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Game of Thrones

(Atlus; US: 15 May 2012)

Game of Thrones opens with a very generic looking menu. This is a warning sign, and you should brace yourself appropriately. Doing so will help you get through the mediocre gameplay and also help you better appreciate the well crafted story.


You play as Mors Westford, a member of the Nights Watch, and Alester Sarwyck, a Red Priest of R’hllor, who has come home to bury his father, and you will jump between them each chapter until their stories converge. Their stories are compelling, and while the rest of the game isn’t necessarily bad, the plot—and these two characters specifically—carry the entire game. They’re well realized with realistic motivations, tragic back stories, and genuine character arcs all set within a plot that twists around the established fiction in some interesting ways.


The pacing is surprisingly deliberate at first. You do lots of talking and not a lot of fighting, and when your sword does come out, the violence is justified and brief. It’s a refreshing change of pace from your typical action RPG, but it doesn’t last. The game can’t resist the temptation to throw lots of enemies at you, and when it does, the situations feels forced and awkward because of the well-paced beginning. For example, at one point you kill a guard and actually get arrested—your video game violence has consequences, nice—but then during your escape you kill about two dozen guys and no one seems to care.


The great characters and twisty plot suffer even more from poor presentation. The dialogue is horrible. People just go on and on with some especially repetitive exposition being the chief topic of these long winded conversations. Yes, hiding an important girl amongst whores is a clever idea, but you don’t have to say that every single time that the subject comes up. This bad writing masks the good parts of the plot, since it’s easy to zone out during important conversations. They’re just so damn boring! The acting is fine overall—a few minor characters are terrible—but Mors is so good he makes up for them.


However, there’s one twist about three quarters of the way through the game that threatens to derail the entire thing: As a standalone fantasy adventure, the twist is unearned and cheap. As a story within the Game of Thrones universe, it breaks its own logic while adding nothing of value. This is the moment that will most strain your patience with the game as it seems to gleefully kneecap the one thing it has going for it, the characters. The fact that the game not only recovers from such horrid writing but actually manages to end with a strong dramatic punch is a testament to its characterization. Its endings really are that good.


Sadly, unlike the source material, this Game of Thrones isn’t a novel, so there’s a lot of middling gameplay thrown in in between the intriguing plot points. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. It’s just busy work.


The combat could have been great. Hitting a bumper button slows time and allows you to choose a specific attack from a wheel menu. The fact that time doesn’t stop keeps the action moving and adds a level of tension to your strategizing. Status effects matter a great deal since some attacks do significantly more damage under certain conditions, giving you a reason to strategize and not just attack absentmindedly. Much of the combat is about set up and preparation. For example, I might make Mors knock a guy down because Alester can do more damage to guys that are knocked down. On top of all this, different weapons are more effective against certain kinds of armor: Chain mail is weak to piercing weapons, leather armor is weak against cutting weapons, and so on.


The sad thing is that the game never takes advantage of its own mechanics. When fighting against two or three guys, you can easily kill them without worrying about set up or weapon type, but when up against five or six guys at once (which is pretty common), victory seems more due to luck than effective strategy. I’m either overpowered or underpowered, and the combat never reaches a nice challenging middle ground.


During some chapters with Mors, you’ll be able to jump into the body of his dog and play a simple but fun stealth game. The dog can move through cracks in doors and walls, taking shortcuts that humans never could. You use these new paths to sneak up behind patrolling guards and literally rip their throats out, clearing the path for Mors. It’s a satisfying bit of gameplay, but it is ultimately pointless since you can also run through with Mors and kill everyone that way. There’s no incentive to send the dog through first because the normal combat is already so easy. An interesting idea brought down by poor combat balance.


The economy is also frustrating. In the beginning of the game, the only items worth buying are so expensive that it seems like you’ll never be able to afford them. Then, all throughout the middle, there are no shops, so you’ll accumulate a host of useless weapons, armor, and items. By the end, when you do find a shop, you can sell so much stuff that you suddenly become wealthy and everything is easily affordable. Like the combat, the economy swings from one extreme to the other, never reaching that properly balanced middle ground.


Game of Thrones feels half finished in a lot of ways. Many of its mechanics sound great on paper, but they fail in execution because they’re not properly balanced. As such, Game of Thrones is more of a missed opportunity than anything else. It has a lot of flaws, but there are also enough good things within it to keep you playing to the end and to ensure that you don’t feel guilty about playing to the end.

Rating:

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


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