By Mento 1 Comments
Well, that certainly was a ride. The Knights of the Old Republic games have always occupied this unusual role in the greater Star Wars universe due to the way they occur several thousand years before the various movie trilogies but appear to have an equivalent level of technological development. There's two possible explanations for this, the first being the highly unlikely scenario that after inventing spaceships that can travel faster than light and robots capable of self-awareness that there was nowhere else for technology to go. The second, which I think Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords taps into on its wonderful tour of Star Wars fandom iconoclasm, is the idea that this universe's fortunes are cyclical - similar to how our own world's progress was stymied by the Dark Ages before coming back around to somewhere close to the Antiquity's degree of advancement with the Renaissance (literally "rebirth") of the 14th-17th centuries. It's safe to say that The Sith Lords takes the illogical Star Wars universe - intended by Lucas to be the backdrop for swashbuckling adventure movies and little else - to task for some of its more glaring problems, and is possibly why it's so divisive.
Actually, I can probably point to a different reason why this game was divisive: it was half-finished and rushed out the door, more the issue of LucasArts and their lower expectations for a sequel than the highly motivated work of Obsidian to put out a great game to go with its great story and characters. I'm thankful that I got the full experience with the Restored Content Mod - which not only dummies in a bunch of side-quests removed for time but also includes cutscenes and FMV movies that didn't make it to print and were, in a lot of cases, instrumental for understanding the narrative goals of the developers (especially its lead director and writer Chris Avellone, who has earned so much cachet for writing intelligent and resonant RPG yarns that he's attached to almost every new one these days). If I hadn't also played Fallout: New Vegas, I wouldn't be able to conceive of a version of this game that kept crashing because of technical faults while abandoning its incomplete story.
To get into how much more subversive this game is compared to other, more deferential tales told in this expansive universe of Jedi and Sith would require delving into spoilers. So for now, I'll leave that to its own special spoiler-blocked section later on and talk more about the gameplay and its systems. Suffice it to say, though, if you were returning to The Sith Lords a decade and a half after the fact like I just did, you'll want to do so for where its story goes, how it imitates the format of the first KOTOR for the sake of its twists (there's a certain comfort in its structure that gets up-ended), and how expertly the characters of your merry band are introduced and developed in some unexpected ways as you get to know them better. There's lots of little narrative touches I loved even outside the more spoiler-y story beats, like how to anyone outside of the whole Force-user Jedi/Sith paradigm, it simply looks like a religious disagreement - hence the schism between Darth Revan and the Republic's Jedi Council being referred to as the "Jedi Civil War". Or how the game looks into the ways the Ithorians (the hammerhead dudes, one of which can be seen in the first movie's Mos Eisley Cantina scene) are applying their love of nature to rebuilding planets destroyed in the war, or how the Mandalorians are rallying back after their monumental defeat, or how the various minority alien species have social gathering spots literally filled with cyanide poison to keep humans - the majority species - away, because so many SW aliens are tired of our shit. It's that level of attention to incidental world-building, that is to say world-building that holds no immediate relevance to the main character or their party, that earns Obsidian so much praise in other games like Fallout: New Vegas and their recent Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny franchises (and probably also contributes to their lengthy delays and rushed deadline issues).
KOTOR 2 is purposely, for both the sake of its narrative twists and for the sake of what I assume is cost efficiency and development expediency, more or less identical to the first game in terms of its gameplay format, character development, general look, partially open structure, and even a fair amount of its environments. KOTOR 1 had you visiting planets like the sleepy grasslands and Jedi HQ of Dantooine and the ominous Sith graveyard and training ground that was Korriban, both of which return here. Jedis (and Dark Jedi) still advance in three class variants: one more focused on powers, one more focused on lightsaber prowess, and one that balances the two. You still build your own lightsaber at one point, assembling various parts and a colored crystal of your choosing. Even the Ebon Hawk, the second coolest ship in the Star Wars universe, makes its return as your mobile home base - its robotic crew of the secretive astromech droid T3-M4 and cheerfully genocidal assassin droid HK-47 still present. As I said above, Obsidian smartly transforms this comfortable familiarity borne of necessity - many parts had to be recycled to keep costs down - into something they can later subvert.
One recognizable change is a heightened sense of convenience. Each Jedi class has a fair number of skills such as security (lockpicking), computer use (hacking, essentially), repair (mostly used for crafting and fixing droid NPCs), demolitions (for disarming, recovering, and creating mines and other explosives), treat injury (which increases health restored by items, and allows you to make stronger meds at crafting tables as well as help injured organic NPCs), awareness (unlocks dialogue options and makes it easier to spot secrets/traps), stealth (self-explanatory), and the protagonist-exclusive persuade (purely for dialogue options). Most classes have at least three of these skills, and there are feats for activating more to stop them being "cross-class" abilities (those that require two points to level up instead of one). Therefore, you just need one or two characters with a high intelligence stat to be completely covered for any skill check you might need to make, rather than having to sweep areas with a second visit with the specific experts. The crafting system, and the way you can either break down old trash for their components or sell them to splurge on more cost-effective items to break down, means you can great all the best upgrade items - those attached to armor and weapons like underlays, meshes, scopes, barrels, etc. - without waiting for them to appear in a randomized treasure pool, and also accounts for the usual issue in RPGs where you're heading to the end-game with a giant pile of cash you can't spend. Towards the end of the game my Jedi Exile protagonist was absolutely destroying all opponents with a heavily modified lightsaber capable of over 100 damage per round (frequently activating the "Burst of Speed" Force power to double the number of attacks per round didn't hurt either). Surprisingly, the game actually accounted for this overpowered business in the story, which - and I can't stress this enough - is really something else with the layers of meta narrative it's juggling, even compared to everything else Avellone and Obsidian have done.
