Role-Playing

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

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

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Find a home for humanity in another galaxy.

PC Release: March 21, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Given the immense, well-deserved popularity of the original Mass Effect trilogy, it’s not hyperbolic to say that Mass Effect: Andromeda is one of the most anticipated games of the decade. Releasing nearly 10 years after the original Mass Effect, the game’s been the subject of a lot of hype from both core Mass Effect fans and sci-fi enthusiasts in general. Speculation abounded following the announcement of a new game after Mass Effect 3; would it continue the tale of Commander Shepard? Would it be set before the Mass Effect trilogy?

What Bioware actually produced is an entirely new tale set long after and far away from those games, but how does Mass Effect: Andromeda fare with the bar set so high? The answer, much like conversation options in Mass Effect, is anything but black-and-white.

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Like its predecessors, Mass Effect: Andromeda is an epic space adventure game that takes place in a highly original sci-fi setting. In a galaxy where humanity is not alone and everything is powered by an element that can adjust an object’s mass, a group of human and alien explorers found a program called the Andromeda Initiative. Not content with “merely” exploring their own well-trod galaxy, the Andromeda Initiative’s leaders resolve to cross all the way over to the Andromeda galaxy to study and find their fortune there.

The bulk of Andromeda is set long after the events of the Mass Effect trilogy, but the Andromeda Initiative departs the Milky Way during the events of Mass Effect 2. The Initiative’s participants are put into suspended animation for the 600-year crossing to Andromeda and wake up on the outskirts of a whole new galaxy centuries after the adventures of Commander Shepard. By transporting Mass Effect to an entirely new galaxy, Andromeda provides a new playground for its sci-fi concepts and sidesteps any mention of the infamous ending to Mass Effect 3.

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Time to explore.

With a new setting and time period afoot, Mass Effect passes the protagonist torch from Commander Shepard to Pathfinder Ryder, the new player character. As with Shepard, players can create their own Ryder from a variety of facial features, though the options for doing so are surprisingly limited in comparison to the original games. Ryder wakes up alongside his/her fellow humans 634 years after departing the Milky Way, and after a few snafus, ends up becoming the Pathfinder, the individual charged with finding a new home for humanity in Andromeda.

Ryder and the other new arrivals from the Milky Way soon discover that Andromeda isn’t as peaceful as they’d hoped. The planets that the pioneers had hoped to settle have degraded into hellish landscapes unfit for life, and the cosmos are choked with a bizarre coral-like growth called the Scourge, which snags spaceships like bugs in a spiderweb. To make matters even more complicated, a hostile race of aliens called the kett is on the prowl in Andromeda, and they seem much more interested in shooting the colonists than talking to them. Faced with all these and other obstacles, Ryder has their work cut out finding humanity’s place in Andromeda.

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Ryder’s default male setting (center) and a few squadmates flanking him.

Although the challenges facing the Initiative are many, Ryder is not alone. Similarly to Shepard, badass squadmates with remarkable abilities seem drawn to the Pathfinder, and players will have a team of dangerous, capable buddies at their side before long. To explore the galaxy in style, Ryder is also given command of the Tempest, a sleek frigate that, much like the Normandy in the Mass Effect trilogy, serves as a mobile home for Ryder and his team. Ryder also has access to the Nexus, a space station that functions as the headquarters for the Initiative and is basically to Andromeda what the Citadel was to Mass Effect.

As with the original trilogy, Mass Effect: Andromeda incorporates elements of third-person shooting in its design, but the game is much, much more like the first Mass Effect than the second or third installments. Delightfully, Andromeda returns Mass Effect to the first game’s open-ended RPG focus, with lots of skills to nab, environments to explore, and items to find. The game does away with the more linear environments of Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 and reintroduces the open, explorable planets that made the first Mass Effect feel so big. Ryder can explore these worlds on foot or in the Nomad, a space-tank-buggy thing that handles quite a bit better than Mass Effect‘s Mako.

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Andromeda restores the magnificent sense of scale lost in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3.

Players can equip Ryder with a wide variety of arms and armor, and further customize those accessories to suit specific playstyles. The Andromeda galaxy is chock full of mods like scopes and reinforced plating, giving players lots of options for customizing their loadout. Players can also do the same for their squadmates. Additionally, because this is an RPG at heart, Ryder levels up and can assign points to different abilities. Mass Effect: Andromeda does away with the classes of the previous games in favor of a Skyrim-esque, open-ended system that lets players pick and choose pretty much whatever skills they want. Though players are now free to pick all sorts of combinations, the game comes with a “profile” system that takes the classes of the original games and assigns extra benefits for using their powers in battle.

