Cyanide Studios has been working on Game of Thrones for three years, so it's not something that it threw together for HBO's adaptation of the popular book series. With that said, the game borrows a few things, such as the opening theme and the actors' likenesses for a few characters, like Varys and Jeor Mormont. However, this is an original story set in parallel to the events of the first book and the first HBO season.
The world of the Seven Kingdoms will be seen through the eyes of two different characters created specifically for the title, and like the books, the story plays through interweaving chapters that focus on their separate perspectives. Although reading or watching the series is far from mandatory, those who have will immediately recognize the Night's Watch and know what to expect from certain character cameos. In-game entries, some of which are filled in by scrolls, explain bits and pieces of author George Martin's world. It's not a bad solution, though knowledgeable fans will get the most out of the world and will likely be the most critical of what it hasn't done well.
This story won't put you in the path of too many of the major characters in the world of Westeros, though you'll feel their presence and the repercussions of their actions. When it brings you into the presence of one of the key players, he or she is tightly in character and plays up the impressions you might have gotten from either the books or the HBO series. It's an amazing add-on to the intrigue of the first book, and the game has multiple endings depending on what you decide to do. Like the books, don't expect too much of a happy ending from any of them.
Mors Westford is a grizzled veteran of the Night's Watch who introduces the player to the basics as he hunts down a former friend-turned-deserter. Eventually, he gets wrapped up in a conspiracy involving a mysterious girl on the run from the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, King's Landing, as well as having to deal with barbarian Wildlings coming from over the Wall in the north.
Then there's Alester Sarwyck who, 15 years earlier, had forsaken his birthright as the son of the lord of Riverspring to seek exile for mysterious reasons across the sea in Braavos, where he took on the robes of the Red Priests of R'hllor. Returning home, he discovers that the years haven't been kind to it, or to his family, and one of his father's bastard sons is ruthlessly scheming to claim Riverspring.
Players begin as Mors and are introduced to the character build screens. He can go in try his hand as a Hedge Knight, a Landed Knight or a Magnar. Each class is permanent and can't be changed once you've made your choice, though at a later level, players can tack on an additional pick. Each also has unique skill trees and abilities. For example, the Magnar can dual-wield weapons with ease while a Landed Knight has the benefit of better armor picks and defensive skills.
Later, as Alester, players go through the same ritual in picking between an Archer, a Sellsword or a Water Dancer. Water Dancers can only wear light armor but are unmatched in dodging attacks and striking foes with their blades. Archers use ranged attacks, and Sellswords use better armor and are OK swordsmen to boot.
Both Alester and Mors also have special abilities that emerge after some play. Mors has a dog that faithfully follows him everywhere and aids him in battle. Eventually, you'll be able to issue commands for special attacks and see the world through his eyes to solve puzzles, scout out enemy locations, and even kill enemies by using their throats as chew toys. Alester can set his foes on fire with his sword, and he has a number of other magic abilities, such as healing himself with the power of R'hllor.
If left alone, both Alester and Mors methodically whack enemies with canned animations during combat. Juggling skills uses up stamina, which slowly regenerates. This keeps players from spamming powerful moves over and over again, but at the same time, it does nothing to fix the mind-numbing, machine-like rotation of skills through every encounter.
It's also incredibly easy to get killed early in Game of Thrones due to the odd balance of difficulty. In other RPGs, this usually means that you have to go out, train up by fighting lesser mobs and then coming back wiser and tougher. Here, you have a small number of enemies to fight, and once they're wiped out, that's it. Other games have also done the "limited mobs" approach, such as Piranha Bytes' Gothic and Risen series, but they also provide plenty of opportunities for character growth and skill development without painting you into a corner.
That's too bad because the character system has old-school trappings that can be appealing if the combat system and gameplay utilized it. On leveling up and during character creation, players can invest points into attributes like strength and dexterity. Skills can be improved in the same way, and certain passive traits can also be tacked on with a required "negative trait" for balance. For example, you might pick a trait that gives you a nice bonus to skill points earned per level, but you have to balance it out with something from the other column that might make you a tad unstable in combat, hurting your hit percentage.
Loot also doesn't have much of a place here, and what is there can sometimes create unusual scenarios. Early in the game, Mors snags some pretty decent Wildling armor, even if it did have a few decapitated heads — that may or may not have belonged to former Night's Watchmen — hanging on its belt. His boss, Jeor Mormont, doesn't have a problem with it, nor does anyone else in the Night's Watch. The best stuff is often ridiculously priced, and shops can have some extremely bizarre picks, such as Ser Barristan Selmy's jousting helm. Though those who are unfamiliar with the books or HBO series might not care, things like this may cause fans to arch their eyebrows.
Aside from the bland combat, the shallow world comes off even worse. It's hard to reconcile the detailed books with what the game gives you, which isn't much. Areas also tend to be claustrophobic, with odd degrees of scale as if they were theme park attractions with rough textures and cubist buildings. King's Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, feels about as big as the vassal town of Riverspring. Virtual tourists to Westeros will see mannequins posing as filler NPCs in the streets and buildings that only stand there. There are CRPGs from the early 1990s that go beyond this.
The game boasts a huge number of side-quests, but it's just more marketing spiel. What's available isn't enough to cover the first hour of Bethesda's Skyrim, let alone any other RPG worth its salt. There are some hidden treasures that Mors' dog can locate using a clever vision trail that only he can see, but most of it isn't worth the space in your inventory. There's no point to exploring too far off the beaten path — when the game lets you, that is — because there's not enough out there to explore. Even in the wilderness, there's scarcely enough to pretend to be anything more than a series of corridors.
All of this conspires to bury the remarkable story spanning the 30-plus hours that it can take to get through the game, but compared to the same amount of time in other titles, such as BioWare's Mass Effect, it feels as if relatively little has been accomplished in Game of Thrones, aside from spinning a good yarn. The characters are nicely fleshed out, the conflicts between each one detailed, and the voice acting lends life to each role. The main villain's cold, calculating demeanor easily stands him next to the worst that the books have to offer. However, the price to experience any of that is a little steep.
Game of Thrones may only appeal to the diehard fans of Martin's work who don't care how boring the combat is or how dated the visuals look. For RPGers looking to dive into a low-magic world of gruesome combat and wicked secrets, there are far better alternatives, such as CD Projekt Red's Witcher 2 or Piranha Bytes' Risen series. Game of Thrones revels in the source material, wraps its narrative around it, and plays along with the vast universe that George Martin has crafted. It's too bad, and deeply disappointing, that the game celebrates little else.
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