger counterpart. The Steam version of this game also asks for a disc.

It’s a shame that one of Star Wars’ most iconic expanded universe characters (and the future wife of Luke Skywalker, according to the old canon) didn’t get the video game debut that she deserved. The story of Mysteries of the Sith relegates Mara Jade to a few disjointed and ultimately forgettable mercenary missions that have little to do with each other. The expansion’s ending helps set the stage for Kyle Katarn’s next game, but that’s about it. Still, even if the expansion is underwhelming, it’s too bad that getting it to run so that players can decide for themselves is next to impossible.

JK9

Sorry, Mara.

Even if players manage to get Jedi Knight to function, the story at the center of the game isn’t quite enough to save it from a plethora of badly designed visuals and weird level-building choices. The lightsaber also neuters much of the game’s challenge, even in boss fights, and that only increases as Kyle gains powerful if clunky Force abilities. Mysteries of the Sith is similarly morose in its offerings. Ultimately, both games are better off avoided, at least until they’re patched to be able to run on modern systems. Until then, Kyle’s first sortee against lightsaber-wielding bad guys is probably better off floating in space.

____________________

You can buy Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II 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 ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Oblivion1

Stop the forces of Oblivion from destroying the mortal plane.

PC Release: March 20, 2006

By Ian Coppock

Whether it’s spending time outdoors or getting into a big video game, summer is usually a time for grand adventure. It’s no coincidence that fantasy RPGs like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are usually released during the summer months, and with that time of year right around the corner, this is a great opportunity to take a look back at the high fantasy epics of yore. The best adventure stories are still enjoyable years after they’ve been told, and though The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion‘s status as the best of those games is up for debate, its legacy is still felt over a decade after its release.

____________________

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the fourth title in Bethesda’s venerable Elder Scrolls series and, like the other games in that lineup, is a high fantasy RPG with all the hallmarks of a magical adventure: a big world with lots of items and helpless non-player characters for whom you can run fetch quests. A few editions of Oblivion have been released over the years, but the best one to buy these days is the Game of the Year Deluxe edition available on Steam, which includes the base title and a ton of DLC all to the tune of $20.00 (or about $.01 per hour of entertainment).

Like the other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion takes place in the magical world of Tamriel, a continent rife with magic, elves, orcs, all that good fantasy stuff. The game’s story is set 200 years before the events of Skyrim, and in classic Elder Scrolls fashion, begins with the player character having been imprisoned for an unspecified crime. Players can fashion their character from 10 playable races and a wide variety of cosmetic options. Each race also has its own perks and abilities: elves are great with magic, orcs are great with smashing skulls, etc. Players can also pick a class to suit their playstyle, making Oblivion a much more rigid RPG than most fantasy adventures released today.

Oblivion2

Wizards are great for burning things alive and for entertaining guests at parties.

The player character catches a big break from jail time when, of all people, emperor Uriel Septim shows up at their cell. Uriel’s being chased by assassins, and his secret escape route leads through the player’s cell. The emperor’s bodyguards allow the player to accompany their party into the tunnels below the prison, though their efforts are in vain, as Uriel gets killed by a cabal of red-robed assassins. Before dying, the emperor tells the player to find his secret son, and prevent the demonic forces of Oblivion (hey, name drop!) from overrunning Tamriel.

Even though the player’s been entrusted with saving the world, they can do whatever they want after this prologue ends. Like other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion starts players out with the main story objective but gives them the freedom to go wherever they want. Players can join a faction, go find legendary items… hell, just sit there and relax by the lake, Oblivion doesn’t care. The Elder Scrolls has always been a big believer in player agency, and no less so than with Oblivion.

Oblivion3

This is an Elder Scrolls game, so expect plenty of caves.

In grand RPG tradition, players gain experience by using their class’s core skills, and can level up attributes like athletics and magic affinity. Unlike Skyrim and other modern RPGs that are more open-ended, Oblivion only lets players level up if they use their class’s pre-assigned skills. A player who picks a magic class, for example, won’t level up if they use something outside that skillset, like swords. This design philosophy is dated by contemporary standards but Oblivion has over a dozen classes that combine lots of different skills. The biggest danger is that players only have the prologue to see what skills they like before being forced to choose something, so pick carefully.

