Considering how many Star Wars movies are releasing following Disney’s acquisition of the series—both numbered sagas, as well as side stories—it might seem we’re in a golden age of Star Wars. Not only have there been 4 feature films released, but there’s been a completed television series (Star Wars Rebels), a recently announced television series and revival, as well as a number of novels, comics, and a few games published in that time frame. While I have been a fan of some, others have left me unsatisfied or disappointed. In these times of division and dissatisfaction, I find myself turning toward some of my favorite Expanded Universe games, books, and shows.
One of the biggest games to get me hooked on the Star Wars universe itself, as a setting beyond just the movies, was the Knights of the Old Republic series by created by Bioware. Both games featured a diverse cast of alien races and party roles, grand adventure, and settings, and the freedom to create a powerful Jedi or Sith. They showed me that interesting adventures and stories can be had completely separate from the Skywalker family and gave a look at the Jedi and Sith where both were more prevalent.
Based on a somewhat-hidden dice rolling system to determine success and failure in combat, skill checks, and conversation challenges, the games allow you to tackle quests in a variety of ways and give you the choice of being a paragon of the Light Side or falling to the power of the Dark Side.
The Light Side/Dark Side morality system in the series is often criticized for being rather cut and dry. This is most true with actions and dialogue that provides points for being good or evil, as each are almost caricatures of morality. I don’t mind this aspect too much, as Star Wars is about Good against Evil in the pulpiest, broadest terms. I want my villains to be genocidal dictators that want to rule with an iron fist and wipe out resistance and my heroes to be shining beacons of good buried in the mud of shady cities or backwater systems.
Many also claim that it punishes players that would rather keep their neutrality between the sides, playing what is known as a gray jedi. This is a rather glaring omission, especially considering that both Knights of the Old Republic I and II feature party members who champion the balance of neutrality between light and dark, rejecting the dogma of both the Jedi and the Sith. (In fact, the entire theme of II revolves around neither side being complete and correct. Why not reward us for making a point to stay neutral?) The game pushes the player to choose either good or bad, providing bonuses to Side powers and a boost to certain stats upon reaching Light Side Mastery or Dark Side Mastery.
The game series differentiates Light from Dark well when it comes to abilities. Light Side force powers are all buffs and shields, reflecting the concept of protection in gameplay, while Dark Side force powers are largely focused on dealing damage and sapping energy from opponents to fuel yourself, again reflecting selfishness, malice, and the spread of pain in gameplay. This brings the choice of Light or Dark beyond choosing a faction and color scheme, which I largely appreciate. I often play games with morality pretty straight laced and try to be the hero, but for this series, I have done equal numbers of playthroughs on each side to revel in the power of the Dark Side.
When I first played, I was not familiar with table-top RPGs. I attribute my current love of them with this series, as well. Creating a character and creating your own personality to fit your personal story within this greater saga was eye opening to me. The game plays out in a turn-based combat system that never feels like it pulls you out of immersion; much like Final Fantasy VI (III on its original U.S. release) and Chrono Trigger, the game doesn’t wait for you to make a decision while combat goes unless you pause it for more tactical control.
During combat, you select from a variety of types of attacks depending on your weapon and combat skills, force powers, and items, such as medical kits or grenades. The weapon attacks are nothing flashy nor are the items, and force powers are only slightly more so, particularly the dark side powers.
In this era of game development and production, Bioware was known for creating great party members. And let me tell you, they do not disappoint. Okay, maybe some do. But they do a good job of providing a wide variety of backgrounds, species, and points of view, which makes for dynamic relationship building across the characters.
Standouts of the series include Canderous Ordo (later Mandalore), Bastila Shan, Kreia, Jolee Bindo, Atton Rand, and the hilariously homicidal droid HK-47. As the game progresses, your relationship with each party member shifts and changes depending on various conversations and decisions you make while on missions together. It’s an early version of the “Kenny will remember that” system Telltale Games uses in their Walking Dead games.
Each party member had goals and points of view that they agreed or disagreed with in varying degrees that affected how they thought of you. Often, a conversation between characters during a mission may lead to an increase in friendship with one and a decrease with another. And with a dynamic story for each companion, the party members feel more like people than party members in even modern games.
Canderous is an old Mandalorian mercenary who eventually teams up with you in the first game and later reappears as a party member in II after becoming the leader of the Mandalorian people and taking on the title of Mandalore. He’s about as ’80s action anti-hero as you get in Star Wars and would fit in perfectly with The Expendables. His convictions and the war-loving Mandalorian culture fascinated my brother and I, and clearly quite a few others based on the popularity of the planet and people in the later seasons of Star Wars: Clone Wars and Rebels. In fact, in our Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG, my brother is playing a Mandalorian inspired by Canderous.
