Star Wars: Knights of of the Old Republic - 148Apps Goes Deep

Developer: BioWare (original game) Aspyr (iOS version)
Price: $9.99
Version Reviewed: 1.0
Device Reviewed On: iPad 2

Graphics / Sound Rating: ★★★★½
Controls Rating: ★★★★½
Gameplay Rating: ★★★★★
Replay Value Rating: ★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★★

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Ten years ago, BioWare released the revolutionary Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR). This took the Dungeons and Dragons combat that BioWare were masters of in the PC niche they had carved out, placed it in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and had a non-linear story where decisions have a major role in what happens. BioWare made all this complexity accessible in a way that both new and existing audiences–including console gamers–fell in love with KOTOR. The success propelled the gaming company to become one of the most important game developers of the past decade, with wildly successful original franchises like the Mass Effect series.

Flash-forward to today, and a new generation of gamers gets to play KotOR thanks to renowned port producer Aspyr, known for bringing many titles to the Mac. While the game isn’t always a perfect fit for the iPad and shows its relative age in spots, KotOR is still as transcendent an experience as it was a decade ago, thanks to its sheer depth.

Players start off choosing who their main character is. Yes, there’s the ability to name and decide the physical attributes of the protagonist, but their class and core stats are also determined here; these have a major impact on what the character will specialize in.

The story begins with players waking up on the Endar Spire with little idea as to who they are. A man named Carth comes and warns the player that they are under siege by Sith forces, and must get to escape pods before they’re killed. They wind up on the planet Taris, which is under Sith quarantine. Here, it becomes necessary to find the imprisoned Jedi Bastila and to find a way off the planet to help defeat Darth Malak, who is terrorizing the galaxy and helping to defeat the Republic. Along the way, the player learns more about just who they are and what they are capable of. They may just be the savior (or the destroyer) of the Republic.

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The whole game is essentially a GUI for a Dungeons and Dragons game set in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Brushing up on D&D basics will bring a lot of clarity to how combat and abilities work. All actions are based on an invisible dice-rolling system that influences attack values and whether certain abilities like Persuade will work. For anyone slightly versed in RPG-ese, some terms will make sense, but otherwise it can be kind of confusing. The game doesn’t really hold gamers’ hands. Just imagine Force ghosts sitting around, tossing 20-sided dice.

Of course, it’s not all random, as players have agency over many things. The combat is quasi-real-time: attacks occur in timed sequences where players can queue up the actions that they take. For example, players can queue up a certain sequence of attacks, abilities and item usage, with the ability to modify sequences and change their target on the fly for each of the three characters that the player controls in their party. Be prepared to pause in battle a lot to ensure that the most efficient plan is being executed, or just to ensure that a character won’t die in battle! The AI will generally ensure that a character whose action sequence has been executed won’t just stand around and do nothing, but exact positioning and usage of anything other than the basic attack will require the player’s input.

The combat is only one part of the gameplay, though. The ‘role-playing’ part of the RPG acronym is significant as well. Players will be presented with many decisions to make when interacting with characters, with what they say and do determining the plot of the game and the path they go down. It’s possible to be on the Light Side or Dark Side of the Force (neutrality isn’t really an option down the road), with certain abilities only available to practitioners of one side of the Force.

Many decisions offer players opportunities to earn Light Side or Dark Side points that determine which side they’re on. In one early example, players can give the cure to the fatal Rakghoul disease to Zelka, a doctor who will ensure that it gets to the impoverished citizens of Taris, which will earn Light Side points for the player. Or, players can give it to the dastardly Davik, who will sell it for a high cost, netting the player a fine reward and Dark Side points as well. Members of the party will have their own Force balance rankings, and will often comment on the choices that the player makes for the protagonist.

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As a 2003 console/PC game ported to mobile, it was likely that some issues would pop up, and the controls are where some of the seams start to show. Some aspects have been optimized or just work well on touchscreens naturally, like action selection in combat. Dialog selections in conversations have easy-to-tap number buttons to use. Moving by swiping anywhere on the screen means that it’s usually easy to guarantee in which direction the character will move, but turning and running is a challenge, and finger repositioning happens often. If it was possible to use a second finger to turn while running, things would work a lot better.

Otherwise, the game controls just like it used to, which is to say that it’s a bit convoluted. Menus are deep, switching characters and picking targets can require a lot of small adjustments that just don’t feel entirely intuitive. This isn’t so much the iPad’s fault, as much as it is the nature of the original game. Aspyr made this port faithful to the bone. Even many of the graphics look the same as they did originally, and their lower-resolution nature is apparent.