Oblivion can be played from a first- or third-person perspective and gives players a high degree of freedom in choosing how to navigate the world. Players can charge into battle sword in hand or sneak around assassinating foes from afar with a bow. Magic makes for the most audacious combat approach, while lockpicking lets players get a bit more creative in “borrowing” enemies’ possessions. Players can also become adept at schmoozing up to NPCs and haggling at stores. Whatever the skillset, Oblivion‘s core gameplay is classic Elder Scrolls: talk to NPCs, get quests, descend into dungeons, and fulfill a goal. It’s an inveterate quest design structure that gets saved from weary repetition by the hours of adventuring fun players have along the way to an objective.

Oblivion4

There are lots of baddies and treasures to find in Oblivion.

Oblivion‘s combat system is not difficult to understand: just use a sword, a spell or a bow to kill a foe before they can kill the player. Enemies will usually charge right at the player, but with a bit of practice, dodging the opponent’s attacks and going in for the kill become all but second-nature. As players level up, the world will start providing more advanced weapons and treasures. Of course, enemies will also level up, and more powerful monsters will start creeping along the realm’s roads. This combat system would eventually undergo little change in Skyrim, but weapons can degrade, so it pays to keep equipment nice and shiny.

Players can set out to complete Oblivion‘s main story, complete standalone side quests, or join a faction. Like Morrowind and SkyrimOblivion features entire quest arcs that are not only narratives in their own right, but also give players an opportunity to build their character and gain access to valuable resources. These factions’ quests can get pretty involved and almost always end with the player becoming the head of that organization. It turns out that when the world is ruled by swords and bloodshed, the promotion ladder becomes surprisingly flexible.

Oblivion5

The first meeting of the Creepy Cave Guild will now come to order…

Most of Oblivion is set in a verdant province called Cyrodiil, which, with its castles and rolling green hills, is the quintessential medieval fantasy setting. Of course, this also makes the game world difficult to distinguish from the dozens of other medieval fantasy games that thought it would be innovative to have a world of castles and rolling green hills (because that‘s never been done before). There’s a bit of jungle to the south and some mountains in the map’s western corner, but the rest of the world features samey medieval countryside that, while pretty, is extremely conventional for a fantasy RPG.

Players can also head to one of the region’s many cities to find quests or just get a drink at the inn. For all the visual sameness afforded by Oblivion‘s wilderness, the game does a good job of giving each of its cities a different visual theme. Each city features its own palette of building and landmark textures, though they all offer the same mix of inns, guild stops, and NPCs bursting with random exposition. Some of Oblivion‘s visual design, especially its environments, have aged well over the years, but its NPCs and wildlife look mannequin-esque by contemporary standards.

Oblivion6

The next person who talks about mudcrabs is getting a mace in the balls.

As it happens, Oblivion‘s NPCs are where most of the game’s weirdest design choices really shamble to life. For starters, the guards’ AI is omniscient, to the point where they can sometimes detect players burglarizing a house on the other side of town. The game’s friendship system is also one of the most bizarre minigames ever devised by man. Players who need to gain an NPC’s trust have to play a pie chart game that makes them alternate between telling jokes, making threats, and complimenting them on… what, exactly? No one knows; but it does allow players to forge lifelong friendships in the span of several minutes. It’s a wonky system that only gets funnier as years go by.

Even more hilarious than the instant buddy minigame is how Oblivion allots its voice actors. Rather than mix a bunch of voice actors together across the game’s numerous races, Bethesda decided it would be a good idea to give each race a single pair of male and female voice actors. In other words, a conversation between three male humans just sounds like one guy talking to his other two personalities. Because each NPC has its own canned dialogue, repeatedly pressing anyone from a suave nobleman to a dirty beggar for news will result in the same scuttlebutt, delivered in the exact same tone. Oblivion‘s voice acting is one of gaming’s most lovably bad design choices. Fortunately, the game does a lot better in other areas of sound design, especially its gorgeous soundtrack.

