Sunday, December 13, 2015

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (3.5/5)

As you might guess from the title, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, was designed to follow the lead of Empire Strikes Back by going darker than the original installment. Where the first game attempted to recapture some of the energy of the original trilogy, Sith Lords really rubs our noses in the darker side of Star Wars. Once again, the Jedi have been nearly wiped out. (The Jedi seem so prone to mass extinction that it’s a wonder they’re still around four thousand years later). Your character stands as the last Jedi, but you have lost nearly all of your Force powers.

Slowly your backstory is revealed. During the the Mandalorian War, previously mentioned in the original game, your character decided that the Jedi Council was too slow to act and joined Revan and the other Jedi who mounted a defense against the Mandalorian onslaught. Upon returning to the council, you were stripped of your connection to the force and exiled. Since then, the Jedi have seemingly disappeared from the galaxy, and a bounty has been placed on your head, because you are the last of their kind. Eventually you discover that other Jedi exist, but they are in hiding, attempting to uncover the threat facing them and to strike when the moment’s right. Your goal is to assemble these Jedi and face this threat together.

Like most RPGs, Sith Lords follows the Wizard of Oz narrative structure of a long journey where new and strange character join your party as you continue on your quest. There’s the soldier, Atton Rand, the blind Force wielder, Visas, the bounty hunter with a heart of gold, Mira, a Mandalorian only known as the Mandalorian, and of course the droids from the first game, HK-47 and T3-M4, who, liked Artoo and Threepio, make a reappearance. This list is hardly exhaustive, and like too many RPGs, the number of characters are overwhelming. I don’t think I once included in my party, G0-T0, the robotic avatar of a crime boss (don’t ask).

But perhaps the most important character is Kreia, an old crone who has a strong connection to the Force and bond with the main character. You first meet Kreia after waking up on a seemingly abandoned mining facility. Kreia is neither fully Jedi nor Sith, and instead represents a middle path between the warring philosophies. This is best illustrated in the game in a cutscene that occurs after you have given some money to a panhandler on Nar Shaddaa. Kreia advises you against this seemingly altruistic action, suggesting that it may have unseen consequences, which turns out to be the case since the man you gave money to is later attacked for his recent boon. There’s an interesting comment here about how actions reverberate across the galaxy in ways unknown to us.

The Sith Lords was a notoriously rushed game, and it’s obvious to anyone who plays it that the story’s incomplete. Recently, a bunch of good samaritans developed a patch that restores a good deal of the lost content, but The Sith Lords still feels unfinished. However, there are those who have championed the game as better than the original. While I enjoyed playing The Sith Lords, I can’t agree that it’s necessarily an improvement. With the exception of some more micromanaging, the gameplay is nearly identical to its predecessor. (No one finished an RPG and thought to themselves, I really wish I could spend more time tweaking my weapons and armor). And because of the game’s unfinished nature, you don’t delve as much into the characters. I never felt as if I knew my allies as well as I did those in the first game.

I think some who claim The Sith Lords is better than KOTOR fall under the false assumption that just because something is darker then it is necessarily more complex. Certainly, a game can be gritty and explore complex moral grey areas, as this game accomplishes during the cutscene on Nar Shaddaa. But just as often, going dark can merely be a juvenile’s idea of what it means to be adult. In The Sith Lords, any moments of genuine moral exploration are counteracted by sophomoric understanding of dark and gritty.

**SPOILERS AHEAD** The worst instance occurs after you have finally found and assembled the remaining Jedi on Dantooine. And they are all quickly killed. So the main focus of your quest is rendered moot. What’s more, most of these members of the Jedi Council are kind of jerks. What makes this development less interesting is that the prequels, which have plenty of their own problems, actually explored the destruction of the Jedi and the difficulty of seeing the consequences of our actions in a more interesting manner. I would take questions of how war makes fascists of us all in the prequels over the veneer of dark and gritty The Sith Lords too often presents. So while the original game attempted to reignite a sense of fun and adventure missing from Star Wars during the prequel era, The Sith Lords competes directly against the prequels in their own arena and somehow ends up losing. **END SPOILERS**

Still, there’s plenty to like about The Sith Lords, especially if you liked the first game. While underdeveloped as characters, the designs of the Sith antagonists are admittedly pretty cool. Darth Sion is nothing more than charred remains apparently fueled only by his hatred, and Darth Nihilus dons an awesome mask that appears to be influenced by Japanese Kabuki theater. With more time, the game may have fulfilled its promise, even if it may never eclipse the original game.

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