Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 isn’t much fun

I’m always looking for visual metaphors and here it is courtesy of a common motion-blur graphics bug: if you squint, Kotor 2 looks pretty good as a low-resolution outline. But to clear eyes it’s damaged by a severe lack of polish and glitchy, confusing details. And then deep beneath the surface, you can feel the pain of the unfinished product…

[First time for this blog, a game review! My brother recommended that I play Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords. I love my brother but… oh man I hated that game. I’ve really only written this post to explain to him why I disliked it so much, so forgive the fragmented, rambly style]

I try to avoid calling anything overrated, but the praise I see for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords (Kotor 2) just baffles me. I can’t find a single serious negative review for it — even though it’s a buggy, broken, imbalanced mess that suffers from obvious development limitations. It has a solid enough narrative outline (but as I will explain, the actual narrative sputters) and I restored much of the content the developers cut to meet publishing deadlines with this mod. But the game still feels like such an incomplete, disjointed experience that I can’t recommend it to anyone. It’s awful or, at the very least, it does not hold up 15 years later.

First though, I suppose that I should address the elephant in the room early: Kotor 2 seems incomplete because it is. The publisher (Lucas Arts) pushed the developer (Obsidian Entertainment) into an early release, forcing the devs to scrap much of the work-in-progress content and rush out the remainder without much time to polish or address bugs.* But let me make this clear: I do not care about the game Kotor 2 could have been if it had completed its original production schedule. I only care about the game Kotor 2 is now, and even with support from post-release patches and fan-fixes via the Restored Content Mod, it’s still just… not much fun.

I don’t really have an argument here beyond a series of impressions on vague categories including level design, gameplay, characters, dialogue and narrative, role-playing features, and the so-called “philosophy.” Spoilers abound, but whatever, the game lacks a big twist like the original and it’s been 15 years anyway, so who cares.

* (Just a quick note on bugs because everyone will experience them differently: on my Windows 10 PC, dialogues skipped, cutscenes broke, graphics exploded, characters fell out of the map, voice lines didn’t play, framerates collapsed and I crashed over and over again across my 65 hours and 1.5 playthroughs. The game just doesn’t run well with my modern system)

Poor pacing in the level design

I don’t much mind bad graphics but I have to make an exception here for just one of Kotor 2’s planets: the jungle moon of Dxun stands out as the single ugliest level I have played in any video game newer than say… 2000. To start with, I had some awful glitch with the fog or shadows:

It’s some kind of lighting or texture bug, but still ugly as sin with the way the ship pops out like a prop on an unfinished Garry’s Mod map

But even in screenshots from other players who didn’t experience the glitch, the whole zone feels so empty. While exploring the hidden Mandalorian base, I turned around to a wide view of the area I had just checked. It only reminded me that I had found nothing:

What a waste of space!

Even the front half of the base, with about twice as many NPCs, wastes so much space that I wondered why the developers had bothered to show it off with a panning cutscene:

Is this worthy of a cutscene? Check out the line where the grass hits the maximum render distance…

Dxun was the worst level, but most of the others don’t do much better. I felt some initial excitement upon reaching Telos, expecting a chance to escape the claustrophobic tutorial area and really explore the game. But that excitement wore off after about 10 minutes when I realized that Telos consisted of three copy-paste office complexes, three copy-paste hangers, nine copy-paste apartments (only four of them with NPCs!), and a single store without any interesting items to upgrade my character (and excluding the droid shop because you can’t even play with your droid companion on Telos). Only the cantina captured the exotic feeling of a vast, diverse space station full of multicultural refugees. I hoped that the game would open up when I landed on the planet itself, but nah… instead I had to slog through a linear string of battles against repeat packs of enemies. When I finally hit the robot-tank boss at the end, I spammed it down in maybe thirty seconds. Yay!, the climax to an hour of repetitive combat with no narrative development!

The empty entrance to the Jedi Academy on Telos. The whole game feels like a work-in-progress

The crazy part though? Telos is awful after leaving the station, but it’s still probably Kotor 2’s best original level outside of the tutorial. I already complained about Dxun, but it’s counterpart Onderon struck me with its lack of side-quest content despite its otherwise tight, attractive level design. Apart from the short main quest, you have nothing to do except sell a couple starport visas. Nar Shaddaa has a bit more diversion content, but then drags itself down through corridor crawls fighting identical gangster and bounty hunter enemies. It punctuates the combat with massive difficulty spikes when the game forces the player to change perspective into a party member to clear more groups of copy-paste enemies… this time alone (a problem shared with the final level, the Trayus Academy on Malachor V). Like Telos, the dialogue told me that Nar Shaddaa vibrated with life. But instead, I found empty areas like this:

Welcome to the bustling smugglers’ port of Nar Shaddaa! Again, it feels like an unfinished work-in-progress

Kotor 2 has two good levels, Korriban and Dantooine. They use medium-sized zones with well-spaced packs of enemies interrupted by story points of interest. Sounds nice, right? Yeah, until you remember that the developers simply imported those planets from the first game and then added some debris to demonstrate the passage of time. Kotor 2’s best levels aren’t even original!

At least Kotor 2 has one excellent level: the prologue and introduction on the mining asteroid of Peragus. On Peragus, the player works through a great mystery to determine how you woke up on such an isolated rock and how all of the colonists died just after your arrival. Because the area has only three living NPCs — an untrustworthy smuggler, a psychopathic protocol droid, and an evil-ish old woman raised from the dead — left standing on top of dozens of murdered ones, the station turns into a perfect slow-burn horror show mystery. It becomes impossible to trust anyone except for your chirpy utility droid, himself destroyed to prevent your escape. But then a greater threat arrives on a ghost ship floating through space with all hands dead, forcing you to throw in with the two human survivors. For the first five hours through the early levels, Kotor 2 had me hooked.

