Full disclosure time: I love HBO’s Game of Thrones. I don’t like fantasy fiction that much, but the first season of Game of Thrones was amazing enough that it drove me into the arms of the arms of George R.R. Martin’s as-of-yet unfinished seven-book series, A Song of Ice and Fire (And it could grow longer. It was initially a trilogy, then a pentalogy, and now, appropriately enough given the main religion of Westeros, a septology). I’ve now read all five completed books two full times and I’m half way through my third go ‘round. They’re all I’ve read since last July.
What sets the world George R.R. Martin has created apart from, say, a more Tolkien-style fantasy universe is that it’s mostly a realistic portrayl of medieval military-political drama that just happens to be set in a fictional universe where seasons are random and can last for years. There is some magic, but it’s pretty scary and never comes without cost. There are some fantasy creatures and monsters as well, but they’re either portrayed as less magical and more matter-of-fact, or would be far more at home in a Guillermo Del Toro movie rather than a Peter Jackson one. This is a world where only death pays for life, shadow assassins are birthed in blood, and dragons would sooner roast you and eat you than steal a maiden for some brave knight to rescue. There are no elves or hobbits, and the dwarves are of the “little-person” variety rather than the tunnel-dwelling variety.
However, as it’s still technically a fantasy, I hoped that one day it would see a proper videogame adaptation. One day I even read an article about how Bethesda had toyed with the idea of adapting A Song of Ice and Fire into an RPG, but opted to make Skyrim instead. That same article mentioned that Cyanide and Atlus, however, were indeed working on an RPG called simply Game of Thrones for the PC - and soon thereafter, it was announced that it was coming to consoles.
Fast forward several months and there I sat staring at the title screen while the HBO series’s epic opening titles music played. I knew to temper my expectations. Cyanide is not known for making epic, high-quality RPGs and they’d already produced a mediocre RTS title based on the property.
So I hit “start” and dove deep into Martins mythology made digital.
I want to get this out of the way right now: Atlus and Cyanide have produced a Game of Thrones RPG that is much better than I expected but nowhere near as good as it could have been had it been in the hands of Bethesda, BioWare, or CD Projekt Red. Given my expectations, however, the Game of Thrones we got is a best-case scenario if there ever was one. It gets very many things right, and it even gets a few things more right than the TV show. In fact, what it’s best at is being a Game of Thrones adaptation. It’s the “videogame” part where Game of Thrones makes most of its missteps.
Game of Thrones follows two characters using a point-of-view chapter style mostly identical to the book series. The two protagonists are Ser Mors Westford and Ser Alester Sarwyck. Both were bannermen to Lord Tywin Lannister, the richest man in the Seven Kingdoms, and fought on the winning side of Robert Baratheon’s successful rebellion against the Targaryen dynasty. Robert now sits the Iron Throne as Lord of the Seven Kingdoms while Ser Mors and Ser Alester waste away well below their former stations.
It’s worse than that actually as both face a kind of exile. Ser Mors has “taken the black” and is now a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch, an 8,000-year-old order of warriors that forswear their old allegiances and family names (and have their crimes pardoned) to man the Wall and protect the realm from the wilds of the frozen northern half of the continent of Westeros. They are forbidden from ever again holding land, marrying, or fathering children, and are bound to their Night’s Watch oath on pain of death.
Ser Alester, on the other hand, has crossed the Narrow Sea to travel among the Free Cities of Essos, eventually finding solace in the god R’hllor, the Lord of Light. He’s gone so far as to enter the priesthood and travel the known world as a Red Priest expounding on the virtues of “the one true god.” However, fate has now decreed that both leave their previous surroundings and re-enter the world of Westerosi political gamesmanship known as the game of thrones.
As the game begins Ser Alester’s father has passed away and he has returned home to reclaim his birthright as the Lord of Riverspring, while Ser Mors’s old friend, and current Hand of the King, Jon Arryn has sent for him all the way from the capital of King’s Landing and asked him to undertake a task of grave importance to the future of the realm.
I don’t want to spoil the story so I won’t give any more details, but suffice to say that a fan of the book series should thoroughly enjoy the story. It’s a tale full of twists and surprises that are almost all pulled off deftly and with the same aplomb as anything from the books or TV series. I think that if it was revealed that George R.R. Martin himself actually wrote the story in secret, I would actually be less surprised at how good it is. It is, hands down, the best part of Game of Thrones. If you haven’t read the books or watched the TV show, however, don’t despair; Game of Thrones offers a medium-sized codex full of all the relevant backstory you’ll need to understand the whos and whats. However, you will have to read them if you want to have any chance to fully appreciate the events happening on the screen.
