Being such a huge fan of George R.R. Martin’s epic tome A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as the hit HBO adaptation, it goes without saying that I was more than looking forward to ripping open my review copy of the Game of Thrones video game. My hands were fumbling, my heart was racing, and in that moment I was overtaken by a genuine sense of excitement. Sadly, that is the best memory I have of a Game of Thrones for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC — French developer Cyanide’s second foray into the world Mr. Martin has so painstakingly crafted.
Let’s be real, the vast majority of licensed games stink like a giant pile of Direwolf droppings, and are often nothing more than meager attempts to cash in on the latest film franchise or television series (remember the game based on the hit ABC series Lost? Nevermind, it’s better you don’t). Usually the developers disinterest is more than evident throughout their work, but Game of Thrones is different. Don’t get me wrong, the game is still terrible, but at the very least it’s evident Cyanide actually cares about the source material. Sadly, however well intentioned the team may have been, it simply isn’t enough to give the this RPG even a modicum of enjoyment.
To be fair, the blame can’t be levied entirely at Cyanide’s feet. There are some truly innovative ideas buried beneath this murky mess, but they’re never really allowed to surface entirely, and instead are relegated to the periphery of the entire experience.
One facet of Game of Thrones that actually manages to shine, though, is its engaging story. No surprise here really given that George R.R. Martin worked closely with Cyanide’s Paris-based studio to help oversee the introduction of new material while staying faithful to the series’ canon. But while you don’t need to have read any of the ASOIAF books (or watched the show for that matter) to follow what’s going on here, it certainly helps.
A dangerous game
Your travels in Westeros will see you take on the role of two characters created specifically for the game: The red priest, Alester Sarwyck, and grizzled veteran of the Night’s Watch, Mors Westford. Alester’s story centers on his return from a 15 year self-imposed exile across the sea. Alas, things aren’t go so well for old Alester: his house is in turmoil, his father has just died, the townsfolk are starving and on the verge of revolt, and his bastard brother, Valaar, is plotting to marry his sister and usurp Alester’s claim as rightful lord of Riverspring.
The situation up north for Mors is hardly better. After forfeiting his life by disobeying an order that saw him forced to “take the black” of the Nights Watch — pledging himself unduly to the harsh expanse that is ”The Wall” — Mors is tasked with upholding his vows, hunting down turncloaks, and dispatching rampaging Wildlings with extreme prejudice.
And because winter is coming, and the cold winds are rising, it’s anything but an easy affair. Early in Mor’s storyline he receives a letter from the Hand of the King commanding him to protect a mysterious woman. Having no choice, he sets off south in order to protect her. What subsequently follows is a series of events that will have both characters traveling the seven kingdoms of Westeros seeking justice for their cause while maneuvering through all the political intrigue, plot twists, and moral ambiguity the books are famous for having.
And though the narrative is cleverly spun, the delivery of said story is not. Game of Thrones suffers from horrid voice work that is delivered in the most elementary fashion. Virtually all the characters sound generic and dull. Even the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, the “Old Bear” himself, voiced by the character’s TV counterpart James Cosmos is surprisingly lazy.
It is known…
Gamers the world over know that a great video game never hinges on graphical fidelity. Sure it helps, and can certainly prove important, but it’s not paramount. Which is why we can forgive (mostly) Game of Thrones for being a graphical mess. Be that as it may, it’s really hard to overlook just how miserable the games graphics truly are. Sure life in the seven kingdoms is anything but pretty, but it’s filled with locales that — on paper and in the show at least — are truly a sight to behold. Sadly, that majesty never once makes its way into the game and it appears Cyanide really failed to make even modest use of the Unreal Engine 3.
Textures are horrid, animations are agonizingly stiff, and we never realized Westeros was such an environmentally friendly place because there is an awful lot of recycling going on here — at least when it comes to the game’s character models.
Now we know RPGS are often filled with background characters that are alarmingly similar; we see them, we run by them, we forget them. Not so in Game of Thrones, Cyanide rehashes character models over and over again. And these aren’t tertiary characters consigned to the games background – no, these are characters that occupy some of the games most compelling cut-scenes. At best it can be described as lazy, at worst it’s just plain unacceptable.
Okay, so there’s an engrossing story, with some licensed character’s voices, and likenesses from the show. The graphics are weak, but the combat and gameplay make up for that right? Not really. While combat isn’t terrible, it isn’t anything special. Initially it’s easy to think that combat is actually quite robust, and in some ways it is.
Attacking enemies is accomplished in real time but can also be slowed down and brought to a crawl allowing you to queue together a string of attacks. A radial menu is brought up with all your special abilities. As you level up you’ll gain access to more abilities, allowing for varied tactics and attacks. Sadly, this never really fleshes out. Level progression provides for an increase amount of skills and abilities, but beyond the initial three or four you’re introduced to early on in the game, you’re never really required to use the vast majority of them.
The fact that combat doesn’t provide a satisfactory (read: fun) relief from the poor visuals and lazy voice work, only further serves to compound Game of Throne’s woes.
While it’s abundantly clear Cyanide have buckled under the weight of the franchise — some might even say they played the game of thrones and lost — there are facets of the game that are innovative and make the experience at least somewhat enjoyable, if only for a moment.
Needless to say Westeros is a land of ill repute. There might be knights running around in shiny armor, noble lords and noble ladies, but the moral compass guiding the people of seven kingdoms can point in different directions at any given moment. Of course that is part of what makes the books and show so compelling. And thankfully, that is one aspect the game so dutifully recreates.
Whereas most games offer a very clear distinction between right and wrong, bad or good, just and unjust, Game of Thrones makes no real attempt at pander to that practice. For example: one of the more enjoyable quests will have you judging the fate of a group of townspeople caught during tumultuous riot. You decide if they live or die, but the game never lets you know if you chose correctly.
That’s not to say there are no consequences for your actions, just that you’re never truly beholden or punished for taking the unsavory route, and often you’ll find there is no “right choice.”
Character creation is also handled in a decidedly unique way. Instead of stacking Mors or Alester with a large list of stat padding attributes, the game makes you balance out each character with a set of weakness. So for instance you might choose to give Alester the leadership attribute, but then must also pick a weakness such as weakness to fire attacks.
Despite a few bright spots in an otherwise abysmal affair, Game of Thrones doesn’t deserve a place in your game collection, let alone the Iron Throne. Try as it might, not even the game’s smartly crafted story can help maneuver it past the long list of shortcomings. Muddy visuals and graphics that look more at home on last generation’s consoles, coupled with poor-voice work only compound the games mediocre combat, unresponsive controls, and overall unfinished feel.
If you’re a fan of the show, read the books. If you’ve read the books, watch the show, but do yourself a favor and pass on the game. It’s not worth it, not even for a night with a Dornishman’s wife.
Score 4.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Atlus)