I absolutely shouldn't get sucked into Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic again. I've played it before, it's pretty dated, it's getting a fancy remake in a few years, and there are newer games I should get through.
Yet here I am, staying up late to save the galaxy from the Sith like it's 2003, playing the Nintendo Switch version ahead of its release on Thursday. The new games can wait.
Knights of the Old Republic (affectionately known as KOTOR) was a dream Star Wars game when it came out on Xbox and PC 18 years ago -- developer Bioware crafted a totally immersive RPG set thousands of years before the Original Trilogy. Unshackled from those events, it was free to tell an epic tale of a galaxy ruined by the forces of Darth Malak, his seemingly slain master Darth Revan and a Jedi Order driven close to extinction.
In the years since its original release, KOTOR has come out on MacOS as well as iOS and Android devices. The original Xbox version is also playable on Xbox Series X and Series S via backward compatibility.
Developer Aspyr, which is also handling the upcoming remake, hasn't made many visual tweaks or quality-of-life improvements for the Switch version, so this $15 port is essentially the same as the previous releases. But loading times are nippy and it's the first version to offer an easy jump from TV to portable play.
Limited Run Games will also be releasing this version and the PC one on physical media, with preorders opening Thursday, but these options are considerably more expensive than the digital one. The standard edition is $35, the premium version is $90 and the master edition is an eye-watering $175 (the latter two include cool collectibles like posters, pins and tiny replica lightsabers).
Fate of the galaxy
You play as a customizable character suffering from amnesia (always a great way to create a blank slate) and ultimately unlock your Force potential. Like many Star Wars games before and since, you can then bring light and cuddles to the galaxy as a Jedi or make everyone miserable and look increasingly badass by turning to the dark side.
Your alignment is determined by dialogue choices, a signature Bioware gameplay element that it'd refine further in post-KOTOR games such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. After experiencing the nuanced moral decisions in those series in the years since, KOTOR's options feel delightfully unsophisticated. A typical dialog with someone you've just saved from thugs might have you choose, "Here are some credits to help you out as you escape these criminals," (😇) "You're welcome, be free," (neutral) or, "No witnesses, I'll have to kill you." (😈)
Since I went full baddie on my original playthrough and remember feeling like a corrupted (but cool looking) monster by the end, I decided to be super nice to everyone this time. I only got a few hours in and it's been a delight to revisit this era of Star Wars, but there were definitely a few hiccups along the way.
Every Star Wars Movie, RankedSee all photos
The creaky Republic
This might anger some old-school Star Wars fans: I revisited the original 1977 movie over the summer, but wasn't pulled into it as unreservedly as I usually am. Maybe I've watched it a few too many times, perhaps I've seen too many CGI-laden blockbusters lately, but the Death Star sets looked a bit rickety in 4K. The incredible art direction, charming writing and excellent character dynamics hold up, it's just fascinating to accept that even the most iconic experiences can seem dated.
The same is true of KOTOR. It's a game firmly rooted in the PS2-Xbox-GameCube console era, which shows in the tiny locations and bland backgrounds. Taris, the first planet, is a gray cityscape that basically consists of three small hubs. There are two cantinas, but they have identical layouts and are each home to a Hutt sitting in exactly the same spot (one runs a fighting arena, the other hands out bounties). There's little that takes me out of a game more than obviously reused assets.
I was also a little put off by the overt tabletop RPG elements that KOTOR immediately flings at you. Nowadays, you don't often see terminology like "saving throws" (which determine how effective your attacks are) and "critical threats" (a chance to do extra damage) as you decide how your character will develop; it's hidden in the game mechanics and presented in a manner that's less overwhelming to players just starting out.
A timeless adventure
However, my issues with the dated elements melted away within the first hour or so. After I escaped a crashing Republic ship with my soldier buddy Carth, we wandered Taris' streets. Every gray nook and cranny was begging to be explored; each random Bith and Rodian up for a (fairly limited) chat.
Carth is an infamously dull character, but your party quickly expands to include street-smart Twi'lek orphan Mission Vao, her stoic Wookiee companion Zaalbar, awesome but slightly arrogant Jedi Bastila Shan and gruff Mandalorian Canderous Ordo. Once you've gathered this lot, the game's sharp writing comes into focus and their interpersonal dramas become entwined with the intergalactic war.
As I increased my stock of weapons, equipment and leveled up a few times, I felt increasingly in control of battles and confident in how I was distributing skill points. Stomping a squad of Gamorreans in the sewers became a whole lot of fun, with just the right sense of challenge and danger.
And Taris isn't even the best part of the game -- you don't even have a lightsaber (Bastila has her cool double-bladed yellow one though). It really doesn't get going until you meet the Jedi Council on the second world, Dantooine, and unlock your character's Force abilities, but the adventuring and drama of the first five hours or so have been enough to pull me in. I can't wait get into some lightsaber duels and have homicidal droid HK-47 call me "meatbag."
If you're a Star Wars fan and haven't played KOTOR, I urge you to dive into one of the many versions available now, especially if you've somehow avoided story spoilers all these years. It might be tempting to wait for the remake with all its bells and whistles, but the original is still dripping with challenge and charm for gamers looking for a blast from the past -- it remains the greatest Star Wars game ever made (sorry Jedi: Fallen Order) and an essential part of the franchise's history. Hopefully Aspyr will bring the 2004 sequel to Switch next.
Those unplayed games are going to sit a while longer.