Peragus has one drawback though: it’s just the tutorial, meaning that frequent explanations of the game mechanics interrupt the engaging mystery while repetitive battles with underpowered characters drag out the playtime. Even the game’s one bright spot, which doesn’t suffer from obvious cut content like the other levels, becomes a bit tedious.

Peragus is a great horror story, but gameplay-wise, it’s a 2 to 5 hour linear slog fighting the same two types of robots while batting away at tutorial messages

Solid, but unbalanced, gameplay

I quite like the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset used in the Kotor games. It worked well with the real-time-pause turn-based combat system in the original game. Kotor 2 imports the exact same system, so it should work pretty well too, right?

Not really. It has severe balance issues. Kotor 2 expands on the item upgrade system from the first game, adding the ability to craft new items and upgrade components. With lucky drops (almost all of the loot in the game is random… have fun finding a legendary Jedi’s robe in a miscellaneous footlocker!) or decent skill levels, you can create monstrously overpowered equipment. I breezed through the whole game on the highest difficulty setting, only pausing for the solo portions with party members that I hadn’t bothered to ever use (sorry for that mining laser, T3…). My player character could kill almost every enemy in the game in a single turn, four or five maximum for bosses, or otherwise blast down larger groups with the area-of-effect force lightning power. I had so many force points (= mana) that I could spam that one power indefinitely, even though it cost extra for light-side users like my first character.

Power creep set in early, with my character reaching the level cap of 20 from the original game after completing just one planet. However, Kotor 2 removes that level cap, meaning that the player can continue to invest in abilities (feats) and spells (force powers). Though this perhaps gives the player more freedom to experiment with different abilities, it results in the unexpected problem that I had too many points to invest in my character and just started dumping them in random places because I had already built myself into an invincible monster. For a classic CRPG, I felt like my character choices hardly mattered. Even the initial character creation became irrelevant after about level 20 because items buffed up the character’s base attributes so high that I became unstoppable. The lack of a level cap also meant that consumable items like grenades became underpowered very quickly — have fun throwing a rare thermal detonator grenade at a group of bounty hunters only to watch their health drop maybe 10%. It’s boring!

Interesting but unfinished characters

This is probably the only point where I think Kotor 2 succeeds well enough, at least within the limitations of its cut content. The characters have interesting outlines. Atton is a standoffish smuggler with a dark secret. Bao-Dur is a soft spoken engineer trying to repress his rage from the war. Mandalore is his opposite, a wounded warrior clinging to the idea of glory despite repeated humiliations in battle. Handmaiden is an upstanding but anonymized guardian of the last Jedi academy. Visas then becomes her rival as a servile Sith seeress sent to test the player character for her dark master. Mira is a bounty hunter who refuses to kill, but herself flees the mad wookie Hanharr for trapping him in a life-debt. T3 is just R2-D2 and the assassin droid HK-47 mostly works as comic relief, so I have little so say about them. Overall though, it’s a neat little bunch.*

* (I quit my dark-lady playthrough halfway through so I didn’t experience the female-exclusive companion Disciple and or the dark-side-exclusive wookie Hanharr, so I can’t comment on either. I’ll skip G0-T0 for now because I loathe him and will save Kreia for the section on the philosophy nonsense)

There’s a big problem here though: none of the companions have much dialogue, a clear result of the cut development time. You can explore all of Visas, Mira, Mandalore, Bao-Dur, T3, G0-T0 and HK-47’s dialogue trees in a single conversation, assuming you gained enough influence points with them throughout the game to unlock the gated personal questions. And if you didn’t get enough influence… well too bad, you won’t have much chance to learn more about them. Atton and Handmaiden have a little better pacing: Handmaiden gates some of her dialogue behind a level check for sparring matches and you can only have a solid conversation with Atton after discovering a certain trigger in the refugee camp on Nar Shaddaa. But even then, they just don’t have much to say, probably about 10-20 minutes of spoken dialogue each, maximum. I want to like my party members, but it’s hard when the game gives me so few chances to learn about them…

However, the cut content causes more fundamental problems: few of the characters fit into the narrative very well. Three characters (Handmaiden, Visas, G0-T0) deny player agency by sneaking onto your ship and joining your party no matter what you as the player want. You can tell Handmaiden — a spy from your Jedi rival Atris — to leave, but she won’t because the narrative requires her for the final confrontation with her mistress. Similarly, you can’t just kill Visas even though she attacks you when she first appears. You have to keep her, either for a light-side redemption arc or to enslave and sacrifice her as a dark-side player. Bao-Dur just happens to appear to assist you when your shuttle crash lands on Telos, but then he and the three droids simply disappear as the game enters the final act. Atton and Kreia offer no explanations for their appearance on the tutorial level and Atton only sticks around because Kreia invades his mind with Force powers, making his participation a tragedy more than a welcome addition. Only Mandalore and Mira seem to fit into the party well given the stories on their respective planets. And then there’s G0-T0… oh my god I loathe G0-T0. I have to take a moment to complain here.

