SUPERJUMP
Published in

SUPERJUMP

The Best Star Wars Game You’re Probably Never Going to Play

The lessons Disney could learn from Bioware’s Knights of the Fallen Empire

Like many people on my Twitter feed, The Rise of Skywalker really did a number on my interest and passion for Star Wars. Bioware’s Knights of the Fallen Empire and Knights of the Eternal Throne gave me a new source of hope.

For a whole myriad of reasons that have since been broadly documented in the discourse and don’t really bear repeating here, I felt that J.J. Abrams’ capstone to Disney’s Sequel Trilogy was messy, muddled, and mediocre. Where Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi pushed boundaries, subverted expectations, and broke the rules of the franchise, J.J. Abrams tried to awkwardly mend them back together.

Knights of the Fallen Empire. Source: YouTube.

A version of Rise of Skywalker that was interested in dialogue with its predecessor would have been marvelous. Unfortunately, the version of the film that arrived in theaters was more interested in pretending the past never happened (and, in some cases, pretending certain characters never happened). Star Wars is hardly the major Hollywood franchise to express such revisionism, nor is this even the first time that Star Wars has done so.

Nevertheless, it left a bad meta-textual taste in my mouth and soured my disposition towards the franchise. It’s not just that I didn’t enjoy Rise of Skywalker as a piece of cinema. Rather, it’s the attitude underpinning the film that really irked me. Star Wars can — and has — survived a bad movie. In fact, taken as wider mythology, the franchise has a decidedly uneven track record. If anything, that’s one of the series secret ingredients. There are very good Star Wars films and very bad ones. There are some outstanding Star Wars books and TV series and there are some truly questionable ones.

Dave Filoni’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series is a great example of how blurry the lines between good and bad content can be.

The willingness to commit to and build on mistakes rather than constantly retconning and erasing them is one of the things that I find endlessly endearing about the whole project. Star Wars is an ongoing reminder that there are few irredeemably bad ideas — just poorly executed ones. If Disney truly does see Star Wars as not just a franchise but a genre, that means letting the bad stuff exist alongside the good stuff.

KOTOR. Source: GOG.

A Different Kind of Star Wars

It’s hard to find a better example of what this can look like than Bioware’s Knights of the Fallen Empire and Knights of the Eternal Throne. Even by the standards of the wider Knights of the Old Republic mythos, the fifth and sixth expansion packs for Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic takes the Star Wars franchise into uncharted territory.

The cinematic above — which kicks off the first in-game chapter of KotFE — does a great job of setting the tone here.

There are plenty of light-sabers, spaceships, holograms, and inter-familial conflict to be seen here but no mention of the Dark Side, Jedi, or The Force.

Knights of the Fallen Empire is Star Wars like you’ve never seen it before.

A brief bit of context on how Knights of the Fallen Empire fits into the wider history of Star Wars video games; Before Bioware went on to craft their own fictional universes with the Dragon Age and Mass Effect, the developer was most well-known for making sprawling, choice-driven adventures within other, more-established fictional settings.

Launched back in 2003, Knights of the Old Republic rewound the clock — taking place several thousand years before the events of The Phantom Menace — and essentially sought to answer the question of what a more mythic version of a galaxy far far away could look like. It’s also more or less exactly what Disney themselves are trying to do with their new ‘High Republic’ initiative.

Freed from having to worry about continuity with the wider chronology of the franchise, Bioware was free to experiment with the mythology in fresh new ways. This earned them both critical acclaim and commercial success. If you’d like to learn more about the history behind the original Knights of the Old Republic, Alex Kane’s book on the topic is well worth tracking down.

Bioware ended up handing off the development of the sequel to Obsidian but returned to the franchise to helm EA’s ambitious attempt to challenge the dominance of World of Warcraft.

Star Wars The Old Republic. Source: Lucasfilm.