Combat in Andromeda feels pretty similar to Mass Effect 3, though the focus on staying behind cover has been somewhat reduced in favor of using jump jets to fly around wreaking havoc from above. Staying in cover is still a good idea, as Andromeda’s beasties are dangerous, but it’s not the only recourse for dealing with this game’s smart, persistent enemies. Unlike the Mako in the first Mass Effect, the Nomad buggy doesn’t come equipped with weapons, reflecting this game’s greater emphasis on exploration. Because he’s part explorer himself, Ryder comes with a scanner that can pick up nifty items in the environment and net rewards for players.

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I spy with my little eye something beginning with… an s.

Even though Andromeda‘s gameplay does a great job of balancing between exploration and combat, the game suffers a few alarming problems that go beyond shooting and sightseeing. For a start, Andromeda seems much more interested in exploration than storytelling, which is a bit of a problem for a series that built itself up on compelling sci-fi narratives. It also translates into a game that is absolutely drowning in pointless little fetch quests. Setting up a colony? Go mark 20 dead bodies or hit 10 rocks or plant five survey stations. Some might say these are similar to the radiant quests in Skyrim, and fair enough—but, they comprise the majority of missions in Andromeda, which is disappointing.

Additionally, even the game’s main and side quests leave a lot to be desired insofar as mission structure. In transitioning to a starkly open environment, Andromeda made its missions a bit too uniform. Most times players simply land, go touch an object, and then either escape or get into a firefight. The lack of mission variety in Mass Effect: Andromeda is disheartening, and it almost feels like the game has transitioned the Mass Effect series from tight sci-fi narrative to a big but empty MMO. This setup is further hindered by the game’s cumbersome menus, which Andromeda throws at players en masse with little explanation of how best to use them. The squad management screen in particular is one of the most badly designed options menus since Assassin’s Creed III‘s Davenport economy tool.

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Calibrate THIS, you swine!

Even if Andromeda‘s planets feel empty and full of fetch quests, at least they’re pretty to look at. The Mass Effect saga has never shied away from creating impressive worlds, and Andromeda contains some of the most gorgeous vistas the series has ever offered. Even the relatively desolate worlds are full of things to look at, with top-notch lighting and atmospheric effects to make it feel like more than a painting. The natural environments are the best-detailed that Andromeda has to offer, with the colonists’ prefabricated structures feeling fuzzily detailed by comparison.

For all Andromeda‘s skill with a brush, though, the game’s environments and characters suffer from a ton of bugs. Andromeda got a lot of heat for its awkward facial animations (everyone having apparently forgotten that Mass Effect has always had awkward facial animations). But that’s nothing compared to watching characters suddenly teleport from one side of a room to another, sink into the floor up to their thighs, or have their limbs twitch unnaturally during conversations. Sometimes NPCs will just wander out of the shot when Ryder’s in the middle of talking with them. Objects that characters hold will frequently disappear from cutscenes, unless that beer mug Ryder was carrying a second ago can turn invisible. Much more serious bugs and crashes have been reported by many players on multiple platforms.

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Bugs can’t live in the cold. The more you know.

Environmental concepts and funny faces aren’t the only things that Mass Effect: Andromeda borrows from its predecessors. The story, the thing that’s supposed to be the meat and potatoes of any Mass Effect game, feels like a retread of the previous three games. To provide a few examples, the Andromeda galaxy is riddled with ancient ruins left behind by an ancient alien species that died out under mysterious circumstances (like Mass Effect‘s Protheans), everything is being invaded by a warlike new species not known for inhabiting this part of space (like Mass Effect‘s Geth), and the antagonist is a genocidal maniac who wants to harness the ruins’ power for himself (like Mass Effect‘s Saren). These and other examples make Andromeda feel way too derivative of past games.

It also doesn’t help that Ryder’s squadmates feel like clone-stamps of previous squadmates. Peebee, the Asari squadmate, was promised to be nothing like Mass Effect‘s Liara, but she’s an excitable scholar interested in extinct alien races. Sounds an awful lot like Liara. Drack, the Krogan squadmate, is a shameless copy/paste of the same cantankerous bloodthirst that made Mass Effect‘s Wrex so popular. Cora and Liam, the two human squadmates, are almost instantly forgettable. Vetra, the female Turian, is by far the most interesting squadmate in the mix.

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System failure.

The force that’s ultimately responsible for this mix of re-used concepts and uninteresting characters is sub-par writing. Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s writing isn’t terrible, but it’s not nearly as interesting as the sci-fi epics penned under the masterful hand of Drew Karpyshyn, Bioware’s original lead writer. Dialogue in Mass Effect games has never been natural, to be fair, but it’s taken to awkward new extremes in Mass Effect: Andromeda. No matter what personality traits the player picks, Ryder is a deeply unlikable protagonist, cracking forced, awkwardly written jokes at the worst possible moments. Players will have genuine difficulty understanding some of the conversations that happen in this game.