Ironically, when I started focusing May around playing older games, I suspected that the ones that made ample use of 3D - the Ultima Underworlds, though it's really Doom-style sprite-scaling tech than true 3D for the most part, and now these early '00s RPGs - would have aged the least well. The reverse has turned out to be true, and The Sith Lords is still as relevant today through its dismantling of both the tropes of Star Wars and those of standard CRPGs in general. It's not for nothing that there's a healthy dose of Planescape: Torment here, both in its exploration of the hero as an eventual unstoppable force of nature and the relationships they have with the recruitable NPCs that the force of their personality sweeps up along the way, but also in how the player's role in that journey has its repercussions. Nobody turns to the screen and starts addressing the player at any point, or anything that ludicrously on-the-nose, but there's some pointed questions about player ciphers and how a universe might receive one of these protagonists that grows from nothing to a nigh-omnipotent level and be a little taken aback by it. I was really impressed by the game, and it's rare for a Star Wars narrative - which, despite a brief and inexplicable time where it focused on tedious space taxes, government bureaucracy, and trade disputes, has invariably been geared towards a younger audience - to present something this mature and measured, especially where its own foibles are concerned. I secretly suspect Rian Johnson, the director of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, may have played a lot of this game either before or during the script-writing process for that movie.
Beyond a hearty recommendation for this game - with the Restored Content mod, of course - there's not much more I can say about what I loved about this game without going deep into the weeds about its mission structure, its characters, and the way events are perceived and factored into the protagonist's journey. For that, it's time to hit the spoiler-zone (fair warning, I'm getting real in-depth here - I had a lot more to talk about than I anticipated):
All right, so first I want to go through all the regions of the game, their composition, their general quest outline, and my thoughts:
Asteroid mining station close to devastated and highly volatile planet, did not appear in KOTOR. Prologue/first area of game, mostly inconsequential and far too long. However, I'm still following this review's "everything has some deliberate meaning behind it" theory, and with Peragus II you're meant to think of it as inconsequential and far too long: the former helps the narrative later on where you realize this space station - which was only ever one lit match away from destroying the entire planet - was ultimately a house of cards that was instrumental to the survival of the Republic. The fuel here was needed to keep the Republic's Telos IV restoration project afloat - literally, as it fuels an orbital station - which in turn was important for being the first step in the recovery after two devastating wars that has the Republic's reputation and infrastructure teetering on a knife's edge. The latter, meanwhile, is long enough to introduce and tutorialize everything the game has.
The Peragus II area itself is simply a series of corridors through the mining colony and the asteroid they've been digging through. The entire population is dead, creating a little mystery early on as you piece together what happened and trigger a few game-wide branching narratives that won't get resolved until the end - specifically, where all these HK-50 assassination droids are coming from, which reminded me of the ubiquitous threat/annoyance of the Slylandro probes in Star Control 2 - and meet with several story-crucial characters like Kreia, Atton Reed, T3-M4, and Darth Sion. When the player eventually finds their way to the Ebon Hawk and escapes, they can choose to tactically detonate the asteroid field to lose their Sith pursuers or just wait until the latter sets them off regardless. Several characters hold you responsible either way.
: There's not a whole of "favorites" when it comes to Peragus II, but I did like learning how a single HK-50 unit posing as an etiquette droid (say, a C3PO type) was able to gradually dismantle the entire colony by preying on the worst instincts of its more criminal elements and eventually herd everyone together to kill them remotely, and then went about setting up barriers to prevent the Jedi Exile from leaving before the Sith arrived. If Peragus II was too long to get through, it's because of this sole droid and its machinations.
The planetside portion of the Telos visit has you moving through an old military facility past Czerka mercs and security droids to reach a shuttle that'll take you to where the Ebon Hawk's being kept. It's here you discover a lost Jedi academy and Atris, one of the few remaining Jedi masters. Atris has been stockpiling knowledge on Telos for years and is highly distrustful of the Jedi Exile protagonist, who we find out was sentenced to be cut off from the Force by the Jedi Council after they willingly joined Revan in fighting the Mandalorians. We learn that the Jedi Exile chose this path rather than follow Revan down the Dark Side, and the player determines why this is, not only arbitrating the protagonist's current decisions but the context behind past ones as well. After this, the player is given the familiar goal of visiting four planets in any order to find the missing Jedi Masters of the former council, each of whom has gone into hiding.
What I like about the Telos section of the game, beyond the much-needed exposition and background, is that it takes steps to demonstrate how the Star Wars galaxy is able to rebuild after all these immense wars. The infrastructure of the Citadel Station orbiting the planet and how dependent it is on Republic support, the slow reintroduction of organic life taken from other planets and carefully selected for an ecosystem that matches the one that was destroyed, the hopes and dreams of the Telosian diaspora and their efforts to rebuild their world. The matronly Force-user Kreia - who will continually prove to be both a fly in the ointment and a source of cautious wisdom throughout the game - warns you against allying with either the Ithorians or the Czerka corporation, making her philosopical neutrality (or, at least, unilateral distrust of all parties altrustic or selfish) clear. However, you need the help of one or the other to make it to the planet service, highlighting early on that being neutral and centrist in all things will get you nowhere (though that's not so much meant to be a political jeremiad for our times, where maintaining a politically centrist stance is becoming untenable, but more a meta commentary on how any Star Wars game - or really any game built in the universal BioWare format - invariably sets the player on either a pure light or pure dark path for the sake of maximizing certain beneficial traits).
: I really like the aesthetic of the secret Jedi academy, not just in terms of its pure white visuals and the uniforms of Atris's non-Force-sensitive "handmaidens" (one of whom joins your crew if you're playing a male character) but what this says about Atris herself. Rather than maintaining the neutral, natural tones of the usual Jedi locations - such as the Enclave of Dantooine - Atris's gleaming white little sanctuary is entirely dedicated to her and her immutable purist beliefs, foreshadowing her later downfall. It feels just as anathema to the "eliminate one's ego" ethos of the Jedi as the black-and-red aesthetic and violent iconography of the Sith temples.
