Game of Thrones is one of my favorite series; I’ve never read the books (sue me), but I find the television show to be wonderfully addictive. The only flaw I could really single out is its tendency to stretch out the “conflict” parts of the story too long without commensurate resolution. Enter the Game of Thrones video game, which not only builds up a bunch of disparate story threads in order to fold them together into a series of emotional gut-punches exactly like the show does, but actually offers real resolution to the story it crafts.
Your first impressions will be wrong
I didn’t like this game very much when I started playing it. You start out playing as Mors Westford, a grizzled Night’s Watch killer affectionately referred to as “The Butcher,” and while the hopelessness of guarding a giant ice wall in the region’s perpetual cold was interesting at first, the novelty quickly wore off and left me a bit bored. Not helping at all was the sudden switch to a different character (and I wasn’t even sure it was a different character at first) in the form of Alester Sarwyck, who’s dealing with the death of his father and his return to his lands after exiling himself and becoming one of those crazy fire-worshiping people. If that seems like a lot to take in, no worries—there will be a few hours of agonizingly slow story movement as you’re familiarized with both your two main characters and the world around you. Similar to the show, you start off very lost and confused, gradually filling in what you don’t know with little bits of information you glean from conversations. The lack of a dramatic, big-budget beginning may give you the impression that this Game of Thrones game doesn’t have much of a story to tell.
Play for the story’s resolution
That impression would be very wrong, though. Your two characters’ stories collide midway through the story, and things become absolutely insane from there as you unravel one lie after another and fight your way to one of the game’s four (five if you count the “suck and die” ending) explosive finales. Just like in the show, everything is more complicated than it first appears, and the game’s slow beginning does a great job of acting as a contrast to the personalities of the characters at the end.
Because of all of this, those who have the patience to make their way past the game’s first few chapters will discover one of the best stories to ever grace a video game. It’s not without its flaws, of course—the dialogue has a tendency to get a bit repetitive toward the end as the game pains itself to make sure you understand everyone’s motivations, but that minor quibble aside, the endings are all truly bittersweet in the best sense of the word.
I don’t know if developer Cyanide drew inspiration from the Knights of the Old Republic series’ combat, but there are a lot of similarities between the two. “Turn-based” doesn’t really do either of them justice because they’re actually more round-based; the difference is that you can basically run around and let enemies attack you in real time if you’re so inclined, whereas turn-based almost always implies that enemies wait while you decide what to do next. Whatever this kind of gameplay is technically called, combat consists of a queue of actions that you enter and wait for your characters to fulfill. In addition to the standard attack command, you also have special attacks that drain your “energy,” which functions in this game as a form of mana or MP. You only have two or three of these special attacks at the start of the game, which makes fighting feel dull toward the beginning of the game, but by the end you’ll be juggling 10-20 different skills that allow you to handle combat situations in a variety of ways.
It’s worth mentioning that both your health and energy regenerate with the passage of time, so combat eventually becomes a game of strategic timing more than anything as you plan out the best use for your energy. For a large mob, using one of Alester’s special fire attacks that causes enemies to attack anything in sight is a good way of both damaging enemies and giving yourself a short breather. Alternatively, you could have your secondary character draw enemies’ attacks while you attack from afar with a crossbow, or work in tandem by having one character knock down an enemy and the other use a special attack that delivers double damage to knocked down enemies.
It may not seem like anything special at the beginning, and it’s admittedly monotonous for a good portion of the game, but combat eventually becomes surprisingly enjoyable. This is doubly true when you realize just how much your go-to strategies revolve around how you’ve built your character.
Of course, nothing is ever perfect, and the game’s combat does suffer from some weirdness that brings it down a bit. Much like the combat in Dragon Age: Origins, it’s possible for an enemy to hit you with a sword when they’re nowhere near you for no reason other than you being in range when they started their attack animation. Am I the only one who is annoyed by this? Why do games allow you to run around in combat at all if you’re unable to get away from attacks? It’s usually best to just stand your ground and take the damage rather than losing time running around like an idiot, and this can occasionally make fighting frustrating.
The camera is also a bit of a problem; Game of Thrones has a tendency to throw you into narrow passages filled with enemies, and these narrow passages mean that the camera zooms in and around and can end up moving past you to the point where you can’t see what’s happening around you anymore. This isn’t a huge problem given the turn-based (or whatever you call it) nature of the combat, but it does serve to highlight the game’s lack of polish.