Of course, mediocre writing also makes for slipshod and inconsistent character development. Characters will throw mini tantrums and then calm down within a split-second. Some characters will express admiration for some traits only to admonish them a few hours later.  None of this is to say that some characters don’t have interesting moments, like the Irish scientist’s discussions of her faith or the Andromeda native’s take on Milky Way culture, but those moments are few and far between. It was interesting of Bioware to do away with the Paragon/Renegade conversation choices, but that formula change does little to ameliorate the situation. In the original Mass Effect, interesting conversations, despite their occasional awkwardness, were the rule, not the exception.

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Do you have anything interesting to say?

Between the plethora of fetch quests, the bewildering options menus, the derivative main story, and the mediocre writing, Mass Effect: Andromeda can’t help but feel like a step back for this beloved sci-fi franchise. All of these problems seem to have less to do with a specific design philosophy and more with not knowing what to do with the game’s composite parts. Mass Effect: Andromeda feels like somebody poured the Mass Effect trilogy’s various bits and pieces into a big bowl, slapped a label on that bowl, and shipped it off to be sold for $60 a pop. Everything is just so… messy. So unrefined. There are a ton of ideas screaming for attention in this game, but the production is so unorganized that they never quite come together.

Mass Effect: Andromeda will sate hardcore fans looking for any sort of sortie into one of gaming’s most beloved franchises, but newcomers are better off playing the original series and perhaps just staying there. Even the very first Mass Effect game, for all its admitted clunkyness, feels more streamlined than Andromeda. This game’s design issues run too deep for any patch to fix, and the emphasis on exploration, while welcome, is disappointingly unwieldy. In short, it’s by no means a must-have for fans of sci-fi RPGs, and at best is probably better off purchased during a sale.

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You can buy Mass Effect: Andromeda 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.

Real Life

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I’m throwing in the towel on game reviews.

PC Release: February 6, 1991

By Ian Coppock

Hi folks,

This is a difficult post for me to write. As many of you know, I’ve been reviewing video games for over four years now. It’s hard to believe. But with the onset of several new developments and a general desire for change, I’ve decided that I’m going to stop reviewing video games for the foreseeable future. Instead, I’m going to start reviewing and discussing things that happen to me in my daily life, and Art as Games is going to become the page for those observations. To get things started, I decided to take a look at my waking, everyday life as if it were a video game. So sit back, relax, and let’s take a glimpse at what’s happening out in the real world.

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Real Life is set in modern-day Salt Lake City, Utah, and follows the exploits of, well, me. I’m best known in my local neighborhood for drinking beer, writing creatively, playing video games, and drinking beer. Originally I’m from a small rural community up north, but I’ve been drinking and gaming in Salt Lake for the past few years. I try to make visits up north, but you need a piece of cheese and a farming implement in order to gain entry into Cache Valley, which makes things annoying.

My skills and abilities? Geez, I dunno, um… amazing liver? Decent aptitude with the words? Oooh! An unparalleled ability to give people a “really?” face. I wielded a gun once and probably did a better job nearly shooting at myself than hitting targets, and I regularly get my ass kicked in sword fights with my toddler godsons. Sooo… I guess that the cynical writer with the drinking problem is who our protagonist is going to have to be.

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Geeeeezus, this alcoholic nerd is seriously the protagonist of the story?

The plot of my life is set in and around Salt Lake City, with a few forays into Provo and Logan but not much more than that (I don’t like to budge from my game and beer-filled roost). After coming to Salt Lake, surviving college, and starting up Art as Games, I worked a variety of odd jobs ranging from advertising planner to editorial assistant to part-time taco chef. At these jobs I became known not only for drinking a lot and writing a lot, but also being a single man who owns a cat, which apparently means that I’ve given up on both love and life. But I don’t care about society. My cat’s a chill dude.

Everything changed in the summer of 2016, when I met up with a gaggle of kooky characters who called themselves “GeekFactor.” Everything about them seemed a bit off; there was the overenthusiastic, Five Nights at Freddy’s-hating CEO, the Editor in Chief with the really unhealthy Harry Potter obsession, and most of all, the curly-haired maniac who understands audio equipment much more than I understand his acceptance of No Man’s Sky. They took me prisoner and forced me to write content for their website, an arrangement that continues to this day. Please help me.

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Not only is the nerd our only protagonist, this little cat is his only squadmate.

So, how does the gameplay of Real Life stack up to the titans of the modern gaming world? Movement is pretty simple, I can walk around (running is another story) and use a car to drive to points on the map that are further away. Unfortunately, the cars in Real Life require gasoline, which is a level of detail too far. The game also seems to be stuck in permanent survival mode, as I have to eat and drink regularly in order to maintain my HP. Worse still, I can’t just eat endless quantities of food without consequences; eating 20 sweetrolls makes me gain weight! Too much realism, devs. Too much realism.

