Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — Addendum

I put off returning to this game for an embarrassingly long time because I didn’t want to deal with the giant shark. It turned out that the giant shark was actually thoroughly underwhelming. That’s not a complaint — if I have to deal with deep sea monsters, I’d rather they be as unscary as possible, thank you — but it does make my avoidance rather silly in hindsight.

After that I was done with Manaan, and had Kashyyyk and Korriban left to do out of the four-planet Star Map-hunting tour. I felt somehow that Korriban should be last, which turned out to be a good instinct, so I went off to Kashyyyk next. And it was… okay. Most of the story takes place on the ground instead of in the wookiees’ tree villages, and the ground is a spider-filled maze of muddy green, brown, and grey textures. It’s the most visually unappealing the game gets outside of Taris, but Taris has a much more intricate story. I didn’t time it, but Kashyyyk’s story felt like the briefest and least involved, and even the part of it that ties into Zaalbar’s backstory is a bit perfunctory. I think it doesn’t help that Zaalbar isn’t interested in telling you anything about himself until suddenly you’re plunged into his family drama, and then it’s over and done with and he’s got little more to say, so it wasn’t as compelling as the stories you have to gradually tease out of some of the other companions. I just sort of shrugged and moved on.

But you do pick up a great grumpy old man with a Yoda-ish cryptic streak as another companion, and I kind of regretted that despite my best efforts to talk to him, it seemed my game wrapped up before I could get to the heart of his backstory. It looks like I also missed a side quest in Manaan that needs him in the party. I guess I did Kashyyyk too late in the sequence; if I were to replay, I’d do it first or second, Manaan third, and Korriban last.

After you hit the third Star Map, there’s a sequence aboard a Sith ship in which your character finally finds out their true identity. It’s also where I made a kind of hilarious blunder. At one point your characters get stripped of their weapons and armour, but then you reclaim them, and all of the armour gets automatically re-equipped. But I didn’t notice that the weapons don’t get automatically re-equipped… so it wasn’t until several minutes after a boss fight I found curiously challenging, with a figure from Carth’s past, that I realised it’d been challenging because I’d done the entire fight without any weapons. On any of the party. How did I not notice? Um, it was late.

This sequence also removes one of your companions when they make a heroic sacrifice, which was slightly irritating, because it was the companion I’d built up most heavily. All of your characters level up as you swap them in and out so it wasn’t a huge deal, but it did take a bit of fiddling to get one of the others who could fill the same role specced and geared to where they needed to be.

Anyway, it’s that shipboard encounter that made me glad I left Korriban for last. Once your character knows their true identity, it’s a much more poignant story, because on Korriban you have to pretend to be something you’re not — but you now know it’s something that you once were, and have to fight the temptation to become again. Which is non-trivial, as I picked up a few Dark Side points from one quest despite being careful. I think Korriban may have been my favourite of the planets, because in addition to that pretty cool story of subterfuge and resisting corruption, it’s sort of visually arresting in a stark way, and it’s brimming with lore.

I figured that after the four planets were done, it’d be straight onto the Star Forge and the final boss fight, but the last act is a bit meatier than I expected. There’s a crash-landing on a very tropical-looking planet which ties up a number of loose ends like the nature of the Builders and the origin of the rakghoul plague. This is also where I picked up a piece of armour that proceeded to make the cutscenes rather silly, because it gave my rather waifishly built female Jedi a burly male model. All of the other armour sets in the game seemed to have an appropriate female skin so I can only imagine this was an oversight. It was quite a lot better than my other armour though so I went with it, even though it made me want to giggle my way through the rather sterile profession of love that was the culmination of the game’s anaemic romance options, early Bioware feeling their way through something that would become a staple of their later games.

Even the Star Forge itself is a surprisingly large area, or maybe it just felt that way due to its slightly frustrating mechanics. You have to deal with enemies that charge you from front and back in waves that, as far as I could tell, were endless, so progressing through the level is a sequence of two steps forward, one step back, as you deal with the things coming up behind you. I stopped bothering to loot so that I wouldn’t be there all day. Luckily, having remembered to actually equip my weapons, the final fight wasn’t too taxing and didn’t require any reloads, though I did effectively have to fight the final boss about ten times over since I didn’t have whatever Force power is apparently needed to take out the human ‘batteries’ he drains to heal himself, so I just had to keep beating on him until he’d killed them all. (Sorry, guys.) I still haven’t looked up what power I was lacking.