G0-T0 is a crime bot that leads a criminal syndicate. If you tell him that you don’t want his help — for among other reasons, trading in slaves — he threatens to blow up your starship to stay in your party. I hated G0-T0 enough that I wanted to take him up on the offer, but the player has no agency here. G0-T0 stays, no matter how much you don’t want him (seriously, he’s the worst party member I’ve ever played with in a CRPG). His character schtick is that he’s secretly a droid intelligence working to bring stability to the galaxy either under the democratic Republic or fascist Sith Empire. Of course, he doesn’t care which, because he’s an amoral nerd. At one point, he says “You would be surprised how little I care what you think.” Yeah, right back at you buddy. Again, I loathe him. I do not want a slave trader in my party and resent the developers for not giving me the option to destroy him.

In addition to being horribly unlikable, G0-T0 always triggered some awful camera clipping bugs when talking to his over-sized model. He’s that black and silver ball in the top right

My personal hatred aside, G0-T0 has a bigger problem fitting into the group: personality-wise, he feels redundant with the meatbag-hating assassin-bot HK-47 and skills-wise, the utility droid T3 does everything he can do, just better. I cheered when HK-47 murdered him during a concluding cutscene. Good riddance, slaver scum…

Dialogue, cutscenes, and narrative (dis)continuity

Dialogue often does not represent events in the game properly. For example, Visas will discuss the Force Sight power that she “taught” you before she actually does the teaching. In a more significant moment, Handmaiden returns to her academy to face her warrior sisters and confront her evil mistress. The player has a choice here: you can kill the sisters or stun them. But later dialogue assumes that you killed them, calling Handmaiden a kinslayer even though I did no such thing during my light-side playthrough. Similar problems appear in cutscenes, for example when Kreia destroys T3 or when G0-T0 destroys Bao-Dur’s Remote droid. But when the cutscenes end, T3 and Remote continue to chirp along as if nothing had happened. There’s an obvious gap in cut content here; did the original design have the players repairing the droids?

Mira’s conversation tree especially seemed broken. Somehow, I accidently unlocked one of her influence-gated dialogue trees early, meaning that she began discussing family issues that she should have introduced during a later influence-check. In a different line of dialogue, she begins to speak in the present tense to complain about the mad wookie Hanharr hunting her. But in the plot, she had already killed Hanharr in a duel, so in the next sentence she switches to past tense to express relief for his death. Why the disconnect? In an out-of-character cutscene, the game revealed that Hanharr had actually survived the duel. As a result, I suspect that Mira speaks in present tense because the writers used meta-knowledge that the characters — and player character — should not have known (I’ll talk about the meta-knowledge issue more later). It’s a minor detail, but as the odd dialogue errors accumulate over the course of the game, it seems clear that the developers never had a chance to edit them to account for cut content.

The game’s ending shatters the narrative, and not in an interesting, subversive way. It’s just broken and unfinished, even with the restoration mod. To begin with, a cutscene shows the player’s ship crash-land into a collapsing crevice, but then during the final cutscene before the credits, it flies off into the stars with full repairs. The crash landing scatters your party members across the planet (how? did they fly out the windshield?), but only Mira receives any explanation of her actions because her wookie hunter Hanharr appears — out of nowhere — to duel her for the last time. Then somehow, all of your party members assemble to battle Kreia together. They lose, but then Atton escapes to battle Darth Sion between what I assume were two more unfinished cutscenes. When you rescue them all in prison, you find Mandalore there with them, even though the narrative never established his capture. It’s a confusing mess with severe contradictions and continuity issues.

Though I already mentioned it before, it’s worth explaining the disappearance of half of your party in context of the ending: Bao-Dur, G0-T0, HK-47, and T3 disappear when the player enters the point-of-no-return endgame. Bao-Dur seems to die at some point off screen, because the last you ever see of him is his Remote droid playing a message to convey his final orders in case of his death. Then G0-T0 appears out of nowhere to attack the Remote droid and then HK-47 appears out of nowhere to attack G0-T0. Even with the Restored Content Mod, the whole sequence feels incomplete and makes no sense for it. And where was T3? I don’t know, you never see him again, even though he was your most reliable party member starting all the way back in the prologue.

The game does have one narrative bright spot in the short — but thankfully complete — light-side redemption arc for Visas. Visas serves the eldritch Sith Lord Nihilus (…“nothing,” real subtle guys…), an inhuman monster who has consumed so much of the Force’s power that he (it?) has come to perceive the universe in terms of stars and planets rather than on any mortal scale. Nihilus purges entire planets of life out of a hopeless hunger to consume more and more Force energy. For some reason (what reason? I dunno, read the short comic for the full story… ugh) he spared just one person: the blind seeress Visas. He apprentices her and uses her foresight to seek out fresh worlds strong in the Force to annihilate.

Visas is a bright spot in the game, one of the few characters that doesn’t seem to suffer from obvious issues with cut content

About a quarter of the way through the game, Nihilus sends Visas to meet the player character, who can help her overcome her survivor’s guilt and rebuilt her confidence during light-side playthroughs (in dark-side playthroughs, you encourage her submissiveness and enslave her will to yours, ultimately sacrificing her for more power… yuck). It all culminates in a confrontation with Nihilus, in which the player helps Visas settle her trauma and free herself from her hatred of life and regret for the past. Like with the other characters, it suffers from a limited dialogue tree with at least one error, but at least she has a complete arc* from start to finish. Male characters can even begin a pseudo-romance with Visas, which ends with one of the most romantic lines I’ve heard in a game: “Let us look upon each other.” No kiss, no sex… the characters just sit a few feet across from each other, close their eyes, and exist together. Perfect.