There are a few perks to this game’s gameplay though. For a start, I live in a pretty beautiful area. The graphics outside look spectacular, even on snowy days. Salt Lake has its drawbacks, but it’s a small, gleaming city set against spectacular mountains, and there’s a fair amount to do (besides drinking). The lighting setup is pretty good when the pollution isn’t out in force, and the atmosphere is usually pretty light and friendly. This isn’t a horror game, but that’s probably for the best. It’s nice to get out and walk around from place to place.

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Hey, look! A tavern! Wonder if there are any side quests or bounties in there…

I give the GeekFactor staff a lot of grief, but to be honest, they’re a decent group of NPCs. So are most people I encounter in my waking life; my friends have undergone believable character development arcs. Coworkers are generally pretty good too, though the developer made their conversation options a bit too limited. Sometimes that’s okay, like when I’m just getting into the office and haven’t had coffee yet. Of course, everyone encounters NPCs who aren’t so great, but there seems to be a believable balance of allies and antagonists in this world. Things are generally peaceful, there are no pandemics or great wars (at least at the moment) like in other games, so that’s good.

Real Life is set in a world-sized open world. I usually keep to myself in my player house in Salt Lake City, but occasionally I’ll scrounge up enough rupees to travel elsewhere. The one major drawback with this system is that traveling is outrageously expensive, and money is hard to come by. You can’t just pull gold coins out of barrels or rupees from cut grass (if that were true I would’ve made millions as a lawnmower and retired at age 16). Nope, characters actually have to spend their days toiling for cash to go do fun things. The key to beating this system is finding a job that’s fun to do. For me that’s definitely anything having to do with writing.

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NO WAY! The health potions in this game make you evolve?!

But you can’t just stay at a day job and refrain from spending money all the time. Fiscal responsibility counts for a lot in Real Life, but eventually, some questing is called for. Quests come in many forms that go beyond doing the same job day in and day out: maybe travel somewhere you’ve never been, try a restaurant for the first time, etc. In my case, I decided that since games are what I know best, I’d venture into a locale teeming with danger to seek my fortune and beat back monsters.

After wandering around Salt Lake for a while, I found what seemed to be a great location to do battle: the Salt Palace Convention Center. Yeah, yeah, it’s called a convention center, but it has Salt Palace in the name, which sounds like a dungeon you’d see in The Legend of Zelda. With fist drawn and coffee at the ready, I ventured into the palace to seek out foes and find a big ole chest of gold.

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C’mon! It said PALACE in the name! Where are the Emperor’s Royal Guardsmen? The orc raiding party? Hellooooooooooo?

Unfortunately, despite being a cool building, the Salt Palace had little in the ways of foes to dispatch or treasure to reclaim, so I just drank my coffee and left.

Sometimes Real Life can feel dull and frustrating. Sometimes jobs get lost, people turn out to be rude, and the world at large feels a bit scary. Other times, though, Real Life does a decent job of churning out little springs to your step when the player least expects them. Plus, things could always be worse; there could always be an actual pandemic like in Plague Inc, or an actual huge, pointless war like in Call of Duty. Yes, though Real Life isn’t a perfect game, it’s not terrible by any means. Sometimes the game is best played just sitting back and thinking about it instead of charging headfirst into a convention space looking to fistfight the nearest custodian. Just a pro tip.

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Real Life isn’t too shabby.

There’s one more little detail about this article that bears mentioning: April Fool’s!

I’m not actually giving up game reviews. I don’t actually have any plans to turn this site into a review of daily life. In fact, in the next few months, I might be looking to write even more content, and potentially star in a YouTube show with that aforementioned curly-haired maniac. This joke review was written for your viewing pleasure, to commemorate this most holy of April Fool’s days, and as a thanks to you for reading my stuff. I’m going to keep reviewing video games probably until I die, so don’t sweat these disappearing anytime soon. I’ll be here… I’ll always be here… mwahahahahaha (ahem).

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You can buy Real Life 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.

Spore

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Create your own creature and guide it from single-celled organism to ultimate space tyrant.

PC Release: September 7, 2008

By Ian Coppock

2016 has been a pretty rough year. Not “just” because of the vitriolic American presidential election, or the proliferation of war and disease, but because we’ve lost a massive slate of mankind’s most talented creators. From David Bowie to Prince, and Edward Albee to Leonard Cohen, humanity’s gallery of artists took a big dent this year. Therefore, perhaps it’s time to skip over to a video game that celebrates creativity above all else. No gritty set pieces, no visceral gameplay, just wild abandon in a literal galaxy of possibilities. The only game that this intro could possibly fit is Spore.

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Released in 2008 by an EA subsidiary called Maxis, Spore is a creature creator game that challenges players to, well, create their own creature. At least for starters. The game actually entices players to do a lot more; to not only create an alien beastie, but to guide it through five stages of “evolution”. Each stage encompasses a different type of gameplay and different challenges for players to overcome. In the end, what starts out as a tiny cell in a primordial pool could very well be the galaxy’s next alien overlord. Players are free to explore their species’ pool, then planet, then galaxy, ad nauseum.

