Publisher: Atlus / Developer: Cyanide Studios / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, Strong Language]
I honestly don’t know where to start this review. The Game of Thrones video game is not good. It’s also not bad. Telling you why it’s not good will be very easy (and don’t worry, I will tell you why it’s bad). But it’s a lot harder to explain why it’s not bad; there’s a lot to enjoy here, if you have a hefty dose of patience and a general enjoyment of the property. What the game does poorly is immediately visible on the surface. Anyone walking by your TV will see the awful, dreadful aspects. The good stuff is buried much deeper, beneath all the crap, and you really have to spend some time getting to know the game to really appreciate its successes. Thus, I don’t expect it to be well-received with the masses, but those who take the time might find their time spent worth it after all.
Let’s start with the game’s greatest strength and its biggest weakness: the story. The team at Cyanide has done a great job of crafting a narrative that intersects the plot of the novels just enough to make the game important to the overarching events of the first book, but it doesn’t fall into the mistake of trying to recreate the books event by event, character by character. Instead, you’ll be playing two main characters, with each chapter sending you into the other character’s shoes in an alternating manner, similar to the books’ POV storytelling model. You’ll don the black as Mors Westford, a former noble who joined the Night’s Watch after Robert Baratheon’s rebellion, and the red cloak of Alester Sarwyck, a priest of the god R’hllor and self-exiled heir to the lands and titles of House Sarwyck, a fiefdom loyal to the Lannisters.
Between these two personalities, you’ll experience a tale of intrigue and political machinations that unveils some of the mysteries surrounding Jon Arryn’s murder and the royal children. All in all, it weaves a nice mystery yarn that will pull Thrones fans through the jankiness in the rest of the game. In fact, while Game of Thrones touts itself as an RPG, I disagree with that classification. If anything, the game is a mystery adventure with heavy RPG elements. Many times as I played, I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of the detective elements of L.A. Noire, of all games.
So that’s the good. Now the bad: the story is told incredibly poorly. And I don’t mean the details of the plot are bad, I mean the way information is communicated to you as a player. Dialogue is not only written awkwardly, it’s ponderously long-winded and aimless. In fact, you’ll spend the first 15-20 minutes of the game listening to dialogue before you even have a chance to draw your sword. It also commits the cardinal sin of telling, not showing. You’ll go through reams of character pontifications and world history when all you want to do is accept a damn quest you already know how to complete. It might help if the voice acting was good, but unfortunately, it isn’t (no thanks to the writing the actors were forced to work with). The only performances of any quality are James Cosmo’s Lord Commander Mormont, a role he reprises from the HBO show, and Conleth Hill’s Varys, also from the show.
If you can somehow last through the meandering dialogue scenes, however, there is a decent yarn to be experienced here.
So I was surprised to find that the gameplay in Game of Thrones was much different than I expected. Coming in, I was awaiting a hack-and-slash third person RPG; instead, we’ve got a competent system reminiscent of Dragon Age: Origins. Your characters auto-attack in combat, which is heavily stat-driven like an MMO, and you can queue up special attacks to inflict status effects or interrupt your enemies. It’s challenging, and while it doesn’t quite have the weight I would have liked given the visceral nature of the show, it is fun and satisfying as well.
You’ll get to choose one of three available classes for both of the characters, with each class focusing on a combat style (DPS, tank, or hybrid). What’s even more interesting is that you’ll also get an opportunity to define your character’s past through traits, which add or subtract permanent bonuses to various stats like critical hit percentage, HP, or other aspects. The kicker here is that at the beginning of the game, you have to choose an equal number of negative traits to balance out your positive traits. So you might have Alester be resistant to poison, but he might also have a bad leg that causes his attack speed to suffer in battle. It’s a really interesting system that I’ve not quite seen before, especially in a console game. You’ll also have the opportunity to learn new traits based on how you approach major story points through your dialogue choices. This means that the way you choose to play the characters has a direct effect on gameplay, making those choices all the more impactful. For example, if you choose to torture a wildling foe in the prologue, you’ll earn the expeditious trait for Mors, whereas if you kill him outright, you don’t get anything.
Each of the protagonists also has alternate skill trees for their unique abilities. Mors has his dog, which acts as another party member in battle. But because Mors is a skinchanger, you’ll also be able to take control of the dog and move stealthily through the levels to kill guards or sniff out hidden treasure. Alester, on the other hand, is a Red Priest, and thus has control over fire, which he can use to light up his weapons for extra damage or ignite foes directly.
All in all, the gameplay is solid and fun, and you can’t ask for more than that. It’s the main reason I kept coming back to play the game.
I’m not going to lie: Game of Thrones is downright ugly. When I learned that it had been in development since 2005, it made more sense why it looks so awful. That said, the graphics are barely passable for an Xbox 360 launch title.
Environments, however, look great. Wandering around Castle Black or King’s Landing is a real treat if you’re a fan of the property, and some of the lighting effects are really pretty. Most of the time, though, the entire world looks flat and low-res. It’s really unfortunate that the final product looks this dismal, as better visuals could have really helped the atmosphere of Westeros.
A lesson for all you would-be game reviewers out there: there’s a difference between liking a bad game while knowing it’s bad, and discounting a game’s glaring flaws while proclaiming it to be amazing. Game of Thrones is satisfactory at best, and dreadfully slow and ugly at worst. But there is fun to be had here. Despite all the shortcomings, I had fun, and with video games that’s the most important element for my enjoyment. It’s not for everyone. It isn’t really an RPG, even if the stat-building is solid. It’s kind of a light adventure game, sort of. I really can’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t a Game of Thrones fan already, as the references, characters, plot, and story are all pretty flimsy unless you’re familiar with the property. That said, if you are a Game of Thrones fan, the game does a respect to the source material and should you have enough will in you to get through the initial putrid hours, you might find something in it to like, too.