Game of Thrones doesn’t just score brownie points with book readers with its story either. There’s one part of the ASoIaF universe that the Game of Thrones RPG gets really right that the Game of Thrones television series gets really wrong, and that’s the design of the armor. They’re described in great detail in the books. And it’s those details that the costume designers at HBO choose to 100% ignore week after week, while the animators at Cyanide chose to follow them as closely as possible. Sure, this will only matter to book readers, but it’s an important detail to me. It was thrilling to see knights in brightly colored suits of heavy plate, complete with gorgets, rondels, loberstered steel gauntlets, and cloaks and surcoats that all prominently display the appropriate sigils and colors. The lighter armors look just as good. I even saw some amazing things that were never really described in great detail in the books, like the chain-mail worn by the Gold Cloaks (King’s Landing’s police force), or the purple unicorn sigil of House Brax (an unimportant house that’s mentioned barely more than a handful of times in the entire series).
If there are two things that are going to go further toward selling Game of Thrones as a proper entry into the universe to fans of the book series or TV show, it will be the quality of the story and the attention to book details found in the way the various armors, and to a lesser degree, the weapons, look. Cyanide should earn some well-deserved praise from fans for those two things alone and they go a long way toward building up enough goodwill to dispel the disappointment many will feel toward the actual videogame aspect of Game of Thrones.
The biggest issue gamers will have with Game of Thrones will be the graphics. It would be kind to say that they look dated - it would also be a bit of an understatement. They’re fairly identical to 2009’s console version of Dragon Age: Origins, and that game’s graphics were already dated in 2009. So yes, Game of Thrones would have looked dated three and a half years ago, so you can imagine how you’ll think they look now. The absolute worst part of the graphics, however, is the lighting. It is an abomination. Upon first booting up the game, the graphics were so dark and/or washed out that it threatened to render the whole game practically unplayable. Fiddling with the game’s gamma settings did no good. I had to change the settings on my television (a two-year-old 1080p LCD screen) in conjunction with the game’s gamma settings to get something that didn’t look like Vaseline was smeared all over the screen. I never got it to look good, but it at least became comfortably playable.
The other big issue some may have with the game is the combat. Again, it’s similar to Dragon Age: Origins. It’s a real-time/turn-based hybrid with a three-ability action queue. To use an ability, the player must hit RB, but it doesn’t exactly pause the game. It only drastically slows the action down meaning you need to think a hair faster than other games that use a similar ability wheel. The real negative aspect to the combat is that there is no real sensation of contact. Weapons pass through enemies, just as their weapons pass through you. The only indication that damage is being done comes from floating numbers and status icons. Honestly, I like that kind of combat, but I know others won’t so your mileage may vary.
However, there was one thing that I didn’t like. Game of Thrones uses a rock, paper, scissors-style approach to armor and weapon types. Each of the three kinds of weapons, cutting, perforating, and blunt, gains a 15% damage boost over one kind of armor: cutting for leather, perforating for chain-mail, and blunt for heavy plate. Most of the time it works perfectly except for the fact that you can only carry two weapons at once and you can’t change weapons for as long as even one enemy is in an aggressive state. It’s very easy to find yourself in a situation where you can’t use the weapon-type best suited for the enemy you’re fighting. Even worse is that, occasionally, the armor they are shown wearing doesn’t match what the game chooses to say they are wearing. Going into a boss battle, I made an obvious assumption that the enemy would be wearing heavy plate, because he’s clearly shown to be wearing heavy plate, only for the game to claim he was wearing mail. My warhammer and sword could still damage him, but at their base-damage rates with no bonus. The same thing happened again later, and it was even more ridiculous as the game gave a boss leather armor when he too was clearly wearing heavy plate. Those fights were still doable for me, but I wanted to pull my hair out. There’s no reason to not let us change weapons once a fight has started.
Along with the three weapon types, you also have access to a slew of abilities. The abilities you have to choose from are all pretty standard, however. You have damage, area damage, abilities that stun or knock down, abilities that poison or cause bleeding, along with healing and some buffs or debuffs. You can also use potions to heal and buff yourself and poisons to debuff and damage enemies. Alester can use vials of flammable liquid and wildfire to set enemies alight or set his weapons on fire (yes, like Thoros of Myr).