All in all, the playthrough took me 32 hours, with a little bit of sidetracking into Pazaak (basically a simple but compelling built-in collectible card game, which you can wager on) and swoop bike racing. I tried to be thorough with the side quests, but I know I missed out on some due to presumably taking the wrong companions with me in places, like I never found out what happened with Mission’s brother or what the story was with Jolee’s wife. And the fact that that bugs me a little is a sign that the game did a really good job of getting me to care about most of these characters.

In 2003, I imagine this game was revolutionary; in 2017, it’s still a really solid, convincingly Star Warsy adventure with a lot of heart, if you can get past the slightly drab beginning. The callbacks to the films were nicely done without being too heavy-handed (although there was a ‘NOOO!’ that made me chuckle), and the characters generally really felt like they’d work as inhabitants of the Star Wars universe, without being knockoffs of the film ones. I wanted to play this to understand the background of the MMO, but I think the MMO now looks a bit watered down by comparison (although some of that is just due to the demands of the format).

I might replay it at some point in the future because my inner completist kind of wants to see how a Dark Side playthrough would end, even though the Dark Side options in the game all seemed way too over the top for my tastes. For now though, it’s refreshing to actually hit uninstall on a game because I’ve completed it, something of a rarity for me before this blog! I’ll look forward to checking out Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords when I’ve cleansed my palate with a few other games.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — Conclusion

I think I’m going to have to kill Bastila. I take her on most missions because her Heal is immensely useful, and so far I haven’t bothered to build Juhani up the same way, but in addition to her general waspishness in dialogue, she’s developed a less-than-endearing quirk in combat: Running around like a headless chicken. Earlier she broke off attacking the enemy who had about a quarter health left to charge at a closed door and open it. I’m pretty sure that opening random doors is only that important if you’re a cat. Usually I can just pause and redirect her at what she’s supposed to be doing, but if I’m managing abilities on another character, I’m not always quick enough to react before she decides to aggro something that was minding its own business rather than continuing to hit the thing she was already fighting.

I’ve probably also gone a little too far into tankiness with Alora. I have an absurd number of hit points, but my damage is a bit pants. I’m working to balance that out now and with just two feats there’s a noticeable improvement, so hopefully I’ll be able to strike the right balance before I arrive at the endgame. There have been a couple of fights which were close scrapes, but only one which has resulted in defeat and reload. It took three goes, but taking my vengeance was fun.

I’m 20 hours in and I still don’t think the endgame is that close, which is no complaint as I’m having an unexpected amount of fun. Why unexpected? Well, because the game is a bit barebones by 2017, spoiled by later Bioware RPG standards, but after a while I stop really noticing the small zones, awkward zone boundaries, and flickery loading screens, because I’m really interested in seeing where these characters go. I did get spoiled on one twist regarding my character’s memory when I looked up a side quest that was being elusive, but it didn’t actually come as a huge shock — I likely wouldn’t have gotten there on my own due to certain assumptions I was making about names and gender, but Bastila and the Council’s heavy-handed nagging about the Dark Side were a significant clue that my origins probably weren’t all sweetness and light.

So, led by visions shared with Bastila about Revan and Malak’s discovery of the Star Forge, the Dantooine story concluded with me finding a piece of the map that they used and being sent to locate the other pieces on four different planets: Kashyyyk, Korriban, Manaan, and Tatooine. You can tackle them in any order you like, so I opted for Tatooine first, being fond of deserts (and Jawas). It was better looking and a bit more seamless than Dantooine, and I enjoyed that the main thrust of the plot there humanises the Sand People a little and gives an insight into their history, without actually making them any less xenophobic. And the Jawas are super cute.

I basically played through the planet in one sitting, despite a huge backtrack when a companion’s quest sent me right back to the furthest reaches of the zones I’d just been through. Talk to your companions more often than I do, folks. I was going to head to Kashyyyk next, but got a quest that pointed to Manaan, so off I went.

Manaan is a water world. Here’s the thing. I absolutely hate water. I don’t know if I’d call it a phobia, but it’s certainly a fear. I get cold and breathless when I watch depictions of deep water. There was a bit in Guild Wars 2 once where a guildmate and I started swimming towards a point of interest underwater, and the water turned black. I noped on out of there as fast as I could, feeling all clammy. My idea of horror is watching Blue Planet. So the idea of a water world wasn’t filling me with joy, but I was pleased to see that it all seemed to take place in a mostly-enclosed floating city…

Until I found a Republic NPC who went ‘we built something at the bottom of the ocean that we shouldn’t have, and now you’re going to have to go down there and bail our asses out; oh, and the thing you’re looking for is probably down there too’. Well, fuck. Cue me shuffling along the seabed with one eye shut muttering ‘this is not okay this is not okay this is not okay…’ while zapping giant sharks. Who are only the babies of the much gianter shark that I’m apparently going to have to deal with, and I can’t just poison the damn thing from behind a nice safe computer control because that will potentially contaminate the kolto supply and I’m trying to do a Light Side playthrough. Double fuck.

