By Andrea Peterson
My first reaction to hearing the Game of Thrones RPG was being published by Atlus was enthusiasm, despite early warning signs. Atlus is best known for the Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series — and more recently the psychological to the point of bizarre horror platformer Catherine. But Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Persona 3 remain among my favorite games of all times, the latter marrying JRPG elements with a relationship building system that is best described as bordering on dating simulation. At first glance a publisher who specializes in JRPGs in contemporary settings might seem an odd choice to help bring the gritty medieval world of Westeros to videogames. But these games all share a common and strong linear narrative-focused game structures that gave me hope Atlus would guide Cyanide Studios into creating an experience worthy of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series (and the much-lauded HBO adaption). .
Atlus games’ emphasis on relationship development and pushing the envelope of using videogames as storytelling platforms about the good and evil in worlds where the line between reality and fantasy blur seemed a beautiful, if unexpected, fit for the intrigue-riddled saga of A Song of Fire and Ice. As another guest post on this blog noted, the strength of the Game of Thrones lies in the drama of the interactions between a rich set of characters with complex motivations, rather than on the battlefield in a hack-and-slash adventure.
Despite being set in a universe that shares more similarities with traditional western style settings of Skyrim and Dragon Age than most JRPGs, the intricate web of political alignments and betrayals that have already been set in proverbial stone as Game of Thrones canon seemed a prohibitive barrier to the more open concept exploration that define recent western RPGs. A game fleshing out stories in the extended universe of Westeros seemed a perfect stylistic companion to the rich personal narratives that so define the books and HBO series. JRPGs from the more traditional Final Fantasy to Atlus’ own Persona series tend rein in the sheer scope of settings and player options in favor of delving deeper into the quest at hand and character development, creating experiences defined by the story being told with combat as an important, but secondary, secondary aspect.
Unfortunately, the Game of Thrones RPG takes this tactic too far: The storyline is by far the highpoint, to the neglect of nearly all other aspects. The graphics feel dated, particularly compared to other recently released fantasy RPGs, and despite subtle strategy elements the combat is an exercise in repetition that left me at times wishing I could skip them a la Jennifer Hepler’s suggestion. This is especially true because the game follows parallel tales of a veteran of the Night’s Watch and a Red Priest returning to court after self-imposed exile and the way they cross pths with familiar faces from the HBO series. It would have been a satisfying standalone addition to Westeros lore if the gameplay and presentation weren’t so lackluster.
At the end of the day I became increasingly frustrated by the ways the game fell short of Atlus’s usual standards and Game of Thrones’ potential. It does provide a platform for more engaging stories set in the Seven Kingdoms, but the execution of the game play falls short of its clear ambitions. I still enjoyed playing the Game of Thrones RPG because of my affection for the source material, but it left me wishing it had another year to incubate so it could develop a combat system with more nuance and graphics matching the visual polish of the HBO series. Ironically, the incompleteness of the experience probably was tied to a marketing decision to push the game out in time with the end of this season of Game of Thrones. The game is not a definitive failure and while I know better than to expect every licensed game is going to be a Chronicles of Riddick, it’s still disappointing to see a collaboration and concept with such promise pushed to market prematurely.