In Replaying the Classics, StarWars.com revisits Star Wars games of yesteryear, examining why we loved them then and why they stand the test of time.
Today, Obsidian Entertainment is known to many gamers as the developer behind world-class RPGs like Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity, but the company got its start in a galaxy far, far away. Founded in 2003 by former employees of Black Isle Studios, Obsidian’s first-ever project was a tall order: a follow-up to BioWare’s highly acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The good news was that the team would have access to the Odyssey Engine, d20 System, and other technology BioWare had used to make the first KotOR such a monumental hit. The bad news? Obsidian would have a little more than one year to complete the game in time for the 2004 holiday season.
Like the original Knights of the Old Republic, The Sith Lords takes place millennia before the rise of the Galactic Empire, in an age when the Sith have hunted down and destroyed many of the Jedi. While KotOR closely follows the structure and tone of the classic Star Wars trilogy, its sequel opts for a more leisurely, novelistic style of storytelling. Its unique characters are beloved for the ways they discuss and examine the complicated nature of the Force, and the Force itself plays a fairly active and crucial role in the story.
The Mandalorian Wars that served as the backstory for the first KotOR are further explored in Knights of the Old Republic II, culminating with a showdown on the war-torn planet Malachor V, which was later depicted in the Season Two finale of Star Wars Rebels. Gradually, it’s revealed that the player character, known as “the Exile,” and the woman accompanying them on their journey, Kreia, both knew the fallen Jedi Revan, who led Republic forces during the war. (For players who took the light-side path in the first Knights of the Old Republic, Revan was eventually redeemed.) Revan’s not part of KotOR II’s story, exactly, but the character’s mark can be found throughout the game — along with a few familiar faces who knew the Prodigal Knight best.
Most of the features players loved most in the first KotOR return in the sequel (sometimes in new-and-improved form, but always intact). It’s still got a robust character-creation system; it still has plenty of amazing Star Wars loot to discover and carry into battle against the Sith, including lightsabers; and it’s still got Pazaak, the ingenious card game invented by Drew Karpyshyn, author of the fan-favorite Legends novel Darth Bane: Path of Destruction.
“We decided to build upon the proven success of the first game’s design, and were careful to not fix aspects of the game that had already proved their worth,” designer Kevin Saunders recalled in an article for Game Developer magazine. “Instead, we identified areas of KotOR that we could expand upon to create a better experience in a flavor similar to that of the first game. Almost without exception, every game-design enhancement to KotOR II was a natural extension from the original.”
As the subtitle implies, a lot of the game’s lasting appeal comes from its memorable, sometimes terrifying Sith Lords, who are veiled in mystery for much of the story. KotOR II had to jettison a large amount of narrative content near the end of its tight production schedule — which was amazingly restored in 2015 and is available on Steam — but that didn’t stop it from delivering one of the best-written, most original tales of the entire Legends era. Its dialogue, in particular, would impress audiences in any medium. And the story’s biggest surprises will haunt players long after the game is over.
“It’s addictive. It kills your social life dead. And it’s still the greatest Western-style RPG on the consoles,” a reviewer for Eurogamer wrote in 2005. “In terms of creating an Xbox RPG in which you define yourselves by your decisions, minor and major, it’s peerless.” That journalist’s name was Kieron Gillen, who’s better known these days as the co-creator of Doctor Aphra and the writer behind Marvel’s ongoing Star Wars comic. Small galaxy.
Alex Kane is a journalist based in west-central Illinois. He has written for Polygon, the website of Rolling Stone, Syfy Wire, Variety, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.