Lure of the Classic: Knights of the Old Republic

The other day I dropped by IGN to learn that Aspyr had released a stunning iPad conversion of the LucasArts/BioWare classic Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) on Apple’s iTunes Store. Although I beamed with exhilaration at the news, I still resisted the lure of one of the great roleplaying games of all time, but gave in a day later: why the reticence when there is so much joy to be had?

Instant classic Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic arrives on XBox in 2003

Echoing the “everything-but-a-movie”-approach of 1996’s Shadows of the Empire, the original Knights of the Old Republic box design is worthy of a full-fledged motion picture but advertised a gaming experience far beyond the limitations of the cinematic narrative.

KOTOR was famously a seminal XBox exclusive in 2003, garnering rave reviews from players and critics alike. Set thousands of years before the Battle of Yavin, the designers were clearly unburdened by the strict canonical requirements of the then current Prequel Trilogy (PT), whose third and last entry had just begun production.

KOTOR was a massive game spanning multiple locations and a wealth of characters easily rivalling the motion picture series itself.  It furthermore vastly improved players’ understanding of the Sith and the Jedi, and the Force in general, effectively serving as a supplement to the PT, which remained rather mum on the mythologies of the warring religious orders. I naturally duly sank my teeth into the sprawling adventure for weeks, comfortably minimized the agonizing wait for Episode III. And it’s the game’s legendary scope that I shied away from when I first learnt of its tablet conversion.

Why spend weeks playing a title that I had completed eons ago, stunned by the truly significant twist at the end but now perfectly aware of where the story is headed? On top of that, why do so on a mobile platform? I eventually relented for the very reasons why BioWare’s design is so impeccably perfect.

“Your father was the best role player in the galaxy” – Gradual learning curve

Roleplaying games have always had a spotty record with regards to accessibility. Electronic Arts’ The Bard’s Tale, for instance, instantly reduced the odd newcomer to the genre to pixellated pulp after the first few steps in Skara Brae. Frustration was not an issue in KOTOR, however.

The introductory phase involving a crashing star cruiser seamlessly tutored players while being swiftly inducted into the game’s world. The characters you interact with at first are all in the same predicament and need to learn about the planet the escape pods land on alongside the players. None of the opening action is specifically franchise-related either, broadening the superficial appeal, drawing users in to explore this world further.

Aside from a permanently alterable difficulty setting, early combat capably provides engrossing victories and advances players through various set-pieces in quick succession. Initial quests may seem quaint but fetchingly require players to move through different sections of the first explorable world, enabling them to pick up tangential information on the fly: Conversations with NPC are welcome, skippable and untarnished by possible dead ends.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - Battle of Taris, aboard the Endar Spire
Teasing the eventual evolution of the player into a Jedi Master or Sith Lord, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic sets very attractive and motivating goals at the beginning, while smartly refraining from frustrating the player, who in the image above is the character on the right in the background watching a cut-scene. The game gently introduces gamers to the virtual world, affording them companions along the way to ease swift progress through early story beats and further identification with the responsibilities the hero/heroine has to take on. Image:

Although KOTOR allows save states at all times, it is pleasingly lenient when it comes to resupplies, add-ons and upgrades. Stores are adequately placed in most of the sections and it is always rewarding to explore yet another room in search of an abandoned footlocker.

Enemies and challenges gradually grow more difficult and complex. There is not a specific moment when players realize a change for the playable characters are levelled up at a good clip. Occasional defeat is grounded in the players’ actions, not the designers’ sarcastic whim. Fights are not to be picked randomly but with a purpose and a palpable strategy at hand.

A few hours into KOTOR, every type of player will have made (seemingly) great strides in a world that one feels at home in virtually instantly.

