The Star Wars universe has always been far richer and more interesting than just the small slice shown off in the massively popular films, although most of this expanded lore has since been ‘decanonized’ shortly after Disney acquired the IP. One of the most notable parts of this legacy content was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (or KOTOR if you're syllable sensitive), which originally saw release on Xbox & PC back in 2003 and will soon be receiving a full scale modern remake on the newest consoles. Taking place in a mostly unexplored distant past in the Star Wars timeline, this Bioware RPG was quite an impressive achievement back in the day and still remains a compelling experience now. Though there are some elements of KOTOR that absolutely show their age, this is a solid, nostalgia-laden title that we're happy to have available on-the-go.
KOTOR takes place approximately 4,000 years before the prequel films, so there are no Skywalkers or confusingly resurrected emperors to be seen here. The game opens shortly after the Galactic Republic has barely finished a war against the Mandalorians and now finds itself being invaded by an armada led by the two Jedi-turned Sith who spearheaded the initial war effort. Though one of the Sith, Darth Revan, has been killed, their apprentice Darth Malak is still hellbent on completing their mission of eliminating the Republic. In the midst of all this, you play a simple ‘nobody’ character who gets caught up in the struggle and ultimately changes the outcome of the conflict.
Although the specter of this wartime backdrop looms large over everything you do, KOTOR is mostly defined by the smaller, ground-level stories you get drawn into as you slowly pull together your party and chart your course through the stars. For example, the world you first start on—Taris—is defined by the struggle to both track down the whereabouts of an important Jedi whose escape pod crash-landed there and to find a reliable transport to get offworld.
Even these smaller objectives frequently get put on the backburner, however, as there are many steps involved in getting them done. If you want to gain passage to a critical part of the city, for example, you first must help a party member break her Wookie friend out of captivity. Little rabbit trails like this, however, don’t feel like they detract too much from the overall experience, as all of them improve your understanding of the world or its social systems in some way.
The story may sound a bit meandering (and… yeah, it can be), but KOTOR does a spectacular job of creating a world that feels adequately ‘lived in’. This is a phrase tossed around a lot in great RPGs, but it feels doubly true here, and a big part of this can be credited to the in-depth dialogue system, which ensures that even conversations with one-and-done NPCs have more to them than just one or two lines. Not only does this add a lot more flavor to the communities that you find yourself moving through, but all this additional dialogue is critical to figuring out what you have to do next. KOTOR has a quest log to track your objectives, but it certainly doesn’t point where to go or what to do. Talking with NPCs usually gives you plenty of hints, however, and enough information can be pieced together from what they say to figure out generally where to go next.
Beyond this, there’s a rather simplistic morality system at the heart of your interactions. How you respond to events will influence whether you lean more towards the Light or the Dark sides of the Force, and this influences both your journey and which ending you get to eventually see. How you talk to someone in a bar might affect whether you get involved in a fight later on. Having that leeway to choose between either being a boy scout or a bully thus helps to make the narrative feel that much more personal while also increasing replayability, as there are plenty of instances where you can’t help but wonder how things would’ve gone down if you said something else. It’s far from the most detailed (or realistic) take on a morality system in a game, yet there are still some nice instances where the ‘right’ thing to do feels fittingly gray.
There’s a fair amount of exploration to be had in the world itself, but this is perhaps where KOTOR feels most like a nearly 20-year-old game. Environments are all laid out in a somewhat maze-like fashion littered with treasure, enemies, and NPCs, but whether you’re traipsing across the sandy dunes of Tatooine or the woodsy locales of Kashyyyk, KOTOR ultimately feels like a series of very flat rooms connected to each other. There’s not much variety to be seen here on a foundational level; having more interesting environmental hazards or gimmicks to differentiate the planets would’ve gone a long way towards breaking up this feeling of homogeneity. Now, one can only expect so much from a game of this era, but just be prepared for level and world designs that are decidedly less interesting than you’d expect to find in a similar release today.
Whenever you find yourself pulled into combat, things appear to play out in a fast-paced live action style, but this is only an illusion. In reality, all numbers are being calculated using an old-school d20 stat system, and actions are actually playing out in a simple turn-based fashion. For simpler enemy encounters, you thus don’t have to do much more than walking within range and simply letting the numbers sort themselves out. For more challenging encounters, however, you must make more usage of additional combat skills and (later) Force powers to tip the odds in your favor. So in practice, combat in KOTOR doesn’t turn out to be much different than what you’d expect to see in an old school Final Fantasy game, even though it feels radically different because of how information is conveyed to you.
Once you’ve gotten enough experience from questing or killing enemies, you’re then allowed to level up your characters in a fashion that’s a little more hands on than usual. You can always choose to just go with the auto level up and let the game just handle it for you, but you’re encouraged to manually distribute the stat points yourself. Putting more points into “Computer” for example, will make it easier to hack, while putting more points into Demolitions will make it easier to dismantle or recover live mines. You’re only given a few points to distribute each time, but the flipside is that just one stat point can make a world of difference.
Additionally, you also have a tree of “Feats” which govern things like proficiency with different weapon types or fancy new abilities to use in combat. Much like your stats, you have to be quite discerning with your limited points here and things are made all the more stressful by the fact that there’s no option to respec your character. So, it’s entirely possible that you can ‘ruin’ your build and be faced with either having to start the whole game over or making the rest of your journey considerably more difficult to play through. In this regard, KOTOR again shows its age. Not only is this chance of ruining your build always present, but the overall process of going through this leveling feels needlessly opaque and confusing. It can be difficult to understand precisely what a given stat will actually do for you, and the in-game information can be frustratingly thin sometimes.
Aside from all the expected RPG trappings, KOTOR also features a variety of minigames that offer up a nice break from the usual action. These include a simple drag-racing challenge, first-person shooting from a turret on your ship, and a blackjack-like card game. None of these are more than little distractions along your long journey, but they do add just the right amount of gameplay variety to keep the otherwise rigid gameplay loop from becoming too stale.
One minor annoyance that we feel still needs to be mentioned is that it’s abundantly clear KOTOR was not designed to be played with a controller. While it may be that the original released on the Xbox alongside its PC release, the world itself feels like it’s ideally navigated by mouse. There are lots of interactable elements in any given part of the world, and where you would simply point and click on menus or NPCs in the past, here you rather awkwardly cycle through targets by using the shoulder buttons. It’s far from deal-breaking, and we’d argue the novelty of having KOTOR on the go outweighs this drawback, but just be prepared for controls that’ll always feel a little hokey.
From a presentation perspective, we’d say KOTOR does about as well as it can given the limited nature of this port. Although lighting has gotten a nice bump, the frame rate runs high, and the textures are nicely detailed, there’s simply no mistaking this for a modern game. Simplistic environments, chunky character models, and stiff animations are par for the course here, and while this probably was quite the looker back in the day, it just doesn’t hold up anymore. Meanwhile, the soundtrack fares much better, with an identity that closely matches the epic tone of the scores composed by John Williams for the films.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic may have lost some of its luster as the years have gone on, but the foundations of a well-written and enjoyable RPG haven’t aged a day. If you can get past things like awkward controls, middling presentation, and a complete lack of handholding, the 30-ish hour campaign offers up an engaging romp through the beloved Star Wars universe. We’d give KOTOR on Switch a strong recommendation to any fans of Star Wars or RPGs in general, just with the caveat that you’ll get more out of it if you can stomach archaic game design elements.