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Review: Knights of the Eternal Throne

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So I finally got around to trying out the latest “expansion” from BioWare Austin’s Star Wars: The Old Republic.  And I’m sure you can tell from the use of those sarcastic quotation marks that I may have had some issues with the expansion and I will get to that.  First off, I just want to say that this is a review of strictly the “chapters” portion of the expansion.  I don’t do uprisings and I don’t do endgame. I have other MMOs for those.  So you won’t find an in-depth critique of the Eternal Command system or the new Uprisings content because quite frankly, I don’t bother with them.  All I will say about the Eternal Command system is that I’m not sure borrowing – of all things – Overwatch’s systems lock-stock-and-barrel is maybe a good solution for a MMORPG.  Just a thought. Heck if I know.

The Not Expansion

First of all, this isn’t an expansion.  Oh they’ll advertise it that way. And it ups the level cap.  But it’s not an expansion. Not in the traditional sense, and not in the way that SWTOR has offered expansions before.  Until KOTET, each expansion has been a self contained story.  Nothing in Shadows of Revan was connected to the events of Rise of the Hutt Cartel.  With KOTFE they actually sold you the ability to skip the prologue and first 5 chapters of any story and go straight to the new stuff it was so minimally related.  But KOTET isn’t like that.  This isn’t an expansion on SWTOR’s story.  This is the last half of KOTFE.  There is no reason this should have been even been marketed as a separate entity. From the moment it starts, to the moment it ends, it is unquestionable Chapters 17-25 of Knights of the Fallen Empire’s story.  Most of it only makes sense if you played through Knights of the Fallen Empire.  Because of that, I cannot recommend that you use your freshly rebranded “Outlander Token” to boost to 65.  It just doesn’t make sense to me that you would skip all the decisions and story of this first half.  Not worth it.

I guess I can’t complain too much.  It’s not like they charged you extra for KOTET. It just seems weird to me that this wasn’t just released as KotFE Chapters 17-25 instead of KOTET Chapters 1-9.

The Actual Story

BioWare Austin wasn’t pulling any punches after the barrage of complaints that followed the monthly chapters and most importantly the conclusion of Fallen Empire.  For the actual conclusion of the story they brought back Drew Karpyshyn, the writer that worked on Mass Effect 1 & 2 as well as the original SWTOR, from semi-retirement back in 2012 (he wrote novels). However because of this, more so than any expansion material before it, KOTET feels like an active part of the The Old Republic universe.

For instance, the opening chapter places you on Voss where you find Senya trying to heal Arcann while the newly… bathtowel turban-ed Vaylin is firebombing the planet to ash.  Right away your getting Valkorian making references to your class story, you get Senya utilizing Voss healing techniques including the life force draining one that appeared in the Sith Warrior Class Story.  Not to mention you actually get a slightly different series of quest objectives depending on your conversation choices and not just altered dialogue.  The first chapter is also the first time – but far from the last time – you can kill someone permanently this expansion.  In fact, you can kill at least five different characters.  One of which is unavoidable as Drew decided to draw on some of his Mass Effect background and presents you with the Virmire choice once again.  Choose who lives and choose who dies.  Even the most light sided person will have to face the Virmire choice.  Does this make sense?  Not really.  Since at the time and place in Mass Effect, you literally could only reach one or the other and here…  well, it happens on Odessan.  The Base of Operations for the Alliance.  That means you have theoretical access to your entire army right now.  But the choice is presented as NO ONE BUT YOU can fend off a half dozen Skytroopers to save one of them.  It stretches the believability when you can’t send troops to back up the other party. Or you know, send one of your 1-3 Jedi/Sith Alliance companions to go help them.  Thanks for the help Arcann & Senya, could ONE of you stop following me around to go help the other person?

Beyond that there’s some actual variety in the chapters.  For instance, one chapter features an elaborate puzzle as you Ocean’s Eleven your way into an extravagant Zakuul party.  You actually go back to Dromund Kaas to find out what has happened to the Sith Empire and get into a power struggle with a former chancellor of the Republic.  There’s also two new worlds but they are only featured for a single chapter each.  Ioketh is a machine planet where all super-technology comes from (The Eternal Fleet, The Gravestone, The Geminis, AND Scorpio) and the other is Nathema which is where Vaylin was imprisoned in a “sanitarium” and is also implied to be the original home world of Valkorian/Sith Emperor/Tenebrae that he apocalypsed to become immortal.  Nathema is pretty uninteresting visually. It’s a red/brown Ziost post-destruction. Ioketh is kinda cool looking and has a lot of potential for future expansion hopefully.