Rare (but easy) puzzles
There are two puzzles in the entire game, and they’re both so ridiculously easy that I can’t help but wonder why they were included in game at all. In fact, you can literally just guess over and over again until you stumble onto the right combination of choices, so both puzzle sections seem incredibly meaningless and half-baked. It’s hard to be annoyed by something so absurdly easy, but what’s the point of having a puzzle if it’s easily defeated by guessing? It just feels wrong.
Occasional bits of stupidity
The puzzles aren’t the only strange mechanic that ended up being shoehorned into the game, sadly. There’s also a single chase sequence in the entire game, and it proved to be incredibly unfulfilling. In it, I chased someone through a large portion of King’s Landing only to be told that I lost track of the character despite keeping up to the point where I was running alongside him. I don’t know if it was a bug or what, but this had me fuming.
Mors also has the ability to take over his dog’s mind, and this means wandering around the game world in a first-person view to sneak up on enemies and stealthily kill them with the dog. While this mechanic feels more realized than the puzzles and chase sequence, there are three major problems with it. First, the first-person view allows the dated graphics to really stand out (the dog and grass in particular look like they’re straight out of a Nintendo 64 game). Second, I found that some enemies can’t be attacked no matter what, even if you sneak up behind them like the others. While there are no negative effects that I noticed for failing an attack, it’s certainly irritating (and time-wasting) to discover that some enemies can’t be killed that way despite looking identical to other enemies who can. The last problem with this mechanic is that tearing out enemies’ throats with the dog plays out in a mash-the-button-as-fast-as-you-can QTE. It’s not particularly hard as far as QTEs go, but quick time events are almost never an acceptable mechanic.
There’s some weird bugginess
The video below highlights two bugs I encountered. The first bug is an amusing one where characters randomly hover around during dialogue like they’re standing on a Roomba. The second bug is a far more annoying one where the game refuses to allow me to target enemies with offensive attacks (only letting me use an area-of-effect stun that does no damage), ultimately resulting in death. There’s absolutely no excuse for this, especially since the game inexplicably refuses to allow you to load during combat without first going to the main menu, and it was almost enough to cause me to give up on the game altogether. While I’m glad I didn’t, there’s no doubt that this game is rough around the edges.
Linearity for the good of storykind
Make no mistake—this is a linear game. Sure, you may see a sidequest here or there, but they’re incredibly rare. However, they also tend to be more interesting than the garden-variety sidequests found in most games, even if they don’t have much of a purpose aside from providing a few extra experience points and some lore about the world. Game of Thrones allows you to wander around freely, but it never tries to pretend that it’s anything but a linear, story-focused game.
These teeth are for talking
For some reason, the PC version of this game runs the graphics card way harder than it has any right to. That’s to say that Game of Thrones is U-G-L-Y to the extreme. Strangely, this isn’t always true; without his hood, Alester’s head is all pointy and looks like something you’d see on the Playstation 2 (and that might even be generous), but Mors is covered in scars and seems far more detailed overall. The graphics, then, seem to alternate between staggering levels of detail and a near-complete absence of polish with a single exception: teeth. As strange as it sounds, the one constant high point for the graphics in this game are the characters’ teeth. Even the strangers you only see once in the entire game have detailed teeth, and I can’t help but be amused by the obvious effort put into this one smallish element of the game.
The music’s mostly from the show
If you like the music in the HBO show, you’re bound to like the music in the game. After all, much of it is taken from the show (though some of it is reworked in minor ways). It has an equally great effect in the game as it has in the show, being subtle and musical while helping to build tension.
This is probably going to be a bit surprising, but I actually liked the game’s voice acting, which alternates between being decent and so-bad-it’s-good. Sure, the dialogue has taken a lot of flak from a lot of people, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as the awkward dialogue in games like Tomb Raider or Grandia. In my mind, the biggest negative of the voice acting is how often it repeats; you can hear two people having a conversation, then walk ten feet in any direction and hear two different people having an identical conversation. You can also just stand still and laugh at how everyone repeats their few lines of dialogue over and over and over as though they have no short-term memory. This may be a problem for some people, but I’d be lying if I said I found it anything but thoroughly amusing.
Here’s what you should do: