Saturday, December 10, 2016

Star Wars: The Old Republic: Knights of the Fallen Empire review

    I've fallen behind on my Star Wars: The Old Republic reviews. In large part, this is due to the fact I don't have the same amount of time to game as I used to. I'd very much like to catch up and do reviews of Rise of the Hutt Cartel and the Shadow of Revan. However, due to the release of The Eternal Throne, I figure it's probably a good idea to get the biggest and most important of the expansions reviewed.

    Knights of the Fallen Empire is, in my opinion, a game-changer. I liked all of the class-centric stories as well as the previous two expansions but this is really a step up. The others, bluntly, felt like they leaned a little too heavily on their archetypes so that they didn't have quite the same level of storytelling as the Knights of the Old Republic games.

The Sith Emperor has a new guise.
    While dislike for MMORPGs and the fact The Old Republic isn't on consoles plays some role in the fan grumbling for a "real" Knights of the Old Republic 3, I actually think this goes a long way to settling my desire for one. It's the first story which I think is every bit as good as those two games. I admit, part of the reason for this is due to the fact they also ditch a lot of what was in the main game for something more distinctly Bioware.

    One of the things which never quite gelled in The Old Republic was it's very black and white view of the conflict with the Sith = Evil and the Republic = Good. The stories were never more interesting when you were playing a Light Side Sith or seeing the dark side of the Republic. While Knights of the Old Republic was very much a conflict between good and bad, it's best games blurred the lines like Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2.

Lana becomes a major character here and I approve.
    In a very real way, the game also felt stalled because there were literally many quests which were mirrors of one another. The Sith Player Characters would make a lot of inroads in Balmorra, only to have it implied the Republic Players moved it right back. There didn't seem to be the same level of stakes in other games, even when the omnicidal Dark Side god Vititae showed up, due to the fact the players were actively working to counteract each other. You couldn't actually have a "winner" in the Old Republic Galactic Civil War either because then the game would be over. Knights of the Fallen Empire fixes all that.

    The premise for the expansion is the Player Character joins an alliance with Darth Marr and Satele Shan (Jedi and Sith together! Woot!) to hunt down the newly-revived Emperor Vitiate. In true Empire Strikes Back fashion, this alliance is crushed by Vitiate revealing a third faction to the galaxy. The Zakuul Empire, armed with a fleet of super battleships, crushes the fleet sent to destroy Vitiate before revealing that he is worshiped as a god in a powerful new empire.

Arcann is hateful and brutish but he has reason to be. Also, he's surprisingly reasonable about his dad.
    The Sith Emperor offers the Player Character a chance to join them, only to be betrayed by his son Arcann who becomes the expansion's archvillain. The PC is left with the Sith Emperor, known in Zakuul as Emperor Valkorion, as their unwanted Obi-Wan Kenobi. They must join with Lana Beniko, Koth Vortena, and a mysterious woman named Senya to form a galactic rebellion against the Zakuul before they wipe out all opposition to their rule.

    In simple terms, the Zakuul offer the game what it needed from the beginning in a third faction for Player versus Enemy games. A lot of people said The Old Republic was needlessly cribbing off World of Warcraft but the thing about that was WOW possesses The Burning Legion, The Scourge, Deathwing, and other characters to distract from the largely played-out Alliance vs. Horde business. Hell, it was largely played out by Warcraft 3 and there was a reason peace was the ultimate goal in that game.

It's a small thing but there's some epic duels in this game.
    Zakuul is also a surprisingly well-written faction as it's not Light or Dark but a Neutral faction misled by evil rulers. The Zakuul are a utopian Star Trek-esque civilization which just so happens to have a monster of a leader as well as an absolutist monarchy. There's no sign of the Sith's evil or even the Republic's corruption but Arcann has absolute authority due to the fact his treason has a conveinant scapegoat (you). That doesn't mean they aren't crushingly terrifying enemies to the Republic and Sith Empire, who are helpless before its superior technology. After millennium of being the biggest game in town, both the Sith and Republic find themselves as the undeveloped nations exploited by more powerful ones.

    Attempts to move beyond the Empire and Sith as antagonists have always been a mixed bag in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. The Yuuzhan Vong, for me, failed because they were too alien. Star Wars is, for me, all about people with the aliens being more "normal" than in Star Trek (and that's a big statement given most ST aliens just have rubber foreheads). Thats because Star Wars is (mostly) a metaphor for all time mooshed together versus being set in the future. Zakuul isn't alien. It's a very believable conquest-minded nation with good, bad, and neutral people. It's akin to setting the British Empire in Star Wars than organic religious Forceless religious fanatics. As such, they feel like they belong and that goes a long way to make them good enemies.