The whole thing ends with a fairly predictable twist.  I won’t reveal it for those who haven’t seen it yet, but it doesn’t exactly come as a shocker.  Though I will say that I think it’s impressive that in an MMO that the devs would let you – the player – do something so radical and situation changing as ‘Claim the Throne’.  Which you can.  You absolutely can.  It does deliver on that.

Choices That Matter

One of the repeated advertising phrases that Bioware Austin likes to use is that “This time your choices matter”.  Now how effective that has been has been up for debate since the games launch five years ago, but it was a major argument thrown back in the developers faces after the ending of Knights of the Fallen Empire when – despite having the ability to choose ‘Kill Arcann’ several times – Arcann always escaped.  I can happily say that the issue of people not dying when you choose to kill them has been rectified.  You can actually kill quite a few people: Senya, Arcann, Koth, and Scorpio.  Some characters will die no matter one, such as Vaylin and whoever you don’t choose in the aforementioned poorly handled ‘Virmire Choice’.

Sadly, while these choices do have consequences that play out to their fruition, all it usually results in is ‘less story’.  Cutscenes get skipped over, or another character fills the same role with nearly the same dialogue.  Heck, Scorpio’s death comes right at the point where she was about the leave the story permanently anyway so the result is the same except hey you killed her.  There is one however that gives you a different mission entirely if you choose it and that’s how you choose to deal with Senya when she reenters the story.  It not only affects how the next section of the chapter plays out game-wise but also affects things several chapters down the line when it comes time to deal with Arcann.  It actually changes the outcome depending on your choice, and not just swapping out actors for lines like stunt doubles.

Of course, how satisfied you’ll be depends entirely on what you expect from ‘choices that matter’.  If all you want is a level of recognition that a choice was made, this expansion has you covered in spades.  If you were hoping for something a bit more impactful, then you’ll find satisfying choices few and far between.

A Visual Experience

With the new expansion all comes with an assortment of visual upgrades to the game to make things all pretty.  I won’t lie, I was blown away just seeing my character on the selection screen when I first installed the expansion.  The way the game handles shadows and lights now adds a ton of more visceral detail to the game and especially to the cutscenes.  However, some of the updates to the character models seem kind of off too.  Like Senya and Lana especially.  Like their character model was upgraded, but the animations weren’t ever revisited for the new models, leading to weird issues with facial expressions that cause Lana’s eyelashes to clip through her head and Senya to look like a kabuki mask.  Overall though, the graphical improvements were very welcome.

Dramatis Personae

So, big new expansion. New story.  Bet there’s a bunch of new characters to enjoy, right?  Maybe like a snarky half-robot ewok or something?  Yeah, no.  As I said earlier, this is pretty much the last half of Knights of the Fallen Empire and it is pretty much determined to wrapping up all the storylines from that.  As such, your main cast of this expansion is as follows: You, Lana, Theron, Valkorian, Vette, Theron, Scorpio, and the Eternal Pain in the Rear Family (Senya, Vaylin, Arcann, Valkorian).  Heck, Gault, Aric and Kaliyo only get minor lines in a few spots and are otherwise reduced to screen filler.  So not even everyone from KotFE is involved in the plot.  The only new characters we get are one-chapter one-shot villains like Scorpio’s rival Aries and the Sanitarium’s lead…  well, I have a hard time calling him a Doctor given the things he does.  We also meet Lord Dathemar at one point.  He was Valkorian/Vitiate/Tenebrae’s father a long time ago and whose soul is now trapped in a box.

As for how the characters are portrayed?  Well, Vaylin is pretty much the stereotypical ‘mad person with unlimited power’ complete with classic catchphrases like “Burn the planet to ashes, then bring them to me. I want them for my garden.”  Just imagine Vaylin in the original KotFE but turned up to 11.  Arcann’s personality is really different depending on whether you try to heal him or not.  I’ll be the first to say that hearing THAT voice try to give this zen-like Jedi sentiments is wholly disturbing to me though.  If you don’t heal him, he’s pretty much the same as he was before.  Valkorian FINALLY gets his crap together and figures out what he’s been plotting.  I mean, it all fits. Sure.  In fact, a lot of people probably called it back at the start of KotFE. It’s not hard to guess.  He continues to play the shrewd manipulator, even when it flat out doesn’t work (Like trying to convince you that Lana and Theron will try to steal the Eternal Throne right before you get to the throne room).

