WARNING: This review contains major spoilers for Game of Thrones. Whatever.
Cyanide Studio’s Game of Thrones takes the player back into a long-forgotten time, an era shrouded in darkness and danger. We mean, of course, the year 2006, which is about the last time that a game that looked and played like GoT might have reasonably been considered good. Don’t let the mediocre reviews fool you: this game is a hell of a lot worse than mediocre. The only thing it has going for it is its franchise, George R.R. Martin’s gargantuan Song of Ice and Fire universe–although even then, this shoddy, paint-by-numbers RPG would offend any fan with taste. It appeals primarily to the undiscriminating franchise dork who consumes “content” like Brown students consume cocaine: prodigiously, with scarcely much concern for its provenance.
Game of Thrones (the game) takes place during the events chronicled in A Games of Thrones (the book), which are also recounted in the first season of Game of Thrones (the HBO series) but it introduces new characters in an original story. Mors Westford and Alester Sarwyck are veterans of Robert’s Rebellion, a civil war in the Seven Kingdoms of the continent of Westeros that overthrew the Targaryen monarch Aerys II, putting Robert Baratheon on the throne. The game picks up fifteen years after the Rebellion, during what turn out to be the last weeks of Robert’s reign. Both Mors and Alester are in exile: the former at the northern Wall as part of the Night’s Watch, the latter in the Free Cities east of Westeros.
The game’s plot is set in motion–very, very slowly–when the King’s Hand (ie, Prime Minister) Jon Arryn sends a young woman bearing King Robert’s illegitimate child to the Wall to hide her from Queen Cersei Lannister, who is systematically murdering Robert’s apparently prodigious stock of illegitimate kids. Hell hath no fury, etc–and oh yeah, the royal couple’s ostensibly legitimate children are actually the fruit of incestuous union between Cersei and her brother, which Arryn has managed to figure out in an impressive leap forward for feudal genetics. The pursuit for the mother winds up reuniting Mors and Alester for a brutal, charmless adventure with perhaps the most demoralizing conclusion in the history of video games.
Left Gamer Review hasn’t read the Martin novels, and while we really liked the TV episodes we saw in a hotel once, we didn’t like them enough to pay for cable plus HBO plus whatever other crap Comcast bundles with it. (We also hate watching shows on the computer. And, umm, pirating is wrong!) Possibly we would be more into the game’s plot if we were more invested in the Ice and Fire universe generally, although as far as we can tell, the game is strictly gaiden: nothing you do really affects the canonical world, not even in the sense of “filling in” some lacunae from the novels. Even the Houses primarily treated by the game–Westford, Sarwyck, and Harlton–are sui generis, which seems a little cheap, since there are dozens of Houses name-checked in the novels that could have been used. This disappointing move seems to be motivated by Martin’s restriction of canon status to the texts exclusively. His prerogative, certainly, but then perhaps he shouldn’t grace the game with a cameo.
If the story doesn’t excite you, don’t expect any help from the gameplay. Combat is a uninspired mash-up of real-time and turn-based. Mors and Alester hack away manfully unless told otherwise by queuing up special commands. On normal difficulty, the game only presents any challenge at the very beginning and at the very end; otherwise one can sail through the game on autopilot, as the undynamic duo slice through dozens and dozens of cut-and-paste foot soldiers. Even “boss” fights, a usually-enjoyable RPG trope, are barely worth waking up for, barring a well-executed encounter in the first chapter, before the game has had a chance to really get into its somnambulism.
The side-quests are surprisingly good relative to the level of the game–they have decent narrative content and aren’t just “fetch quests”–but this is like saying that cold, soggy curly fries are better than cold, soggy regular fries. Well, yeah, but so what? And since none of the skills in the development tree feel particularly exciting or necessary, there’s not much motivation to pursue the side-quests anyway.
The graphics, as we’ve already mentioned, are seriously outdated–and there’s monstrous clipping failure. Every game has this, but in GoT, you osmose through every door. It’s just lazy. The game’s visual disappeal is reinforced by the bleak, drab design of Westeros. This is, perhaps, in keeping with the Eigengrau of Martin’s source material–but the intrinsic gloom of a place like Castle Black ought to be offset by the grandeur of the Red Keep. Good visual designers know that a theme has to be presented with its negation in order to be recognized as such. Despite GoT’s apparently long development cycle, the game looks rushed.
Things are a bit better in the sound department, probably since it gets to draw on the HBO series for music and sound effets. Notably well-done is the voice work by actors from the show, who thankfully reprise their roles. Conleth Hill does a particularly nice job with Varys, perfectly conveying the eunuch spymaster’s mix of elegance and ruthlessness.
Actually we finished GoT wishing that we could have played as Varys, since he’s the only character who actually seems to accomplish anything. Spoiler alert: at the end of the game, it’s revealed that Alester carried out the murder of Mors’s wife and daughter under orders from his liege lord Tywin Lannister. Thus the final battle is between Mors and Alester, one of whom you choose to play. Once you win the battle, you kill your friend–no choice there!–and then get to decide whether to keep King Robert’s bastard or place him under Varys’s “protection” (whatever that might mean).
If you play Mors and keep the kid, you’ll be hunted down by the Night’s Watch for abandoning the Wall; give him to Varys, and you’ll return to the Watch just in time to execute an another playable character and become a soulless misanthrope. If you choose Alester and keep the kid, you’ll turn him over to Queen Cersei to be killed, then rather rightfully become a depressive and commit suicide; give the baby to Varys, and Cersei kills you right away.
Charming, no? Now we’re not the kind of idiots who think that games should always have a happy ending; indeed, as children of the grunge era, we at Left Gamer Review incline to the view that being sad is more authentic and “deep.” Our favorite game endings include Final Fantasy Tactics and Grand Theft Auto IV, which are scarcely very cheerful. But it’s striking that GoT gives you a choice about everything in the ending except the decision at the moral core: whether to kill your best friend and comrade. You spend the final battle pondering whether you’ll do this or not–one of the few times in the game that you think about the game–only to find that when the time comes, the game has decided for you. Hence the woebegone endings all seem like a cheat, because you don’t feel implicated in the basic sin.
Cersei Lannister famously states, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Maybe. Or maybe the wisest counsel comes not from a feudal monarch, but a bourgeois computer: “The only winning move is not to play.”
Game of Thrones is available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows PC.