Childhood literature formed my affinity for RPGS, a video game genre that builds up complex relationships between characters to whom the hero plays a changeable role; a book in which you take decisions that will affect your destiny in interesting ways. Akin to Choose Your Own Adventure, in which flipping pages is replaced with tactical combat influenced by the role you’ve chosen.
I always wanted a Tuf Voyaging movie, but that never happened. About three years ago I found out about the Song of Ice and Fire series and discovered the volatile character interaction restored between people who are often mixes of flaws and qualities illustrated by quirky behaviors that leave you wondering whether or not you hate said character.
The Game of Thrones TV series is a pretty lively and dynamic cross-medium leap, but it’s considerably cheaper in details, scale and subplots than its source material, which has the advantage of being often sprayed with background elements or stuff that precedes the „present tense” of the series.
It can thus be said that the game we have before us, developed by Cyanide, has a very high standard to abide by, but it can also be said that much like most licensed games, it fails miserably when it comes to fundamentals. And ironically or not, none of the failures can be attributed to writing issues.
The Game of Thrones RPG has a lot of epic building blocks for an epic adventure. The collaboration between Cyanide and George R. R. Martin is fairly obvious, because the story has a distinctive structure, there are memorable characters in spades and we can split the narrative into two interweaving strings. In the first one, you’re Mors Wesford, a ranger under the Night’s Watch, and in the second, you’re Alester Sarwyck, nobleman and priest of R’hllor coming back home to set things straight after his father’s death.
Each of the two stories has its own special features, both in terms of gameplay as well as narrative style. While Wesford’s story has you exploring the North, trying to protect a girl from an army hired by an imposter, alternating open space combat with underground exploration through a brothel’s catacombs, Alester has to put up with political shenanigans and a lot of diplomatic maneuvering: his main plotline revolves around getting the Queen’s favor against the bastard trying to steal Riverspring from under him.
It has to be said that the game’s story is a few classes over your standard „scale to your level” RPG and even secondary characters have powerful motivations. Everything is neatly described through complex, descriptive dialogues, with mysteries unveiling and intrigues spread like spider webs both in the middle of the Red Keep, as well as up in the Frozen North. Even though the two narrative dimensions are separated by three months on the timeline, the way they overlap and the twist at the end are really well made and the narrative leaves no loose ends. At the same time, the moral situations in which you’re cornered have a lot of effect and apparently the choices and consequences system that die hard RPG fans have been craving for years is, in fact, there.
As I was saying, on paper Game of Thrones is the best thing since Baldur’s Gate 2. But then you meet the actual interactive part, not just the script. And this is where things start falling apart in the most unfortunate way possible.
First off, Game of Thrones is an RPG with a terribly simplistic combat mechanic, regardless of what class you choose. To get to the narrative and advance the interesting storyline you have to hold out ahead of an action and reply game that aside from all the bling bling orbits around a moronic and repetitive sequence of disable/bleed/multiply effects. There’s a synergy in your abilities – in the sense that you’re encouraged by the conditioning of a bonus effect, but you’ll eventually fall under very restrictive patterns if you actually want to be efficient. After 400 enemies and the subsequent achievement, it’s the most boring and tedious combat mechanic I’ve ever seen in an RPG.
And then, character customization upon leveling up is pretty redundant, because eventually you get to activate all the abilities your class has to offer. Sure, you get to spend a few stat points around, but you’ll surely prefer to use the class discount for preset options (two points at the price of one), which discourages variation. It’s a vicious circle – the simplistic gameplay reduces your options to an easily-theorycrafted build… which in turn encourages simplistic, repetitive gameplay.
Aside from fighting and exploring the intrigue through the dialogues, there are sections in which you either play Mors’ hound (through the eyes of which you can „smell” trails off characters and secrets or kill off isolated guards). You can also assign an ability queue to temporary allies, each sporting their own set of skills. Again, these abilities have fairly limited effects, and their order of use will be similar to your own. All the characters have the same resource pool, which is energy, but you can only customize the gear for the main character. Items you don’t need can be sold off, but the game’s loot table is kind of short and strangely distributed throughout the game.
Which is a pity, because the armor models look great, even though there’s very few of them, to which you may add a limited inventory, very little money and the game’s modest size not building a wide enough equipment arc. The result? You might as well finish the game in the second armor you put on.
The experience is also undermined by the voice acting inconsistency and the modeling. Some things, such as individual decorating elements, armors and character models are really good-looking. Two actors from the series lent their faces and voices to the game (I’m talking about James Cosmo as Jeor Mormont and Conleth Hill as the good Lord Varys), but aside from those two characters (and let’s say another three), the game’s voice acting, facial animations and expressivity ran out of style six years ago.
In fact, the general presentation has a set of serious issues – the gameplay is clunky, the inventory navigation is pretty rigid, the level design is limited to what seems to be a series of boxes nobody really wants in an open world game, while the instances that make up the world are pretty narrow.
The combat animations are limited, sometimes they look ridiculous and many attacks don’t make contact, though they have knockback type effects. It’s pretty funny to see your hero wave his hammer around the air so that an enemy ten feet away get slammed to the ground. Sure, we could forgive an imperfect collision in the convention of an abstract-mechanics RPG, but this is a 3D world seen through a 3rd person perspective in which the chaining of actions looks very unnatural. For instance, sending your dog out to immobilize an enemy will start a „phased” animation in a chain of otherwise normal actions.
I have no illusions of extreme patience and I’m definitely not a boy scout when it comes to some proactive dedication to finishing an unpleasant experience. And I wouldn’t have finished Game of Thrones were it not for my obligation to do so. In the end, the well-knit story (although slow and in some regards too stuffy for how much substance it has to offer) kept me up through the 15 game chapters, which are over in about 8-9 hours (if you listen to every NPC’s lament, that is). But despite my best intentions – and, I need to emphasize – narrative results, Game of Thrones is a mediocre RPG, a platform with too many transparent handicaps to reach its full potential.
It takes a lot of patience, curiosity and dedication to the A Song of Ice and Fire universe to get over all the problems that undermine the game and enjoy its only quality: the story. Perhaps some fans will feel it’s worth the effort, but most RPG gamers will want to skip this disappointing tie-in.