KotOR is currently available for iPad only, and at minimum the iPad 2 and iPad mini. On these minimum devices, it’s not the smoothest experience. The game appears to run at about 30 frames per second with some occasional frame-skipping, and the occasional low RAM crash. Minus these issues, it does play well, and veterans of the Xbox version will probably feel right at home with this. Thanks to the flash storage nature of the iPad, loading and saving times are very quick. Utilizing the ‘exploit’ of just traveling back to the home base after a battle to heal for free before warping back to one’s previous exact spot is quite viable here when it’s only a couple seconds to load each way. Hey, medpacks ain’t cheap. Quicksaving is just as quick as the name implies that it should be, and having it available on the screen at all times makes it incredibly handy to use. The game auto-saves periodically, but it’s worth using that quicksave and the dedicated save menu occasionally as well just to ensure that no data is lost in case of a crash, especially on the lower-end iPad models. It isn’t chronically unstable, but the app clearly is using all the system resources it can get its hands on.

For iPhone and iPod users hoping to someday get their hands on this, I can see this being difficult to port. There’s just too many buttons and too much information taking up space on the screen for it to be comfortable on a 4″ display. Usually when developers say that an iPad game won’t work on iPhone, it’s usually for a lack of trying, but this is the rare case where I can see why this is an iPad exclusive. The game would likely require a dramatic overhaul in interface to work on a phone. Aspyr has just made the necessary tweaks for it to work on a tablet screen.

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A word of warning to those used to mobile titles: this is a behemoth of a game in terms of length, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The pacing can be especially slow at the beginning. Heck, it takes a few hours before the player’s party reaches three characters! Be patient with this one, and explore the game: there’s a lot to uncover in this wide universe, and that’s what makes this so special.

Being able to grow one’s character over the span of the game is part of what makes the KotOR experience so special. It’s not just about going through the skill and ability trees to do more damage in combat, but it’s also in the way that characters can expand their interaction with the world. Mastering skills like Persuade and Security can go a lot farther toward success than an improved combat ability. Plus, being able to use Jedi mind tricks to get one’s way, and hacking a remote terminal to take out a group of enemies terminal is just plain fun! There’s plenty of games that just focus on beatdowns, so take advantage of the alternatives that this game has to offer.

What BioWare really nailed was the way they were able to balance out both the familiarity of a Star Wars game and the freshness inherent with this part of the Expanded Universe. The music utilizes and otherwise resembles John Williams’ famous score, and there are plenty of familiar terminology and alien races to interact with. However, over time, players get familiar with at least the basic vestiges of D&D combat and the overall emergent complexity that it has to offer. It starts out at a high and somewhat daunting level, but it does increase at enough of a rate where players at least have a decent familiarity of what they can currently do when something new is introduced.

The most rewarding thing about KotOR on the iPad is that the experience remains fresh to this day. Yes, it shows its age at times, but this game does a lot of things that modern games still aren’t. Too many games are just overly-linear blockbusters without giving the player much choice in what they’re doing. Not KotOR. It encourages players to think about what they’re doing. At one point early on where I had the choice to betray someone, I had to stop and think about it for a minute. It was a minor decision, a detour on the path I was traveling, but it’s exhilarating to actually have to consider the ramifications of my actions in a game! This is actual role-playing!

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It’s also more than just about improving a character’s numbers – it’s about crafting who they are and what they do. Yes, most everything is quantified with numbers – this is based on D&D, after all – but it still encourages and supports player agency. I even found myself challenged when wanting to go down the path of the Dark Side (they have cooler Force powers…and cookies). My natural instincts were to help people out, but in the game I frequently had to suppress them to go down the path I wanted. What can I say, I’m a big softie, but I also want to shoot lightning out of my hands.

This all says something about the evolution of gaming – current blockbusters have been slow to progress, because KotOR still feels like the ‘future’ of gaming with all the depth it provides, and it’s been out for a decade! It’s a nostalgic look back for many folks who will just revel in the fact that now they can play KotOR pretty much wherever they want. However, for new players, the game just holds up incredibly well. And on the scale of mobile gaming, there’s practically nothing that can compare to the depth this game has. Also? At mobile gaming prices, it’s an absolute steal.

For those that haven’t played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic yet, or haven’t done so in a long while, this is the perfect opportunity to do so. Get 2.3 GB of space ready and play this game. It’s an absolute classic that modern gamers need to play. Unlike many classics, it holds up incredibly well to this day, and advances on what games can do.

Use the Force, Luke.

Play this game.

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