(The next four planets can be visited in any order. This is the order I went with.)
Sith-aligned desert/wastelands planet, originally appeared in KOTOR. The Sith cast a heavy shadow over both KOTOR games, being a much greater presence in the past of the franchise than they are in the current, where there's generally just the two - a master and an apprentice, with a "dead man's robe" system of career advancement - and a lot of "dark Jedi" and Sith operatives with varying levels of Dark Side Force mastery. There's much talk about a "Sith Empire" just outside of known space, and places like Korriban demonstrate that the Sith have had a galaxy-spanning legacy as formidable and storied as the Jedi themselves. Korriban's the site of a Sith academy that Revan, that is the newly restored Revan you play as in the first KOTOR, dismantled at some point in that game. There's almost no life on the planet: just corpses and edifices to the former Sith Lords.
You're here to find a missing Jedi master, and you find her in the nearby ruins of the Sith Academy. She's been tortured and killed by Darth Sion, who has set this trap to lure you out. Beyond that, and a fight you can't win - Sion has a nasty habit of instantly regenerating to full health after every defeat - there's also a nearby Sith Tomb through a cave of nasty bat-like "shyracks". The Tomb works the same as that one spot on Dagobah that Yoda sends Luke through on his own: one where the dark side energies are potent enough to fuck with you psychologically with visions and spectres. It's here that the game explores the protagonist's past as a General of the Mandalorian War in greater detail, replaying the scene where Malak convinces them to join Revan in the fight, through Pyrrhic battles from the war itself, and then moving closer to the present with their current companions. You then face a shadow of Darth Revan his or herself, accompanied by a Dark Jedi apprentice that looks unnerving like yourself. You're free to fail any of these struggles - if you do, the temple takes that as a win and injects you with Dark Side energy.
: The game really hammers home just how cursed Korriban is, beyond the desolation already apparent. This is most immediately and keenly felt by any attempt to rob the corpses strewn about the surface of Korriban: doing so instantly summons powerful Komodo dragon-like creatures called hssiss which are drawn to the leftover malice of dead Sith, and possibly possessed by same. It's not quite like getting attacked by vengeful ghosts, but just as deleterious to your odds of survival. There's a certain part towards the end of the Star Wars Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith expansion, where you're sent to a Sith temple planet to knock some sense into a cuckoo Kyle Katarn, that did a similarly excellent job of depicting just how depraved and malevolent the Sith and the Dark Side can be without ever needing to get a living Sith Lord involved.
Jedi grasslands planet, originally appeared in KOTOR. After the first game the Sith fleet, led by Darth Malak, absolutely pulverized the planet from orbit. The local economy has been reduced to scavenging the Jedi Enclave for relics to sell on the galactic market, which in turn is funding the planet's minimal government and its handful of settlers. However, the planet hasn't been ecologically devastated the same way Telos was, and still has the verdant grasslands full of kath hounds and other beasts.
If Telos IV is a severe example of the fallout of a massive war - say, the equivalent of Hiroshima - then Dantooine is something between a Dresden or a Blitz-torn London: widespread destruction but most of the foundations left intact. However, that still carries with it some problems, and Dantooine was left vulnerable by its sudden loss of life and resources and the already stretched thin Republic, and when the player reaches it here it takes on something of a frontier colony vibe. That's best reflected by the very Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai questline that takes place here, where the player must assist the fledgling government - currently a single building with an administrator and citizen militia - to defend itself from a mercenary army hired to expunge Dantooine's current civic leadership and replace it with something more akin to a historical Tortuga: a smuggling hub and haven for organized criminal syndicates and pirates. As with the Ithorians and Czerka corporation before, the player can pick whichever side best reflects their moral leanings.
Dantooine's one of those settings that again highlights just how efficiently the developers are able to recycle content but also make it vitally important to the story they're telling. In this case, the player feels just how keenly the Jedi have fallen. It's revealed in conversations with certain party members that the majority of the surviving Jedi after the various wars were drawn to the planet of Katarr, at which point every living being on the planet was eliminated by Darth Nihilus: a particularly powerful Sith lord that best represents a sort of "there but for the grace of the Force go I" for the Jedi Exile, having a similar tragic background during the war and an all-encompassing hunger for power that resulted, just realized in a slightly more direct fashion than the regular RPG level advancement of the protagonist. There's exactly one Jedi left on Dantooine when you visit it here - the missing master Vrook you were sent to find, who is as brusque as ever - and any secrets the Jedi once held from the universe has been ransacked and disseminated by the Enclave salvagers. Between the losses during the Mandalorian and Jedi Civil wars, their annihilation on Katarr, and the busy work of the Sith assassins since, the era of the Jedi is effectively over (as it would be again towards the end of the prequel trilogy) and it becomes a persistent plot point across the game whether they should be brought back from the brink of extinction or pushed over the edge.
: The lightsaber crystal caves are still here! They played a major role in restoring Revan's lightsaber during the first KOTOR and do so again here, though depending on which planets the player visits first they might already have rebuilt their lightsaber. The Jedi Exile can also find a special crystal which resonates with them in particular, which almost suggests a "The Enigma of Amigara Fault" type situation where there's a lightsaber crystal out there for everyone. Of course, it could also tie into the Jedi Exile's profound ability to draw others, inanimate objects included, to themselves - a revelation that the game eventually flips around on them when it's revealed the Jedi Exile is more like a sucking wound in the Force; a vacuum, feeding off on energy through the Force-sensitivity of others in order to empower itself.
