Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords is a horror story. What happens when the Force no longer favors you? Can you survive when you walk away from being the chosen one? KotOR 2 shows you the dead, unbeating heart of an endlessly vast and uncaring galaxy. Instead of fully committing itself to space-western fantasy like its BioWare-made predecessor, KotOR 2 is a razor-sharp interrogation of whether the Star Wars universe needs to exist at all. It withholds the gentle nostalgia evoked by the most recent Legos Star Wars game, and I respect it for demanding my skepticism of its narrative.
First released in 2004, KotOR 2 only had a year of development time, which resulted in a ton of cut content and technical issues compared to its relatively stable predecessor. Back when I played the PC version, you had to install a content restoration mod just to view a ton of plot-critical cutscenes. So it’s hard to get too mad about Aspyr’s just-released Nintendo Switch port for being a buggy mess.
I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the Switch port will randomly crash for no apparent reason, or loop a scene repeatedly until I give up and reset the game in hopes it won’t loop next time. Such problems would give plenty of cause to walk away from most Switch games, but as a seasoned KotOR 2 player I’ve come to expect these bugs as the cost of admission to Obsidian’s obtuse, messy, and broken galaxy. Even so, it feels a bit egregious that it took two weeks for Aspyr to fix a game-breaking bug that prevented players from being able to even complete the game.
I discovered the Switch port’s best feature by accident: By pressing the left movement stick twice, you can bring up the cheats menu. Here, you can manually add skills, replicate items, jump to certain cutscenes, or zoom around in the free camera view. I found that this was an excellent compromise between staying faithful to the original game and trying to offer a less frustratingly buggy experience.
The free camera is by far one of my favorite features: I explored the entirety of Onderon’s royal palace and found that the entire level was hovering in midair. Some games are content to merely poke fun at themselves. The Switch port of KotOR 2 fully owns up to its warts, and invites you to explore them at your leisure. Aspyr’s port also restores certain story scenes that were cut from the original, but it was hard for me to remember which ones they were, since I always played the PC version with the content restoration mod.
The Switch port crashes less frequently than the PC version, but you’re not playing this game to experience technical excellence, or to monotonously traverse its sparsely populated environments. You’re playing it because KotOR 2’s cynical, questioning perspective of the galaxy is what we need in an era when all our institutions are falling apart.
BioWare’s original KotOR has a former Sith Lord save the Republic after initially conspiring to destroy it. In Obsidian’s sequel, a Jedi “Exile” excavates the remnants of a failed war, a failed government, and a failed spiritual philosophy. KotOR 2 is much less encouraging about saving the Republic. Crucially, it does not ask you to feel any loyalty toward the galactic federation or the Jedi Order. What do you owe a government that turned you into a weapon? Absolutely nothing. But you can take up your laser sword for your own sake, and you can teach others to do the same.
The game excels by telling multiple stories from the past and the present at once. The best example of this is the Peragus tutorial level, in which the player escapes from a mining facility. An assassin trapped me on the asteroid belt, forcing me to piece together video recordings to learn about his other, murdered victims and potential escape routes; all of that was part of a larger plot orchestrated by a droid’s attempts to “fix” the broken Republic. When I was investigating the ruins of the Sith planet of Korriban, I wasn’t just trying to find a Jedi master in hiding, but also relitigating the protagonist’s role in the brutal Mandalorian Wars, which took place before the KotOR series even began. And I felt terror when I went to investigate some strange signals on the smuggler’s moon of Nar Shadaa, only to find, upon returning, the severed limb of my questgiver. There were no clean answers, except for the ones that I inferred from context clues.
Like any good horror game, KotOR 2 thrives on making you feel isolated and uncomfortable. Unfortunately, not every instance of philosophical inquiry sticks the landing. One such misstep occurred when I decided to give money to a beggar on Nar Shaddaa. Instead of responding like a normal person, your mentor says that you’ve weakened him by showing charity. This by itself would have been fine, except the game then showed me a vision of the man being beaten up for his loose change. I laughed at the scene, which came off more hamfisted than thoughtful. KotOR 2 can feel radical and liberating, but those moments coexist with ones like Nar Shaddaa’s, in which the game reproduces the cold, conservative logic of a dying empire.