MMO…Star Wars

Star Wars: The Old Republic was a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that sought to synthesize everything that players had loved about Bioware’s choice-driven single-player Star Wars games with the lucrative commercial success of Blizzard’s take on the multiplayer gaming formula — which was (and still remains) — the gold standard by which other entrants in the genre are measured.

World of Warcraft has often embodied the genre’s limits as well as its great potential. The geography of Azeroth may be vast but the gameplay is shallow and repetitive. The World of Warcraft has plenty of heroes in it but their stories remain, for the most part, stagnant. It would be hyperbolic to claim that Star Wars: The Old Republic broke free of these conventions but Bioware did find ways of spinning the format in their favor.

Developed by Bioware Austin and picking up several hundred years after the events of the original KOTOR (therefore allowing the player’s choices to remain canonically ambiguous), Star Wars: The Old Republic sees the war between the Sith Empire and the Old Republic rage on.

Prior to its release, The Old Republic was often pitched to fans as not just a spiritual successor to the legacy of KOTOR but an amalgamation of several possible sequels, rather than just a new version of Star Wars Galaxies (the original Star Wars MMORPG).

“Our fans ask, ‘Why aren’t you doing Knights of the Old Republic 3?’ What we’re really doing is Knights of the Old Republic 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12-plus. We have that much content and that many stories…We really get to do a lot of things we really wouldn’t get to do in [a] KOTOR 3.”

— James Ohlen in an interview with Gamespot

It helped that, as opposed to other online games of this kind, The Old Republic emphasized player choice. It even had cut-scenes — something largely unheard of in MMORPGs at the time. That wasn’t all. Just like the original KOTOR, it had companions and branching dialogue trees that let you shape the way the story unfolded. The choice of fighting alongside or against the Old Republic was up to you.

At launch, Bioware Austin gave players eight origin stories to experience. They could be a smuggler, a bounty hunter, a Jedi Knight, or a Sith Inquisitor.

Despite these ambitions, however, the experience of actually playing Star Wars: The Old Republic — especially nowadays — rarely feels so exceptional. In 2020, the combat mechanics and UI feel clunky and dated — even compared to World of Warcraft, which was already fairly old by the time The Old Republic hit shelves.

What’s more, the quality of the writing in The Old Republic can vary widely. Some plotlines and planets have clearly had a lot more thought put into them than others. For every Nar Shaddaa in the game, there’s also a Balmorra. It doesn’t take long for the gulf between the game’s initial volley of bespoke story quests and everything else to become clear. As you approach the original level cap for the game, The Old Republic began to feel more and more like every other MMORPG out there.

While the initial leveling arc in The Old Republic put a spotlight on your character’s specific story, everything that followed saw the entire player base funneled down the same path. Encounters became a little more generic, dialogue choices a little less interesting.

A willingness to do things with the Star Wars mythology that no one else had done was tough to reconcile with the need to sate the desires of hardcore players, that being to deliver a Star Wars adventure that never needed to wind its way to the credits.

Turning Things Around

While The Old Republic’s fourth expansion, Shadow of Revan, laid the foundations for what was to come, it wasn’t until Knights of the Fallen Empire that Bioware Austin properly managed to turn this shortcoming into an opportunity.

If players of The Old Republic were all going to experience the same story going forward, that narrative had best live up to the legacy of the game’s namesake. The Old Republic had to do what the original Knights of the Old Republic had done to Star Wars storytelling of its era: Reinvent it.

Right from the get-go, Knights of the Fallen Empire looks to upend your expectations of what a Star Wars story can be about.

Deposed Sith Emperor Valkoran. Source: Imgur

The expansion opens with the Republic and Empire forced to put aside their differences — something that’s almost unimaginable amidst the moral absolutism of Lucas’ prequel trilogy nor Disney’s sequels — and work together to track down and defeat the recently-deposed Sith Emperor. This quest leads them into uncharted space and into conflict with a new foe: The Eternal Empire.