The forest planet of Onderon and its jungle moon of Dxun. Extending the post-WW2 analogy of Dantooine and Telos above, Onderon is more like one of the many countries that sought to rediscover its place in the world after the power structures of old were upended. Countries like India, for instance, that sought independence from the exhausted British Empire or those like Israel that were granted sovereignty. Onderon isn't too much like either of those examples, but their dissatisfaction with the Republic - which they had joined shortly before the Mandalorian Wars, yet were nonetheless the first planet to fall to the threat - has led to a political schism between the current ruler Queen Talia, who wishes to remain in the Republic and help them rebuild, and her cousin General Vaklu, who seeks to dissolve that union and strike out as an independent planet nation led by a military junta. Honestly, for as much as I mention the British Empire of the 1940s, there's perhaps a certain more contemporaneous event going on here right now that might be more analogous to the choice Onderon is forced to make.
The player cannot land on Onderon directly: they are turned away by Vaklu's military blockade that is hunting for them in particular, so instead they make a beeline for the nearby moon of Dxun which - in the true tradition of Star Wars - is itself a vibrant world teeming with life. In Dxun, the player comes across a covert Mandalorian camp full of warriors training for their eventual rematch against the Republic. As a survivor of the Mandalorian Wars, the protagonist may or may not be conflicted about helping Mandalorians - they need to do so in order to reach Onderon via shuttle, however. Dxun isn't all that interesting on the first visit: you have to earn the respect of the Mandalorians by completing a handful of side-quests for them, from eliminating enemy scouts to hunting larger beasts to fixing the camp's long-range sensors. On Onderon, you get as far as meeting the Jedi Master you were sent to find before Vaklu's troops find you and chase you off the planet before your mission is complete.
Instead, the player has to return later in the game - after completing a different planet, apparently, which makes me glad I didn't leave Onderon to last - before you make a return trip with new information. At this point the party splits into two: one to take down the Sith encampment on Dxun, which has lent its strength to Vaklu's campaign in order to tip the balance to his favor in exchange for allowing Onderon to become a Sith foothold, while the other party lands on Onderon to assist the Queen (or Vaklu, if that's the way they're leaning). I'll get more into the party-switching feature when I talk about Nar Shaddaa next, but it's something the game does frequently and teaches the player to keep on their toes.
Onderon's fun because it's a little less conventional than the Dantooine and Korriban visits. There's no KOTOR 1 baggage here, so Obsidian was able to lend their own unique voice to how Onderon was formed - a single ancient walled city on a planet surrounded by thick forest and vicious predators - and its relationship to its moon Dxun. The Sith headquarters on Dxun are revealed to be the tomb of another powerful Sith Lord: one that apparently conquered the planet of Onderon long ago, the current royal family being of the same lineage. It's a nice, incidental touch that hints at just how much the galactic history of Star Wars has been influenced, either openly or discreetly, by the Jedi and the Sith - two major politi-religious groups that little outside their immediate circles know anything about.
: I'm not sure this really counts, as it's one of the few giant plot holes that not even the Restored Content Mod was able to adequately patch over. When visiting Onderon for the first time, the player is told by Mandalore - the enigmatic leader of the Mandalorians who was given the title of Mandalore as well as a special suit of concealing armor, like you're not supposed to realize it was Canderous Ordo under there the whole time - about his contact in the city. This contact, a skeevy doctor with underworld connections, is the player's best bet at setting up a secret meeting with the Jedi Master they've been looking for, who is presently holed up in the palace. To talk to this doctor, you first need to clear him of murder: this investigation takes up most of the time on the planet, after which the doctor is cleared and is able to set up the meeting, which ends with the player's quick departure. However, there's no way of telling who actually performed the murder: when you get to the point where you can exonerate the doctor, you're left with a list of suspects and evidence that points to no-one in particular. Whether the writers thought the identity of the true culprit was immaterial to the overarching plot or had intended to introduce them later in the story, perhaps as an unexpected fight with a powerful assassin, before it was excised along with everything else cut for time is uncertain. It was my first true hint of how incomplete a lot of this game was, which would've been far more apparent to those playing it without the mod (say, around its release).
It was great to see Nar Shaddaa again. A moon orbiting the planet of Nal Hutta, the source of the infamous Hutt family of enormous slug crime bosses, Nar Shaddaa is an enormous perma-nocturnal vertical city that is host to a vast number of refugees, criminals, and people looking to disappear. It's one of the few places in the galaxy where humans are vastly outnumbered by other species, such as the Gran (the dudes with three eyes on stalks), the Duras (the ones that look like alien grays), the Twi'lek, the Zabrak (the Darth Maul horn guys), the Devaronians (straight up Satan looking dudes), the Gand (insectoid species that refers to itself in the third person, like the Hanar), and many others. Nar Shaddaa didn't appear in KOTOR 1 but did make a memorable first impression in Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight as its opening level, and would appear again in other Jedi Knight sequels.
The quest to find the Jedi Master here isn't quite as immediately apparent as it was on other planets, and so the player is only given a hint of what to do next. Upon landing, they have a few run-ins with low-level grunts working in the Exchange: the same big galactical criminal syndicate that was behind Czerka's aggressive business practices back on Telos. The player can then either inadvertently help or hinder the Exchange in various areas of Nar Shaddaa, most notably in the human refugee district, and that leads to a meeting with the organization's head, Goto. Meanwhile, every bounty hunter is looking for you as soon as you land, but cannot approach until Goto gives the say so; they're simply there to observe, not bring you in or take you down. Naturally, all hell breaks loose before you've found the person you're looking for, which leads to the game's most significant gameplay departure: splitting the party multiple times with multiple configurations.