Oblivion7

Subtitles are the only way to tell who in a group of the same race is saying something.

Oblivion‘s voice acting kerfuffle becomes less entertaining when confronted with the game’s writing. Most NPCs spend an inordinate amount of time drowning the player in exposition, which isn’t that out of character for an Elder Scrolls game but is particularly common in Oblivion. The shopkeeper who wants help investigating a shady merchant will take four or five paragraphs to explain exactly why she wants the job done. Drowning the player in mission details does not substitute for storytelling, but it does make it harder to remember why the quest was taken in the first place.

The bulk of Oblivion‘s storytelling and voice acting efforts were put into the main questline, which features performances from such big names as Terrence Stamp, Sean Bean, and the immortal Sir Patrick Stewart. These actors’ thoughtful performances and much more concise writing save Oblivion‘s story from becoming as plodding as the farmer who spends thirty minutes explaining why her dirtbag husband ran off. The story also touches on themes that pop up in other games, like how the whole Dragonborn thing works. Oblivion‘s main story is arguably the most involved of the series, and the idea of the entire world being destroyed by demons gives Skyrim‘s dragons a run for their money.

Oblivion8

Oblivion’s main narrative is darkly beautiful.

The Elder Scrolls games are not known for deep character development, preferring to let their massive worlds be the meat of the game. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but Oblivion features a modicum of character development that makes it stand out from its peers. The emperor’s bastard son, Martin Septim, is given a thoughtful demeanor and gradual character development arc by Sean Bean, who managed to channel his inner Ned Stark before ever having signed to HBO’s Game of Thrones. Mankar Camaron, the mortal bad guy voiced by Terrence Stamp, similarly provides some fascinating insights even if they are all squashed into the very end of the game.

Oblivion‘s staple of endearing characters continues in The Shivering Isles, an expansion pack that sends the player off to an island chain full of crazy people. The expansion is meant to be played after the main questline, but allows players to interact with kooky characters and gives the medieval fantasy trope a colorful twist of insanity. It’s one of those rare expansions that is both chock full of content and the clear product of lots of love; it remains one of the most memorable fantasy RPG expansions of all time. The Shivering Isles is rolled into the aforementioned Game of the Year Deluxe edition, along with the less memorable Knights of the Nine DLC and a variety of spell, house, and armor add-ons.

Oblivion9

Gasp! My own tomb!

So why should modern RPG enthusiasts consider giving Oblivion a try, what with its dated visuals and oftentimes tedious dialogue? Because like other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion succeeds in handing players a robust world and telling them to go wild. It contains that same spirit of wild abandon and exploration that was captured by Morrowind, and later Skyrim. It’s a fantasy game that allows for open-world grand adventure, but has a central story that’s deeper and more involved than that of any other Elder Scrolls games, giving it an element of enjoyment not quite found in Skyrim. Medieval fantasy enthusiasts pining for the next great adventure may well find it in Oblivion. Even 11 years later, it’s one of gaming’s surest staples of satisfying adventure.

____________________

You can buy The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Game of the Year Edition Deluxe 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 ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

KOTOR1

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.

KOTOR2

The Jedi and Sith have been at this for a long time. A long time.

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.

KOTOR3

LIGHTSABER TO THE FACE!

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.

KOTOR4

A Jedi, a war hero, and an assassin droid. This session of the Friendship Committee has been very productive.

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.

KOTOR5

The sarcastic assassin droid is a lively one.

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 Effectbut it’s a lot—certainly enough to kit out the player’s squadmates in enough weaponry to make the state of Texas collectively blush.

KOTOR6

I have a lightsaber, a Jedi certification, AND A MASTER’S DEGREE IN RAISING HELL!

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.

KOTOR7

Bastila used Awkward Battle Snarl. She hurt herself in her confusion!

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.

KOTOR8

How the f*** did he dodge a shot to the face at point-blank range?!

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.

KOTOR9

TO GLORY!

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 ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Gang Beasts

gang1

Punch, kick and jump your way across hilariously violent rounds of fighting.

