Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week we look at a licensed video game that goes above and beyond its franchise roots—a beautifully flawed yet remarkable Star Wars story for the ages …
#10. KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC II: THE SITH LORDS, by Ben Newman
In a universe so expansive and multi-layered, why have mainstream Star Wars stories dealt with morality in such binary terms? That question was bouncing around Chris Avellone’s head just before the opportunity to write Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (KOTOR 2) dropped in his lap.
The question is so simple, but not many writers handed the opportunity to work on the beloved franchise decide to commit to blurring the lines of the series’ strict morality. What Obsidian Entertainment did, though, was write a Star Wars game that didn’t just blur the lines, it erased them altogether.
The opening of KOTOR 2 is not great. Whenever I re-play the game, I feel a distinct sense of regret over the thought that the majority of people who picked up the game likely dropped it after what is, quite possibly, the worst opening level of all time relative to the quality found in the rest of the game. However, while gameplay-wise the mining asteroid opening of KOTOR 2 is severely lacking, it does an excellent job at providing the game’s unforgettable sense of atmosphere.
KOTOR 2 is dark; its atmosphere nestles in the creases of your brain as you realise that reliable concepts such as “light side” and “dark side” are vapid. No other character embodies KOTOR 2’s utter rejection of its source material’s pretences than Kreia, the first voice heard in the game, post-tutorial.
Kreia is the soul of KOTOR 2. While the cast of party members boast enough depth to make BioWare green with envy, her philosophy is what directly underpins KOTOR 2’s success. She is nothing short of Shakespearean, oft-misunderstood with viewpoints that only sink in long after she has uttered them.
Discussing Kreia herself is an essay, but to cut her philosophy short, she equates Jedi and Sith as equally pointless and full of moral downfalls. Both are equally reliant on the Force, which in Kreia’s views, makes them weak. In essence, she’s an extension of the Nietzschean idea that “in individuals insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” Without veering into spoilers, Kreia’s experience of both the light side and dark side of the Force allows players to experience the follies of both binaries.
While Kreia is the standout example, each party member and villain that accompanies the story has similar depth. Each is moulded by the player’s decisions in a way that feels realistic, each with ever-unfolding depths, personalities, and biases. While BioWare prefers characters to wear their personalities on their sleeves, Obsidian opts for slower, more calculated character development. The major difference between both studios can be seen in how each one approaches its central villains. Below are two quotes, one from the BioWare developed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic‘s Darth Malak, then a quote from KOTOR 2‘s Darth Sion:
“We have been inexorably pushed to this final confrontation. I see now that this can only be settled when one of us destroys the other. Once again we will fight each other in single combat and the winner will decide the fate of the galaxy!” – Darth Malak
“I will bring his corpse to her, cast it at her feet. It will be as if killing her children. I will kill all she protects, all she shields, until her hands are drenched in blood.” – Darth Sion
Now, Malak’s dialogue is not bad, but it does not have the same biting depth as Sion’s. While the above is an extreme example, it is a symptom of how Obsidian simply has a deft touch that BioWare all too often lacks in its own writing.
In terms of KOTOR 2‘s party members, Atton sticks out as another strong example of good characterisation. On the surface, he’s a Han Solo-like character full of genuinely funny quips and a mellow attitude. Soon, though, you realise Atton has a much more detailed past that players would realise, as well as a future that can go many ways depending on player choice.
No creator behind a Star Wars game, or perhaps even film, has treated the interwoven species, outlooks, and histories of the licence with as much respect. Their personalities and influence are reflected in their playstyles, with each character having a direct effect on the game’s turn-based gameplay.
KOTOR 2, like its predecessor, is essentially a Dungeons & Dragons game, but the gameplay disguises that fact well. While turn-based combat is usually equated to slow, methodical gameplay, KOTOR 2 leaves space for both slower and faster styles. Players can pause the game and queue up commands and abilities for their party, or simply set up appropriate combat behaviours for their AI partners to fulfil themselves. On tougher difficulties, though, players need to play it like a Baldur’s Gate game and be methodical, as some of the end-game bosses and one-versus-one segments in the game are tough as nails.
Where KOTOR 2 shines, though, is in the quality of writing and the world-building. The setting of KOTOR 2 paints a world where the Jedi Order is no more, with a rogue Sith force dominating known space. Exploring recognisable planets through the lens of a post-Jedi world is an intelligent method for Obsidian to approach the tropes of the franchise from a different angle.
Walking through an overgrown, abandoned Dantooine and the labyrinthine streets of Nar Shaddaa are tangible examples that the universe would still exist without the Jedi, and is trucking on despite being weighed down by the Sith. All of KOTOR 2 consistently reinforces its central rejection of the principles of Star Wars, and it’s for that brave decision that it stands as the best Star Wars game ever made.
I have been careful to avoid too many spoilers while writing this piece, so apologies for its brevity. Going into this kind of story in any significant way is still too many spoilers. If you’re a fan of Star Wars, RPG games or good writing, then you cannot go wrong with KOTOR 2. In a way, the game ruined Star Wars for me simply because nobody has done the universe the same justice since.
Thanks for joining us for a look at one of the original Xbox’s best games. Next week, things get an epic shake-up, for both the game in question and our favourite games list as a whole! To keep up, be sure to follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and join in with the OnlySP Discord.