Review: Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones: The Role-Playing game is hardly going to set the world on fire, but it's a good if rough-around-the-edges game with a quite excellent story to tell.  If you can get past uneven production values and shallow mechanics, there's quite an interesting tale to be woven here, and the cinematography of shots and angles in the scenes is a standout.  Some interesting combat mechanics and an atmospheric soundtrack help elevate it from merely mediocre in my opinion, but if you wanted to self-insert you own characters into the universe of Game of Thrones as I did, this one will disappoint.  If that and some rough edges don't turn you off, I'd say it's definitely worth a look.
Review: Game of Thrones
Date published: May 23, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Editor's Note: Maiyannah's copy of Game of Thrones: The Roleplaying game was provided free of charge as a gift by a reader.

Game of Thrones: The Role-Playing Game is, as the title implies, a role-playing game set in the third-person developed by Cyanide Games and published by Focus Home Interactive.  You know, I'm quickly becoming rather fond of Focus Home Interactive as far as mid-tier publishers go.  They've not had some sort of AAA-quality breakout game, but they've pretty consistently published some pretty decent games.  Today's offering comes to us by way of the development studio Cyanide Games and the storied Game of Thrones franchise.  Tie-in games have a storied history of being fairly terrible, with a few exceptions, but this one isn't all that bad at all.  Rough around the edges, certainly, and showing the strain of a studio trying to produce a very ambitious type of game indeed, but they pull off what is a decent game, with an excellent story attached.

Let me just get one thing out of the way before we start: While I have read the books, and am particularly a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, I have only seen a few episodes of the TV series, so I couldn't really speak as to whether it's particularly close to the HBO series.  To avoid confusion, I'm going to avoid commenting on the source material, since one might mistake it for commentary on the TV series.

If the first bite you take is with the eye,
then Game of Thrones starts as it means to go on, really

Perhaps this is giving the review away and tipping my hand a wee early - as if the summary had not already done so - but I find Game of Thrones to be a very mixed bag, and nowhere is this best encapsulated than in the art design.  This is a brilliantly designed game, the clothing seems period-accurate, the universe seems realistic while still having a element of the fantastical, and there isn't anything that really stands out as an ineffective or ridiculous design, something even the Jackson's Lord of the Rings couldn't rightly claim.  There is a lot of attention lavished on the models of the main characters, and the world in general.

HEMA-inspired aside: While I know this game is hardly shooting for historical accuracy, it's kind of puzzling to see a game that does accuracy so well stumble in some kind of obvious ways.  The weapons are all realistic seeming and the fighting styles employed are embellished for game purposes but believable.  And yet there were all these ridiculous armour straps, and once I noticed one I started seeing them everywhere.  Game designers: please realise that if the means of dismantling your armour is not only exposed but readily available to enemy strikes, you're not going to be clad in it for very long. Right, that off my chest...

It is for the reason of that care which makes the models that clearly didn't have as much attention placed on them stand out.  The main thing here is textures, but it's a huge thing - some of the textures are finely-crafted complete with dirt and grime and the minute details of the material, whereas others are much lower resolution.  Nothing stands out more than the one wall in pixellated blocky texture amidst much more detailed textures.  It's very hit or miss in that regard, and is bad enough to make geometry painfully obvious in some levels.

The soundtrack is a very shining spot in that art direction though - understated and subtle when it needs to be, dramatic and compelling when the action comes, and it was quite nice.  Perhaps not one I'd buy and listen to outside the game, but it compliments the game quite well and helps instil dramatic tension.  The sound design is similarly a strength, with environmental audio being atmospheric and some obvious careful attention being paid to the accurate sound of moving in armour or swords striking.  I rather like the obvious attention to fine detailing the developers had in the art design, all things told, I just wish the texture assets were stronger.

A branching story is quite compellingly told,
and that really is what elevates Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones has a refreshingly different approach to it's RPG siblings, putting you in two pairs of boots through interleaving paths: the exiled son of a noble Lord, Alester, and the Night's Watch ranger Mors.  Both have their own original story to tell, and the way the game tells both is somewhat of a testaement to the artistic direction of the game that it's told with as neat and effective cinematography - as much as told by what isn't shown in some scenes than others, and there's cues you might not pick up if you aren't paying attention.  I don't want to get into too much depth, since this is an original story.  Let's just put it this way, it's billed in the promotional material for the game that it was done with Martin's oversight ... and it shows.  This feels like a Game of Thrones game, and the quality and style of writing you'd expect are there.

