Game of Thrones
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive, Atlus
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Release Date: 7 June, 2012
Price: $49.99 (available here)
There is currently nothing hotter in the world of entertainment than Game of Thrones. It is the latest sensation for HBO, dominating ratings and scooping up awards. The TV adaptation of George R R Martins novels has brought the long running series to the forefront of the public consciousness, and now that Season 2 has bowed out and the latest novel A Dance with Dragons has hit paperback, there’s a long wait in store for fans of the series before fresh tales from Westeros appear.
Enter the second video game entry in the Song of Ice and Fire world, an RPG simply entitled: Game of Thrones. In development long before the show brought the property to such mass attention, developers Cyanide have nonetheless managed to team up with both Martin and HBO to bring some authenticity to the game: the game was crafted under the supervision of the author and a couple of character models reflect their HBO counterparts, even having the actors along for a bit of voice over.
The first Game of Thrones game, an RTS subtitled Genesis, was a horrible mess best forgotten. The RPG has been handled by the same developer: time to place your bets…
The story rotates between two characters completely new to the Thrones universe – Mors Westford and Alester Sarwyck. Mors is a brother of the Night’s Watch, Alester the eldest son of Lord Sarwyck, a bannerman to House Lannister. Whilst Mors has been bound to the Wall by his vows, Alester has been out of Westeros entirely, spending 15 years away from Westeros and becoming a Red Priest in the mean time.
(If that’s already utterly incomprehensible best not continue: this game is here to hook in those already well versed in the Game of Thrones world…)
Alester returns to Westeros upon the death if his father, only to discover that his bastard half brother plans to take over the family lands by marrying his sister (if there are two things Thrones loves, it’s bastards and incest!). Alester makes haste to King’s Landing to convince the Queen to call off the arrangement and reclaim his status as true heir to the Sarwyck lands. Once there a tiny side plot of the Game of Thrones novel is expanded into the game’s main plot: Cersei Lannister’s purge of her husbands’ bastard children. Mors is drawn into the action by a letter from John Arryn, requesting that he help protect a young girl and find somewhere safe for her to stay. After some action at the Wall, Mors is made a Recruiter of the Night’s Watch, and is thus free to leave the North and try and bring the girl, Jeyne, to safety.
The game is split into chapters, alternating between Alester and Mors. The plotting is much like the novels in that although the two tales are intricately linked, the two characters never share the same space – at least not until the end game. There are lots of little details that fans of the novels will lap up, nods to lore, small ties to major events. Things unfold at a good pace, covering the usual Thrones territory of duplicity, manipulation and politics. Lengthy dialogue scenes follow a branch system similar to Bioware games, and character responses follow a train of thought rather than having a series of replies shoehorned in to particular emotions or archetypes. And as promised, choices you make throughout the game have an impact on the outcome…
The story and the manner of its telling are certainly the strongest thing about the game. Some of the twists and turns ape classic Thrones material and a couple of the relationships are genuinely engaging. The fact that the books are several thousand pages ahead of the characters featured here and have yet made no mention of them at all does limit the scale and consequence of the events, but luckily Martin’s universe is one that thrives on character driven stories, and this part of it is no different. The publisher could perhaps have avoided releasing publicity screenshots that reveal a certain twist in the game, and there’s a certain immersion shattering cameo that should never ever have made it in to the game. Other than that things tick boxes fairly readily, but sadly there is more to a game than a story…
Before any of the action kicks off there is some character building to do, and although Mors and Alester are preset in their looks there is plenty of character customisation to be had in Game of Thrones. Each character can be played in three different ways, with classes drawn from Game of Thrones lore. Mors is largely a warrior whilst Alester leans more towards rogue archetypes. There is the usual levelling system that grows skills (strength, luck etc) and unlocks abilities, but also a rather neat strengths and weaknesses system. For every strength allocated to Mors or Alester there must be a weakness to balance it, so if Mors is a Bruiser (added damage from two handed weapons), he’ll have to be a half pint, psychopath or inflicted with Greyscale to balance out his advantage. It’s different, intriguing, and allows for a little more customisation of preset characters: easily a feature to see more of.
