Review: Game of Thrones

GameOfThrones

Last year HBO did what many fantasy geeks had dreamed of but assumed would likely never happen, which is to say the vast and varied world of the Game of Thrones book series was brought to life in a rich and lovingly detailed television show.  Bringing an epic fantasy novel to the small screen is no easy task, but the show managed to not only please fans of the books, but also drew in many viewers that had never heard of the Songs of Ice and Fire. The show legitimized being a geek in many ways.  

Now that the first season is out on Blu-ray and the second season finished up a few months ago, fans wanting more of the amazing world created by George R. R. Martin may be starving for something else to feast on while waiting for either season three to air or for the eventual sixth book to be published.  If a cat singing the opening theme to the HBO series doesn’t provide enough sustenance, then I would strongly suggest playing Cyanide Studio’s Game of Thrones video game adaptation.

Taking a cue from the novels, Game of Thrones takes place during the time frame of the first book and alternates between two characters that are original to the the universe.  The first character that you play is Mors Westford, who is a grizzled brother of the Night’s Watch, up in the wintry northern region of Westeros.  The second character that you play is a self-imposed exiled Lord of Riverspring, Alester Sarwyck, who has become a Red Priest and follower of R’hllor, a fire god from the Eastern Kingdoms.

The main story starts off with Mors receiving a request from the Hand of the King, Jon Arryn, to help find a woman that may be hiding up in the north.  Gameplay is a mixture of investigative conversations, hunting for clues in a particular area and a hybrid real-time combat system. Trying to investigate where this woman could be hiding leads Mors into situations that aren’t always resolved through conversations. That’s when swords do all the talking. 

Combat is mostly real-time action, but pressing R1 or L1 brings up a menu wheel which allows special moves to be queued up and assigned to various enemies.  While the menu wheel is active, combat continues in a slowed progression, and certain attacks can counter or stop an enemy’s action.

What makes the game fun is just how well-crafted the encounters are.  The investigation aspects are deep and conversations don’t feel like they can only end in one outcome.  Searching areas and finding clues feels organic as well, without turning into a spot-the-pixel object hunt.  Mors is a warg or shapeshifter which means he can control his dog, and during these moments of the game the camera shifts angles and the dog can sniff out the scent of a suspect or stealthily plan the best path to avoid combat when necessary.

True to the books, the game leaves you on a cliffhanger with one character and then switches chapters and goes to the other character.  While I found that to be a bit annoying at first, I realized that this is the same narrative device that George R. R. Martin uses and each new chapter is just as rich in story as the previous, so switching characters and storylines just added to the overall atmosphere and enjoyment of the game.

As the story continues alternating between Mors and Alester, the game reveals that they are actually working toward the same goal, only for different reasons. Mors is trying to find the girl to protect her while Alester is sent to bring her back to the Queen.  One aspect the game tends to lean on too much is the overarching theme of “the game of thrones.”  Sure, it is the title of the game and in the book, the title is appropriate because there are so many families vying to gain some form of favor or power, but within this micro-story told within the same time frame, neither character is necessarily positioning to become more powerful or to become the King.  I take issue with the need to repeat the same motif again and again even though it’s with different characters.

Aside from my minor quibble with the overuse of one theme (which isn’t just isolated to this game), the combat in the game can quickly overshadow any other problems I might take to task.  Combat feels good most of the time and using the time-slowing menu wheel can add a great level of strategy to each encounter.  That is until the battles include two or three archers and three or four foot solders who block your way from being able to take down the ranged attacks.  Archers typically have a quick fire rate and are deadly accurate, which, in conjunction with melee enemies that will stun or knock you down, makes it seem like the only thing you can do is just sit there and take a beating.

One other minor complaint I have is that the digital download version I played on the PS3 doesn’t include a manual.  Without having a manual to look at and refer to from time to time, the game only unlocks concepts in the in-game codex once they have been introduced during the natural progression.  I found myself about halfway through the game wondering if I should have tried a different class stance and different armor set from the get-go to help with some of the more difficult combat challenges.

Overall, this really is a wonderful game.  I became very invested with wanting to play and continue to scour every little nook and cranny for any additional clues and side quests.  The secondary quests are just as fulfilling as the main story and in some cases can actually be more enjoyable because they can be completed within a much shorter period of time.  I think that idea applies to any long form narrative video game these days though.

The one thing that was disappointing as a fan of the overall series is the fact that Jeor Mormont from the Night’s Watch makes an appearance, as does Queens Cersei, but the game’s plot fails to somehow include the most beloved character of the entire series.  Of course I am referring to Tyrion the Imp, who is everyone’s favorite scheming dwarf.

Aside from combat feeling unbalanced at times and the other minor issues I’ve mentioned, Game of Thrones successfully matches RPG elements, action and adventure with a narratively rich campaign that gaming fans of the Martin novels shouldn’t miss. It’s obvious that Cyanide Studio spent a lot of time and care in adding new and interesting characters to an already fascinating world.  While there currently are no new Game of Thrones episodes airing on HBO and no new book forthcoming, this game satisfies with wonderful characters and plenty of twists.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Two new characters whose stories fit nicely into the overall Songs of Ice and Fire narrative
+ Good mix of combat gameplay and adventure storytelling
+ Secondary quests are as rich as the main storyline

Cons:
- Combat can be unbalanced and frustrating
- Load times can be long even when installed directly to a hard drive
- No cameo by Tyrion

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for PC and Xbox 360
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Cyanide Studios
Release Date: 5/15/2012
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.