Man, oh man, it hasn’t been a fantastic time for Star Wars video games of late. Between Star Wars 1313 being cancelled just when it was really starting to generate some buzz, a new Battlefront that left a bad taste in the mouths of most of the gaming community, and an even newer Battlefront that angered virtually everybody with its emphasis on lootboxes and cost Electronic Arts a substantial amount of money, it seems that we have nowhere to turn for our SW video game fix except the (admittedly adorable) Lego Star Wars games.
But there was a time long, long ago, where Star Wars video games stood tall and proud, with IPs like Jedi Academy, Jedi Starfighter, and Rogue Squadron dazzling us with their gameplay and lore. And before there was Mass Effect, before there was Dragon Age, Bioware brought to us one of the greatest role-playing games to ever hit the shelves. I am, of course, referring to:
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
KotOR was one of the first role-playing games that I ever played, and I was hooked from the moment the opening crawl ended and I found myself desperately trying to escape a spaceship being swarmed by Sith fighters and boarded by enemy soldiers. This game had absolutely everything that I wanted in a Star Wars experience: force powers, blasters, lightsabers, and vast worlds to explore. And just to make things even better, it had so much more that I didn’t even realize that I needed in a video game. Dialogue trees! The freedom to play as goody-two-shoes or as evil as I pleased (obviously, I was evil all of the time)! All-Jedi away teams tearing our way through Sith acolytes like they were paper! And of course, one of the greatest plot twists in a video game to date, which we’ll get into in a bit.
The setting of KotOR essentially allowed Bioware to do whatever they wanted, being set four millenia before A New Hope. There are thousands of Jedi, thousands of Sith lords, and a galaxy-spanning war that you’re smack dab in the middle of. The opening hours of the game leave you stranded on a planet under Sith blockade, hunting down and rescuing a Jedi Knight, recruiting a party, gambling in casinos, sneaking around enemy patrols, killing a rancor, racing swoop bikes against rival gangs, and escaping the planet by the skin of your teeth only to watch it get completely vaporized by the orbiting Sith fleet that has run out of patience. And that’s all before you learn a single force power or build your first lightsaber.
Oh yeah, that’s right, you get to build your own lightsaber. You pick the color, you pick the benefits, you decide if you’re gonna dual wield, use a short saber, or build a double-bladed saber to bring out your inner Darth Maul.
Gameplay will come naturally to veterans of Neverwinter Nights or anyone who played Dungeons and Dragons on tabletop. You pick a class, assign your points, earn experience through combat and exploration, level up your abilities, gain feats, and gain prestige classes. When combat starts, it’s all turn-based rather than the real-time fighting we see in modern RPGs like Fallout and Elder Scrolls, but in KotOR it never seems slow or boring. It makes for a more strategic experience and means that the points you place in different areas actually matter. Your AI companions level up with you and bring a lot to the table that you can play with. You want to run a party made of entirely Jedi? Do it! You want to play a bunch of no-nonsense tough guys who shoot first and ask questions later? Awesome! You want a tank who will go and absorb all the damage that your sneaky character can’t handle? Throw a Wookie into the mix.
And even though the combat and D&D-esque feel is stellar and fits in really well, the strength of this game really is its story and your role in it. Your decisions MATTER. You play a noble character, giving alms to the poor and rooting out evil? Your party notices. The world around you notices. You gain access to Jedi powers, like healing. You decide to play a jerk, going around executing people you don’t like, kicking puppies and refusing to kiss babies? Congratulations, you start gaining Sith powers. Your character’s appearance gets more evil as his eyes turn yellow and skin turns grey. The game even has two endings, one evil and one good. The choice is up to you. Sure, some of the dialogue options for Evil are reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoon villains, but do you really care about all that when you’re able to force choke your foes and shoot lightning out of your fingertips? Yeah, didn’t think so.
And then there’s The Plot Twist. Halfway through the game, it turns out that YOU are the original big bad evil guy all along, betrayed by your Sith apprentice and memory-wiped by the Jedi. No matter how good or evil you’ve been playing the entire game, this shocking revelation will make you pause and reconsider everything that’s happened up to this point. Even the most staunch Jedi Knight would falter and wonder if he can really even trust the order that he’s joined. After all, they did give you amnesia and tried to turn you into their pawn. For people that love a good story and an actual role-playing experience, it’s hard to beat KotOR for this twist.
So there you have it: Knights of the Old Republic, a fantastic Star Wars experience and the first RPG in the franchise’s history. Sure, it might not graphically hold up nowadays, and yes, some of the dialogue is a bit clunky at points, but that doesn’t really matter when at the end of the day, you can force choke your enemies, persuade your party members to kill one another, and end the game at the head of galaxy-wide SIth empire. KoTOR is an absolute gem of a game, and if you haven’t played it yet, we highly recommend it.