Senya and Vaylin are two great new characters.
    The villains for the game are also extremely well-developed with Arcann, his sister Vaylin, and Valkorion all having three-dimensional personalities. Okay, Vaylin is just Dark Side Drusilla from Buffy but that's not a bad thing. KOTFE goes a long way to redeeming the Sith Emperor from being a flat one-note bad guy as well. The retcon that he was as disgusted with the Sith as the Light Sided Sith players is an interesting one.

    He's still a murderer of billions but he "conquest of the universe for my chosen people" is a more understandable as a motivation than "Dark Side Chaos God." It's doubly so if you assume he only intended to murder his people's enemies. There were a lot of times when Valkorion criticized the Sith Empire and my Light Side Sith Inquisitor couldn't help but nod along.

I think the Knights of Zakuul have the Force right.
    Arcannn, by contrast, has a lot of Kylo Ren in him but instead of going for a scared teenager, the developers went for something more akin to Darth Malak. Driven by the same jealousy which drove Darth Malak to rebel against Darth Revan, Arcann is over his head as Zakuul Emperor but not so much that you don't think he's not a threat. He actually felt like a threat to my character and someone who could be a galaxy-beater even if I didn't think he had the charisma or tactical brilliance to keep the universe once he conquered it.

    The game makes a controversial decision to also make the player character into "The Outlander." All of the other player characters have disappeared in-universe (to die or be disabled in some way) so it's all up to the Player Character to save the universe. I approve of this because it really does amp up the Star Wars feel considerably. For those invested in more than one storyline, though, it feels like a gut punch since you get to see almost all of the Companions devastated by the loss of their heroes. There's no happy ending for the Sith Warrior and Vette unless you're playing the Sith Warrior and if you are then the Jedi Knight and Kira or Smuggler and Corso Riggs are doomed.

Best Smuggler Ever! Especially since the other Best Smuggler Ever is missing.
    On the plus side, I love the new cast of Companions with my favorite Sith and CGI object of adoration Lana Beniko being your first companion. She does an excellent job balancing the scales being a Dark Sider and the fact she's loyal, noble, idealistic, and (possibly) in love with you. Theron Shan doesn't make an appearance until near the middle of the story so there's a bit of a downside but I still think of those two as the strongest characters in the game so I'm not too upset. I absolutely love the Specialists you recruit for the Rebellion with ascended extras like Hylo Visz and being especially welcome.

    In a very real way, Knights of the Fallen Empire is pretty much what I wanted from Knights of the Old Republic 3. It's a high stakes, dramatic, well-written space opera with a hugely important position for your Player Character while also giving us new developments to the universe. The Empire of Zakuul could have been named better (Archduchy of Zakuul, Star Kingdom of Zakuul, Federation of Zakuul?) but it works well. I also felt the stakes were high as well and never really lowered. Congratulations, Bioware, you've earned back the trust you lost with Dragon Age: Inquisition.



  1. Well, with the agent you do get reunited with Kaliyo and Scorpio. I believe you can also re-recruit Lokin. Of course, those all fall under the chaotic evil side of the spectrum.

  2. I like this expansion in places like Zakul, the emperor being humanized in a way (that and his new VA being really delightful to listen to). Acrann in the earlier chapters (later ones have him being orcus on his throne too much).

    Along with better animation form Bioware and some later chapters having great tension to them.

    Where it falls down on for me was Bioware repeating their mistake with inquisition, namely making all class characters like the inquisitor in being the chosen one, leader but having no agency in the story or characterization.

    All the arc's in the class stories just felt mostly irrvelant unless you were Jedi knight, sith warrior or IA. Smuggler and BH classes especially really had nothing of their material fit into KOFTE at all.

    They felt very out of place being the outlander. It didn't help that most of the choices didn't have much to them either (some like blowing up the city in Kalyio's chapter did).

    The game also at this point abandons any pretence of being a mmo, which kinda of undercuts the purpose of Swtor. Really Bioware should have just done all of these as single games as that is where their strengths lie.

    Looking forward to seeing your review of eternal thrones. That had some good writing to it I felt.