Spore starts things off by presenting players with a slate of possible home planets to pick from. Each one has its own terrain and exists concurrently within an entire galaxy, allowing players to have a few species at once. After picking one, players start out as a tiny cellular organism in a pond somewhere. This stage of the game is pretty simple; just eat plants (or other cells) and grow over several generations. It’s a top-down game mode that revolves around eating things smaller than the player, and avoiding the things larger than the player.

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Aw, it’s so cute!

After eating their way to a more substantial size, players can add limbs to their creature and emerge onto dry land. This is one of Spore‘s more substantial game modes; players control their creature from a third-person perspective and wander the landscape in search of animal parts. These parts can be acquired through exploration and befriending (or murdering) the other animals around the player’s creature. Players can then add these parts, be they extra limbs or a longer tail, to each successive generation of creature.

The creature creation and modification mechanic is by far Spore‘s most iconic feature. While upgrading their beastie, players are taken to a special studio screen where they can make thousands of possible modifications to their creature. Players can add everything from wings for flying to poison spitters for fighting, and modify their creature’s body shape by toggling its vertebrae. Creatures can also be brightened up with dozens of paint and pattern options. Players can even test their beastie’s animations or make them perform funny dance moves. Though the number of possible combinations for creature design is practically limitless, players can only put so much stuff on their animal at one time.

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Spore is one of the most open-ended creation games ever made.

Gathering parts serves a more subtle purpose than creature modification; it’s also the primary means by which the player’s animal can advance. Spore has been called an evolution game by some critics, but it’s anything but. Sure, the creature develops new features, but those are according to the whim of a god-like player, not to better adapt to an environment. Regardless, gathering parts and modifying the creature is how it becomes more sophisticated. With better parts, players can become more adept at befriending other animals or slaying them for food. As with the cellular mode, Spore‘s animal mode is fairly simplistic: run around and either fight or befriend other creatures. That’s about it.

After sufficient time spent adding parts, the creature will gain sentience, and the third stage of Spore kicks in. The game shifts from a third-person adventure to an isometric real-time strategy game, in which players manage a primitive tribe of their newly sapient creation. In this mode, players can conquer or ally with other villages of their species, as well as hunt for food and build up settlements. This mode is stripped down to the point of being simplistic, but after all the other tribes have been conquered or befriended, players can move on to building cities.

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ME WANT PIZZA (pounds chest)

Spore‘s fourth stage again shifts gears, this time toward a city sim game with light combat elements. Players can built shining metropolises and vehicles with which to wage war against other city-states. The creation mechanic is largely abandoned in the tribal stage, but comes back in the city stage in the form of vehicle creation. Just like with their animal, players can craft an endless assortment of tanks, airplanes, and other vehicles in pursuit of world conquest. Similarly to tribal mode, these technologies are acquired via befriending or conquering other cities. Players will be expected to manage diplomacy, and their negotiation preferences as a tribe directly affects the industry of their city. For example, if the player’s creature was a complete dick to its neighbors in tribal, its city-state will feature a strong military.

Finally, after the world has been conquered by a combination of planes, trains and automobiles, the player’s creature can develop spaceflight and depart to conquer other worlds. This is where Spore really opens up; at stage five, players are given an entire galaxy to play with. This time the gameplay sports a mix of space economy management and third-person space combat, as players expand their empires and defend its borders from hostile species. Because this portion of the game is a literal galaxy in size, there’s little chance of running out of things to shoot, explore, conquer, or terraform anytime soon.

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Change the world. Change the galaxy.

There’s a lot to unpack with all those paragraphs of gameplay description, but Spore‘s chief takeaway is its potential for creativity. The game’s open-ended creature, building and vehicle design is nothing short of spectacular, and it’s so easy to pick up. With just a few simple tools, players can craft almost anything they want, from an eight-eyed sociopath to a tank with wings. Players can do this as part of upgrading their creature, or add as many creations as they want to the in-game library. In case all of that wasn’t enough, Maxis also enclosed a massive library of their own creations, encompassing hundreds of pre-made creatures, vehicles and buildings that are all ready to use.

The helpful factor about character and vehicle creation is how bubbly Spore looks. The entire game is decked out in bright pastel colors and lots of big, bubbly objects. Character animations can get a bit wonky (especially when lots of body parts are involved) but the game’s ability to animate creatures almost no matter their composition is impressive. Spore launched with some DRM that was ruthless even by EA standards, but it’s been absent from the Steam copy of the game for years. The game runs well on modern machines and, sans a couple of desktop crashes, is bug-free.

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Spore is a bright, colorful adventure.

The problem with Spore is that its penchant for creativity is only skin-deep. As countless critics have noted before now, this game’s gameplay is extremely shallow. In trying to be five different games at once, Spore stretches a handful of simplistic mechanics far too thinly. The result is a game that, while aesthetically pleasing and fun to toy around in, is exceptionally clunky and comprised of only 2-3 game mechanics per stage.

