One of the best things about fan communities is an unwavering passion for their beloved properties, and few fandoms are more passionate than the Star Wars community. Whether you are talking about the original trilogy or the prequels, the extended universe or the new Disney continuity, you’re always going to find fans who will defend their opinion with the intensity of a Jedi versus a Sith. Sometimes, this kind of passion can lead to poisonous situations, but can also be the catalyst for amazing pieces of art. This includes a video game labor of love which BioWare developed over a decade ago: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
Since its release, KotOR has gone down as one of the most influential and best-regarded games in history; a reputation it well deserves. It introduced revolutionary systems that we take for granted in RPGs today and is still the gold standard of how licensed properties should adapt their subject matter to the video game medium. Even 20 years later, passionate modding communities ensure that KotOR stands the test of time by introducing new quests, updated graphics, and other modern bells and whistles.
But what I wanted was the unvarnished experience, the same one that Xbox and PC audiences got back in 2003. I didn’t want the special edition; I wanted the original! So, without the addition of fan texture packs, expanded quests, bug fixes, or other mods, does KotOR still stand up? For the most part, absolutely.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic follows the well-trodden tale of destiny putting the fate of the galaxy in a random person’s hands. Over 4,000 years before the events of the original trilogy, an epic battle between the Jedi Knights of the Old Republic and the ascending Sith army was tearing the galaxy apart. After a space battle leaves a Republic soldier, a Jedi Padawan, and yourself stranded on the remote city planet Taris, you must find a way back to the Jedi Enclave to deliver critical information that could be the key to saving the Republic. Along the way, you will have the opportunity to train as a Jedi, but you must always be wary of the dark side, ever at your back.
One of the most revolutionary mechanics that KotOR introduced was its morality system, utilizing the light and dark sides of the force. Each decision you make affects which side of the force you lean towards. You can either be a paragon of Jedi virtue or an evil Sith that would make Darth Vader himself go, “Damn, son!” As this type of morality system was still in its infancy, there wasn’t a lot of nuance in your dialogue options. When faced with a stranger in need, your choices usually boil down to, “I’d love to help” or “I’m going to slice you open with my lightsaber.” Most of the powerful upgrade abilities are only unlocked if you focus on one side of the force or the other, so becoming a gray Jedi doesn’t really hold any appeal. If you want to get the full experience, you need to choose Jedi or Sith.
Actually, to get the full experience, you need to choose both! Light side and dark side playthroughs are so different that they genuinely feel like two different games. Your choices don’t just create cosmetic changes; they drastically impact the way the story unfolds. To be honest, the path of the Dark Side becomes so, well, dark that it’s genuinely disturbing. This isn’t a game that pulls its punches when portraying the evil of the Sith. This mechanic engages you in a way that few other RPGs are capable of, with twists and turns that you probably won’t see coming.
Speaking of twists, KotOR has one of the most famous and effective ones in gaming history. While it won’t be spoiled here (just in case you are planning on playing the game for the first time after reading this review), it rivals “I am your father” for the sheer “Wahhhhhh?!” factor.
RPGs are nothing without side quests, and while KotOR isn’t overflowing with them, there are many optional tasks that will delightfully distract from your important job of saving the galaxy. Pazaak, a card game similar to blackjack, is played on every planet and can be a useful way to make money. Swoop racing, a sport obviously inspired by podracing, is a part of the main questline, but further races become optional after you’ve left the first planet. Both minigames are well designed, but are ultimately forgettable and easily skipped.
Alongside these minigames, you can also go on optional sidequests to get to know your companions better. These stories are always enjoyable, allowing you to learn more about their histories and motivations, but their successful completion doesn’t unlock any additional abilities, buffs, or equipment. It’s all about the story here!
One sidequest in particular was surprisingly progressive for 2003. While there are the usual heterosexual love interests, there is also an almost hidden same-sex romance option between the feline Jedi Juhani and the female player character. It isn’t as well-developed as the main romantic pairings and has little impact on the overall plot, but its very existence promised some significant steps forward for romance options in the future, for both BioWare and other RPGs.
One of the challenges in reviewing older games is that graphics rarely age quite as well as gameplay. But despite somewhat dated graphics, BioWare’s stunning visual design shines through. Planets feel like real, living places where familiar alien races and droids roam freely. It’s impressive how the team at BioWare tweaked the Star Wars aesthetic just enough so that KotOR was recognizable as an earlier era, while still being set in the galaxy far far away. Technology isn’t quite as polished as it is in the original trilogy, but familiar enough that it is recognizable.
The combat system is another area where the game hasn’t aged particularly well. Based on the D20 system used in pen and paper RPGs, it’s a mix of real-time and turn-based combat. At any time, you can pause to give commands to your entire party or simply leave them to their own devices, following a limited selection of preset actions. If you’re familiar with the D&D dice-rolling style of combat, you will be right at home. If not, you’re in for a bit of a learning curve. In your initial playthrough, you can expect to die a lot in the first quarter of the game. However, once you learn the nuances of the battle system, you’ll be swinging your lightsaber through crowds of enemies with ease.
The music and sound design of KotOR are real standouts. While there is some choppy acting in places, the overall performances are fantastic. Characters like Republic soldier Carth Onasi and Jedi Padawan Bastila Shan are as well acted and developed as any character in the original trilogy. The soundtrack of the game also deserves special mention. This isn’t just a pastiche of John Williams’ iconic Star Wars score, as there are entirely new themes that evoke familiarity while also standing on their own. But to those purists, don’t worry, the opening crawl at the beginning of the game is still backed by John Williams’ classic theme!
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is one of those games that all RPG and Star Wars fans should play. Despite its early 2000s pedigree, you would be hard pressed to find a game with more polish and thought put into its systems and design. No matter if you play it on the original Xbox, PC, Mac, or even iOS, it’s definitely worth a playthrough (or two, if you have the stomach for the dark side). Is it as good as when it was first released? Not quite, but I do believe that KotOR’s place in history as one of the greatest games ever made is still unshaken.