KotOR 2 isn’t a happy RPG in which everything can be resolved by the power of friendship. The characters reproduce the broken logic of a galaxy that has utterly failed them, and the game is ruthless about letting them fall. Years later, female developers alleged that lead writer and designer Chris Avellone had committed sexual misconduct while he worked at Obsidian, to which he responded by suing them for libel. Avellone was not the only writer on the team, but it was nevertheless difficult for me to separate the art from KotOR 2’s lead designer. The game portrays the galaxy in shades of gray, which made the game feel liberating to play as a troubled college student. Now, as a more experienced adult, I’m far more critical of how KotOR 2 represents moral ambiguity, which can often be weaponized to serve men in power.
Nevertheless, the game always hits hard emotionally in a way that no other Star Wars media ever has. My favorite moment occurs near the end, when your protagonist finally meets the Jedi masters who had exiled them from the order. The background music completely fades when the Exile’s mentors explain why they lost their connection to the Force, but it resumes triumphantly when they start condemning their student’s existence as a danger to the galaxy.
“You were blinded,” accuses the master. In response, the camera abruptly cuts to the Sith Lord Traya, who’s been lurking nearby: “And at last, you saw.” Though these lines aren’t as flowery as most of the script’s, the dramatic irony of the execution lands hard and makes this long-anticipated Dantooine encounter the most memorable scene in the game.
While KotOR 2 almost never takes a specific stance on the extreme perspectives of its traumatized cast, the cinematic techniques it deploys on Dantooine make it clear that the Jedi’s teachings about detaching themselves from worldly concerns are wrong. But the Jedi masters hit the mark with one of their accusations—by slaughtering hundreds of faceless enemies and soaking up all the experience points, your character has indeed become the deadliest, most unaccountable rogue in the galaxy. I admired that KotOR 2 not only acknowledges that RPG mechanic in-game, but is willing to let a character willing to speak to why BioWare protagonists are, on the whole, bad for the galaxy.
Despite your Jedi Exile being the most proficient of killers, KotOR 2 is also able to take away their agency by having their mentor manipulate events from behind the scenes. The Switch port retains the scenes in which Darth Traya forcibly manipulates several characters to aid in the protagonist’s quest, all without their knowledge. Traya’s hatred for the Force stems from how the mystical phenomenon actively manipulated history, and yet she regularly uses it to dominate others. Watching her blackmail my friends while the Exile was out of earshot felt horrific.
Yet I also loved that these events fell entirely out of the protagonist’s knowledge or control. In BioWare games the player is typically all-powerful. Given enough time, the “chosen one” protags always become privy to the world’s darkest, most gruesome secrets. But in KotOR 2, your forlorn Exile lacks the galaxy’s mandate. When you’re truly an everyman, you’re subject to being controlled by systems and people more powerful than you. It was fascinating to be privy to information about the Exile that was completely separate from the protagonist’s own awareness. KotOR 2 is a sequel to BioWare’s critically acclaimed Star Wars game, but subverts that studio’s protagonist-centric approach to storytelling. There are some secrets that the Jedi Exile will never find out, and that’s not an injustice. That’s just the reality of life.
Near the end of the game, I had a private conversation with one of my party members, Disciple. He was a former Jedi trainee who metaphorically worshiped the Exile. My character opened up about how guilty they felt about leading others into a galactic space war, and expressed doubts as to whether the party members had followed of their own free will. Disciple didn’t wholly convince me that he was totally unaffected by the Exile’s Force sensitivity, but in 2004 it felt transgressive for KotOR 2 to interrogate the ethics of RPG protagonism. It still feels relevant in 2022, when even the most ambitious, story-rich games can’t seem to avoid centering themselves around the player. What a very important person they must be.