The character switching made for some tense moments for certain characters I hadn't developed for a long time. Atton Reed, for instance, is forced to fight a couple of vampish Twi'lek assassins on his own, which isn't easy if you haven't really been focused on his development. All characters earn the same XP whether they're in the party or not, though, so it was simply a matter of going through the level up process ten times and giving him the best pistol and medium armor I had on me: more than enough for a couple of psychopathic dancers. You're also introduced to Mira on this planet: a scrappy bounty hunter who was raised in the slums of Nar Shaddaa to emerge as its most prolific bounty hunter, always the target of its second greatest bounty hunter Hanharr. I'll have more to say about those characters once we're done talking about the game's worlds, but it's one of the only times where you can have one but not the other depending on your alignment: Hanharr's an evil Wookiee, which isn't a common character construct but one that's not outside the realm of credibility given how often Chewbacca is said to tear the arms off his opponents after losing at dejarik. He only joins you if you're a Dark Side character looking to kill off his rival Mira, and Mira's likewise the same for the Light Side player even if she's only minimally more principled (no unnecessary killing, but lots of torture). There are points where you assume the role of either of these characters, almost sight unseen, and tasked with helping the Jedi Exile on their solo adventures. Meanwhile, you'll be making parties out of your other characters to assist the Jedi Exile from the other direction.
I'm glad I left this planet for last, because the Jedi Exile is really the only member of my group who is indestructible: the others don't quite have the same capacity for godlike ability, so their parts of this chapter required a bit more finesse. Honestly, it made for a more challenging and tense sequence: you really get to know all those grenades and mines and buff consumables you've been collecting when there's no Jedi around to tank everything. The design of the city was fun too, though you lose the verticality in an RPG like this that doesn't have the platforming or action elements of the Nar Shaddaa seen in Jedi Knight. You do get a better sense of the political structure behind the planet though, or at least the Nar Shaddaa of several millennia prior to Jedi Knight, as you start to delve into the rivalry between Goto's Exchange syndicate and the resident Hutt crime boss Varga - the latter's been losing fuel cargo freighters to Goto for months, and is desperate for your intervention even if he's too shrewd to say so. Plenty of side-quests and stuff here also, most of which concern the human refugees from the Jedi Civil War (and another instance where you might feel compelled to help out due to your protagonist's role in that war and, thus, their suffering).
: My absolute favorite location in the entire game, as mentioned above this incredibly long spoiler-section, is the Jekk'Jekk Tarr "bar" where aliens go to relax and inhale noxious airborne chemicals to get high; chemicals that kill certain other sapient species, like humans. It's a seedy dive bar with a literal toxic atmosphere. When the player visits first as Mira (who is disguised as the Exile for reasons too convoluted to get into), she's wearing an environment suit that allows her to survive the deadly gasses but prevents equipping armor or weapons, which is mildly disquieting; when you head back there as the actual Jedi Exile, you pick up the Force power to create bubbles of breathable air, fighting your way through the entire bar while reapplying that bubble regularly in order to reach a contact who claims he'll get you in touch with Goto. The design of the bar itself is nothing to write home about - it's a little disappointing how all four of its rooms are identical but for the colored lighting - but the idea that there are parts of the universe where humans aren't welcome, to the extent that they will die if they try to enter, is a remarkable idea for the Star Wars universe. It does feel like the humans get all the breaks in Star Wars - the Empire is almost exclusively human, and most Jedi are as well - so I can understand why other, minority species feel put out by them. It reminded me of how much attention is given to the way alien races perceive humanity's meteoric rise to prominence in the Mass Effect universe with a degree of suspicion and fear, especially when it comes to shady pro-humanity organizations like Cerberus.
The finale of the game takes place here, on Malachor V, a planet that is frequently mentioned in hushed tones. The planet itself is barely holding together; it's less like Telos, which had a scorched surface but was structurally just fine, but more a mass of asteroid pieces being held together by some sort of heavy duty gravity machine. It's here that the Jedi Exile and Revan detonated the planet to stop the Mandalorians, killing millions of sentients in one fell swoop. Such an event, it later turned out, was enough to effectively deafen the Jedi Exile - picture how Obi-Wan reacts to the destruction of Alderaan, then account for how someone with an even higher Force sensitivity who was orbiting said planet at the time would respond. That deafening is what closed the Jedi Exile off to the Force and created a void in its stead, not so much a conscious decision by the Jedi Council to exile them.
The entire journey of the Jedi Exile is shown to be the manipulations of Kreia, or Darth Traya as she becomes by this point. She was also cut off from the Force, though in her case it was done by Darth Sion and Darth Nihilus to curb her ambitions, and she latched onto the Jedi Exile as another who went through a similar process and came out stronger because of it. Despite being the game's Machiavellian chief antagonist, her relationship with the Jedi Exile isn't entirely hostile: her old instincts as a Jedi Master and instructor came back when guiding the Exile, and she did all she could to keep the Exile safe, even if that meant resorting to sabotage, extortion, and murder. The Sith Trayus Academy on Malachor V is where she set up shop after falling to the Dark Side originally, and from there she meets the Exile one last time. Meanwhile, other the arcs of other characters comes to an end here too: some tragic, some open-ended, some well-deserved, and at least one character seems to vanish off the face of the galaxy (another case of the Restored Mod not quite managing every loose thread; director interviews suggest that character would've died earlier during the end-game events).
Before Malachor V, however, the player has to save Telos from the Sith fleet led by Nihilus. That eventually means boarding Nihilus's Sith Destroyer, the Ravager, and defeating him in a lightsaber duel. For as much attention as Nihilus is given by the game - his distinctive mask appears front and center on the game's box art - he's very undeveloped as an antagonist. Deliberately so, perhaps, as his entire story arc can be summed up as the Star Wars's answer to Star Trek's Crystalline Entity - an unknowable, indomitable creature that acts according to pure instinct and hunger rather than being some unfathomable intelligence. Its non-personhood is reflected by the way it doesn't so much talk but scream like a wind passing through an endless void; the only way it was cornered and killed was because Kreia tricked it into attacking a planet with almost zero Force-sensitive sentients to feed on, leaving it sufficiently depowered to get lightsabered to death. It's a great twist, because by killing what seems like the game's heavyweight in such a relatively straightforward manner only highlights how much more of a fight you'll have on your hands going after the genius manipulator that caused its downfall.