* (Mira and Handmaiden have good arcs too, but I can’t call them complete. As I mentioned before, Mira’s dialogue tree doesn’t seem to work as intended and her final duel with Hanharr just sort of happens without any context (where did Hanharr come from?). Handmaiden has better dialogue, but her confrontation with her mistress and sisters similarly lacks solid explanation (how did she like… teleport to Telos?) and does not reflect player choice properly in the dialogue. Atton doesn’t really have an arc with the way he just sort of floats in the party as Kreia’s blackmail hostage and loses context at the conclusion from those two missing cutscenes. I already described the issues with Bao-Dur and the droids disappearing. And finally, Mandalore bores me so I have no comment on him even though he’s pretty solid)

The role-playing challenge

I see two major models for role-playing games: the developers either give the player control of an established character like Geralt from the Witcher series and restrict their choices accordingly, or they create a complete blank slate and let the player fill in whatever details they want, like the Courier from Fallout: New Vegas. Kotor 2 tries to have it both ways… and it just doesn’t work well. The player character, called the Exile, is an established character in the Star Wars Expanded Universe named Meetra Surik with her own backstory and pre-established relationships. Except in the game, the character wakes up with apparent memory loss, turning her into an effective blank slate.

But as the game progresses, that memory loss angle disappears when the Exile meets characters from her past and the dialogue options begin to reflect her previous life. For example, at one point, the game introduces the Jedi Master Kavar as an “old friend.” Alright, so my character knows him, but as the player, the game leaves me in the dark. I know nothing about him! How do I choose dialogue options for an old friend who I have never met? Not knowing what to say, I just awkwardly asked questions until the conversation ended. It’s a problem repeated with most of the important dialogues in the game. Characters discuss events like the Jedi Civil War, the tragedy at Malachor V, the actions of the Sith Lord Revan and the Jedi Council and try to ask for the player’s opinions on those topics.

One of the first examples of Kotor 2’s awkward exposition-through-dialogue system. On the one hand, the player character is a blank-slate partial amnesiac that knows nothing about current events in the galaxy. But on the other hand, the character also personally knew Revan and Malak and served with them during the war

Except again… as a first time player I have no idea what any of that stuff means. So I select an awkward exposition prompt like “Remind me what happened at Malachor” and then my conversation partners give me some vague monologue about a wound in the Force and thousands of souls crying out in agony at once…. (facts the player-character already knows even if the player does not!).

So, alright… that didn’t really help me… let’s ask another question… and another… and another. You can go through entire conversations asking questions while characters talk at you rather than with you (with the cut content, the game has a big problem of telling, not showing…). When you reach the end of the dialogue tree, you typically hit some sort of light-side or dark-side dialogue option. Still confused, I would just default to whatever alignment I had selected for that playthrough. “It was self-defense!” I exclaimed, but lacking any details about my character’s actual history, it was more of a guess than anything. Better than saying “They deserved to die,” I suppose, though until the end of the game I never really understood that “they” meant a whole planet’s worth of Jedi, Republic soldiers, and villainous Mandalorians killed by an apocalyptic super weapon fired on the player character’s orders. The game practically begs for a second playthrough to make sense of it all, but after my 40 hour light-side game, I got fatigued with my dark-side run after another 20 given the tedium of replaying the poorly-paced levels discussed before.

An early example of the role-playing challenge posed by the player not understanding the player character’s past. How did I lose my connection to the Force? Well… I don’t really know who Revan is, I’m not sure what happened during the Mandalorian Wars, and I don’t understand this “wound in the Force” concept yet anyway… so what do I pick?

I’m tempted to blame cut content again, but this time I think the writers just bungled the player character. For example, when the player arrives at Onderon, an out-of-character cutscene* has your party members discussing your involvement with a great battle on the moon of Dxun. One companion asks “He fought here? Why didn’t he say anything?” Kreia replies that the player character wanted to forget. Really though? I never said anything because the game never gave me a chance to and, more importantly, because as the human player behind the screen, I didn’t even know about the battle myself! There’s a huge disconnect between the player character in the game and the actual player. I’m not a blank slate, so I can’t roleplay as just anyone. But I can’t roleplay as the Exile either, because how do I make decisions for someone I know nothing about? The game withholds so much information, saving much of it for three big reveals when speaking to Artris on Telos, the Jedi council on Dantooine, and Kreia on Malachor. But I really would have preferred to know before those climaxes. I can’t regret — or rejoice — killing a planet if I don’t even know that I did…

[UPDATE, because my brother didn’t understand this point. You begin the game as the amnesiac “Exile.” I imagined myself a lone Jedi wandering wandering the galaxy to find peace. Then the game reveals that you were a soldier. Okay, revise, I imagine myself a wandering veteran escaping trauma from the war. Then the game reveals that you were a general… okay harder to fit that with my old imagination but it still works. Then the game reveals that you committed an atrocity. Um. Not the character I wanted to roleplay but sure… wandering to escape the guilt. Then the game reveals that you were tried for your crimes during the war. Um… was I a war-criminal? I’m not comfortable in this character anymore. Then the game reveals that you are a wound in the Force that draws power from other people. Yikes, I don’t want to hurt anyone, now I just want to run off and be a hermit. Then the game reveals that you fought in this specific battle, know these specific people, used this specific superweapon. Woah Woah Woah, slow down that isn’t how I imagined my character at all. Who am I supposed to be here, me or Meetra? See how the gradual transition from amnesiac blank-slate to established lore character could hinder effective roleplay? In Kotor 2, roleplay is a reactive rather than constructive process!]

