Game of Thrones – Impressions
Platform | Release Date
360, PS3, PC | May 15, 2012
Developed by Cyanide
Published by Atlus
Written in conjunction with author George R. R. Martin, the famed A Song of Ice and Fire universe opens further to reveal a new chapter of the story! Play as two former soldiers of Robert’s Rebellion who, despite divergent paths, must reunite to face a new and deadly threat to the Seven Kingdoms. Travel a parallel course with the original series, interacting with familiar faces along the way, including Cersei Lannister, Lord Commander Mormont, and Varys the Spider
To enjoy a great book it takes cooperation between the vision of the author and the imagination of the reader. Adapting a book into a video game requires allowing the player to shape and interact with the creative vision. Game of Thrones attempts to tell an original story that overlaps the events of the book, but it’s painfully clear the concept for this project predates the HBO series which has brought the world of Westeros to the cultural mainstream. Instead of a lavish production, players are asked to join a cut-rate experience. The visual presentation is distinctly mid-tier, voice acting is flat, and the RPG combat wooden. None of this would matter if Cyanide told us an interesting story. Twenty hours later, I can’t take it anymore. I feel bad for whoever buys my used copy.
The game assumes players haven’t already read the first book or watched the first season of the HBO show but it seems unlikely that anyone would play this game without prior exposure. Establishing where this story fits within the existing timeline takes some exposition; it may seem redundant but it’s acceptable. Basing key plot revelations fifteen hours into the game on things a fan of the series already knows is bad story-telling. Worse, the core story arc revolves around a bastard and her unborn bastard baby somehow being a threat to the crown. Explaining the twisted logic behind this goes deep into spoiler territory; even then, since when have bastards ever been a threat to take the crown? Considering that bastards (even their mere existence) play a major role in the source material, it’s surprising that Cyanide went down this well-worn path to tell their “original” story.
Mors Westford, a fifteen-year veteran of the Night’s Watch, opens the story and is one of the more unique characters I’ve encountered in a video game. He’s scarred, what little hair he has left has long gone white, and is not a child of prophecy as so many RPG heroes are. His manner is gruff, to the point, but certain characters (e.g. the bastard’s mother) bring out a sweeter side in him.
Joining Mors is Alester of Sarwyck, a knight who fled Westeros fifteen years ago and is only now returning – this time as a Red Priest. For those unfamiliar with the books, Red Priests are portrayed as dark magic users, capable of summoning shadow assassins and raising the dead. Considering how often the game switches perspective, it would have been really interesting to hop back and forth between a grizzled warrior protecting a young woman, and someone of a dark, sinister bent. Unfortunately, Alester is nothing of the sort.
A two-threaded story done well would heighten tension by shifting perspective at just the right time, but Game of Thronesdoesn’t. It frequently switches perspectives as the tension builds, trying to create a cliff-hanger moment, but by the time it returns the player has forgotten why they were supposed to be tense at all. Not helping matters is the fact that dialogue is just plain bad. Conversations frequently go something like this:
Person A : What can you tell me about Joe?
Person B: You want to know about Joe? Let me tell you about Joe. Joe is….
Person A: Thank you for telling me about Joe. [To himself now] Person B just told me what I need to know about Joe. Maybe I should find Joe.
That said, the dialogue system in Game of Thrones actually improves upon the Mass Effect-style conversation wheel. Instead of dialogue options being presented with vague adjectives, resulting in often surprising lines being spoken by your character, options here are written in the character’s voice (as if he’s talking to himself before speaking). For example, given the choice to determine a criminal’s fate, the wheel reads “(Option 1)You deserve to be executed; (Option 2) … or join the Night’s Watch.” It works quite nicely even when there are 5 dialogue options and deserves to be used in a game with better writing.
Combat is the strongest part of the game, based on a hybrid real-time turn-based system similar to Knights of the Old Republic. I enjoyed combat at first but the longer I played, the nostalgia from KotOR wore off and I simply slogged through the battles. While I built Mors out as a tank and Alester as a lithe “water dancer”, in practice characters stand rigidly in front of enemies and hack away. I wanted to appreciate the difficult battles more but story sections break up the gameplay so much that it’s hard to get into a proper dungeon-crawling rhythm. Worse, the third-person over the shoulder camera zooms in way to close when in tight corridors, which happens to be where the majority of combat occurs.
Gameplay is at its weakest when Mors must take control of his dog. Characters able to control animals play an important role in the books, something Cyanide no doubt wanted to incorporate here. The idea sounds great. In practice, players have to endure tortuous “follow this scent” and “stealthily kill guards by ripping their throats out and barking a lot” sequences.
Unless you’re the type of player that has to find and open every chest in a game there is zero incentive to explore. A bad story and okay gameplay could have been ignored if the world of Westeros was brought to life with solid art assets. Can you stand beneath the Wall, drink ale at Castle Black, explore King’s Landing from Maegor’s Keep to Flea Bottom? Technically, yes, but Game of Thrones is not a looker – at all. Unreal is a bad engine for RPGs, even ones as linear as this, so even the sprawling city of King’s Landing is reduced to a collection of corridors. My pre-order copy of the game had some impressive concept art of locations not visited in the books, like the Shadow Tower, but new locations created for the game are instead depressingly generic.
Characters present in the HBO series were made to resemble the real actors despite the game having already entered production. This was a bad choice, as it serves to highlight just how bad the facial animations are: Jeor Mormont looks like a bobble-head version of himself, and Cersei a Chinese knock-off Barbie. Despite Game of Thrones being a very well-known brand and the game launching at $60, Cyanide clearly did not have AAA-level resources at their disposal. The combat is decent for what it is but the plodding story dominates the experience. Nor is this vision of Westeros worthy of scenic exploration. It’s not broken on a technical level but it might as well be.