The combat itself is somewhat reminiscent of Dragon Age and many other RPG’s. Each character has an energy gauge as well as health, and each combat ability uses up a set number of energy points. Energy gradually refills with every blow landed, and another limited ability can refill the bar every so often. It’s more unusual in that hitting the space bar doesn’t stop time but only slows it, so the strategy involved remains pressurised. Attacks have to be planned, not only with regards to their energy consumption, but the weapon type being used, the armor being attacked and the status effects in play. An enemy wearing heavy armor will fall fastest to a blunt weapon, and Mor’s dog can rip away an enemies shield only when they are in counter attack. Combatants can be stunned, terrified, set on fire, knocked down, immobilised and more. There is plenty to go on in this system, even if strategy is more about how quickly you can kill the bad guys rather than if you can kill them, at least until later levels.
Each character also has a unique ability that can be used out of combat. Mors can shapeshift into his dog to follow scents and reveal secrets and treasure, whilst Alester can use his Red Priest abilities to discover hidden doors and mechanisms. Mors certainly has the better deal here, as the dog can be used to sneak up on enemies and rip their throats out, which if not that satisfying thanks to a dodgy animation and limited stealth mechanics, is at least useful. The odd basic puzzle rears its head, but gameplay is all about bashing people’s skulls in, lengthy discussions, negotiating the nigh on useless map and doing it all over again. Quests do avoid the nonsensical nature of some games and slot nicely into the plot, so kudos to the developers for integrating even the side quests so well with the story.
And it is the story that drives nigh on all of Game of Thrones’ success as a game. The combat system may have a good depth to it, but ultimately its promising framework is let down by shoddy execution. There is a complete lack of polish to the game despite the claimed seven year development period. It’s obvious in both technical and logical things – combat animations are clunky and doors swing straight through characters. Mors’s dog can chew through plate armor, people recognise Alester despite the fact he’s wearing a helmet as part of a disguise…it goes on. The soldiers in a particular house must all be stone deaf because several were slaughtered without alerting the guy looking out the window just metres away. Enemy soldiers supposed to be actively searching for the protagonists completely ignore them because they are coded to talk to a merchant. The story and characters are forced to fight against a backlog of facepalm moments, and towards the end they struggle to win.
Audio and Visual
Whilst the ‘last gen’ label being plastered on Game of Thrones may be a tad unfair, it certainly isn’t entirely wrong: the game needs a warning label of some sort. There are some impressive suits of armor to be found in Westeros and the overall design certainly channels the Game of Thrones universe, but it’s low res and it just feels dead and flat. Mors, Alester and a few other key players have detailed character models that are very distinctive, but equally every soldier and merchant is the same, and the less said about Mors’ unimaginably hideous dog the better. On the surface things don’t look that bad at all, but inch a little closer and parts of Westeros could have been forged a decade ago. Wandering around one marketplace (in what should have been the hive of activity that is King’s Landing), out of four merchants, three have the exact same character model. Look into the boxes at the stalls and their wares are flat, lacking in detail, or just rendered like something from the 90’s.
Combat suffers under the thumb of clunky animations, and there is no sense of impact to a blow visually or audibly. Sound effects are cookie cutter and the music (despite a few appearances from themes from the HBO show) struggles to lift itself out of generic. Alester’s voice acting fares little better, and although he channels noble lord fairly well it as at the cost of any emotion. “Silence you soulless whore!” has never sounded so dull. Mors is a bit difficult to take seriously at first with his vocal cords made of rubble, but he hits more of the emotional notes and is certainly the more interesting character.
As a package Game of Thrones just stumbles with its presentation. The devil is in the detail with RPG’s and fantasy worlds alike, and this game just can’t bring Westeros to life.
Fans of the Game of Thrones universe are the only people that need even think of playing this title. The story is the only thing that keeps the game afloat and those who aren’t versed in the intricacies of Martin’s universe will be left utterly bored. The combat system has a lot of potential, but is crippled by a low level presentation that destroys what could have been a decent game. It has obviously been made with love for the source material and the story will hook in fans desperate for some fresh Ice and Fire action, but wait for a Steam sale before hitting that buy button.