For all the right context for what happens next to Kreia, the Exile, and the rest of the Ebon Hawk's crew, I'll need to go person to person (I couldn't be bothered finding screenshots for them all, so instead I've inserted some Simpsons/Futurama gifs that better represent them):
The character of Kreia is definitely the linchpin of the game's story, as far as I'm concerned. The Exile exists as a cipher like they do in all BioWare games - hence why I'm excluding them in this character rundown - and events largely happen to them or around them rather than caused by them. Actually, those events - almost all of them - are caused by Kreia, one way or another. For most of the game she sits meditating in the port-side dormitory, ready to answer any questions you might have with a certain amount of condescending scorn, but take your eyes off her for a moment and she's off strong-arming one of your companions or tossing a spanner into the works elsewhere.
Purely good or purely evil acts annoy her, and are likely to drop your influence with her if you keep being nice or crappy; instead, she prefers actions that toe the line or befit a moral-agnostic "survival of the fittest" perspective. Beating someone up and stealing their wallet is as bad as giving them charity because in both cases that person will have a harder time surviving what life has to throw at them. Much of this perspective comes from Kreia's own past, as someone who was betrayed by both the Jedi and the Sith, but this dead center neutrality is more key to what she wants from the Exile. Specifically, to be neither too heavily involved with the Light Side or the Dark Side, or much of the Force at all.
All her plans, all her schemes, are built towards developing the protagonist as a black hole as far as the Force is concerned: one that, with the right development, can grow large enough to engulf all of the Force and destroy it. Kreia, despite being one of the most proficient Force users in the galaxy, despises the way it controls all living things and creates constant strife between those philosophically split on how best to use it. The revelation that she was and again becomes the Sith Lord Darth Traya and the reason she was so defensive about the Exile retroactively lends a lot of insight to all her past actions.
Atton's definitely a bait-and-switch character. A classic rogueish Han Solo type when you first meet him, he's the everyman voice that grounds all the talk about Jedi magic and destiny. He becomes Ebon Hawk's pilot and can be a potential love interest for a female Jedi Exile. His skillset focuses on "scoundrel" abilities like an uncanny dodge and some useful saving throws, as well as a unique ability to self-resurrect in the middle of a battle as long as he's not the last one standing. His high Dex makes him a viable ranged character early on, when all you have is Kreia and the Exile - two characters better off investing in melee combat for when they have access to lightsabers.
Atton Rand isn't quite who he appears to be, however. He is recognized when travelling with the Exile on Nar Shaddaa, and it's after this that the player can probe him for more details about his past, which is something he's very reluctant to speak about. Turns out he was a former assassin for the Sith during the Jedi Civil War: one whose job it was to turn or kill Jedi, psychologically blocking his motives to get close enough to strike. He won't provide an exact figure, but he reckons to have killed many Jedi in his role, distrusting the way they are able to get inside the heads of regular sentients and manipulate them. These revelations hit like a brick: rather than the image of a carefree rogue who has done little worse than survive a harsh galaxy by his own means, he's an unrepentant murderer and torturer. It's like finding out the kind old German man who lives up the street was a former Nazi scientist.
Atton was changed by one encounter with a Jedi, forced to see the world through her eyes before killing her and realizing the scope of what he had done. Atton's able to shield himself from the Jedi because he himself is Force sensitive: something the player can use to train him as a Jedi themselves, if they so choose. Characters that turn into Jedi late in the game are often impacted by the loss of their original class's strengths - in Atton's case, he's better with guns than a lightsaber and needs to wear less restrictive armor to get the full use of his Force powers - but sometimes the additional powers are worth it. Combat-effective powers like Burst of Speed and Heal are useful for any class to have.
Last note about Atton: in the restored mod version of the game he has a one-on-one fight with Darth Sion that is incredibly difficult to win, and losing this fight later leads to a tender death scene as Atton comes to terms with his former life and confesses his love to the Exile before passing. If he instead beats Sion like the badass he is, he'll just give the Exile a few quips as the two leave Malachor V to be destroyed and go on more space adventures. Hard to say if the latter is as narratively satisfying as the former, but kicking Sion's ass as one of the weakest characters (in combat terms, at least) sure was.
T3-M4, like all droids, is just kind of there to be cute and/or helpful. It has the same kind of presence R2D2 does, making bleep noises and proving to be more versatile than you would expect from an astromech droid. T3-M4 has probably the most sequences where you play as him solo through a short scenario where he needs to unlock or hack something. The first occurs early on in Peragus II where he's needed to reach the Ebon Hawk (though he's taken out by an electric shock before he can unlock the hangar) and it happens again in Nar Shaddaa where he's required to infiltrate a droid-only warehouse to recover some vital data.
T3-M4 is also one of the characters that travelled with Revan. His secretive nature, plus the occasional memory wipe, means that he won't have a lot to say about his former master or anyone they travelled with. He's there because he's a fixture of the Ebon Hawk and works as a tech guy early on. His story arc is one of a few that isn't resolved at all: the Ebon Hawk appears to fall into an abyss to its destruction during the game's final arc on Malachor V, but is seen to rise out and fly away from the imploding planet during the ending cutscene, so it's probable it stayed behind to get the ship ready to move once the Exile's business was concluded.
Droid characters are interesting because they have a whole different set of equipment to use, including special arms that create strong weapon effects but have limited uses. This makes them versatile characters, along with their many skillsets, and the protagonist - if they have a decent Repair or Computer skill - can improve T3-M4 even further and boost its stats. However, droids can't be healed via conventional means - like the Force Heal power - and tend to be a little more vulnerable in general. T3-M4's not a character I picked a lot because he doesn't lend much to the narrative and doesn't fare well in battles, but he is at least afforded a few moments to shine.