PC Release: Early Access

By Ian Coppock

Friendships can be built or broken in the crucible of multiplayer video games. This is potentially true of any title but only particularly true of a select few. Anyone who played Mario Party back in the day will remember that friend who stole a Star from them using a Boo. Perhaps you, reading this right now, were that friend, and your relationship was forever altered the day one player stole the other person’s victory out from under them. In the years since Mario Party was really big, there have been few video games that offer a comparably visceral multiplayer experience. Gang Beasts is one of those few. Perhaps the best of those few.

____________________

Gang Beasts is a chaotic multiplayer fighting game being developed by the immortally named indie studio Boneloaf. Players can create their own character from a selection of gelatinous humanoid fighters and compete in what can only be described as a drunken free-for-all. The word “drunken” is no hyperbole the characters (or pugilists) in Gang Beasts have intentionally slippery controls that make piloting one feel like stumbling home from the bar. Players can compete in matches of up to 8 fighters; whoever can throw everyone else off a ledge, shove them into obstacles, or simply survive all of these things wins the match.

Matches in Gang Beasts are usually short, violent, and hilarious. Because of the clunky controls, players are in as much danger of putting themselves in harm’s way as another character. The hilarity comes from seeing these jelly men square off in ludicrous environments (like two trucks speeding down a highway together) and their inevitable, violent demises.

gang2

Get ’em! F*** ’em up!

Before jumping into the arena, players can customize their Gang Beast using an impressive palette of color and accessory options. Players can craft an amusing caricature of almost anything, from a drunken Santa Claus to a naughty office worker. They can also kit out their characters with trench coats, dinosaur suits and other eyebrow-raising wardrobe choices. The amount of character customization in Gang Beasts is impressive, and players can access all of these accessories from the get-go. No need to grind for a toupee.

Once they’ve created their character, players can jump into an online or local multiplayer match and compete for the title of World’s Silliest Pugilist. Each match arranges the players in a random order before the battle begins. The game uses a single Super Smash Bros.-style panoramic camera to capture the action, even on local mode. Gang Beasts has a thriving online multiplayer community and its local beat-em-ups work flawlessly, so finding a match is little challenge.

gang3

We’ll make you BLACK and blue, sum’b*tch!

As previously mentioned, controlling a pugilist in Gang Beasts is made intentionally challenging by the game’s lurching controls. Characters veer wildly from side to side even as they run, and their punches and kicks can easily miss the mark. The point of this system is not to make Gang Beasts difficult, but to provoke laughter, and holy cow does it succeed in that regard. Players can’t defeat an enemy through sheer punching and kicking, though—they have to force players to either plunge off a ledge or into a conveniently placed deathtrap, such as a pit of lava or that nuclear chimney in the screenshot.

As one might imagine, a gang of 4-8 drunken little jelly men trying to beat the crap out of each other can be absolutely hysterical. The controls also level the playing field, making it difficult for the most experienced players to maintain an edge over new arrivals. In so doing, Gang Beasts‘ gameplay both allows for humor and fairness, since only so much can be done to keep these creatures from bumbling into danger. As one might expect, Gang Beasts is best enjoyed in local multiplayer, where friends can laugh and swear at each other’s ludicrous fighting antics. To that end, this game has full controller support.

gang4

Who will win? Bear-man? Or dinosaur-man?

The overwhelming majority of Gang Beasts‘ maps bring those aforementioned deathtraps to each match’s forefront. From a precariously placed exterior elevator to the top of a damn blimp, these creatures seem to have no inhibitions when it comes to picking fight club locations (oh crap, I talked about Fight Club). This further levels Gang Beasts‘ playing field by making it remarkably easy to kill other characters—maybe not at first, especially for players new to the scene, but soon.

It’s also worth noting that each map is colorful, with big, bubbly environments for the characters to tussle around in. The lighting and colors in each environment are exceeded only by the riot of colors in which the titular Gang Beasts can be painted. To top all of this off, the game also has a minimalist techno soundtrack that provides solid audio background without drowning out the dumb chuckles each character emits from time to time. The sound of landing a hit on another character is also satisfying: a quick, crunchy thud that can sometimes cause a knockout.

gang5

NOW I KILL YOU! Wait… what is that stuff?

