A Song of Battles and Bugs
When I think of RPGs as a genre, there are certain things I’ve come to expect since I first fired up Dragon Warrior on the NES. A solid story, a sense of scope, and an inspiring period of growth for the heroes I’ll lead into battle are a big part of it, but more than anything else, it’s about the journey—the feeling I get when I’m lost to the world and caught up in the fiction and hell-bent on righting the wrongs of the universe I’ve inherited at the hands of a genre that’s all about “epic.”
And when it comes to “the big E,” few fantasy novels have matched George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. Arriving in 1996, his work introduced a collection of kingdoms fraught with dangers born of man and myth that eventually spawned an HBO series named after the first book in the series, Game of Thrones—showing just how powerful his words could become in the right hands.
But when the console license eventually fell to publisher Atlus and their development partner Cyanide, more than a few fans were concerned that the lack of a big-name developer along the lines of Bethesda or BioWare might signal a long, harsh winter for the fabled series—and I was right there with them.
On first inspection, some of the fanbase’s concerns were spot-on. Thrones is hardly a visual showpiece, marred by muddy textures and a ton of animation glitches, falling well short of current console expectations. And while the game does feature a few cameos from some bit players from the HBO series, key characters like Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, and Daenerys Targaryen are all annoyingly absent. More than this, the game’s B-team cast tends to phone in the dialogue, making the lack of star power even more apparent.
That’s a notable list of flaws, but if you can get beyond them, some key bright spots become apparent. First off, the folks at Cyanide clearly understand the fiction. The story’s full of the same sorts of tough decisions and harsh endings made famous by Martin’s unrelenting novels; the game structure does a good job of mirroring his character-driven storytelling style with two separate plotlines for the game’s two core characters you’ll alternate between in a unique “chapter” format, which keeps things authentic and interesting throughout.
What’s more, I got a real kick out of the Thrones-specific classes and the character-creation system, which offers up a ton of customization—including the ability to grant your hero distinct strengths and weaknesses that add some solid spice to the process that includes some familiar options on the class front. It may not seem like much, but playing as a skin-changing, Wall-defending warg and a water-dancing priest of R’hllor bent on restoring his house will have diehards smiling in short order despite the lack of star power, and credit goes to the team for delivering here.
Another area I enjoyed—despite some spotty interface and tutorial work—is the game’s combat system, which follows the leads of BioWare’s RPGs by offering a real-time option with a slow-mo counterpart. Despite the fact that the former’s virtually useless, once you settle into the second option, the game does a great job of layering strategies like knockdowns, the use of fire, multiple weapon sets, targeting priority, and more into each character’s abilities that reward mastery with a genuine sense of badassery that keeps things interesting despite the fiction-fueled lack of variety on the enemy front.
And that’s the thing. Series noobs will need some serious patience to get past the fact that Game of Thrones won’t win any awards for visual splendor or technical excellence, but as a fan of the show and the novels, the lack of big-budget production values didn’t bug me as much as the story and combat pulled me in. And, provided they don’t go in expecting a Dragon Age–killer, I suspect many fans will feel the same.
SUMMARY: Hardly the debut the fiction deserves, Game of Thrones is a pretty rough cut of George R. R. Martin’s fantastic fantasy series on the polish front, but the game makes up for it with a solid, authentic storyline and a subtly rewarding combat system that will help fans look past the game’s dated visuals.
- THE GOOD: A solid tale of vengeance, betrayal, and blood serves as a fitting side story.
- THE BAD: The lack of big-ticket characters we’ve come to know and love in the novels.
- THE UGLY: A host of visual glitches are an unfortunate black eye on some solid concepts.
Game of Thrones is available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was on Xbox 360.