The second droid you find is HK-47, the broken chassis of whom has been tossed into a storage locker on Ebon Hawk. Since you bump into a lot of HK-50s, his successor unit (though he'd be loath to admit they're any more advanced than he is), it's not too difficult to find all the spare parts needed to bring him back into the fold. As before, his chaotic evil nature and single-minded objective to murder "meatbags" makes him both a viable companion for Dark Side proponents as well as one of the game's most entertaining characters to talk to, as was also the case in the first KOTOR.
HK-47 is unfortunately side-lined for most of the game, but gets a few great lines about what love means (sniping someone in the kneecaps) and a moment where you can buy and install a pacifist chip that allows him to see the universe for the wonderful, happy place that it is, before the experience weirds out the Exile too much and they're forced to remove it. In the Restored Mod version of the game, HK-47 even gets his own chapter where he infiltrates the secret HK-50 manufacturing plant and shuts it down.
I found HK-47 really challenging to use, in part because of the same limitations put on droid companions that makes T3-M4 a hard sell. HK-47 has even fewer skills to fall back on, being a capable ranged unit that gets quickly turned into Swiss cheese when faced with multiple opponents of his same type. When he's in the HK-50 plant, he has to fight through dozens of those guys and it nearly cost me every repair kit I had on me. Worth it to listen to VA Kristoffer Tabori's snidely condescending HK voice frequently argue with itself.
Bao-Dur is met on the surface of Telos, and is the Zabrak terraforming expert you were told about by the Ithorians. He's also a veteran of the Mandalorian Wars and remembers the Exile very well, who he'll frequently refer to as "General". Bao-Dur is one of those morally gray characters who would just as readily follow a Dark Side player as much as a Light Side type, and his own morality will adjust itself to fit the player's. This is actually true of all characters, besides Kreia: they all have actions and stances they prefer, usually irrespective of Light or Dark, and by gaining influence with them they move closer to your alignment, and move further in the opposite direction with disagreements. It's theoretically possible to be a Dark Side player and have a ship full of Light Side types who hate your guts.
Bao-Dur's your human (well, Zabrak) version of the droids: he has an incredible range of skills for every situation and a high enough intelligence stat that he can invest in many at once, which makes him a useful party member for any problem you might face. He's also a powerful unarmed melee fighter, between an artificial arm that can cut through shields and a bunch of innate unarmed combat feats. However, he's not that much of a tank and you can't rely on him to charge into a fight and not get taken down relatively quick, so the unarmed combat focus is a detriment as often as not.
Bao-Dur's another character who basically vanishes after a certain point towards the end of the game. You last see him as a hologram talking to his constant companion of a small floating droid, putting into action his final goal of letting Malachor V float apart by messing with the gravity device holding it together. The floating droid then has its own little gameplay chapter where it flies across the surface of Malachor V hacking the consoles of crashed systems. It's not clear where Bao-Dur went - he's either knocked out on the ship or died off-screen somewhere - but his arc of putting his anger over the events on Malachor V to rest comes to pass, either posthumously or otherwise.
Disciple and Handmaiden are two of the slightly more naive and trusting members of the new Ebon Hawk crew, effectively replacing the wide-eyed Mission Vao. They're both very Force sensitive neophytes who are drawn to the Exile and become love interests. It's because of their genders, however, that the one who joins you is the one who is your opposing gender. I know, it's very un-BioWare like to exclude same-sex relationships, but then this is Obsidian and they didn't have a whole lot of time to spend on frivolities like gettin' busy. Honestly, the way The Sith Lords pans out there's not a whole lot of room for romance regardless.
Disciple's a typically heroic and fair champion, dressed in white when you meet him with flowing blond locks (which is what reminded me of the Simpsons gif I used for him) and an altruistic love of the Jedi and the Republic. Though he's an agent and historian of the Republic with an academic focus on the Jedi, his true background is of a Jedi trainee who wasn't able to take on a Master and learn the bigger secrets of the Jedi Order, which is what propels his studies after leaving the Jedi temple. Like Atton, he can be trained in the Jedi ways by the Exile.
I really preferred the design of the Handmaiden to this dude, and I imagine she has a lot to say about the character of Atris - her master - who remains a big question mark between when you meet her the first time and when you meet the "fallen" version surrounded by Sith holocrons towards the end of the game. There's probably a mod out there to make sure she joins instead of the Disciple, but how was I to know? Either way, Disciple is a powerful soldier character prior to their Jedi training and an ideal tank if you don't have one yet.
Visas is a member of the Miraluka race: a group of humanoid aliens who lack sight but are all Force sensitive to a degree. She was the sole survivor of the scouring of Katarr, which took the lives of every other Miraluka as well as the many Jedi who gathered there to figure out where the Sith were striking from. Visas was taken by the perpetrator of this massacre, Darth Nihilus, and trained as his apprentice. When the opportunity presented itself, she left to join the Exile instead.
Visas was clearly meant to be a Dark Side character's padawan, given her tragic background and the already daunting selection of Dark Side powers at her grasp when she first joins, and therefore the dark mirror to either Disciple or Handmaiden. Instead, she quickly latches onto the Exile as her new master and can become a Light Side user almost instantly if the Exile is one also. Her story arc eventually brings her back to Darth Nihilus on his ship, where she puts the figurative and literal phantom that devastated her homeworld to rest. Honestly, she comes off as a little too subservient and doting; maybe the idea is that a Dark Side player would enjoy a love interest that's little more than a plaything to be tossed around at their behest. She reminds me a lot of the doll from Bloodborne: a female character that isn't so much deprived of agency as not particularly interested in it in the first place, and it's not clear whether that makes her a sympathetic broken victim of implied abuse or some unfortunate ideal of a perfect fantasy woman. I don't think I have the chops to navigate the pros and cons of a character construct like that, so I'll leave it to the psychology academics.