Atton Rand played a Han Solo type character in II, providing sarcastic remarks to defend his inner doubts and fears. One of the many great things Obsidian added while developing the sequel was allowing you to train certain party members to be jedi or sith and follow in your footsteps. It requires high levels of trust between your character and them, and Atton’s story was one of my favorites, painting a darker past than what first seemed on the surface.
Bastila was the mentor in the first game, a young though highly trusted and decorated jedi with a powerful and unique (in that game) power of Battle Meditation, aiding the Jedi and Republic against the Sith attack from Revan and Malak. Her story grows and deepens in an interesting—though simultaneously cliche—way. She has a double-bladed lightsaber, like Darth Maul, though, so that’s cool.
Jolee and Kreia are both agents of neutrality. Jolee exiled himself to the deep undergrowth of Kashyyyk to escape the dogma and blindness he saw in the Jedi. I mention him largely for his neutrality and philosophy, a question of why the game punishes you for attempting to choose a similar path. He was also a proto-Kreia, your mentor in the sequel. She is a much more interesting character, one that actively pushes to make you see that neither Light nor Dark hold all the answers. She is, by far, one of the most interesting characters in Star Wars and a highly memorable character.
And lastly, HK-47. Arguably the fanbase’s favorite character, he is the anti-3PO: a murderous, rude assassin who masquerades as a protocol droid with a penchant for calling humans “meatbags.” You build him and repair him, giving the player an interesting connection to the homicidal mad lad. And he fills Bioware’s quota for having a character that cannot express emotion and must announce the emotion they are trying to communicate before speaking each sentence, which I find amazing no matter how often they do it.
Knights of the Old Republic is best known for its climactic, Shyamalan-esque twist that happens toward the end of the game. It’s awesome, and one of the best kinds of twists that changes how you experience the game on following playthroughs. But the strength of the story goes beyond simply a clever twist. You experience a wide variety of planets, both new and old, and meet with a host of characters who leave quite an impression.
The first game picks up after the betrayal of Malak toward Revan, with Revan falling from power. In order to try and finally defeat Malak, The Republic tasks Bastila and the player with visiting select planets visited by Revan and Malak prior to their invasion and reveal from deep space. You find Star Maps on each and slowly piece together the location of a secret, lost planet and structure.
In that regard, it is rather similar to classic Star Wars tales featuring Death Stars, attempting to destroy an evil weapon with the capability of annihilating The Republic and innocent planets. I personally have a soft spot for cartoonishly evil villains who only want to destroy, so I love it. But for those craving more shades of gray, the game does throw in plenty of ripples that present opportunities for the player to change from Dark to Light or Light to Dark.
Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords is a much different tale—and more personal. There are still twists and betrayals but not quite as immediately shocking. There is no menacing space station threatening the galaxy, rather you are seeking to learn who you are and what led you to be found on a mining station. People are are much more selfish in II and have their own agendas and motives to lie to you.
You wake up as an amnesiac and quickly learn you have an affinity for the force. And enemies trying to kill you. Eventually, you learn you had a clash with the Jedi Council and decide to seek each member out, learning that in the intervening years, they have disbanded and went into hiding.
Despite featuring dialogue, planet order, and combat role choices, the games follow a highly linear story. Whether Light or Dark, the story unfolds the same way on each planet. Occasionally, a side quest may provide multiple avenues to explore; however, you can usually use all options to achieve the “best” results. This is unfortunate, as neither game seems to actually say anything regarding how your methods affect the galaxy, which the Star Wars mythos of the Force is intertwined with.
On the one hand, the first game released in 2003, and judging it by the open exploration of gameplay available in many modern games isn’t really fair; however, Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind release the year before and offers greater freedom in the way you achieve the ultimate quest in regard to factions you align with, not to mention plenty of other CRPGs even earlier, so it was possible to allow for some path branching at that time in game development and story telling.
That Star Wars Touch
Ultimately, this series does a phenomenal job of introducing fans of the movies to the larger Star Wars universe, showing that there are interesting stories to be told that have no connection to the Skywalker saga whatsoever. It feels like a Star Wars story and gives you a satisfying story and group of characters to interact with. The lore of the Jedi, Sith, Republic, and various locations are vastly explored.
Build your character and party however you like, whether you want to be a dead-eye sharpshooter, master of lightsaber forms, or supreme control over force abilities. All forms of these combat and others still feel satisfying. One of my favorite things about the second game is the inclusion of the lightsaber forms that provide bonuses to various types of encounters: one that is great for defending against multiple enemies, another for deflecting blaster fire, another for regenerating force more efficiently, and more.
If you are a Star Wars fan, I highly recommend you play this game if you haven’t done so yet and replay it even if you already have.
Special thanks to Kassel Labs for their outstanding Crawl generator. Visit their site to create your own Star Wars crawl, West World opening, or Stranger Things opening.