Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (KOTOR II) is a game developed by Obsidian Entertainment, instead of Bioware, and was released less than a year and a half after the first KOTOR. The two aspects of a shorter-than-desirable development time and having a different studio handle a sequel to 2003's Game of the Year usually brings worrisome fans to wonder how the game will succeed in recapturing that same spirit as the original. Is this the 'Empire Strikes Back' of Star Wars games?
KOTOR II takes place 5 years after the original. The remaining Jedi that survived the events of KOTOR are either dead or in hiding from a 'hidden enemy'. As the last known remaining Jedi, you must defeat this hidden enemy and rekindle your connection to the Force. Upon seeing the crawling text disappear and finishing a short prologue, your character wakes up to find him/her in an abandoned mining facility. After waking up an old woman named Kreia, you're tasked with finding out why all of the mining crew is gone and how you can escape this place.
From the beginning, it's easy to spot the different approaches to the story-which remains true throughout the entire game. Rather than piecing your identity together through dreams about your past, your character, the Jedi Exile (usually just called Exile) has the name you've given him/her and knows about his/her past life fairly vividly, but uses third party characters and dialogue to establish the identity to the player. While it's still a device similar to the cliché of not knowing your identity, it's executed well enough for you to always feel that you have enough tangible information from the beginning to allow the rest to feel like a "rediscovery" of your past.
Not only in execution, but also in originality does KOTOR II succeed in creating an excellent atmosphere that will feel unique to even the biggest Star Wars fan. Added into this darker, oppressed tone is the continual cession of the dialogue breaking the wall between the character and you thanks mostly in part to the conversations you have with Kreia. She will banter with you and other party members about your decision to give a poor person money, rather than forcing them to survive by making their own. Although her viewpoint is dark side rooted, her points cause you to question whether or not that decision will make their futures worse. Even the simplest of decisions can make for divisive conversations between party members. To make your decisions hold more weight, many light side/dark side choices will sway influence with your party-which is needed in order to dive farther down into their entire backstory.
KOTOR II not only succeeds at delivering refreshing dialogue, it also succeeds at providing new ideas to the SW franchise as a whole. To only hint at spoilers, one of the motives for one of the integral characters in KOTOR II revolves around the quintessential idea that makes the Star Wars universe. While the quibble of not being able to complete every quest can't go unnoticed, the combination of great characters (a few of them returning), original elements to a 30+ year-old franchise, and fantastic storytelling make KOTOR II arguably one of the best stories in video games.
KOTOR left an amazing, though sometimes discordant, visual impression for those who played it. While the variety within each planet was respectable, frame rate issues would rear their head far too often. While KOTOR II still has some artistically crafted levels, it suffers from looking a bit too much of the same as its previous entry on a technical level-frame rate issues included. There's certainly no expectation for it to look radically better; however, 2004 offered many sequels that raised the bar for console/PC graphics while KOTOR II showed the engine stagger behind.
Meeting the expectations of the Star Wars brand while delivering nuanced tones, KOTOR II is able to deliver a darker atmosphere. Great voice acting is delivered across all fronts, with Kreia being a standout. It's also surprising to see certain choices like Darth Nihilus' (Sith on front cover with mask) voice being nothing more than distorted sounds that seem to echo around his ship. Most of the praise comes down to the attention to detail, rather than different sounds altogether. The effects of delivering louder orchestral noises, whether it's the background or the theme music for when you make a dark side choice, make me wish there were more Star Wars games like this.
As expected with a sequel, KOTOR II follows the same pseudo turn-based formula as the original. The formula keeps to the same idea of partitioning certain powers and items in one box and allowing the players to scroll up/down each box to use their desired power or item. With a few refinements, KOTOR II adds a new slot to the action menu dedicated to different lightsaber forms-which are discovered throughout the course of the game. Other subtle fluctuations such as new Force powers, alternate weapon choices in the equipment menu, and subtle tweaks throughout the pause menu essentially fill out all of the new combat mechanics. While these ideas still seem to adhere too close to the original's formula, it's tough to really criticize the game for wanting to keep with one of the most satisfying combat mechanics in RPGs.
The formulas around other avenues to spend your time are unfortunately recycled on the entertainment side, but refined when it comes to customization. While the extras-such as Pazaak and Swoop Racing-are still there, the new ideas like breaking down/building certain equipment are going to burn a few more hours of your time in order for you to craft a lightsaber to your specifications, or perhaps break down old armor pieces in exchange for a few more computer spikes. The introduction to lab stations and chemicals that mirrors the workbench system is also welcoming. KOTOR II's system doesn't tread new territory often, but it does blend all of these elements together making it have more variety than the previous entry.
What was the tagline in KOTOR is now revitalized in II by employing more consequences: the power to choose your fate. Throughout the journey, you'll constantly be told just how influential your choices, big or small, will be on both your crew and entire planets. Not only do your light side/dark side choices affect your meter, but the party members as well. If you decide to walk the path that makes you the next Palpatine of the galaxy, your companions will join you down that dark path. As mentioned earlier, KOTOR II's influence system is also another feature that fluctuates depending on your decisions. Rather than talking to each party member after you've leveled, it's required that you say the right dialogue option or make the right action in order to know the personal history behind each of your squad mates. Overall, the attention to detail in the choices you make this time around is deeper than you could imagine, offering much more replay ability than expected.
In conclusion, KOTOR II:TSL is another fantastic RPG experience in many ways. Amazing storytelling that explores certain depths yet to be told anywhere else in the Star Wars canon, refined elements that demand you to experiment with the variety, and more is what you should expect in this sequel. You may not need to the read the forums to have a feeling that certain aspects feel incomplete, but it shouldn't matter when considering that this is one of the best WRPGs to be released last generation.
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