Spending time with the Exile will eventually allow Visas to grow a backbone and start taking charge of her life at least, albeit as a Light Side player. She's an effective Jedi Sentinel when you get her - that's the Jedi class that's a little of everything - and doesn't require any more training, unlike the other apprentices you can take on. You can even pass on Force powers and lightsaber duel forms that you've learned elsewhere. It might be counterproductive to fill your entire team with Jedi, but she's a capable second leader for those times when you need two parties.
Mandalore is the ancient hero of the Mandalorian people, after which they are named, and so any current leader of the Mandalorian people takes on the mantle and armor of Mandalore to inspire their followers. The current Mandalore is heavily hinted to be (and later made explicit, in case you didn't get it) Canderous Ordo from the first KOTOR game. After losing touch with Revan, who travelled alone to the edge of known space to seek out the ancient Sith, Canderous doubled down on uniting the scattered Mandalorians and restoring them to their former glory.
It's not for nothing that BioWare's next space-faring game had a race of fallen warriors who had been rendered close to extinct after losing a galaxy-wide war that happened long before the game starts, and whose chosen representive becomes determined to see that race rise again rather than fade out. It's also no surprise that both Canderous and Wrex are often the most entertaining people to talk to: full of grisly war stories and a weathered sort of old man wisdom that can only be acquired after a lifetime of fighting battles. As the Mandalore, Canderous has lost some of his embittered sarcasm with his renewed motivation to resurrect the Mandalorian people and the newly discovered leadership skills required to unite the clans, but is still every bit the prickly SOB you remember even underneath the Mandalore armor. His involvement in the story is relatively slight: he joins as an excuse to travel around and find more of the Mandalorian diaspora to recruit, and leaves with the rest of the Exile's followers when it becomes prudent to do so.
What's most telling is that the game recontextualizes the reason why the Mandalorians went to war in the first place. They were manipulated, like so many other groups, by the Sith. This sort of manipulation of multiple aggrieved and powerful military empires is part of the Sith playbook, of course, because we also saw the same thing in the prequel trilogies with Darth Sidious (a.k.a. Emperor Palpatine) and the Trade Federation, and later the anti-Republic Separatists. In both cases, it was to deprive the Republic of the power to protect the Jedi, so the Sith could easily wipe them out and take over as custodians of the Force. It also makes the Mandalorians look like easily coaxed chumps, which is probably the greater insult than losing the war to Revan and Malak in the first place.
Mira's honestly the least vital character in the game. A female bounty hunter that is, like Bao-Dur and Atton Rand, a character that could go either way depending on the protagonist's morality. However, she's unique in that she's replaced by the wookiee Hanharr if you're playing a Dark Side Exile: it's more than likely that you'll join Hanharr's side in the little professional squabble the two are having. Mira's another Force sensitive that can be trained as a Jedi once you've won her trust, though if Nar Shaddaa was the last planet you visited - as it was for me - you might not have enough time to persuade her.
Mira has access to a wrist-mounted rocket launcher, which is great for taking down large crowds of ranged opponents. Beyond that, she's a slightly less effective combatant than Disciple or Mandalore, and lacks the speed of Atton Rand. She does have the nice ability of never tripping mines, which can be handy. She also has a decent selection of skills and a moderate intelligence stat, if you need a versatile tech gal. I didn't find much use for her, and she has several solo sequences on Nar Shaddaa and Malachor V which I found very difficult to survive, not least of which is a couple of duels with her burly nemesis Hanharr.
I say she's the least vital because she barely does anything after Nar Shaddaa, beyond tying a bow on her rivalry with Hanharr after a fight on Malachor's surface - she promises him an end to his multiple life debts to her and Kreia, as one will no doubt eliminate the other. She's actually more fun before she joins the party, as the one bounty hunter on your tail that doesn't intend to murder you where you stand. Watching her bounce off Goto and the other bounty hunters is a fine introduction to her character, but one that the game has neither the desire or capacity to follow up on.
Finally, we have G0-T0, the spherical droid that Exchange kingpin Goto left in the Exile's care. While there to ostensibly help the protagonist after the crime boss and the Exile come to terms after a particularly frought meeting on Goto's space yacht,it's also there to ensure the Exile completes their end of the bargain. Which bargain? To ensure the survivability of the Republic, which wasn't what I was expecting from the leader of a massive crime syndiate whose main obstacle was the Republic and its laws.
Turns out the secret identity of Goto is hinted at way further back in the game, when you first hear about a powerful machine intelligence that was commissioned to overlook the Telos restoration project. This intelligence's prime directive was the lawful preservation of the Republic: a goal that proved to be impossible with that "lawful" requirement, and so Goto - or G0-T0, which isn't so much a gift droid but the real McCoy incognito - created a powerful criminal syndicate for the power and revenue to keep the Republic ticking along, if only through underhanded and surreptitious means. It's a great reveal, especially as the antagonist version of Goto is constantly chucking robots and bounty hunters at you (purely for the sake of setting up a meeting to discuss how best to protect the Republic, turns out).
I never actually got to use G0-T0 in combat. I'd run out of robot parts and repair kits thanks to kitting out both HK-47 and T3-M4 for their respective solo adventures, so putting G0-T0 in any of my main parties for the last portion of the game seemed counterproductive. Research indicates that a combination of powerful blaster proficiencies, including dual-wielding, and an innate ability to stealth makes him a useful ranged companion ideal for surprise attacks. I think I did just fine enough without throwing my lot in with an evil miniature Death Star.
That's going to do it for this extra-long round-up of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, which I found myself utterly entranced with. It took a couple of playthroughs to get to the end of the first KOTOR - I usually started to fizzle out around the dull Dantooine and Tatooine portions of the game - but whether it was the bevvy of small improvements or the far better writing, I was fully entranced with this one. It's going to be a high bar for other games to beat this month, that's for sure.