For example, the cellular stage can be completed in under 10 minutes by just swimming around and eating things. The animal stage’s only gameplay mechanic is diplomacy toward other animals, to say nothing of its clunky movement controls, tiresome cooldown-based combat, or limited exploration area. The tribal stage is similarly hollow, with players only able to attack or befriend neighbors, and tame certain animals. The city stage affords more variety in gameplay approach, but a lot of that is determined by how the player behaved in the tribal stage. As previously mentioned, a belligerent tribe results in a belligerent city-state, and gameplay options for diplomacy or trade are hamstrung for an entire stage of gameplay.

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…Please stop staring at me like that.

The one stage of Spore that has some depth to it is the space stage. Players can conquer worlds, wage war upon alien species, and gather valuable spices from across their empires. However, the fact that this stage of Spore has more content in it than the previous four stages combined makes the game feel dreadfully unbalanced. It doesn’t help that spice-gathering, the primary means by which players make money, is barely explained at all. Neither is terraforming, or exploring more advanced galactic formations, such as wormholes.

Spore also has an unfortunate tendency to punish players for exploring its galaxy. There are literally thousands if not millions of planets players can conquer, but do they have a mighty space fleet with which to defend these holdings? Nope. Just the one ship. Having a large empire is not worth the time spent fending off space pirates, especially if the player’s species is at war with several rivals. Like a certain recent space exploration game that will remain nameless, players can also race to the center of the galaxy. The issue with that, however, is that the entire main body of the galaxy is inhabited by the Grox. These ruthless cyborgs will, upon discovering the player’s species, try to pound it into space dust with their much more powerful ships. Players in the mood for something more pensive are therefore best off exploring around their worlds and avoiding the endgame. Don’t worry; the item one gets for reaching the galactic core isn’t all that great anyway.

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Oh God, not THESE guys again…

As previously stated, the most fun to be had in Spore is in the game’s creation studios. Its gameplay may not be all that impressive, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in creating entire fleets of spaceships, or a massive carnivore that has swords for testicles. Less fun is actually putting these creations through the paces of Spore‘s shallow gameplay. It can be fun to expand creatures’ space empires, but even this funnest part of Spore is wracked with tedium.

Hilariously, Spore also features two standalone DLC packs that appear as their own items in the Steam library. Each one is twenty dollars; the former adds a few dozen extra animal parts, and the latter makes it possible for space explorers to beam down onto a planet. The exploration pack adds some value to the main game, but asking $20 for it is a little on the nose, especially after eight years on the market. Electronic Arts might want to double-check their older games’ pricing.

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A perfect 10, huh? Feels too generous.

In the end, Spore feels less like a cell-to-space odyssey and more like an asset creation workshop with some floppy gameplay appendages stapled to it. The gameplay is clunky in too many places and shallow across the board. It’s a great way to express some creativity on screen, but actually taking that creativity and molding it into something more tangible is beyond Spore‘s ability. Spore will entertain kids, though, and sometimes there’s nothing more amusing than making a scary monster do the disco point. It’s just a shame that Maxis didn’t put that same amount of fun and creativity into the rest of the game.

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You can buy Spore 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 Witcher: Enhanced Edition

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Investigate an attack on your home, slaying schemers and monsters along the way.

PC Release: September 16, 2008

By Ian Coppock

With the delay of Watch Dogs 2, the 2016 season of new holiday releases is pretty much over. As implied if not outright stated in previous articles, this year’s crop of big-budget titles was by and large a disappointment. Battlefield 1 was pretty good and so, apparently, was Titanfall 2, but every other major release from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided on down to Dishonored 2 was not all that great. This state of affairs will not do for a cheerful Christmas spirit, and so it’s time to keep going back to an age when video games worked on day one, and their narratives were unafraid to tackle complicated subject matter. The Witcher has all of this, as well as the opportunity to slay lots of monsters.

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The Witcher is the first in a trilogy of third-person fantasy RPGs that have been released over about a decade, beginning with this game in 2007 and ending with last year’s The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. The games feature characters and worlds from the The Witcher novels written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Contrary to popular belief, the video games are not adaptations of the novels, but instead entirely new stories starring characters from Sapkowski’s books. Sapkowski does not consider the video games canon, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the series’ following from growing wildly in the past 10 years.

Like the books, The Witcher takes place in a medieval fantasy world simply called The Continent. Unlike most epics that western audiences are familiar with, the world of The Witcher is inspired primary by eastern European folklore and traditions, giving it a different flavor than, say, The Elder Scrolls. Players assume the role of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, who hunts and slays monsters all over The Continent… for a price. Witchers’ aptitude for monster-hunting runs far deeper than swords and spells. As part of their training, each Witcher undergoes dramatic genetic mutations that grant them superhuman speed and strength, sore necessities for fighting monsters. Those Witchers who survive this process are unparalleled in their combat abilities, and Geralt is one of the deadliest.

