Game of Thrones (360/PS3/PC)
Developer: Cyanide Studios
Release date: May 15, 2012
When you play the Game of Thrones RPG, you either win, or you restart at the last checkpoint. Then you win.
But can you really win when you're playing the game of thrones? Can anyone?
Nothing in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, adapted as Game of Thrones by HBO, ends the way fans want it to. Nothing yet, at least; Martin's still got at least two books swimming around under his signature biker hat. But unlike in other works of fiction, there hasn't been a happy ending yet.
That's normally the beauty of fiction: the good guys win. That's why we escape into it. But Ice and Fire asks the question, what if there are no good guys? What if there are only shades of motivation, delusion and self-interest? That's what makes Martin's world so compelling, and it's clear that Cyanide Studios understands this, as they've recreated that feeling quite well in the game.
The Game of ThronesRPG is no mere cash-in.
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What's perhaps even more amazing is that, barring three essential cameos from the TV show (Jeor Mormont, Queen Cersei and Varys), fans won't recognize a single soul in the cast of the game. But the protagonists' stories of loss, hardship, sacrifice, and betrayal are right at home in the world of Westeros.
GoT takes place before and during the events of the first book, and follows two characters whose futures are as entwined as their pasts. Firstly there's Mors Westford, a grizzled veteran of the Night's Watch, an ancient order of sworn brothers ("Crows") tasked with defending the realm from the horrors beyond an enormous, magic wall. Mors is a skinchanger or "warg", which means he can transfer his consciousness to the body of his dog and control it, a concept familiar to book fans.
The second protagonist is Ser Alester Sarwyck, a former knight who fled to another continent after the troubling events of the current king's rebellion a decade and a half before the game. There he became a red priest, a worshiper of R'hllor, the Lord of Light and manipulator of fire. Alester's not chucking fireballs around like a wizard, but his affinity with flames allows him to manipulate it in subtle ways that come in handy during combat.
Alester returns to Westeros upon learning of the death of his father, only to find that Cersei has ordered his sister to marry their bastard half-brother so he, having gained the queen's favor, can rule over the Sarwyck family lands.
Now that's a tale that fits in well in this universe.
Fire and blood
Although Martin didn't lend his pen to this story, he does appear as a character within it (the learned Maester Martin). And there are easily as many layers here as you'd expect from any tale set in ASoIaF. Unravelling the mysteries of the two characters' shared pasts is only one such layer.
Existing fans will find themselves at the slight disadvantage of seeing several of the main plot twist coming miles in advance, but there are still more that no one will anticipate. There are villainous bastards, royal descendants, scheming lords, sorcerous manifestations ("shadow babies"), and a certain book regarding lineages of the Seven Kingdoms that will seem quite familiar to some.
But the game also hints at elements that even avid readers of the series have only guessed at, and its narrative nicely compliments what fans already know to have happened from reading the first book and watching the show's first season.
Watching the two protagonists get sucked down in an ever more dangerous whirlwind of intrigue, lies and betrayal is easily the game's most compelling aspect. I even found myself returning to previous saves in desperate bids to alter the course of events, like turning back the pages of the books and having things turn out differently.
Unfortunately, besides the five-flavored ending, altering the course of the game's events is about as easy as altering what's in the novels. It makes for a great plot, though ultimately you might feel that your choices are meaningless. Of course, given the source material, that may be the point.
Hodor Hodor Hodor
There are several aspects that might hamper your enjoyment of GoT. On a gameplay level, it's a more linear, less customizable, shorter version of Dragon Age: Origins. At the outset, you'll allocate points into the protagonists' skills, attributes, fighting stances, and strengths and weaknesses. There are three possible stances for either character, each granting them a certain set of abilities, with three more unlocked at level seven.
Combat is mostly real-time, though opening the ability wheel slows it down and gives you some time to think. You can queue up to three attacks at a time for each character, and they'll carry them out when the game speeds back up. Making your enemies bleed, stunning them, or knocking them down will allow you to string together nice combos, and using certain weapons against different armor types will cause extra damage.
Warging into Mors's dog will allow you to find hidden paths and pull off gruesome stealth kills, and Alester possesses the ability to reveal secrets around him with the vision of his god.
Each successive chapter (there are around 15) grants you slightly more freedom, and there are several side quests to complete along the way, but overall it's an extremely linear experience. As a plot-driven game, GoT doesn't allow for too much customization, and fans of typical open-world games like Dragon Age may feel too restricted.
And fans of the books or show who aren't necessarily gamers are going to be hard-pressed to trudge through the game's somewhat archaic systems. GoT tries to appeal to two demographics that may or may not significantly overlap: fans of Martin's work and fans of old school, hardcore Western RPGs.
The night is dark and full of terrors
If you do happen to fit both those molds, you're going to absolutely adore this game, like I did. But it's a shame there's no option to dumb down the mechanics so non-gamers can get the story without having to worry about attribute points, weapon loadouts and skill trees.
It may be little more than a glorified fan fiction, but it's a fan fiction written by true fans, and it fits in perfectly with the existing story. I'm not sure what Martin's official decree is on this particular subject, but I know I'm going to be thinking of Mors and Alester the next time I'm watching the show or reading one of the books. For me, their story has become canon.
Don't expect a happy ending. GoT pulls absolutely no punches. The protagonists are tortured, important characters are butchered and raped, and any mundane battle can end in one of several brutal execution animations. You'll even get to spend some time at Chataya's, the finest whorehouse in King's Landing.
Some technical issues aside (especially toward the end), it's a solid experience. It's just not for everyone. But if you revel in the brutality, self-deprecation and masochism of the series, then you will positively love this game. If you can get past the archaic mechanics, GoT can provide yet another way to steep yourself in the wonderful, dark world of A Song of Ice and Fire.
No doubt Maester Martin approves.