I’ve never been a Star Wars aficionado. In 2003 I hadn’t yet seen a movie from its original trilogy, but as an Xbox owner, I certainly needed a good role-playing game. Even with my limited exposure to Star Wars, the magazine previews for Knights of the Old Republic spoke to me.
I knew it was destined to become one of the Xbox’s finest games, RPG or otherwise. A graphical showcase for its day, KOTOR captures the aura of the Star Wars license impeccably. From the music; the authentic alien voices; the perfected whizzing of laser beams and lightsabers; this is a marvellous production from beginning to end.
I completed Knights of the Old Republic three times, but I simply had to play it again after starting this blog series. The Xbox One version I played for my fourth campaign retains the native 4:3 presentation, but the resolution bump makes things look extra sharp.
After creating their own custom character, players are thrust into a galactic war set thousands of years before the original Star Wars trilogy. This new tale involves a Jedi prodigy who must quest for an ancient relic called the Star Forge.
The opening tutorial flies by and ably readies players for the long journey ahead. To begin with, players need only concern themselves with rescuing a missing Jedi called Bastila. She is an important woman whose Force powers have the potential to win wars. It’s a simple setup, but the pacing is good, with the game’s famous twist built up way in advance.
The writing excels, and there are many good conversations to be had, especially with your companions. Companion banter is a strength that BioWare channels from their work on Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. One funny example of the great writing comes early on when a female player calls a male companion a “sexist worm”.
Companions have a lot to say and their individual side stories will keep players coming back. You can talk to them aboard the spaceship you acquire at the end of act one. The Ebon Hawk is the perfect place to explore, chat and relax in between missions, and is a much better HQ than the dingy courtyard bases of Jade Empire.
Bastila is the most vital companion. She is a solid character from the beginning; a haughty leader who forgets all sense of diplomacy when the stress mounts. Bastila’s story arc is compelling too, even if it’s copying Aribeth de Tylmarande’s arc from Neverwinter Nights.
And you simply cannot discuss companions without mentioning HK-47; the murderous assassin droid whose unconventional cadence and hilarious quips created an instant fan favourite. It’s just a shame that you can’t make best use of the droid without also having a high Repair skill!
Saying that, I think the Skills are mostly for flavour. They’re typically inconsequential or have workarounds that are very easy to take advantage of. Persuade and Treat Injury are impactful, but the rest are fairly worthless.
Regardless, Knights of the Old Republic still strikes a good balance between depth and intuitiveness. Its combat system and skill checks use a simplified d20 model, meaning RPG enthusiasts will feel right at home when crafting power builds that include Feat selections and upgradeable weapons.
Character customisation is not overly deep. There are six different character classes that can be mixed together, but equipment suffers because much of it can’t be upgraded or isn’t compatible with certain Jedi powers.
Behind the scenes, combat follows the d20 turn-based structure, but most players won’t notice as it’s all rendered rather seamlessly. Lightsaber duels are a highlight, as are the powers that allow players to shoot lightning or throttle their enemies with the Force.
The inability to quickly switch weapons in combat is a major failing though. This niggle makes ranged builds clunky, which is doubly disappointing because of how dodgy the melee pathing can be at times.
One ingredient that I found a renewed appreciation for are side quests. There’s bounty-hunting; a murder mystery; the story of a wayward droid that presents a genuinely tricky dilemma. There are memorable quests set aboard the Ebon Hawk, like the one where players must spend time learning the language of a foreign stowaway.
An incredibly useful travel system makes reaching these quests rather painless, and in between players will find diverting mini games for swoop racing, turret blasting, and a card-collecting pursuit that has since become a video game trope in its own right.
Players will visit many exotic biomes, from the jungles of Kasyyyk to the ocean floors of Manan. The locations are not equal in quality (the final level is especially annoying), but the core worlds can be visited in any order, which makes repeat plays more enticing than they would be otherwise.
These core worlds make up the bulk of KOTOR’s story, with other unique locations sprinkled into one huge adventure. The destruction of the opening planet has always rankled me though. It makes the decisions players make there feel a bit pointless, which is a real shame considering how replayable the game is.
Another mechanic that supports longevity is the pioneering moral choice system. Many in-game decisions award points towards the light or dark sides of the Force, and these will change a character’s appearance and power selections at certain thresholds.
Upholding the light side technically makes things harder because players can’t steal or murder people for additional credits and experience points. The dark side options are also extremely entertaining, as players get to act like a total heel in many of the game’s funniest scenes.
My one huge criticism here is that the final decisions have enormous weighting towards one of the two extremes. For instance, my latest character became a murdering sociopath who nevertheless did not want the Sith in power. Despite not renouncing her murderous ways during the last major dialog choice, her meter was set all the way back to neutral when she refused to join the Sith. Even worse was when a major character she had previously killed appeared alive and well in the ending cutscene. Oops!
So yeah, a few areas of Knights of the Old Republic haven’t aged that well, but the game still feels as vital a part of the Xbox’s library now as it did back in 2003. It didn’t remain an Xbox exclusive for long, and yet its legacy as a killer app continues to grow now that a forthcoming remake has been announced exclusively for PlayStation 5.
A lot has been written about Knights of the Old Republic; about its quality; about the impact it had on the genre and on the games that BioWare made afterwards. Compared to the other RPGs I’ve covered on the Xbox Files so far, Knights of the Old Republic remains a classic, and exactly the sort of wonderfully playable genre piece the Xbox always deserved.