In spades.

It's the sacrifice made for it, not being able to self-insert or create your own character otherwise, and while that may turn off some, I found myself more than willing to pay that price for the quality of the story on offer here.

The voice acting here is patchy in places, but never terrible, and I was particularly impressed by Colin Solman in his role as Mors, who manages to communicate the character quite well through the acting, even if the character himself is somewhat stoic.  It's refreshing to have a video game with pretty decent voice acting, but it gets marred a little in post.  By way of example, some of the aforementioned actor's lines get run together, or slightly cut off at the end in noticeable ways.  I was more than willing to overlook it, however, since the acting is decently well-done and the poor cuts are exception, not the rule by any means.

The mechanics are somewhat different,
but rather interesting a take on combat that I rather enjoyed

As you might imagine in a world such as the one painted for us in Game of Thrones, combat is much of the meat of the game, and it offers a fairly unique sort of combination of real-time and turn-based combat.  Essentially, you have a health, and an energy bar.  The energy bar is used to do your special skill attacks, of which you can queue up to three at a time, and each has a certain execution time involved.  It allows for a tactical combat without slowing things down like Dragon Age did, and the one mechanic I really liked was the idea of needing different weapon types for different types of armour - a cutting weapon does much less damage to someone in armour, for example.  It gets a bit "rock paper scissors" like places, but I quite rather liked it, and it was a very interesting way to add depth to combat as well as realism.

Other than that, the chief aspect of the combat mechanics is stacking status ailments on an enemy and positioning yourself to take advantage of them, so it is rather akin to Guild Wars in that way.  You essentially "combo" certain skills with certain status ailments for critical effect, so the combat becomes a race to whom can get there first, and additionally consideration for best defending yourself from your enemy's such combination, a balancing act if you will, and something it does rather well.  I quite enjoyed it, the problem is the depth. 

The biggest design flaw in Game of Thrones is that
the mechanics lose steam midway through the game

Game of Thrones boasts a fairly standard skillset-based progression for the two protagonists of the game, essentially breaking down to one skillset containing unique skills to that protagonist, and the other being class skills from the class you chose at the first instance of coming to control that protagonist.  It's pretty fine and solid as noted above, with none of the skills seeming unbalanced, and all of them seeming to have their place, but the game doesn't have enough depth in those skill trees to last its stay, and you'll have gotten pretty much everything of use to your particular style by about the mid-point of the game.  So if the story hasn't gripped you by them, or you're just a much more mechanically-minded gamer, then you will probably find the game quite lacking in that respect, since it is so combat-heavy, and understandably so.

The progression is largely bog standard, even then, but I did like the idea of the character traits accumulating based on decisions.  You'd gain strengths and weaknesses for your character based on good or poor performances, as well as certain plot decisions, and it helps flesh out the character into their own along the way.  Other than that, however, the progression is mostly forgettable, a functional thing that works but has no particular shining points or glaring flaws.

Flaws abound in the somewhat-dated engine

The game is built on Unreal Engine 3, if the unchanged title on the window it creates is any indication, and it shows the it's on a pretty early version of Unreal Engine 3.  I have some suspicion that this is the reason for the somewhat lacking texture fidelity in places, not that it excuses it since the game is fairly recent and something like Frostbyte even, isn't as bad.  They haven't done much with the engine other than ensure it's stability, though one appreciates that much at least  - the game was solid the whole way through and without bugs.

The texture quality issues and popin in general was noticeable though, and there aren't any real options to change or fiddle with this in the slightest: just a gamma slider, screen resolution, a windowed mode, a "game quality" selector (whatever that means, seemed to refer to model mesh fidelity), and a texture quality option.  That's it that's all, and I know from development experience there's much more you can offer for options in said engine.  It runs on pretty much a potato from what I saw in brief experimentation, so it wasn't a huge concern, but still, there's more that could have been done here.

The Final Word - Recommended: To me, Game of Thrones is a rough gem.  It could be much better cut and polished to make it into a peerless masterpiece, but even what we have here remains a gem.  It is, at it’s very core, an excellent story well-told, with only the uneven production and lack of depth in the mechanics to bog it down.  Given some more tender care this could have been a classic, but as is, one seems to have settled for merely 'pretty good.'