“And now, young Jedi…you will PLAY!” – Empowering user interface

Perusing website these days will see many reviews of the KOTOR iPad/iOS conversion headlined by the question of whether such a complex game is at all playable on a touchscreen. I admit reading several critiques myself to clarify this aspect. There is hardly anything more frustrating than having the most intriguing yet unplayable game at hand by virtue of ill-conceived controls. Two years ago, Electronic Arts launched the first LEGO Harry Potter game on mobile devices without implementing a virtual stick, causing consumers to madly swipe about their devices, covering the arguably beautiful release almost completely from users’ darting eyes. An update followed soon after to rectify this flaw. KOTOR also relies on swipe controls.

As the IGN review points out, BioWare’s original interface design was optimized for XBox controllers and remains exactly the same, but to surprisingly great effect. While one or two commentators have pointed out that a virtual stick is essential for adroitly controlling your characters, I find the opposite to be the case. Since KOTOR does not require pin point-accuracy during character movement – nor did the keyboard operation on the PC live up to such high claims – controlling your party on touchscreen using swipes works ingeniously well.

While LEGO Harry Potter on iOS initially stumbled because finger placement initiating a swipe also affected the characters’ direction, KOTOR elegantly differentiates between horizontal swipes for determining the direction (or camera angle in pause modes) and vertical ones for advancing the characters. The farther you swipe from the initial spot, the faster the characters will travel across the scene, regardless of where the finger is put originally.

By offering a well-implemented swipe-mechanic, aspyr, the designers of the iPad conversion, furthermore place users’ fingers always next to KOTOR’s general menu items such as character stats, as well as objects and NPCs inside the gameplay area. The roleplaying classic thus feels more of a single piece, instead of being disembodied on a screen next to a mouse and a keyboard.

KOTOR features an easy-to-learn and understand interface that never gets in the way of the action. The swipe-based operation really is not an inevitable compromise but an enhancement of the already well-crafted UI design.

“A young player, who was a fan of me, fancied and purchased Knights of the Old Republic” – Immersive storytelling

When KOTOR was first released, the PT was at the top of people’s minds. Anakin’s final steps towards the Dark Side were just being lensed in Australia and the once vaunted and highly anticipated Prequel Trilogy was nearing its unfortunately predictable ending: Ani would turn to evil to allow the Original Trilogy (OT) to exist in the first place. KOTOR was a game changer among Star Wars-based games.

KOTOR was designed to be a familiar-looking, if not instantly recognizable Star Wars tie-in. Its story was set thousands of years prior to anything the broad public knew about George Lucas’s perennial franchise. Therein lay its unique appeal: Any player could (and would) try her or his hand at the game precisely because it was thankfully devoid of franchise staples Luke, Ben, Yoda or R2D2. No line of dialogue, mannerism, quip or wisdom had to be adhered to (read: endured) but a new storyline created that was merely predicated upon the general cornerstones of the Star Wars universe.

New worlds, new characters and new mysteries were asking to be thoroughly explored and BioWare wisely made KOTOR decidedly non-linear once the party is in possession of a space craft. Long at last, people were given an opportunity to learn about the Old Republic by and large first-hand, after so much had to be rushed past audiences’ glances, so obligated was the PT with Anakin’s plight.

KOTOR’s main character suffers from amnesia, which may be an old hat, but it certainly was a novelty in Star Wars games and the superficial gimmickry effectually mirrored most players’ ignorance of the time period prior to the events chronicled in the Academy Award winning films of the 70ies and 80ies, as well as the Prequels.

Unlike previous games, players were not locked in a specific role. Fully acknowledging the importance of creating the first true Star Wars roleplaying experience, BioWare made choosing either side of the Force the most important gameplay mechanic. From abilities, to Force powers and NPC’s dispositions towards the player, as well as the group dynamic among party members, the choice between the the Light or the Dark Side made decisions immersive to the point of players questioning their own ethics in the real world. Replay value was substantial therefore as the game would adapt itself accordingly.


KOTOR released players from their typical status as pawns of some designers’ cast-in-stone creations. Enfranchised, they became crucial elements in, not blunt observers of a tale, whose course never seems predisposed.

...and now, the recharge cycle of your tablet is complete. Indeed, the lure of Knights of the Old Republic is powerful…




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