Game of Thrones Review

Eschalon: Book II

Developer:Cyanide Studio
Release Date:2012-05-15
  • Action,Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
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Game of Thrones is a role-playing game based on the A Song of Ice and Fire novels written by George R. R. Martin (not to mention the "Game of Thrones" television series appearing on HBO).  The game was created by French developer Cyanide Studio, and while it has some issues with its pacing and interface, which might turn off some gamers, it also gives you a chance to take part in the plots and maneuverings of the lords of Westeros, which might be a selling point for others.  Keep reading to see which side of the fence you sit on.

In Game of Thrones, you take control of two characters -- Mors Westford, a ranger in the Night's Watch, and Alester Sarwyck, a red priest of R'hllor and the heir to the Sarwyck lands.  At the start of the game, Mors receives a message from John Arryn asking him to protect a girl, but then Arryn dies before revealing why the girl is important or who she needs to be protected from.  Alester, meanwhile, returns home for his father's funeral, only to find that his lands are in jeopardy and that he needs Queen Cersei's assistance to keep them.  You start out by alternating between the two characters as you learn more about them, but then eventually their stories intersect and you control them as a team.

When you first gain control of a character, you have to choose a weapon stance for him.  Each character has three choices.  Alester is a rogue-like character who favors lighter armors and quicker attacks, and he can be a water dancer, a sellsword, or an archer.  Mors is more of a typical fighter, with a preference for heavier weapons and armor, and he can be a magnar, a landed knight, or a hedge knight.  Then at level 7 you get to choose a new stance for your characters, either improving their initial stance or selecting one of the two stances you bypassed before.

Characters also get a variety of attributes (including strength and intelligence), abilities (which give active and passive combat bonuses, including Alester's Head Shot archer ability), skills (which improve how well characters use weapons and armor), and traits (which can be positive or negative, and which must be balanced at the beginning of the game).  This sounds like a lot of stuff to keep track of, but it works out pretty well.  Unfortunately, as you level up you're given enough points for all of these areas that you can learn just about everything useful, and so character development isn't especially interesting, other than your initial stance choice.

The campaign in Game of Thrones takes place during the time period of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the Martin series.  Certain characters from the book (such as Cersei and Varys) make minor appearances, but otherwise the story in the campaign exists on the periphery of the story in the book.  The game basically speculates on what might have happened if John Arryn had had time to plan and scheme after discovering Cersei's secret.  This works out well in some ways but not in others.  For example, Cyanide had to create a new bastard belonging to King Robert (which seems possible) but also a new heir to the Targaryen line (which doesn't).  I'm sort of surprised that Cyanide didn't just create a new adventure in Westeros with the events of the book as a backdrop, rather than trying to link them together.
The story in Game of Thrones is its main strength and weakness.  It's a strength because with fixed characters, Cyanide was able to link the past and present together to give events more depth, and they also did an excellent job of giving you motivation to kill the bad guys.  I can't remember the last time I played an RPG and wanted to kill the last boss so much.  But in order to present the story coherently, the campaign is completely linear, your actions don't change much, and Cyanide tried to keep things realistic.  For example, you never go into a basement to defeat rats, and when you enter a town, you don't meet two shopkeepers, five peasants and 4,862 bandits.  You only encounter enemies that make sense, but as a result, unlike most RPGs where the ratio of battles to dialogue is at least 2:1, in Game of Thrones it's just the opposite, and the script and acting aren't good enough to support that kind of focus.  And because of the frequent conversations and your only minor impact on them, it often feels like you're watching a game rather than playing one.

Combat when it occurs is almost always small in scale, with you (and perhaps a companion or two) taking on up to five opponents.  To attack an opponent you just click on him, which causes you to use your standard attack over and over until he's dead.  To activate one of your abilities, you have to press the spacebar to initiate "active pause," which slows down time to something like 5% and brings up your abilities bar.  Your abilities have an energy cost, so you can't just spam them.  It's better to pick the right time and place.  For example, Mors has Daze Strike ability that interrupts enemies.  So if you see an enemy start to use an ability, you can Daze Strike him and prevent whatever malicious action he had in mind.  You can also use potions and poisons.  These are contained in flasks which you equip in your belt, and which can only be re-filled in shops.  So you have to be careful with them, too, lest you run out while adventuring.

The interface as a whole is underwhelming, at least on the PC which is how I played the game.  You use the WASD keys to move around, the left mouse button to interact with objects and attack people, and the right mouse button to control the camera.  There isn't any sort of mouselook mode, and the camera is fixed on the active character's shoulder with no way to zoom in (for a first person perspective) or out (so you can get a better look at what's going on).  Clearly the interface was designed for consoles and then minimally changed for the PC.  That means you get clunky menus, no tool tips, an awkward inventory system (it took me a while to figure out how to equip a weapon), minimal hotkeys, no scrollbars, and no way to name your saved games.  Unfortunately, as all of us PC gamers know, this is more the rule than the exception any more.  If you have a gamepad, then you can also use that to control the game, but I didn't try it.

Finally, Game of Thrones doesn't rate highly in the bells and whistles department, either.  The graphics are mediocre at best, and there is too much repetition.  You visit the same maps over and over again rather than getting to explore new places, and way too often NPCs wear the same clothes or have the same faces, or both.  The acting is also subpar.  The actors all read their lines clearly, but they rarely act them or seem to know what the context is.  But on a positive note, Game of Thrones didn't crash on me even once during the 30+ hours I spent playing it, which has to rate somewhere around "minor miracle."

When I started playing Game of Thrones, I disliked it considerably.  It starts out slowly (it takes about a half hour to wade through the initial conversations and tutorials to begin playing), it has a clunky interface, and it's lacking in polish and charm.  But then the more time I spent with it, the more I got used to the game mechanics, and the more I got interested in how the story was going to turn out.  And so now it's a tough call for me whether I'd recommend the game or not.  If you just want to play an RPG where you kill stuff and the cut scenes are minimal, then Game of Thrones definitely isn't for you.  But if you're like me and you're a fan of the Martin books and the HBO series, and you don't mind a game with a slower pace, then Game of Thrones might have just enough going for it to make it a worthwhile purchase.