Along with their basic ability trees that vary depending on the class you choose at the beginning, classes that conform to the orthodox “tank, dps, ranged” template (and later you get an advanced version of that tree), both characters get access to “hero” trees. Mors’s hero tree allows him to upgrade his canine companion, while Alester gets a selection of flame-based abilities that are the closest thing to spell casting the game gives you. You see Alester’s god, R’hllor, is the Lord of Light and by “light” they mean fire. So along with setting his weapons on fire (using magic or
potions), then ignite enemies, heal himself, and resurrect any fallen comrades using these flame-based powers. Meanwhile Mors is a skinchanger (also called a “warg”). That means he can slip into the skin of his loyal dog named Dog (seriously). He can issue commands to Dog in combat and Dog’s ability tree offers options to disarm, immobilize, damage, and debuff enemies. Both hero skills offer out-of-combat abilities as well. Mors can slip into Dog to follow scents that lead him to quest goals and bonus loot, while Alester can use R’hllor’s sight to find secrets throughout the world. It’s quite different from the normal spell casting you see in RPGs, and just like with the combat, I liked it but your mileage may vary. Keep in mind, however, that it fits in with the universe in a way that standard RPG spell casting would not.
The final real negative that works against one’s enjoyment of the game is that the voice acting is very inconsistent. The core group of cast members does a good job; however, many supporting characters will make you want to claw your ears off just so you don’t have to listen to them anymore. Sometimes it’s a horribly stilted accent and other times it’s line readings that must have involved the ingestion of a dangerous amount of Quaaludes first. Save for Conleth Hill (Varys) and James Cosmo (Jeor Mormont) who reprise their roles from the show, the supporting cast is patently terrible.
Moreover, they’re not helped by the inconsistency of the writing. I said before that the core story is really good, and I stand by that. It really is good, but a lot of the dialogue is terribly written. It’s boring, insipid (although possibly those are by-products of the voice acting, I don’t know), or in some cases just plain wrong. For example, characters have a horrible habit of referring to Ser Mors and Ser Alester as Ser Westford and Ser Sarwyck. I am under the impression that it’s incorrect to use the title “ser” with just a surname, and it’s never used that way in the books or TV show. It’s a nitpick to be sure, but seven hells
, it drove me crazy. There are also a handful of lore inconsistencies that probably stem more from bad translations (Cyanide is a French company) than lack of interest by the dev team in the source material. They’re minor to be sure, but still might incite nerd-rage in normally stable individuals. My favorite example is “the night is dark and full of horrors.” It should be “terrors” not “horrors.”
Not all is lost on the aural front however. The game’s soundtrack is top notch. The game gets a head start simply because it has access to the television series’s soundtrack, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s used very well in Game of Thrones. There is the occasional repeating audio glitch, however, that can’t simply be dealt with by saving and reloading. The times it happened to me required a full restart of the game to get rid of. There were a handful of graphical glitches as well where this character or that character would get stuck behind something, but usually they resolved themselves and didn’t require a reload.
There is one truly positive aspect of the game that’s more related to its function as a videogame instead of its identity as an entry into the ASoIaF universe, however, and that’s the RPG mechanics. The one thing I hate more than anything about RPGs is hidden numbers, obtuse mechanics, and upgrades described in terms that have no context. When a game tells me that a certain upgrade increases a certain ability from “level two” to “level three” I just want to scream at it that it never told me what those numbers mean in terms of gameplay. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, uses real numbers to tell you your health, critical chance, damage, dps, chance-to-hit, and those numbers change in real-time depending on your upgrades and gear. Mass Effect 3 did this too, and I can’t think of another game that does. Who’d have thought that Mass Effect 3 and Game of Thrones would have any similar positive qualities? Actually, the RPG mechanics are handled well in Game of Thrones beyond clarity of information. When you level up you get a robust number of ways to upgrade, complete with passive traits (with some that can only be earned via story choices) to accent active skills and abilities and even though they may not all have an obvious affect in combat, at least the numbers change in a way that makes sense.
Overall, I enjoyed Cyanide’s Game of Thrones - much to my surprise. It will never win any awards and is full of things that are going to bother as many (or more) people as not, but I can’t speak for other people. For me, as a big fan of the source material, Game of Thrones was an enjoyable experience, even if it wasn’t the kind of triple-A title I dreamed of before. The story was exciting and kept me engaged even if it took about 10 of the game’s 30 hours or so before it got going, and the combat did just enough to keep the non-story sections afloat. It’s not a ringing endorsement, but it is a cautious one mainly aimed at those who are already fans of the source material like me. If you live and breathe Westeros, then Game of Thrones is worth checking out.