Let's get this out of the way: KOTOR2 is not KOTOR1.
I loved KOTOR1. It was the first real PC RPG that I was going to bite into as a kid, despite having toyed with Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale when they were the 'hot things' to hit the market. From the first to the fourth disc, I was playing out some of the best scenarios I was convinced could ever have existed in a video game; it certainly helped that it was all being played out in the Star Wars universe, which, to any bright-eyed kid who loved the original trilogy, was something to behold.
And then came KOTOR2.
As a bit of a set-up: I never had the chance to play KOTOR2 when it was originally released, but I was there to watch the bile and distaste that most gamers had for it. Reviews from users on a variety of other gaming sites came in, deriding the story and claiming that it was a vastly inferior title compared to the stellar original. It was incomplete, people had said: the story was unfinished, and for the most part, the game felt empty and had a plot unfitting for the Star Wars universe.
Then comes 2014, where I finally had the time to do a bit more reading on the game, including the (now famous) content restoration mod. I bought the game on sale, installed the mod, fired it up -
- and was hooked for the next 30 something hours that I had it installed and played. I loved the game so much, that it promptly was installed on my laptop, just so I could get a few hours in on the go during downtime. It was fantastic.
KOTOR2, for those unfamiliar and reading this review in hoping to tip the scales, is a Star Wars game, yes. It takes place in the Star Wars universe. It involves jedi, lightsabres, starships, the Sith, light versus darkness - except, not really, particularly the last bit.
You see, head writer Chris Avellone never really liked the Star Wars universe - or, parts of it's mythos, anyway. The Light and Dark sides seemed too binary, too hilariously Machiavellan at turns to really allow him to write the stories he has become so well known for among PC RPG fans (Planescape: Torment being the elephant - or perhaps well-endowed titan - in the room). He wanted to shake things up, narratively speaking, and it shows: the game is not so simply about the light versus the dark (as, arguably, the original trilogy of films and the first KOTOR are steadfast about), but instead, how such concepts do not work when we apply the idea of secondary belief to the universe at large. (For some more insight into Avellone's thoughts on the universe, I suggest looking up Super Bunnyhop's interview with the man himself on YouTube).
The game features you as the Jedi Exile - a wounded warrior who had returned from the Mandalorian Wars to the Jedi Council, only to be banished (for reasons unknown) and to have their powers stripped from them. As you awaken on a mining facility, with a case of amnesia and tremendously weakened from the ordeal, you come to realize that something is wrong with the force, and the Sith, no less, are behind it. You set out on an adventure with a series of unlikely companions to determine just what happened to you, and what this new face of Sith appear to be up to.
The companions, a highlight of any BioWare style RPG, but particularly for Obsidian (the designers at the helm, here), feature some fantastic heroes. Some cliches remain, to ensure you're playing in a game set within the universe you signed up for, of course: there's still the charming rogue who represents the Han Solo of the title, the sassy bounty hunter, the wise and mysterious Jedi Master. But it's not the same. Something feels 'off', in the most magnificent way possible as you spend time speaking with these characters. They're thematically similar, yes, but the way they express and espouse their discomfort with the status quo of the Force and the Universe makes you realize how real humans living in the far corners of the galaxy might actually feel about how things work when you're facing space wizards and death-bent cultists.
It doesn't stop at the companions. KOTOR1 had the bad habit of setting up encounters across its planets in a very blase pattern. Find planet - fight through corridors - find friendly race - handle problems. Oh, it's very high adventure and there are several key notes within the campaign. But that's how it feels and how it ultimately handles for much of it. KOTOR2 shines in this regard - at least, it does for a limited time, but we'll talk about that later. One of the largest planets in the game has you splitting up your party, facing enemies alone as your companions in what seems like impossible odds, encountering foes in what you thought were the safest regions of the map, and having traps and battles sprung on you when you honestly least expected it. There were several times where I found myself popping tinctures and med pacs just to stay alive, staving off death and improving party members in thoughtful ways to defend against some truly interesting scenarios.
But then we have the common problem - and the one that you will probably continue to see across all of the reviews that are written here - is that the game is unfinished. There are far too many elements of it that are clearly missing, stripped down, or otherwise incomplete that make it lesser than the game it starts off (and is, in the perfect world, ideally meant to be). Those creative scenarios? They really only happen on one planet (Nar-Shaddah - and, take note, new players: head there first, if you can.) Companions suddenly 'disappear' from the final encounter with no explanation as to why they are not with you. Some character history lines seem to just drop dead. As the game runs out of steam, the following planets ultimately feel a bit one-note and flat (and veer too close to KOTOR1's rather vanilla campaign). The ending seems to have written itself in a corner and provides too little closure for what the game seems to be setting you up for. What begins and ends with a bang, closes with a whimper.
Does that mean that KOTOR2 is a game not worth your time or money? Of course not. If you've ever enjoyed Avellone's writing, then it still comes through strong in this title, butchered and shortened as it is. The characters are interesting and foster genuine curiosity about the world the Old Republic represents. There are still some genius set encounters, particularly in the early and late game, that challenge what it means to have quests and how to experience a story in a western RPG.
The only problem is, when all is said and done, when you've put in your 30-something hours and you see the final cutscene, you leave with that bitter and sour taste as your final realization is this:
What an RPG this truly could have been.