After Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic wowed audiences with its in-depth storytelling and RPG mechanics in 2003, publisher LucasArts decided that a sequel would have to be made as soon as possible. Much akin to how Majora’s Mask came out barely a year after Ocarina of Time changed the game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II was fired out as soon as developer Obsidian Entertainment could possibly make it and released a little less than a year and a half after its predecessor. Considering that an entirely new development team of just seven people took over for this entry while still meeting that narrow deadline, it’s truly a miracle that the final product turned out as good as it did. As a standalone that was evidently rushed to market, KOTOR II may overall feel weaker than its predecessor, but it also does a fantastic job of maintaining the high standards previously set in storytelling and gameplay.
Before we get too into the weeds, we think it bears mentioning that this re-release on modern platforms brings with it the opportunity to finally play the game KOTOR II was originally envisioned as before the demands of the deadline necessitated that the dev team cut content. A free post-launch patch — The Sith Lord Restored Content DLC — is coming which will bring this missing content back by reworking the entire final act of the game with a whole new level, hundreds of bug fixes, adjusted cutscenes, new enemy encounters, and expanded dialogue with important characters. Those of you who have played this in the past on PC may already be familiar with the content (which comes courtesy of a fan-developed mod) but suffice to say this is an exciting new chapter for a game viewed by many as not living up to its full potential in its original form. If you’re after the ‘complete’ KOTOR II package, this re-release will offer that — if not at launch.
KOTOR II picks up a few years after the events of its predecessor, which took place roughly 4,000 years before the events of the films in the pre-Disney canon. You play in the role of a Jedi named “The Exile” who was cast out by the Jedi council due to your actions in the Mandalorian Wars. The story picks up with The Exile—suffering a convenient case of amnesia—being hunted down by the Sith, and you’re soon joined by a rogueish, Han Solo-esque pilot named Atton Rand and a mysterious force-sensitive woman named Kreia. With the Sith hot on your trail, you lead your small, growing crew across the galaxy in search of the last few remaining Jedi Masters; either to kill them for their decision to exile you or to ask for their help in fighting back against the Sith threat.
The story here hits all the expected thematic beats for a Star Wars adventure and features some nicely obscured plot twists, but the real draw of the experience is how The Exile’s journey is determined by the moral decisions you make throughout the plot. Whether you adhere to the Jedi way or allow yourself to be corrupted by the hatred of the Dark Side is up to you, and it can lead to some fascinating outcomes depending on who you end up aligning with. Dialogue with any character usually gives you a range of responses from comically mean to overly compassionate which will gradually push you towards either the Light or Dark Side as you progress.
Gameplay follows the same basic blueprint of its predecessor wherein you travel from planet to planet and explore dungeon-like environments rife with treasure chests, enemies, and simple puzzles to solve. We especially appreciated the puzzles here, as this is another area where player decisions have a large role. For example, an early sequence necessitated that we find three partial clips of a deceased character’s voice to open a locked door. Going through the motions of searching the environment for computers with the clips and convincing unwitting NPCs to help us in this process netted us a lot of experience, but we alternatively could’ve simply shot the locked computer with a blaster bolt to get the door to open.
As you’re scouring environments for characters and MacGuffins needed to progress further, you’re sure to come across all manner of aliens and droids who will do their best to cut your journey short. Combat plays out using a system that feels a bit like a primitive version of the combat in the Xenoblade Chronicles games, mixing together live action and turn-based elements in a dynamic fashion.
Each character in your party will auto-battle with basic attacks while the player is responsible for manually positioning characters and firing off various Force powers and special attacks in their arsenals. Importantly, every attack and ability is governed by an old school d20 dice roll system that controls parameters like accuracy and damage—so even when it looks like a flashy live-action battle is taking place, the characters and enemies are really just taking turns behind the scenes.
Though the battles can feel a little stiff sometimes, we enjoyed the deliberate and strategic pace they bring. Tracking the action and firing off needed buffs, items, and attacks at just the right time can be a surprisingly fraught experience, ensuring that you’re anxiously following every attack in the deadly dance of a fight. And for those of you who feel that there’s not quite enough time to make decisions, there are optional features you can enable in the menu to automatically pause the action at certain intervals to turn combat into more of a pure turn-based battle system.
With experience you get from fights and successful completion of puzzles, you can then level up characters in a hands-on stat tree that gives you plenty of control over character growth. If you just want to get a move on or feel intimidated by all the options, you can just choose the ‘recommended’ option and let the game do it for you. For those who want to roll up their sleeves, you can choose to distribute stat points manually into skills like Intelligence, Will, or Charisma, each of which will be ‘rolled’ every time you try to attack, dodge, lie to an NPC, slice a computer, or do virtually anything. It’s very easy, then, to build your character ‘wrong’ and make KOTOR II needlessly difficult, but we enjoyed how many directions you can take your character and how that can fundamentally change the way you approach the adventure. Between this expansive character growth system and the focus on player decisions in the story, there are a lot of ways to retread this game on subsequent playthroughs.
Visually, KOTOR II looks about as good as it can. The simplistic environments, boxy characters, and stilted animations betray this release’s age, but features like the (mostly) 60 FPS performance, high-resolution textures, and occasional use of dynamic lighting help to present the aging graphics in the best light possible. KOTOR II is far from a showcase of the marvels of modern hardware, then, but you eventually adjust to it well enough.
As for the soundtrack, we were impressed by how seamlessly classic Star Wars tunes were mixed in with new tracks that maintain the same spirit. More importantly, this soundtrack was recorded with a live orchestra in Seattle and the increase in quality compared to standard MIDI music is noticeable, especially if you wear headphones.
We hope that the patch bringing the DLC mentioned above will come with some important bug fixes, too, because KOTOR II certainly feels a little rough around the edges with its performance. For example, we had one amusing sequence where a party member evidently decided he was done with the adventure and refused to move from where he stood no matter how much we tried to coax him. After we left him there and later triggered a cutscene that he was in, we watched as our character talked to thin air while the camera would awkwardly cut back to the party member—behaving like a stage actor late to his show—sprinting through hallways as he tried to catch up to us while still saying his lines. When he finally reached us after running across half a starship, the game crashed and we lost nearly half an hour of progress. The adjustments made to the Switch release of the original game post-launch suggest this could improve in the future, so fingers crossed.
On top of funny but annoying gaffes like this, we noted instances where the music would cut out and be replaced by an awful buzzing. The only solution to this was to close out the game and start the application over. Additionally, we ran into some areas where the frame rate would notably drop into the low 20s, which simply feels absurd for a game that launched on the original Xbox. It’s quite clear that this port of KOTOR II could use a little more spit and polish; it feels like this game just gets tired the longer you leave it in rest mode and then it starts slowly coming apart at the seams.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II does a solid job of building on the foundation of its predecessor, capitalizing on engaging combat, player-driven storytelling, and deep character-building systems to make for a satisfying and very replayable RPG. The downsides of this Switch port are that it’s rather buggy in its launch state and the game is often content to simply repeat the ideas that made its predecessor successful without adding to them in any notable way. We’ve got hopes that post-launch improvements will come alongside the upcoming (and free) Sith Lord Restored Content DLC — a very welcome addition that will really complete this package. Despite its faults, we’d still give KOTOR II a strong recommendation, though we’d suggest you play the original game first and then move on to this one if you still want more.