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As a Witcher, Geralt is one of the few humans strong enough and quick enough to stand up to a monster.

The Witcher begins with Geralt waking up in the middle of a field, suffering amnesia. He’s escorted by his fellow Witchers back to their stronghold of Kaer Morhen, but can’t remember anything of his life prior to waking up. Not long after Geralt’s revival, the fortress is attacked by a cult of assassins called the Salamandra, led by the powerful sorcerer Azar Javed. Despite putting up a valiant defense, the Witchers are overrun by the Salamandra’s superior numbers, and the cult steals the top-secret mutagens used to transform men into Witchers. Fearing what might be unleashed with the mutagens in the wrong hands, each of the four Witchers agrees to head in a different direction to find a trace of their new foe. Geralt decides to head south, toward the rest of the Northern Kingdoms, to see if he has any luck tracking the Salamandra.

Geralt has a considerable amount against him in his hunt. Despite being a dire necessity, Witchers are hated and feared by the human populace for their superhuman abilities. The Salamandra know how to hide in plain sight. Worst of all, the nobles of the Northern Kingdoms might be complicit in the conspiracy. Geralt has to become as much a politician as a warrior to find his prey, as he embarks upon the greatest adventure he’s ever faced.

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The Salamandra are a much more devious foe than anticipated.

Geralt’s adventure through the Northern Kingdoms is, in many ways, a classic third-person RPG. Players control Geralt using an over-the-shoulder camera, and can level up their character by completing quests and slaying monsters. Geralt is proficient with both swords and magic, and players can upgrade each tree of abilities in a spiraling array of menus. The enemies of The Witcher demand some amount of specialization; Geralt carries a steel sword to make quick work of human foes, and a silver sword for dealing with monsters.

The Witcher is fueled by a combination of wicked fast turn-based combat and deep choice-based gameplay. By night, Geralt engages entire groups of foes with his swords and his array of devastating spells. By day, he’s hobnobbing with the Northern Kingdoms’ royalty and trying to gain their trust via extensive conversations. As with Mass Effect, the blend of action and conversation-based gameplay is apt, but The Witcher takes it even further than that venerated RPG.

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Hey! I think we found a monster!

The combat in The Witcher is versatile, if dated. Geralt can draw his sword and attack enemy creatures at player command, or use his spells for more advanced combat. Combat in The Witcher is, unfortunately, somewhat turn-based, as each combatant deals their blows against a bewildering mess of weapon and proficiency modifiers. It’s nothing that players new to the series won’t get used to, but boy is it clunky. It feels like a slightly freer variation of the combat in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Because the combat in this game is turn-based, it makes no sense for players to try to dodge or skip past enemies. The only way forward in The Witcher is for Geralt to be a tank.

Hand-in-hand with the clunkiness of the combat is the game’s slew of menus, an un-intuitive and overenthusiastic mess of numbers, letters and colors that takes far longer to understand than it should. It’s a given that a deep RPG will have lots of menus, but The Witcher compounds its overabundance of menus with threadbare gameplay tutorials. The alchemy system, which is vital to finishing the game, is poorly explained, as is the fact that certain powers will be necessary (not just handy, but necessary) to finish the game at all. Make no mistake, the world of The Witcher is fascinating, but its underpinnings are all over the place.

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Area-effect spells are a must, but the game won’t tell you that.

Leaps and bounds better than The Witcher‘s combat is its deeply meaningful dialogue, whose nuances and conversation choices remain the most impactful of any video game ever made. Even more than in Mass Effect, conversation choices in The Witcher have far-reaching and often unforeseen effects. Whereas the conversation choices in Mass Effect usually bear immediate consequences, it can take the entirety of The Witcher for a conversation’s outcome to become clear. Geralt can talk to someone in the game’s first act and experience a consequence all the way at the very end, and that’s a fantastic design element. To further obfuscate the game’s world, most conversations do not enclose neat right-or-wrong decisions. Instead, players have to essentially gamble on two or more ambiguous choices and hope that things pan out okay. It goes without saying that this system has a profound impact on the game’s overall narrative.

Finally, this cog of game design informs the delightfully complicated political world of The Witcher. It’s not enough for Geralt to barge in and kill everyone; he has to sniff out the Salamandra’s leaders and sympathizers from among the Northern Kingdoms’ aristocracy. That means being extremely careful with conversation choices and manually inferring loyalty or treachery from each group of people Geralt encounters. Unlike so many games where the politics are pure backstory, the politics in The Witcher run to a depth comparable to A Game of Thrones. And like the characters in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, Geralt finds himself in a very complicated game indeed.

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Killing monsters is all well and good, but finding friends in the nobility may bear greater rewards.

