Retro Game Review – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
The early noughties was an exciting time to be a Star Wars fan. The prequel trilogy was in full swing, there were plenty of Expanded Universe novels to absorb, and it was a bit of a golden age for Star Wars gaming.
Some high quality Star Wars games came out within the space of a few years, and Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) was one of them. Released in 2003, this game was the first Star Wars Role Playing Game (RPG) we’d ever had on console. Developed by Bioware, the studio who went on to create classic RPG series Mass Effect and Dragon Age, the game was praised by fans and critics alike as one of the best RPGs out there.
KOTOR did something no Star Wars game had ever done before; it put the player in charge of the narrative and gave them the chance to make their own decisions that would influence the larger story. The sum of those decisions would give the player either a light side ending (good), or a dark side ending (bad).
It also had the benefit of being set 4,000 years before The Phantom Menace; further back than even the upcoming High Republic book and comic series, which is only delving back 200 years before the events of Episode I. There were no connections to the films to risk upsetting fans, who were eager to see what the galaxy looked like four centuries before Anakin Skywalker was born.
Thankfully, Bioware’s story tellers managed to craft a narrative that still feels like classic Star Wars even today, with one character rising up from nothing to defeat the evil empire against all odds. There’s even a big twist that’s up there with ‘I am your father’ for shock value.
KOTOR sees the Jedi and the Republic at war with the Sith Empire, led by Darth Malak, a former Jedi padawan turned Sith Lord. You play a character serving in the Republic military, staying in a ship transporting the talented Jedi padawan Bastila Shan. The ship is attacked by Sith and you’re forced to board an escape pod with Republic commander Carth Onasi, crash landing on the surface of the city planet Taris.
From there, you work with Carth on a means of escaping the planet, which is currently under Sith control, and rescuing Bastila, who has been captured by the criminal underworld. Along the way, you discover that you are in fact force sensitive, and after escaping the planet with Bastila you travel to the Jedi Council on Dantooine. You learn the ways of the Force, become a Jedi and set out to defeat Darth Malak and the Sith Empire.
The game’s story sends you to many classic and intriguing locations from Star Wars lore, each with their own side story for you to explore and investigate. After landing in Anchorhead on Tatooine, you’ll learn about the history of the Sand People and fight a krayt dragon. On Kashyyyk, you can fight to liberate the Wookies from slaver oppression.
On Manaan, you’ll navigate the planet’s political scene as the amphibious species bend over backwards to try and stay neutral in the war, and on the Sith homeworld of Korriban (now known as Moraband in canon) you’ll go undercover as a new recruit in the Sith academy and learn all about the history of the Sith lords.
Of course, the lore and locations are one thing, but an RPG is nothing without colourful and interesting party members to accompany you on your quest. During the game you’ll be accompanied by the prodigal Jedi padawan Bastila Shan and Republic commander Carth Onasi, as well as the resourceful astromech droid T3-M4, a young Twi’lek called Mission Vao, her Wookiee companion Zaalbar, and the Mandalorian mercenary Canderous Ordo.
That’s just once you reach Dantooine. From there, you recruit a fresh Jedi padawan called Juhani who wrestles with an urge to embrace the dark side, and an elderly hermit Jedi named Jolee Bindo who left the order early on in the war with the Sith.
Some of these characters are more likeable than others, with Carth and Juhani particularly whiny, but otherwise there’s a lot to love about this group, even if the personalities all sound like entries on a Star Wars bingo card.
Special mention also has to be made for the protocol droid HK-47, a hilariously twisted version of C-3PO who is also fluent in over six million forms of communication, but would much rather blast every organic being he comes across than translate for them.
HK-47 became a cult figure among Star Wars fans, to the point that a reference to him is even included in the canon novel Star Wars: Aftermath: Empire’s End. It’s significant that HK-47 is the closest any of these characters has come to being made canon since Disney took over, even though fans have been begging for Darth Revan to be made canon for years now.
The story and the characters of this game will always be beloved, but there are a couple of ways the game has aged in the last 17 years. The dialogue sounds odd at times, as if Bioware made the voice actors record each individual line separately. One sentence will be spoken in a certain cadence or tone, and then shift abruptly on the next one, even though the character never stopped speaking. It doesn’t ruin your experience, but it might take you out of it from time to time.
The combat is also turn-based, to a point. Your character will unlock certain attacks throughout the game, but they have to be queued up instead of ‘press X for light attack and press Y for heavy attack’. It’s a combat system that has become mostly extinct in video games nowadays, with the exception of series like Final Fantasy. Those who played KOTOR when it came out likely won’t mind it when they return, but newcomers might take a while to get used to it.
Special mention has to be made to the game’s music and sound design too. Not only does this game look and feel like a Star Wars game, it sounds like a Star Wars game. The lightsaber sound effects are on point and so are the blaster shots. I can’t comment too much on the music, but the score sounds as if it was composed by John Williams himself, which is the highest compliment I can pay it.
Ultimately, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic nails what it would be like to make your own choices and live in the Star Wars galaxy. I had a blast playing this game when it was released, and though it’s starting to show some wrinkles now, its story and characters are unforgettable.
It’s a classic Star Wars game.
Josh is a huge Star Wars fan, who has spent far too much time wondering if any Star Wars character could defeat Thanos with all the Infinity Stones.