Side Quest is dedicated to RPGs, in all their glorious variety. Most importantly, I’m looking for new stories, for games that don’t settle for being “just another RPG”. Even in games that are nowhere near perfect, I’ll be looking for those that push against the norm, and bring new twists to a table already overflowing with ideas.
I’ve quested across the galaxy, from the seedy underbelly of Taris to the familiar open deserts of Tatooine. I’ve defeated countless foes, and convinced many others that I’m a really cool guy. I’ve quick-saved and quick-loaded thousands of times to keep the game running smoothly, become caught on invisible geometry, refused to run when confronted with a monstrous rancor, and generally encountered every bug and glitch on offer in a galaxy far, far away. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic does not work well on new computers, but I couldn’t care less when the game is such a perfect slice of everything I expect and love in a Star Wars game.
For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Star Wars universe, this story happens during the era of the Old Republic, several thousand years before the Star Wars movies. Other than a few cameo family names, this game introduces us to a galaxy of fresh faces. The benefit of this separation from the main timeline is that it provides the designers with immense creative freedom. They could take a beloved franchise and put their own spin on the familiar Star Wars flavour. Despite this, the heart of Star Wars is still there, with wonderfully orchestrated music and amazing attention paid to both voice acting and sound effects. Who doesn’t love the hum and hiss of a lightsaber or the iconic shriek of this game’s Tie Fighter equivalent?
Amazing sound design aside, the gameplay and story on offer cater well to both RPG players and Star Wars fans in equal measure, providing all the space opera atmosphere you could ever want, and rewardingly complex character building all tied together with an extremely traditional -style combat system. I found the story to be the most rewarding part of the game, giving you a traditional amnesiac protagonist and then thrusting you straight into an explosive space battle. Turns out, the Republic battlecruiser you’re assigned to is under attack from the evil Sith Empire, and after a brief guide to the controls and gameplay mechanics, you escape to the Sith-occupied planet of Taris. Once there, you’re given the goal of finding and escaping with your commander, Jedi Knight Bastila Shan, but of course you’ll have to work your way through many challenges before you’re ready to leave. Everything on that planet is essentially an extended tutorial zone, with very little that you do there having far-reaching repercussions, but still providing you with a hefty chunk of plot and plenty of side quests to chew through.
Once you’ve escaped Taris, the stakes rise quite rapidly. I have a lot of respect for this story, and don’t want to spoil too much if possible, but it should come as no surprise that you eventually find yourself training as a Jedi and undertaking a galaxy-spanning quest to stop the onslaught of the Sith. What’s most impressive here is that despite it being common practice for a protagonist to end up being “the chosen one”, the way this game reveals the reasons for your pivotal role is perhaps one of the best plot twists I’ve seen in a game for a long time. I’m impressed with the way that it rolls with your decision to veer towards the Dark or Light side of the Force — in essence, a glorified version of the good and evil moral choices that inhabit many RPGs. Your journey towards either side is multifaceted in the ways it affects those around you; some of your companions will be swayed by your decisions as much as you are, while others will show approval or contempt at your choices, but still stand by their moral alignment no matter your path.
There are quite a few companions to find in this game, and most of them have interesting stories that you can discover over time. Some of these stories lead to quests, while others are simply there to unfold a little history of the galaxy. From unravelling the fate of Mission Vao’s lost brother, to Canderous Ordo lamenting the days gone by when he conquered planets and slaughtered thousands in the search of honour, the relevance to the main plot varies, but very rarely did I find myself completely uninterested in what they had to say. The game provides a fairly blatant hint when a companion is ready to give up more of their history, which makes it a little less of a chore to interact with your favourite NPC at the appropriate time.
Like any other game, you’ll likely find yourself sticking to a few favourites; either those who complement you on the battlefield or, if you’re like me, those who share the best banter. Talking to HK-47, an assassin droid you can become “friends” with, provides some of the greatest lines in RPG history, as well as a fantastic foil to the prissy protocol droids we’re accustomed to. Overall though, there’s plenty of personality strewn through the NPCs you’ll be spending most of your game time with. Even facing the dark lords of the Sith and their merciless pawns can be just that little more pleasant when you’ve got the right allies behind you.
On the subject of dark lords, Darth Malak serves as the primary big bad of this game but sadly doesn’t have as much presence as Darth Vader when it comes to feeling like a truly terrifying threat. His cybernetic jaw and imposing stature does add some intimidation factor, and a few cutscenes paint him as ruthless and cold-hearted. Since he spends most of his time sending his lackeys to stop you, you don’t get much of a chance to size him up until you’ve pretty much reached max level. The time spent on his backstory mainly focuses on his fall to the Dark Side, and often he’s just a sidenote to stories about his former ally and master, having become the leader of the Sith Empire only through the convenient death of Darth Revan.
Revan, Malak’s previous master, is spoken of frequently, despite having been slain by Bastila Shan some time before the game begins. Revan’s influence in the galaxy is still felt; Republic citizens remember them as a war hero who drove back the scourge of the Mandalorians before becoming a power-hungry tyrant, while the Jedi see Revan’s tragic fall to darkness as a cautionary tale for the brash and foolhardy. The game does well to have NPCs focus mostly on relevant topics, but of course you can delve deeply into pretty much any NPC’s history with a minimum of fuss, if that’s your thing.
Though there are plenty of ways to make your interactions with the inhabitants of this galaxy pleasant, you’ll find plenty of creatures that aren’t keen on much more than your money or your delicious flesh. Naturally, Star Wars has never shied from loading up their heroes with all the weapons they could need to take on a hostile galaxy, and your little band of adventurers is no different. Until Jedi start following you, you’ll be relying on blasters and lightsaber-proof swords to fight your way to victory. The combat is played in real-time, but it’s divided into rounds under the hood. On top of queuing up standard attacks, you can also spend a round of combat using inventory items or Force powers. These can range from medpacks and personal shields to grenades and Force lightning. Figuring out when to use the powers and items available to you is integral to defeating trickier opponents — several fights stopped me in my tracks until I was able to figure out the boss’s weakness.
Some fights accidentally became harder than they needed to be when strange combat glitches popped up: several times my character lost the ability to move, usually when I needed to pull back from a far superior melee combatant. These glitches happened infrequently, and could be fixed by saving the game and loading it again, but of course that’s not what you want to do when you could just be playing the game. There are many far worse bugs that can occur, ranging from major graphical glitches to outright crashes without warning. Before I even started playing the game I spent some time on forums preparing the simple fixes that would make the game run smoothly. Some of these required me to remove or alter files, and allowing the game to properly run at 1920×1080 meant downloading an external program.
It may well be an indication of how very much I enjoyed this game that I went to so much trouble to get it running smoothly and put up with so many glitches throughout the dozens of hours I spent on it. I’ve kept to the Light Side, helping everyone I can, and only fighting when words fail to resolve the situation. I’ve succumbed to the Dark Side, showing everyone who dares raise their weapon the power it offers. In both cases I enjoyed every moment of my adventures, following the same general path but working my way through the galaxy in vastly different ways. My only wish is that this game could get the same remaster treatment so many old classics are receiving; its technical issues are myriad and on newer systems can only be mitigated, not stopped entirely.
These flaws aside, there’s nothing else that would dissuade me from recommending this game to anyone with at least a passing fondness for the world of Star Wars and a love of a traditional RPG adventure. A huge, brilliantly thought-out story, kept aloft by likeably diverse characters and a functional, if not amazing, combat system. Just be prepared to save and load regularly!
Final Score: 4.5/5
Final Recommendation: Read some technical forums first, and get ready to make the jump to lightspeed.