* (I think the game has too many of these out-of-character cutscenes. In my opinion, good roleplaying should avoid both meta-gaming to abuse the game mechanics and meta-knowledge to transcend the character’s actual role in the story. But Kotor 2 has so much cut content that it seems to rely on those cutscenes to fill in the gaps. For example, one cutscene explains why the Jedi Master Atris ordered Handmaiden to follow the player and sneak onto your ship. But it spoils the mystery and surprise when she actually joins your party. The conversation with the intruder that follows feels truncated with only two dialogue prompts, like the writers were relying on the player already knowing the truth from the cutscene. But the player character doesn’t know the truth, resulting in another awkward disconnect that hinders roleplaying. With all the cut content, you practically have to enter the game with vast amounts of meta-knowledge to even understand what is going on, maybe necessitating a second playthrough to understand the game in full)

Kreia’s so-called philosophy of the Force

Much of the praise for Kotor 2 celebrates it as a “subversion” or “deconstruction” of the Star Wars universe by adding “nuanced” “grey” morality. I think that’s a little silly.

I never once encountered a choice that did not have obvious good or evil options. On Telos, you choose between a gangsterish corporation that trades in slaves and a herd of space hippie herbivores that want to heal a planet’s ecosystem. On Dantooine, you choose to help a group of downtrodden settlers recover from their war or murder them with a group of mercenaries that want to conquer the planet. On Nar Shaddaa, you either assist a criminal syndicate that — again — trades in slaves or sabotage their operations to protect refugees from extortion. On Onderon, you support a sympathetic queen trying to defend her rightful title or a clique of xenophobic military officers plotting a coup against her. Korriban has no light or dark path because the game shipped incomplete without the follow-up droid planet, but the big finale on Malachor V asks you to either save your friends… or gas them in their prison cells like a complete psychopath.

Not a single major plot point presents a difficult moral choice. Oh, but Kreia wants to discuss moral consequences rather than moral duties? Alright, I still see no nuance here, the light-side outcomes all seem preferable to the dark side counterparts:

Oh, the light-side path means that Onderon will slowly lose its distinctive culture as it assimilates into the Republic? Yeah, cry me a river, at least they haven’t fallen into a military dictatorship that swore itself to a Sith Lord who wants to consume all life in the galaxy.

Oh, the light-side path on Telos means that the planetary restoration project will fall behind schedule? Boo-hoo, at least the Telos government hasn’t contracted with a slave-trading corporation that promises profits at any cost, including assassinating whistle-blowers and robbing competing organizations.

Oh, the light-side path on Dantooine means that the settlers will recover from the war under a weak indigenous leadership struggling to fund itself? Yeah great, at least they aren’t living under the iron-fist of a mercenary band that threatens to murder them.

Oh, the light-side path on Nar Shaddaa means that the moon loses out on some of the commerce it enjoyed via smuggling operations from the criminal syndicate? Oh no!, at least the refugees aren’t forced to sell their children into slavery to the same syndicate that extorts them and keeps them locked in a virtual concentration camp in the “refugee sector.”

Catch the pattern? The so-called nuanced outcomes aren’t. Kotor 2 does not express a “grey” morality unless you have such an unempathetic commitment to moral relativism that you can tolerate slavery and authoritarianism if it means a little extra commercial activity (or are an amoral robot like G0-T0…).

Kreia sits dead-center in the moral alignment meter, concealed by a mysterious grey mist. But it’s all a ruse, she’s evil and insane in her own way

Ah, but what about Kreia, that enigmatic Force witch who claims to hate both the Jedi and the Sith? Kreia has three rough premises:

1) People become strong through struggle and action. Charity, compassion, and friendship make people weak because everyone should fight their own battles. To this end, she seeks to train the player character to become the strongest Force-user ever — strong because the tragedy at Malachor detached you from the Force, meaning that you can use it without it using you.

2) Along a similar line of reasoning, Kreia despises the Force because she fears that it controls everyone’s destiny. She believes in the primacy of free-will, and seeks to destroy the Force to free everyone from the invisible machinations that drive the conflict between Jedi and Sith.

3) However, none of the Jedi or Sith masters share Kreia’s beliefs and cast her out from their orders. She manipulates the player character into bringing her former colleagues and students of out hiding, to make them see her “truth” and confront their hypocrisy.

She makes an interesting concept for an antagonist, without the usual cartoon-evil excesses of the typical Sith villains in other Star Wars products. Kotor 2 even gives her a grey portrait and locks her moral alignment meter in the center! What insights can we gain from her? Well, none really. At this point, I’d like to make a brief detour through the original trilogy to show that Kreia’s “deconstruction” of the Star Wars universe does not have a strong basis in early depictions of the Force.

A New Hope introduces a cynical world full of people who either scorn the Jedi (Uncle Owen), mock them (the imperial officer with a “lack of faith”), or believe they never existed (Han Solo), much like the average people of Kotor 2 who have come to distrust Jedi after the civil war. For their parts, the Jedi Masters Obi-wan and Yoda describe the Force in neutral terms as a source of power. Obi-wan notes that the Force can control people, but also that they can equally control the Force. Meanwhile, Yoda does not explain the Force as a deterministic power like Kreia fears. Instead, he sees multiple possible futures that can change depending on choices made by individuals like Luke. The two masters define a dark side governed by hate, fear, and aggression, but never discuss a light side of the Force. The original trilogy does pit good against evil, but via a political allegory between the democratic Rebellion and fascist Empire rather than through the sort of universal dualistic war fought between the Jedi and Sith religions that Kreia works to end (the light-dark dualism comes from the later Expanded Universe publications, the prequel trilogy, and the video-gamification of Star Wars through other RPGs like the original Kotor).

