Game of Thrones Review
A song of boredom and mediocrity
The brutally dark medieval world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels have all the makings of a brilliant videogame fantasy universe. There’s a world as vastly varied and detailed in climactic and cultural diversity as that of Tamriel, and its history is steeped in political warfare with a conservative sprinkling of magic and mythical creatures, much like that of The Witcher. Yet for all that promise Cyanide Studios’ handling of the license could hardly have produced a clunkier title, mired by some painfully trite RPG mechanics and technical issues. And yet to their credit they have done a decent job of adapting the mythology, exploring an interesting and previously undetailed point within the history Westeros’ timeline, with a story that flows nicely into the novels and keeps true to the tone and style of HBO’s televisual adaptation.
Set months before the events of the first book, Cyanide’s Game of Thrones simultaneously follows the exploits of two protagonists who embody the ‘ice’ and ‘fire’ theme of the series with an interesting juxtaposition in setting and circumstance: Mors Westford is a Nights Watch veteran, bound to the brotherhood in the wintery north to protect the realm from ‘wildlings’ who dwell beyond a gigantic wall of ice. Whereas Alester Sarwyck is an estranged heir to a noble house in the south who, having spent the past 15 years travelling the exotic sun scorched lands to the east, returns to claim his rightful place as lord of Riverrun in the wake of his father’s death.
It is of little surprise that the tale told here is well judged, managing to find the right balance of political machinations and personal drama when you consider that Martin himself supervised its development. What is more of a surprise is that he let the awful voice acting and painfully overwrought writing style pass by, as it lacks his trademark nuanced dark wit and touchingly personal human insights. Still, the overall arc presents some interesting revelations for series fans as the parallel paths of your protagonists become entwined and lead up to one of four different endings, determined by a number of Mass Effect style contextual choices made throughout your journey. Thankfully they amount to more than simple red, blue and green endings, with each carrying a distinct dramatic weight.
Combat forms the cornerstone of progression through your mostly linear adventure in Westeros and is a real-time, round based affair, much like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, or Dragon Age: Origins. You have access to a time slowing radial menu of skills from which to queue up multiple actions for you and your teammates, each of which takes a certain amount of time to perform depending upon your personal stats. Adding a slightly deeper layer of strategy to this base is the fact that certain actions will earn bonus damage if used in the correct situation, such as when an opponent is knocked down or wearing a specific type of armour.
The system allows for some interesting combinations of attacks, like ordering Mors’ particularly ugly dog to gnaw at someone’s leg or pounce at their face whilst you archer from a distance. But it is also one let down by repetition and facets of poor design. The same type of scenario and enemy combinations are recycled again and again, leading to situations of dire monotony. You cannot map abilities to face buttons, which leaves you having to open the radial dial in pause mode for half of each battle. And compounding these issues is the fact that there are a number of particularly obstinate difficulty spikes encountered throughout the game, making for a flawed, deeply frustrating combat system. It serves to turn progression into a painful grind instead of a thrilling challenge and you can’t help but feel that Game of Thrones would have benefited from opting for a fully turn-based strategic affair, or a Dark Souls style real time combat system instead of falling into the dull middle ground between the two.
On a slightly more successful design note, Cyanide’s character development system has some surprisingly original ideas, allowing you to carve out your own personalized version of each protagonist over the course of a dozen hours. Each positive personal trait that you choose to invest in requires you to equally invest in a negative one, giving a nice balance and depth to the progression and specialization of your character. And those choices you make during the course of the narrative can give you strangely unrelated boosts to particular stats, such as the use of diplomacy increasing your critical damage.
Elsewhere technical issues serve to mute much of the excitement that story progression and character personalisation brings as frequent load times, framerate slowdown and graphical aberrations rear their ugly heads. Even when Game of Thrones is running perfectly well its aesthetic design remains uninspired as it looks like a 360 launch title, with low polygon models, blurry textures and starch stiff animations. The eloquently phrased descriptions within Martin’s novels may depict an ugly medieval world of clashing swords, crumbling castles and dragon forged thrones of iron, but Cyanide’s graphical depiction is ugly from a technical perspective. The only interesting sites are those taken from the novel, such as the great wall of ice in the north and any new creations for the game, such as Alester’s home Riverrun are simply bland and uninspired by comparison.
It’s the already existing elements of this franchise that are handled well in this videogame adaptation - the gripping tale of political backstabbing and personal greed, the deep and interesting character development through moral shades of both black and white and the fan service nods to existing characters and locations (The presence of Jeor Mormont, Queen Cersei and Varys providing particular high points in characterization and voice acting). By comparison the new, purely videogame elements are poorly design and deeply unsatisfying to play through. The boring, clunky round-based combat, the new locations, each in a slightly modified shade of brown and the graphical composition of everything are simply lacklustre. It’s like Queen Cersei’s most infamous line: “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die, or you just get really frustrated at what a poor game it is...”