The twist here isn’t just that the Eternal Empire exists. It’s that it is significantly more powerful than either the Republic or the Sith Empire. This version of Star Wars confronts the reality that space is big… really big. In the grand scheme of things, the sprawling galaxy that every Star Wars film and TV show has explored to date is only as big as we imagine it to be.

The wayward Sith Emperor — who now goes by the name Valkorian — deploys the Eternal Fleet and almost immediately delivers a stunning and decisive military defeat to the combined armadas of both great Galactic powers, forcing them into an unconditional surrender. Defeated, the heroes of The Old Republic are taken before Valkorian and offered a predictable Star Wars ultimatum: join me or die.

Fortunately for them, Valkorian doesn’t live to enjoy his victory. He’s quickly betrayed by his son, Arcann — who seizes control of the empire in a coup, publicly frames you for the death of his father, and promptly freezes you in carbonite.

When you’re abruptly awoken, years later, you’re tasked with recruiting new allies and building an insurrection against the dominance of the Eternal Empire.

Your efforts here are aided by an unlikely ally: Valkorian himself.

Senya Tirall, a Zakuul. Source: Imgur.

A great example of Bioware Austin’s willingness to play with the conventions of Star Wars, Valkorian frequently appears to you as a force ghost. However, unlike the ghosts of Star Wars films past, he’s no passive observer, and you’re never sure if you can trust his advice.

Given his ability to freeze time and affect the world despite his seemingly-limited corporeality, you’re likewise unsure whether or not he’ll ever be out of the picture for good.

Similarly, the Knights of Zakuul and the Scions do away with the typical binary light and dark sides of The Force. Their outfits even embody this blending of black and white. Seeing the iconography and skillsets of the Jedi and Sith divorced from their respective ideologies raises a ton of really juicy questions and provoking implications.

What does a version of Star Wars without its institutions, norms, and status quo look like?

Look to the Future, Learn from the Past

If Disney learns from KoTFE and treat the Jedi/Sith binary as social constructs rather than an immutable part of the setting, it opens the doorway to all sorts of fresh new Star Wars stories. Though some might consider them to be unnatural they are absolutely necessary in light of the regressive moves made by Rise of Skywalker.

At every turn, Knights of the Fallen Empire (and its follow-up, Knights of the Eternal Throne) challenge the orthodoxy of Star Wars. As someone who is quite invested in this particular fictional universe, I think it might actually be one of the best — or at least most thought-provoking — Star Wars stories I’ve ever encountered in a video game.

And, yet, it is also more-or-less impossible to recommend.

Incredible as the story here might be, the story here is told through the medium of an early-2010s era MMORPG. Even as someone who doesn’t mind sinking a couple of dozen hours into a repetitive MMORPG (and likes Star Wars RPGs made by Bioware quite a lot), it was still a dull, tedious and winding road getting to Knights of the Fallen Empire. It even required a flowchart!

When a game requires a flowchart… Source: Reddit

A Reddit-sourced flowchart of the story content in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Starting a character from scratch and playing your way through the base game plus the four digital expansions preceding Knights of the Fallen Empire is probably going to take something like fifty or sixty hours. The enormity of that time investment is hard to overlook.

Bioware Austin does give new players the option to jump straight into Knights of the Fallen Empire but doing so inevitably involves blunting the impact of the expansion’s initial chapter, so I don’t really recommend it.

Ultimately, Knights of the Fallen Empire is the best Star Wars game you’re probably not going to play. It — and the team at Bioware Austin — will likely never get the recognition they deserve for breaking genuinely new ground when it comes to storytelling in the Star Wars universe. It asks questions that no other Star Wars game (or film) asks and I can only hope that the answers it finds aren’t lost to time.

If Disney sees the future of Star Wars not just as genre fiction but a genre of its own, I can only hope the future looks a little something like Knights of the Fallen Empire.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Fergus Halliday

Fergus Halliday

I used to write about tech for PC World Australia full-time. Now I write about other things in other places.