It’s hard to believe that Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was released 17 years ago. Generations of gaming have passed since then, yet KotOR has aged remarkably well and is more than playable even now thanks to support from modders and some updates. If you decide to give it a go, but run into some trouble, check out our article on troubleshooting KotOR for PC. (I also find turning off the grass effects to be essential).
KotOR and its sequel, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, are remembered fondly by the original generation that played it nearly two decades ago, but it’s been largely forgotten by new gamers who either haven’t encountered the games, have only played the MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic, or are curious but were concerned the games hadn’t aged well or weren’t worth playing.
We’re going to look back at this legendary series that changed not only the world of Star Wars, but the world of RPG video games, and show that in 2020 Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic still holds up and is very much worth experiencing, whether it be for the first time or as a revisit.
KotOR was developed by Bioware Studios in the early 2000s before they were bought out by EA. Some consider these years to have been Bioware’s best; they included classic hits such as Baldur’s Gate and its sequel, Jade Empire, and, in the later years, Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins.
It was also during these years that the Star Wars prequel trilogy was in the middle of production. Attack of the Clones had just been released, to a mixed to negative reception from both fans and critics, especially directed towards the awkward dialogue, the subject of which makes for great memes even today.
LucasArts outsourced Bioware to create a Star Wars RPG, and were given the choice of setting it during the Clone Wars (between the movies Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith), or to set it thousands of years before the film series. Deciding that the latter option would give them more creative freedom, Bioware decided to set the game four thousand years before the films, during the height of the Old Republic.
What this decision meant is that Bioware was able to create a Star Wars story completely divorced from what is now known as the Skywalker Saga. It gave them the freedom to create their own set of characters, events and cultures. New lore was created: the ideas of Force bonds, Mandalorians, grey Jedi and a whole host of aliens were introduced to the Star Wars Expanded Universe through KotOR.
The success that KotOR brought set a fire to both video game communities and fans of Star Wars. Released at a time when fans were disillusioned by the films, KotOR breathed new life into the old formula. Though KotOR isn’t considered a part of the Star Wars canon, it’s regarded in high esteem by both fans and creators of the Star Wars canon, and we can see its influence on the films that came after it.
All articles in this series will contain spoilers for KotOR and its sequels. Read at your own risk. Also, be sure to read our Knights of the Old Republic review!
The story is set in the midst of what would become known as the Jedi Civil War. A wealth of backstory cradles the narrative: the galaxy had barely begun to recover from the devastation of the Mandalorian Wars, when the Jedi heroes from the wars, Revan and Malak, return from the Unknown Regions as Sith Lords and attack the Republic. With their seemingly infinite resources, they lay waste to an already languishing Republic. Several years into the war, a desperate Jedi Order lays an ambush for the leader, Darth Revan. Revan is killed in the attack when Malak turns on his former friend and master. He proves to be a more vicious and less tactically minded Lord of the Sith, choosing to lay waste to planets in his show of strength.
It is roughly a year into Malak’s reign that our story begins.
The Endar Spire
KotOR opens in what is now considered the classic Bioware formula: You, a Republic soldier stationed on the warship the Endar Spire, are shaken awake by the Sith’s attack. The door opens, and Trask Ulgo runs into the room.
The trope of having a temporary companion who tragically dies in the very beginning of the game has turned into something of a Bioware trademark. This pattern is seen through Jenkins in Mass Effect, various companions in every origin in Dragon Age: Origins, with one of your siblings in Dragon Age II, and once again in Mass Effect 2 with Wilson. Trask valiantly fulfills this role, explaining to you the various mechanics of the game (breaking the fourth wall in the process), who you are and why exactly you need to get to the bridge. He sacrifices himself, leaving you to navigate the doomed ship on your own.
After several encounters with the Sith troops, you meet Carth. Together, you leave on the very last escape pod and crash land on the sprawling city planet of Taris below.
After a nightmare featuring Bastila, you awaken in an apartment. Carth explains the situation: the Sith attacked the Endar Spire, Bastila escaped the ship in an escape pod that crashed somewhere on the planet. Taris is under Sith control, and there’s a planet-wide quarantine, which means that no ships can enter or leave Taris. This is problematic because Bastila, due to her special skill of Battle Meditation, is being hunted by the Sith. As Republic soldiers, it’s your duty to find her before the Sith do.
Taris is a charming place, where the wealthy humans in the Upper City enjoy a life of luxury while the aliens and poor humans are forced to live in the squalor of the dank Lower City, which is ruled by the gangs. Even lower than the Lower City is the Undercity, where criminals and their descendants live amongst plague-infested mutants and never see the sun. Navigating all three levels of the city and speaking to its inhabitants is essential to completing your quest, and you’ll get to know some of the locals pretty well. One of the highlights is the duelling arena, where you get to show off your combat skills for credits and become a local celebrity with the amusing moniker “The Mysterious Stranger.” The announcer is delightfully cheesy and it makes for a great break from beating up the gangs and mutated horrors in the Undercity.
Eventually the trail leads you to Bastila. Along the way, you find allies who help you, including the street-smart teenage twilek Mission Vao, her wookiee friend Zaalbar, and Canderous, a Mandalorian mercenary who opens a door to escape the planet. Just in time, too, as Malak decides he’s done searching the planet for Bastila and orders the entire planet to be destroyed. The Sith fleet open fire on the defenseless city, and you and your group barely escape in time.
Taris had the job of introducing the main trio of the series: the player, Carth and Bastila. Carth proves himself to be a loyal ally, but he has a bit of a complex in terms of trust. Very early in the game he introduces the theme of betrayal as he tells you of Republic officers who betrayed the Republic, including former Jedi Revan and Malak. He also cautions you on the cost of being captured by Dark Jedi, and the power the Force has on the mind (nice foreshadowing there.)
Out of the two, though, the better character is Bastila (voice acting done by Jennifer Hale, of FemShep fame). A young Jedi barely out of training, she bursts into the game and immediately subverts conventions and expectations. Before meeting her, she’s talked up by Carth and Trask. She’s being hunted by Darth Malak and the Sith, and is fabled as a Jedi. As a consequence of the Star Wars films, we go into the game expecting Bastila to be the typical Jedi: calm, composed and wise. Instead, she’s brash, rude, impatient, and her arrogance shines. She all but takes over the group, and scoffs at both your efforts to find her and to escape the planet. When, upon meeting her, you have a vision of her ambush of Darth Revan, she appears shaken by the idea, but encourages you to put it aside until they can find answers from the Jedi Council: she has no answers for you.
She eventually warms up to you. She pushes and presses then withdraws into herself, and it becomes apparent she has her own inner demons to face. As you build a relationship with her, she reveals her insecurities and allows herself to be vulnerable. Before then, however, she’s delightfully prickly, which is a welcome change from the wise and all-knowing stereotype the Jedi tend to embody.
After escaping Taris, you make your way to Dantooine with your merry crew and freshly stolen ship, the Ebon Hawk. The Ebon Hawk is a homage to the Millennium Falcon in design, name and function as a smuggler vessel, and serves as your base of operations and home as you travel the galaxy.
Dantooine is the home of a Jedi Academy, and is the next stop of your intrepid Republic soldier. In the next article we’ll be looking at the Jedi Academy, nightmares and what the Jedi mean to the ordinary Star Wars proletariat.