Scorpio’s motivation on the other hand is all over the place and constantly changing it seems.  In KotFE she wanted to give the Gemini units freedom. So she did. They can do anything now.  That one chose the stars.  The rest it seemed were perfectly content to continue working for Vaylin.  Then she wants to help Vaylin rise above her station because she too has served ‘lesser creatures’. Okay.  Then they hijack the Gravestone for some reason and Scorpio learns about Iokath.  Her motivation is to now learn about where she came from and forces the Gravestone and all the Gemini units to come with (Freedom!) Then on Iokath she reveals that her motivation all along was to kill Aries and usurp his place as essentially the MCP from Tron of Iokath?  So, nothing to do with the Geminis or the Gravestone or Vaylin.  Right, whatever C-Scorp-30. Go live in your tin can.

Finally, the last noteworthy character to talk about (since the others don’t really change or develop much at all) is Koth.  I don’t think Bioware Austin wanted you to keep Koth.  I think if their writers had their way he would have jumped ship and stolen the Gravestone no matter what back in KotFE.  Why do I think that?  Well, because until your chance to re-recruit/kill him, his appearances only make sense when he’s not on your side.  “OMG! It’s Koth!” Lana says as the Gravestone appears over Voss.  Now does that reaction make more sense if A) Koth had taken the ship and ditched you OR B) He was still working with you and was just arriving as expected with your flagship.  When Arcann runs away, you ask Koth to stop him.  His reply when he’s not on your side is “I’m here to save people, not clean up your messes.” versus “Oh no! I can’t commander. I’ve taken some damage and must now leave unexpectedly!”  Heck, even Vaylin and Scorpio hijacking the Gravestone makes more sense since they do it when Koth is out cruising in the yoda damned Gravestone looking for people to help out which would make ZERO sense if he was still working with the Alliance.  Since I’m pretty sure no one would let Koth take the ONLY SHIP CAPABLE OF FIGHTING THE ETERNAL FLEET joyriding.

Mechanical Malfunction

I know I wasn’t going to talk about the Eternal Command, but I figure you should know if you were looking to see if the expansion was worth it for you.

This idea is dumb.  The Eternal Command is a brand new way to replay the exact same content over and over again.  Just like they tried to do with Heroic Missions in KotFE, and the Dark vs Light event.  This is them stretching out the existing content as long as possible.  In essence, once you hit Level 70, you start gaining CXP or Command Experience.  You get this from doing everything and anything: repeating chapters, heroic missions, flashpoints, operations, warzones, starfighter and the new Uprisings (Shorter, less story filled, action intense Flashpoints for 4 players of any specialization).  In other words, out of all the ways to earn CXP, the only one that isn’t repeating pre-existing content are the Uprisings.

When you gain a new ‘level’ of Command Experience, you get a loot box.  The loot box has three random items in it.  It can be gear (which can further be broken down into ‘Empty shells’, ‘Static Stats’, and ‘Fully Modded’ variations) or companion gifts.  There’s no way to know for certain what you’ll get which ensures a nice long grind.  From my own observations, purely anecdotal mind you, I averaged 1 empty shell gear piece, 1 static stats gear piece and 1 companion gift in the small offering of crates I earned from just leveling through the story.

I think you can see where I got the earlier Overwatch comparison.  Grind out a bar, get a box of random stuff, and then do it again and again and again.  Except this isn’t just skins or emotes.  This is THE method of endgame gearing in KotET. It’s a bit understandable why some people are a bit upset about this I think.

Final Judgement

So is it worth the one month sub to get access to all 9 chapters?  Sure.  I can think of worse things to do with $15 bucks.  It’s not perfect by any means, and I miss not getting old companions back – especially ones like Kira or Scourge who really should be there for the showdown with the Emperor – but it’s always a really satisfying conclusion to the story started in Knights of the Fallen Empire.  Just be aware that this isn’t a standalone expansion like I said.  Beyond that, a lot of the issues with the writing come down to probably the struggles of trying to tell a Bioware-style story in a MMO setting.  Heck, the ending of this expansion throws expectations out the window.  You can be the Emperor.  Of the galaxy.  Hot damn.  I wonder where they’ll go from there.  Because they do sequel-bait during the credits that both the Sith Empire and Republic and getting ready to start sith again and the Scions send you an ominous message about you fulfilling the prophecy but your darkest hour is yet to come (which makes me think… Unicron?)

If this were a full $40 expansion or something I would definitely say it’s only for those who really enjoyed the Fallen Empire story because it’s really more of the same but with the ability to actually kill people this time.  But for $15?  If you dig SWTOR and you don’t like mind how the stories are told in it? Go for it.  Flaws and all, it’s worth $15 bucks.

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