The lights are on
The recent Dragon Age and Witcher games have shown there is huge interest in dark and mature tales of fantasy in the video game realm. It seems only fitting then that the megahit fantasy book series, George R.R. Martin's "A Tale of Ice and Fire" and the HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones, join in on the action. The series seems a perfect fit for a western RPG, and in many aspects it is. Knights battle for duty and honor. Politicians scheme behind the scenes to secure power and take the throne of the kingdom. Otherworldly forces prepare to bring about the destruction of mankind and only the defenders of the Nights Watch can hold back the rising tide. The potential for a truly incredible RPG experience is all there, but sadly isn't fully realized in Cyanide studio's video game adaptation.
Players take the role of two new characters crafted for the game, Mors Westford and Alester Sarwyck. Westford is a ranger of the Night's Watch, a group of brothers clad in black armor and clothing that defend a hundred foot tall wall of ice in the northernmost part of the seven kingdoms of Westeros from the wildling and supernatural threats on the other side. When a man joins the Night's Watch, all his crimes are forgiven and his past forgotten. Many join out of necessity, to escape punishment or execution. Westford is no different. After refusing an order from a superior officer out of a sense of honor during a rebellion 15 years ago, he was forced to join the Night's Watch or face execution. He's forged a name for himself in the brotherhood over the last 15 years and is content with the life he's chosen. But that quickly changes when an old friend from his past requests his aid in protecting a mysterious girl who is being hunted by the crown.
Alester is in many ways the exact opposite of Mors. Whereas Westford's strong sense of duty and honor control his every action, Sarwyck's main goal throughout the game is protecting his family both physically and in name - no matter the cost. After unspeakable deeds during the rebellion, Alester fled to another continent, living in exile for over 15 years. There he adopted a new religion and became a Red Priest to find inner peace. Upon learning of his father's death, he decides to return home and take his rightful place as heir to the Sarwyck lands of Riverspring. The only problem is his *** brother, Valarr Hill, who is in the favor of the Queen of Westeros, Cersei Lannister, plans to take control of the Sarwyck lands by force.
What follows is a tale of political intrigue, betrayal and sacrifice worthy of the name Game of Thrones. This is not a game for the faint of heart. Terrible, terrible events happen to just about every character in true Martin fashion. Cyanide Studio's made an excellent choice in deciding to do an original tale set in the universe of the books rather than attempting to adapt the books or show themselves. Though characters from the books and show do pop up (several actors from the show lend their likeness to their respective characters in the game) the primary focus is on the relationship between Alester and Mors. Even the format of the game is in tune with that of Martin's books. Players alternate between Alester and Mors, getting different perspectives on events and gaining insight about one storyline from the other. Eventually the two characters storylines collide, leading to an emotionally heavy conclusion that isn't to be missed by fans of the Game of Thrones universe.
Cyanide without a doubt nails the most important aspect of Martin's universe, the story and the dark and detailed filled world setting. Numerous side quests are littered throughout the game as well, and seemingly simple fetch quests quickly become more elaborate. Of course, there is the almost mandatory arena quest line as well. Some of the timing of the side quests is rather odd and confusing in terms of the pace of the plot. At one point towards the end of the game in a seemingly urgent rush to halt Valarr from emerging victorious in the southern part of the kingdom, Mors receives a letter from the Nights Watch asking for assistance back in the North. I jump in the quick travel system and travel hundreds of miles to the northernmost part of the world, complete a few side quests, then travel hundreds of miles south again and simply pick up where I left off. Valarr, of course, was simply waiting for us to get back from our continent spanning journey before he could continue on.
While this tale would make a great short story, sadly a great video game involves more than just a well thought out plot. The game simply fails to deliver in just about every other aspect of a video game. Though the writing is competent for the most part, the voice acting ,especially for Alester, is downright laughable at times. The graphics are almost universally muddy and ugly. Players will phase through countless doors and get stuck on objects far too often. The only exception graphics wise is that some of environments aren't terrible, most notably the 100 foot tall wall of ice and surrounding barracks of the Night's Watch. Some of the environments may bring to life parts of Martin's world but sadly the character models look dead and lifeless. If I didn't know better and simply had to guess what system the Game of Thrones game was for just from a graphical standpoint, I would probably guess the first generation Xbox. Despite running on the Unreal Engine, the game's characters look unnatural and stiff at all times.
Game of Thrones holds up slightly better in the gameplay department than in the presentation department. The bulk of the game involves running around town, speaking to NPC's about quests and of course, combat. Taking a page out of the Dragon Age: Origin's playbook, Game of Thrones features a semi-real time combat system. Players can slow down time mid combat to choose targets and select abilities. Both Mors and Alester's fighting styles are vastly different, and each character has three different combat styles they can choose from the outset of the game ranging from heavy armor with sword and shield to a ranged bowman. In addition, each character features a unique gameplay mechanic. Mors has a loyal attack dog which he can take control of using his skin change ability, and in fights the dog can be upgraded to disarm enemies or pin them to the ground. Various stealth segments are played as Mor's dog throughout the game and help break up the gameplay and avoid being overly long. Alester's unique ability grants him the magical powers of a Red Priest, allowing him to light his sword on fire, revive fallen teammates and detect secret areas in the games environments.
The combat on the surface looks to feature a wide variety of options, but players will quickly learn that simply stun locking opponents is the easiest way to victory against single targets and spamming AOE attacks leads to success against larger numbers of enemies. Leveling up grants you attribute points to distribute and skill points to unlock new abilities, but when you really only need to use your knockdown or stun, what's the point?
As a complete package, Game of Thrones is far from perfect. Muddy visuals, flat voice acting and a mediocre combat system would seemingly make this game hard to recommend. However, Cyanide's deep understanding of the world of Westeros and the core themes of Martin's books places the game's storyline as one of the best of the year and elevates what should be a completely passable game into one worth checking out for fans of Westeros or dark fantasy.
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