I did actually encounter one situation that I thought was morally ambiguous and ended up accidentally getting some Dark Side points from choosing what I thought was a compassionate solution, but the game and I apparently differ on the definition of compassionate. Call me crazy, but I think that telling someone you don’t know what happened to their sexbot is kinder than sending a sapient, if mechanical, being back into sexual slavery. Still, given I previously complained about the lack of moral ambiguity and situations in which the Dark Side choice would actually be tempting to someone who isn’t the Joker, I guess it was nice to find a situation in which the right choice was actually unclear.

Given I’m taking my time to talk to every NPC and hunt down every side quest, and I’m at the 20 hour mark with at least two planets left to go, I think it’s unlikely my total playtime will come to under 30 hours. So this is the end of my 20-hour challenge, but not the end of my game, and I’ll probably do at least one addendum to this post to detail the remainder of my playthrough before I move on to my next 20-hour challenge (which will likely be Sunless Sea).

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — Halfway

Ten hours into Knights of the Old Republic, I’m becoming very grateful that I started this blog. Without the challenge to motivate me, I think this is a game that I might have walked away from in the first hour or so, with the good intentions of coming back to it ‘sometime’ but never actually doing so. But having gotten pretty absorbed into it now, I really regretted having to close it down this morning because I was in too much pain to keep sitting at the computer.

Taris was not the most compelling of environments, being largely composed of so many different shades of grey that it could pass for a bad Twilight fanfic starring Jamie Dornan, but despite its glumness and linearity I got quite sucked in by the characters. It’s a really straightforward piece of story — you know the rescue pods crashed in the Undercity, you have to get down to the Undercity, find where Bastila’s been taken, recover her and find a way off of the planet without the Sith blowing you to smithereens — but the overwhelming Sith control means you need to stay under the radar, and rely on favour-for-a-favour deals with various underworld figures in order to get past roadblocks such as the only entrance to the Undercity being under Sith guard. It also means you should probably select dialogue options that resist your character’s hilarious impulse to blurt their name out to anyone who looks at them.

What is a little frustrating is that ultimately, all the time and love invested in the Taris storyline is kind of for nought. It’s a bit like setting a game on Alderaan three days before A New Hope, and getting you deeply invested in the planet’s politics. Not quite that drastic — some of the people you get emotionally invested in here are going to survive — but not that many of them, and I can’t help but think there are better options for bringing home the scale of a tragedy than to make nearly everything the player does in the first eight hours or so of the game a complete waste of time in the larger scheme of things. Did any of us need to see much of Alderaan to appreciate what Leia had lost?

I’ve played around with later Bioware RPGs (though I am terrible at actually finishing them), and in some ways this makes Knights of the Old Republic feel like a prototype. The morality system is present and accounted for, but is extremely simplistic — even the MMO, which made the Dark Side choices a bit too plainly moustache-twiddling a lot of the time, had a lot more nuanced moral conundrums. There’s nothing here that makes me feel like I can see both sides, and understand why one would be tempted by the Dark Side option. To be Dark Side in Knights of the Old Republic is to be a gleefully unrepentant dick. Your followers do exchange some banter, some more hostile, some cheerfully adorable, but their character development side quests are usually advanced by having an ‘X is looking pretty moody’ prompt suddenly spring up to interrupt whatever you were doing, followed by them petulantly refusing to talk to you very much about it. If you don’t want to talk, stop making sad eyes at me! Still, despite this being a primitive form of the Bioware character development systems we’ve come to know and mostly love, I can see how revolutionary it would have been in 2003, and in 2017 it’s still pretty compelling.

I’ve built Alora with all the subtlety of a brick to the noggin. Given this is Star Wars and even now, Star Wars films and tie-in products still seem overly tied to the Force-user, I suspected from the start that I’d end up prodded to head in a lightsabre-swinging direction, so I’ve mostly invested in tankiness and melee damage. Despite a pretty high Charisma that pulls me through most low-level Persuade checks, my solution to most things is to hit it in the face. So far that’s served me pretty well, although at a high cost in medpacs if Bastila isn’t in the party; there have only been two genuinely challenging fights, both of which are essentially boss fights so that’s fine, and I scraped through without any necessary reloads. I remain a bit concerned that my inadequate grasp of d20 balance will fuck me over in the endgame, but I continue to feel that this iteration of d20 is relatively unobtrusive, and despite having to build and gear all of my followers as well as my own character, it’s been a relatively intuitive process.