Although Gang Beasts is arguably the penultimate party fighting game at the moment, there are a few caveats to bear in mind for any aspiring cage fighters rushing to Steam with credit card in hand. For a start, local multiplayer is really the only way to play Gang Beasts with friends, as the game’s online matchmaking is essentially nonfunctional. Boneloaf has disclaimed that in Gang Beasts‘ description box, to be fair, but it’s perplexing that this mode hasn’t been built yet. The lack of online matchmaking with friends has certainly become reviled in the Steam forums, probably more than strictly necessary, but not without some merit.

The reason Gang Beasts might not have this multiplayer mode in place yet is because, well… the game’s in Early Access. Early Access games are rarely reviewed here because only about 20% of them actually see completion—given the amount of skeletal indie garbage drowning Steam these days, that percentage now seems way too high. However, Gang Beasts is one of maybe three Early Access games on Steam (along with Besiege and The Long Dark) that has enough polish and content in its current state to warrant a buy. Boneloaf has also announced that the game’s full release is right around the corner. Sure, they wouldn’t be the first Early Access developer to promise a full release and then delay on it, but the studio’s done a good job of responding to the community and being consistent with their updates, which is more than about 99% of Early Access devs can say.

gang6

I see a “Draw” in both of our immediate futures.

The other factor that makes Gang Beasts challenging to review is its physics bugs, which the game has in abundance. At any given moment, players can expect to see their characters shoot off into space or have their bodies stretched between a fast-moving train and the platform their lower half was just standing on. Bugs are ostensibly a problem in any video game, but in the case of Gang Beasts, they’re actually more of a benefit. They add another layer of hilarity onto the game’s already-chaotic fighting, and it’s difficult to fault them when they provoke so much laughter. As Forrest Ross, my co-host on Ian Lost in The Forrest once memorably said, “I will refund Gang Beasts the day it works properly.”

It’s rare to say that physics bugs are a positive for a game rather than a negative, but it’s also rare to find a video game where physics bugs add to the experience rather than detract from it. For anything that’s implied by the presence of bugs in the game, they sure do make Gang Beasts even funnier. The game’s stated goal is to provoke hilarity through fighting, and since the bugs are in line with that goal, it’s difficult to fault Boneloaf for them.

gang7

It feels weird to say that bugs are a good thing, but these are weird times we live in…

Luckily for Gang Beasts, physics bugs are where the buck stops for the game’s potential performance issues. The game could run on a potato, and it comes with a decent, though not amazing, options menu for tweaking performance hiccups. Although it goes unstated on the game’s main page, Gang Beasts is best played with a controller, but that comes as little surprise for a game that bills itself as a local couch’em’up.

Gang Beasts has surprisingly few peers. It stands out in a genre overrun by games that focus on realism; and, in avoiding it,is much more fun than 90% of those titles. It’s also one of a tiny handful of games whose physics bugs actually contribute to what it’s going for (fun) for instead of detracting from it. Even though it’s in Early Access, it offers up enough content and enjoyment to warrant a buy despite not technically being finished yet. Given its outstanding reception by fans and other reviewers, it’s doubtful that the game will be shaken up too much before its official release. The only piece missing is online matchmaking.

gang8

Don’t let go, Jack! Actually, no, let go. Right now. LEGGO!

Friendships are built and broken on the field of battle. Some travesties, like team kills, are relatively forgettable, but what about stealing a star in Mario Party? Or leaving a friend to hang over a pit of lava in Gang Beasts? It is these visceral, hilarious multiplayer experiences that make Gang Beasts stand out, and make it one of the very, very, very few Early Access games on Steam worth buying before its completion. Take a break from serious narratives and super-high production values for a tourney in Gang Beasts. It doesn’t tell an amazing story, but its drunken brawls provoke more laughter than even gamedom’s best comedy writing.

True to the feel of its controls, Gang Beasts also pairs well with alcohol.

____________________

You can buy Gang Beasts 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 ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.