Thursday Review: Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is a traditional western RPG, in so much as such a thing can be said to exist, that actually provides a satisfying experience through the lens of a substandard execution. It is set in the same universe as the television show, books, and later strategy game that have been so dramatically successful, and in this respect it provides a pretty good game, but it fails on the things that make it up.

When I started playing Game of Thrones, I fully expected to drop it within the hours; I’d heard many tales about how woeful it was as a game, and my experiences with games that had been panned on quality before usually left me with the understanding that you don’t find games with good play but bad presentation. Game of Thrones fully challenged that assertion.

First, Game of Thrones is a colossal disgrace. I’m not sure what went on in its production that it was released in such sorry a state. Cyanide is not, in my opinion, totally incompetent, so I’ll give them the benefit of assuming that they were working under-budget, but even this is somewhat dubious. I know where to find better textures than they used, and even though I’m loathe to UV map anything at all, I could probably still have made a more satisfying ground texture than I saw in some parts of the game. It felt a little bit like an indie game but without the benefit of knowing its limits. Full voice acting is nice, don’t get me wrong, but it’s really the only up-to-date feature going for Game of Thrones and could have been budgeted better elsewhere.

Fortunately, Game of Thrones offered a rock solid performance, both in terms of framerate and stability, which is to be expected given the somewhat lackluster graphics and the fact that it plays a little bit like working in a quarry. Fortunately, if you’re a fan of menu-based combat Game of Thrones has done everything it can to emulate that experience without the convenience of a menu, but it feels both repetitive and uninspiring. Switching characters adds a little novelty, but also means that your style of play is forced to change and you’ll be less effective than you used to be. Barring everything else, at least the storyline is pleasantly good. There’s not a whole lot of choice and non-linearity in such a title, of course, since it follows a strictly defined plot, but the choices and options for each character are interesting and actually wind up playing into how they act and what happens around them when the player isn’t directly involved. It felt rich and real, and was really a shining point in an otherwise lackluster and outdated game. While there were obviously gimmicky gameplay mechanics, such as being able to control Mors’ dog, they felt good and not at all like they were contrived.

Interestingly, if anything I felt that the plot felt a little stifled by the fact that it was set in Westeros. While there’s some very interesting and intriguing characters  that we meet throughout the game, such a focus is placed on showing players what the TV show did that there’s a loss of value on creating a new and engaging experience. It is one thing to tie the game into the novels and show, but another to feature direct contact with proper figures from the canon. Letting Mors and Alester be their own characters in a world that did not revolve around the central power players could have been an opportunity for intrigue and cloak-and-dagger work, but instead it felt a little bit like a slideshow of “here’s what you’ve seen before”, trying to recapture the iconic imagery that many people looked for in the game itself. The best example of this would be the “codex” that the game contains. An interesting primer on Westeros, as well as the driving plot points and elements in the series, it really shows what the game could have been if it had almost entirely eschewed the trappings of the already expounded stories and stood on its own; as is it felt predictable and stifled by having to deal with the fact that the chronically low survival rate of characters is further compounded by them meeting important murder-happy plot characters.

In short, I cannot recommend Game of Thrones. It’s not that it’s a bad game, it’s just unsatisfying and lackluster. The best part is its plot, and there are notable compromises made even there. Still, it’s far from the worst game of 2012, and if nothing else it provides a little larger look at a deep and vibrant setting.

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