So now I’m running around Dantooine, having earned a place as Bastila’s Padawan, proving myself to the Jedi Council. Dantooine is a lot less grey, and a lot less linear. Outside of the Jedi Enclave it does feel a bit empty, the spaces aren’t very lived-in, and the fact that you’re mostly running around open areas makes the loading screens a bit more of an immersion-breaking transition than when you’re zipping from building to building in Taris. Still, it’s lovely to see some sunlight and colour.

Speaking of loading screens, I’m running the Steam version of the game on Windows 8.1 (yes, 8.1, I have my reasons), and it’s mostly operating smoothly except for loading screens and cutscenes. Loading screens constantly flicker like I’m staring at a strobe light, and some (but not all) cutscenes randomly tab me out of the game, meaning I have to quickly tab back in before I miss anything. It’s mildly irritating but quite playable; I’m not sure if the GOG edition would be better suited to modern operating systems, so if anyone reading this is looking to purchase the game, that’s something you might want to check.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — First Impressions

The first game on my agenda is Knights of the Old Republic, since I’ve been on a bit of a Star Wars kick lately. Having played just under an hour, and reached the first planet, this seems like an opportune moment to pause and talk about my initial reactions.

Going in, I was a bit apprehensive about the fact that the game is d20-based instead of operating like the sequel MMO, which I’ve played a fair bit of. In a tabletop setting, I loathe the d20 system with a fiery vengeance. Perhaps it’s my dyscalculia, but the mechanics stubbornly refuse to lodge in my brain, unaided by books that expect you to locate critical rules hidden within dense paragraphs of waffling text and that have to have a veritable laundry list of modifiers for absolutely everything. I think I’d almost sooner play Rifts.

Video games are a bit different though, because for the most part I don’t have to memorise all of those horribly laid out mechanics and modifiers. The computer does it for me. But I still have to comprehend how the system is going to interact well enough to build a character that can finish the story without limping through it.

Knights of the Old Republic does offer some pre-generated character templates, but even with my feelings about the d20 system, I’m too much of a control freak to use one. So I started out making a custom character, and discovered a very helpful feature: If you aren’t sure where to put your points in a particular category, you can hit the recommend button to see where the computer would choose to put them. I did my own attributes and feats, but used the recommendations to fill out my skills, and it seemed to make a pretty solid choice, at least as far as I can tell. I suppose I might be eating those words in another few hours.

While the lack of 1920×1080 resolution is a bit of a bummer, at the highest widescreen resolution I was able to select, the game looks surprisingly okay for a 14-year-old title. Maybe my standards have been lowered since most of the last few games I’ve played have been retro, but while there’s a part of my brain that stubbornly refuses to accept that 2003 was 14 years ago, I did go in expecting it to have more of that sculpted-out-of-play-dough look that throws me out of so many games from the time when we all got a bit too excited about 3D before it was quite ready for it.

So, after the random name generator spared me half an hour of agony, Alora Something-or-other woke up on a ship with, judging by the stupid questions I was prompted to ask of the person coming to inform me we were being attacked, no memory of where she was or who was aboard ship. While the ship rattled around us in a manner that suggested we probably ought to get a move on, the NPC whose name I’ve forgotten — let’s call him the Exposition Fairy — filled in the fact that we were escorting the Jedi Bastila when the Sith attacked, that I probably ought to get my armour on and go help, and also merrily took the time to inform me what a great pilot we had. Well, that’s reassuring.

The shipboard play is a little tutorial through winding corridors filled with appropriately spread-out Sith troops. It reminded me of another thing I dislike about low-level d20 play: Damage is really spiky. It tends to go whiff, whiff, whiff, splat. In a combat with five Sith troops, I took such a hard blow that my remaining health was but a sliver, but then killed the remaining four of them without taking another hit. I haven’t died yet, so I don’t know how the game handles death, but I can foresee a fair bit of reloading due to sudden damage spikes, which isn’t my favourite way to play. We’ll see.

Still, now I’m down on Taris, which I well remember in its later incarnation in the MMO (rakghouls, rakghouls everywhere), and I’m accompanied by the excellent pilot. We’re off to find Bastila, starting off by checking out the Undercity, which the pilot described in such shining terms that I feel like setting foot in it is instantly going to get me killed.

I’ll be back at the halfway point to let you know just how much it hurt.