But the original series has much murkier personal morals: Luke ignores the advice of his ascetic Jedi mentors to embrace emotion, first fear to save his friends on Cloud City, then aggression to rescue Han from Jabba, and finally love when he redeems his father Vader. He even briefly gives in to hate as the Emperor suggests, using his anger to beat down Vader in the final lightsaber duel (Luke even force-chokes the guards in Jabba’s Palace, the classic dark side power!). Vader’s redemption is also important because it invalidates Yoda’s dogmatic Jedi teachings. Yoda told Luke that no one can return once they set down the path to the dark side. But Luke proves him wrong. Essentially, through Luke’s youthful rebellion against the old masters, the original trilogy already depicts the same sort of subversive, nuanced philosophy of the Force that Kreia prefers in Kotor 2. She just drags out her critiques with far too much monologuing.

And that’s my biggest problem with Kotor 2’s philosophy of the Force: it takes the subtle, often unspoken personal conflict within Luke and turns it into a long series of diatribes from Kreia about the Jedi and the Sith and free-will and cyclical war and choice and consequence and power and morality, all raised to a universal scale through her quest to kill the Force itself by manipulating the chosen-one player character into triggering some kind of explosive echo that would disconnect all living things from the Force (and maybe-kinda kill them). That’s not nuance… it’s dogmatism in it’s own obnoxious way (Since people often compare her to Nietzsche, I’m reminded of one of Cioran’s criticisms of him: “he demolished so many idols, only to replace them with others: a false iconoclast”).

You can see Luke struggle with his choices on his face, hear the anxiety in his voice, watch him make mistakes and recover with a little more confidence. Even the long, static shot of Vader’s mask while he thinks about betraying the Emperor has so much character value by depicting such a powerful dark lord as vulnerable and conflicted. Of course, movies can better depict human emotion than old, low-polygon games, but even Kotor 2’s other characters like Visas, Bao-dur, Handmaiden, and Mira have great personal touches.

But Kreia is so impersonal, so humorless, so unrelatable as a human being. She is a bundle of logical arguments stuck in a cynical, chiding old woman who doesn’t seem to approve of anything that the player character does, regardless of moral alignment. She hides her eyes and face under her hood, meaning we never see her emotional reactions. She speaks in a sage whisper that suggests a perfect confidence in her convictions, with almost as much impassivity as G0-T0 (and he’s a robot…). She has a perfect, secret plan that never fails, because even at the end you do her bidding when you defeat her by proving yourself her greatest student. Kreia always wins, but her crystalline coldness just grates me… and then unlike G0-T0, she’s practically the main character of the game, dragging the whole narrative into the depths her empty syllogisms. It’s just not… fun. I signed up for a game, not a moral philosophy lecture.

And then there’s that problem with Kotor 2’s awkward roleplaying model again: the light-dark character alignment binary makes it impossible for the player to apply her lessons even if they somehow agreed with them (and I agree with none of them… she’s plain evil, but it’s beyond the scope of this post to argue with her). Like I already said, the game lacks any nuanced, “grey morality” type choices. However, the lack of choice becomes frustrating when Kreia berates the player for whatever choices you do make.

Yes, the nuance I wanted! Being railroaded into an obvious good-evil binary that leads into a contrived lecture about the dangers of charity, the futility of altruism, and the guarantee of unintended consequences!

The beggar scene on Nar Shaddaa is probably the most famous example: light-side players give a beggar a few credits, resulting in a mugger attacking the beggar because the money made him a “target.” Kreia then criticizes the player for not considering the unintended consequences of small charities. But it’s such a stupid, contradictory contrivance because 1) it pins all of the agency for the scene on the player, as if everything follows deterministically from the player’s choice without considering that the beggar or mugger have agency as well and 2) does so after removing player agency by forcing them into a light-side/dark-side binary without even giving them the chance to consider other options like inaction or whatever Kreia’s Objectivist-esque philosophy might suggest. But Kreia’s criticism only makes sense within the narrow scope of the singular outcome written into the game, so enjoy that railroad into another cold lecture! Like I said before, the game’s narrative pretends to offer more nuanced take on the Star Wars universe… but the game itself doesn’t, really.

I just can’t take the “morally grey” or “nuanced” praises of Kotor 2 seriously. It has nothing to “deconstruct!” The original trilogy already had such great personal, subtle nuance in Luke’s story and the goofy prequel movies and Expanded Universe nonsense are mostly just dumb fun schlock that don’t ask for critical examination anyway. And then Kotor 2’s choices all have clear preferable moral outcomes, making me wonder where people even see the complexity and depth that supposedly elevates the game over other Star Wars stories. Sure, Kotor 2 demonstrates Jedi hypocrisy and obstinance, but that in no way validates the slaving, genocidal space-fascism of the Sith. For her part, I suppose that Kreia does become an interesting villain (…at least when she’s not droning on through an over-long monologue about some cryptic nonsense). But does she present an interesting philosophy? Good god no, not when she would risk all life in the universe to destroy the Force because she has some extreme ideological commitment to the concept of free-will. She’s evil and insane.

But here’s the rub for me: I can understand why an unnuanced villain like Palpatine would become evil in the pursuit of power alone or why Anakin would fall to the dark side for the sake of love. They’re basic human desires. But who cares enough about a some philosophical abstract to suffer as much as Kreia does, especially for someone as cynical and skeptical as her?