Despite bearing themes endemic to many fantasy RPGs, The Witcher stands apart in its crowded field for a few important reasons. For starters, as previously mentioned, the game takes inspiration from Eastern European rather than Western European culture. Places and NPCs have Slavic names and the game’s folklore is drawn from Polish, Russian and Ukrainian traditions instead of the more traditional British or German sources. This change in inspiration is subtle, but very important, as it presents concepts that are novel to western audiences and ideas that are rarely encountered in fantasy works from North America and Western Europe.

Additionally, like A Saga of Ice and FireThe Witcher dirties its high fantasy setting with problems and flaws endemic to the real world. The Continent’s elvish and dwarven populations are heavily discriminated against, as one might expect of real-life human beings, and the kingdoms are rife with pollution of every stripe. Additionally, almost every character that Geralt encounters is quite multi-faceted, with their own fears, prejudices and secrets to hide. Geralt can rely on a small cadre of old friends for help, but beyond this, he is alone. Players have to decide for themselves what an NPC is hiding, and it can be surprisingly difficult to do so (even when playing a white-haired superhuman armed with two swords). All of this gives The Witcher a pretty bleak atmosphere, as even at the best of times, players can’t be sure they aren’t in terrible danger.

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Most NPCs are quite ambiguous in their intentions. These two, not so much.

The narrative that all of this is built upon takes Geralt on a winding journey, mostly in and around the capital city of Vizima. The game is split up into chapters that each take place in one new area. While each of these areas is quite open, Geralt can’t always go back once he’s finished up his investigation. Most regions get progressively bigger as Geralt unlocks them, and give him lots of questing opportunities. The main story quests, from lighting lamps for an old priest to putting down the ghost of a murdered bride, rarely disappoint. The side quests, however, are pretty mediocre. Almost all of them comprise killing five monsters, or gathering five flowers, really just five instances of any menial task. Money is not hard to come by thanks to the dice gambling minigame, but the extra XP can be helpful.

The Witcher‘s central story is as rich and complicated as its dialogue system. Geralt’s quest to retrieve the Witchers’ mutagens becomes bigger and bigger as he pierces into Vizima’s dark heart. As he progresses further, Geralt also gets spectral visits from the King of the Wild Hunt, a wraith who promises to bring a savage end to the world. This and other subplots are woven deep into The Witcher‘s story, presenting one of the most satisfying, far-reaching narrative experiences of any game. Characters evolve and change along with the plot, constantly keeping the player guessing as to who’s on their side. With its unclear choice-and-consequence system, decent writing, and elongated plot, The Witcher bears a narrative that was years ahead of its time. It’s certainly head-and-shoulders over the stories that came out this year.

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The Witcher is comparable to the works of Tolkien and George R.R. Martin.

There’s a lot of good to be said about The Witcher; it brings out the best of the video game medium. Contrary-wise, though, it also represents some of game design’s less admirable tendencies. The Witcher‘s aforementioned combat design represents the game’s struggle between letting players run free and hemming them in with knowledge. Ultimately, it chooses the former, at an annoying price. There are powers and abilities that are absolutely necessary for finishing The Witcher, but the game does a poor job of hinting that to players. As a result, players might end up stuck with a Geralt who is too weak or unequipped to see the game through. Hardcore RPG fans might find this an unsurprising fact of RPG life, but no one should have to start a game over just because the game withheld helpful information. Players interested in tackling The Witcher would do well to consult a game guide first, as there’s really none to be found in The Witcher itself.

Additionally, for all its accomplishments in writing, atmosphere, and character development, The Witcher is one of the most sexist video games to be released this century. As a Witcher, Geralt has an unnaturally high sex drive, which the game uses as a convenient plot device for contriving some pretty messed up sexual encounters. Not just being able to solicit whores, but giving Geralt sexual entitlement that would make no sense in the real world. Some characters, especially the female elf rebel commander, just offer themselves to Geralt for no apparent reason. Creepily enough, The Witcher gives the player a special card with a painting of Geralt’s latest romantic “conquest” every time he successfully gets into someone’s pantaloons. Treating female NPCs like baseball cards is not only condescending; it devalues the oftentimes meaningful dialogue they bring to the game.

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The Witcher’s treatment of sex is pretty cringe-worthy. Whores were around in medieval times, sure, but collectible whore cards? Ew.

A fair few gamers and medieval fantasy enthusiasts might be turned off by The Witcher‘s bare-bones approach to adventuring and its disturbingly deep sexism. Fair enough. But, this still leaves the game’s engrossing fantasy world and some of gaming’s most impacting dialogue choices. The Enhanced Edition also includes a few tweaks to the base game, and it runs very well on PC. In the end, though, the legacy of The Witcher is much the same as that of Geralt of Rivia. Just as he represents some of the very best and very worst of humanity, so too does The Witcher represent the very best and very worst of modern game design. It’s up to the players to decide which one outweighs the other, which warrants at least giving The Witcher a shot.

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You can buy The Witcher 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.