I’ve been trying to avoid arguing with a fictional character, but a line from one of Kreia’s visions frustrates me: “Apathy is death.” Well, duh! Everything is death! Action is death as much as apathy because everything living will someday die. Just like… chill out lady. You are a powerful iconoclast, so why do you care so much? Kreia worries about ideals, about truth, about proving the Jedi and Sith wrong, about ensuring her free-will. But why? Kotor 2 misses that personal motivation, or else buries it so deep in her vague aphorisms that I could never pick up on it (or is it cut content again?). Intellectual nuance alone does not make a character fun. In fiction I need some feeling, some emotion like Luke’s to make that personal connection. But what do we have with Kreia? An antipathic grouch who suppresses her feelings so well that she carries on in perfect placidity after a rival cuts her hand off… It’s not much fun.

A lot of reviews call Kotor 2 a flawed gem or diamond in the rough, excusing the issues with poor pacing, confusing cut content, and even game-breaking bugs because they can see the outline of an innovative subversion of the Star Wars universe. But I just can’t extend that sort of charity. Kotor 2 is flawed in too many ways. Could it have been a great game? Yes, of course! I can fill in the gaps from Kotor 2’s cut content with my imagination and see what the writers probably intended for the complete product. But imaginary games don’t exist. As I said before, I can’t play the game Kotor 2 could have been. I can only play the game Kotor 2 is now, and even after 15 years of bug-fix patches and fan-made content restorations, it’s not a complete experience.

No amount of nuance or narrative complexity will convince me of Kotor 2’s quality. I don’t want a game that I need to study to enjoy. I just want a fun game. I read the relevant Wookiepedia pages to help explain the narrative cuts and crawled through dozens of fan theories on various forums, but no way am I going to read the Expanded Universe novelizations or comic books to understand the full context of the story. And given the absolute mess of the level design and imbalanced combat, I couldn’t bring myself to finish a second playthrough to see the story from another perspective either, because the gameplay itself becomes so excruciatingly tedious that I couldn’t play another 40 hours. Again, it’s just not much fun.

So did anything good come out of me spending almost 70 hours on this game? Yeah, I suppose. While writing this post I decided to rewatch the original Star Wars trilogy and… they’re still great! If Kotor 2 doesn’t hold up 15 years later, the movies absolutely do, 40-ish years later. If you want subtly and nuance in Star Wars, go watch those instead!

5 thoughts on “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 isn’t much fun

  1. Thank you so much for writing this! You put into words a lot of my thoughts about KOTOR 2. I think I still overall enjoyed the game, but I definitely understood why people declare it better than KOTOR 1, especially in the writing comment. And Kreia is quite frankly one of my most hated characters in all of gaming.

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    1. Yeah… I don’t understand how people can praise an incomplete game so highly. Say what you will about KOTOR1, but at least it’s a polished, finished product.

      A bit like you said though, so much of my dislike of the game comes from the overbearing presence Kreia’s stupid “grey morality” though. A little cottage industry of video-essayists has popped up on YouTube doing “analyses” of her “philosophy” — one even compares her to Nietzsche! But I doubt that any of those essayists have actually read much of any real moral (especially pessimistic) philosophy beyond what has trickled through pop culture artifacts like Star Wars itself. If a figure like Kreia can look at the Jedi — a bunch of impotent, hypocritical hippy-dippy types — and the Sith — a slaving, genocidal, galaxy-conquering empire — and say that no difference exists between them, I cannot take any further discussion of “philosophy” seriously.

      Instead, I just throw up my hands and post that famous satirical dril tweet: “the wise man bowed his head solemnly and spoke: ‘theres actually zero difference between good & bad things. you imbecile. you f*ing moron.'”Sure, the light/dark binary from Star Wars is childish. But I think the faux-intellectualism of refusing to make any judgement at all is even worse.

      Anyway, I’m ranting again. Thanks for the read and the comment!

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  2. I find reading this post extremely cathartic after seeing too many extreme takes on Kotor 2. I too feel like the original trilogy were the best of Star Wars and everything that came after it a little contrived even though I enjoyed the games especially on my second playthrough, years after my first. Kotor 1 had goodish storylines for each companion character which I sorely missed in Kotor 2, especially since the character had interesting premises. Instead, Atton Rand’s redemption is explained through exposition (at least he helped on Nar Shadda), Mira’s arc non-existent except for backstory and becoming a Jedi (but why?). Most of Mira’s dialogue tree could be unlocked by just talking with her (with the correct checks). Handmaiden’s arc was passable (either you let her betray her mistress or not). Only Visas’s arc felt meaningful, either you lead her redemption or sacrifice her to your own ends as Kreia would prefer. Bao-dur, Hk-47 exist only to fill you in with backstory and shape how you relate to a past you don’t even know (in the first playthrough).

    The only thing I disagree with you is about Kreia not being personal. She is nothing like the “mentor” character that I instinctively came to expect (Kotor 1 did the same with Bastilla). She is vengeful and unhealthily attached to Revan (whose motivation to destroy the Jedi order I could not understand) and manipulative. It’s very annoying that the only way to get influence with her is to agree with her, but it explains what she wants – to train an apprentice who agrees with her, unlike the failures that were Sion and Nihilus. As to her philosophy, it’s just self-reliance and willingness to manipulate people who are willingly sacrificing themself to your cause (Visas) and don’t sacrifice yourself for others because you could be manipulated (with Choda Habat, who lures you in with promising to cure you but does little of that sort). Also, she hates the Sith and calls them evil, and resents that “she had the power to hold the galaxy by the throat” but couldn’t achieve anything with it. I don’t know if what Kotor 2 did could be called a deconstruction but it sort of “calls out” on problems with the Force as portrayed in the prequels – if you’re force-sensitive who gives into his emotions, then you risk falling into the darkside and become a maniac craving power and dominance – which is a nuisance for everyone and yourself as you often don’t end up achieving the objective you originally intended. I think Kreia hates the Force because she loved Revan and she followed him to the darkside but didn’t achieve anything meaningful from that and she sees what it has done to Sion and Nihilus. She wants to believe that an alternative is possible and that’s why she loves you because as you’re a wound in the force you don’t become evil for following your emotions. It makes sense why the Jedi Order trains kids before the form an emotional attachment and do their best to train them to let go of their emotions even if they love something (Obiwan loved Anakin and Luke refused the darkside even though his friends would die) but because they are unattached, Jedi also don’t know how to guide people like Anakin or Bastilla or Bindoo who fell in love. “Train to let go of your emotions, you must” – srsly? I can see why people might hate the Jedi order from different points of view in both Kotor 1 and 2, but it still doesn’t convince me that they’re bad or that the Sith are not straight-up evil – it only makes me feel sympathetic to their hate, which I think is the point and not some “grey morality”.

    Also, on my second playthrough, I felt like some of the write-up is straight up trolling rpgs and star wars. I mean how the companions react when you kill an innocent person is a call out to how it’s often the opposite in most rpgs and how they feel compelled to kill is because of your “Force bond with them” Lol. Leveling up by killing enemies is you absorbing their force. Lol. And Kreia commenting in the end about how their no big reveal in the end, again making fun of “plot-twists”. Sometimes I feel like the whole “Force-wound” and how you are not connected to the star wars universe is a meta-troll as you being the player outside the game.

    Overall, I feel like the game had great ideas but leaves much to be desired in execution and the amount of fun you have playing it is about average. It does leave a bad taste in your mouth when you realize it could have been better. But oh well.

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    1. I first played the game almost a year ago now so it’s a bit hard to reply intelligently but, to be honest, I never picked up on any of that about Kreia’s love for her disciples or her specific attachment to Revan. Maybe I only reveal my own ignorance and laziness there, but I think that, as usual, the incompleteness of the game doesn’t help. Part of the problem is that to understand Kreia’s backstory and motivation, the player needs to understand her relationship with her previous disciples (like you well argue up there). Except those disciples don’t make strong appearances themselves:

      1) Kreia has a great introduction with Sion in the tutorial level but then, even though he is supposedly hunting you, he drifts off into irrelevance except for his brief appearance for the (incomplete) story on Korriban. His final appearance on Malachor is badly rushed with the missing content.
      2) Nihilus appears — like what, three times? — and never interacts with Kreia anyway because she’s already run off to Malachor by the time the player confronts him. He’s more of Visa’s character.
      3) Revan belongs to the previous game …and Kreia’s descriptions of him feel so radically different from the Revan I thought I understood from the first game that I basically had to relearn the character from scratch.

      With so few interactions with other critical characters, that leaves most of Kreia’s characterization to be satisfied with her own vague, cryptic monologues. That’s maybe what I meant by Kreia lacking a strong personal touch: the player has few opportunities to observe her *behavior* to help form independent judgements about her (like say, observing Atton and T3 with the whole card game thing). Instead, we mostly just have to take her at her (dubious) word. She’s a colossal, crystalline, exposition dump. It’s all well and good that she has the backstory you describe, but I don’t think the game communicates it well, especially on a first play-through considering the way that the narrative backloads most of the information about her into the last couple hours of the game. And then I end up with my most fundamental problem with the game: the actual gameplay is so tedious that I simply didn’t have the patience to look at her in more detail for a second playthrough to see her other side for a full character portrait.

      I think Kreia’s a cool idea for a villain. But, hmmm… I don’t know how to put this — I don’t appreciate her *in the game.* Instead, most of my knowledge of her comes from external sources — reading fan theories and wiki pages — rather than by developing a relationship with the character in the roleplay, for good or ill. Like you say in your last paragraph, I think Kotor 2 badly lacks in execution which, as always, jumps back to its fundamental incompleteness. For me at least, interacting with Kreia felt more like reading a polemic lecture than well… playing a fun game.

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  3. Yeah, the game doesn’t really do a good job of revealing her motivations. Most people seem to think that Kreia wanted the death of the force, but it seems to be an outcome she specifically says she does not want in the dark-side playthrough – https://youtu.be/25lm3cxnF8k?t=758 . In the whole exposition, she explains how the Exile. by killing the Jedi Masters, out of petty revenge has created an echo, unknowingly he has thought his “companions” to feed on the force and this would all lead to the death of the galaxy, unless he silences the echo. I thought this was an interesting call-back to Nar Shadda – how a small cruelty can lead to greater ones. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t follow up on this, and even if you went darkside you get the same ending as lightside. Similarly, how charity can lead to weakening, could have been something the developers probably wanted to show but didn’t end up making it into the game. Kreia really wants you to be the “best apprentice”, the one who defeated her, the one who would say she could be redeemed, the one who made the choice of breaking from the force that’s why i guess in the second playthrough I felt she was very invested in me and it felt personal. But I get what you mean by “polemic lecture”.

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