I got restless after waiting three months with little to do in Star Wars: The Old Republic since the launch of the expansion, Knights of the Fallen Empire. Initially, the idea of continuing its story through monthly episodes seemed compelling. The first of those episodes, Chapter X: Anarchy In Paradise, came out this week, and it unfortunately wasn’t worth the wait.
Last month I wrote here on Kotaku that 2016 would be a crucial year for the game. Having played since launch in 2011, I felt that Knights of the Fallen Empire was a big step forward. Even so, devoted players like me were skeptical about this episodic scheme Bioware is enacting to continue the story of the expansion. The narrative set-up was solid: a previously unknown Eternal Empire is flexing its muscles against both the Republic and Sith Empire. But it was clearly a subscriber retention gambit. See, the Knights of the Fallen Empire and subsequent episodes are for subscribers only, and when you subscribe you get every episode already released. So you can pay $15 every month to get the episodes as they’re released, or you can wait until August and get the full package by paying $15 once. If you subscribe throughout, you get an extra chapter revolving around HK-55.
Being well aware of the economics of the situation, hardcore players have become antsy in the three-month content drought between the expansion and this first episode. Bioware had to start this off right if they wanted to satisfy folks who have been looking for an excuse to unsubscribe. Chapter X needed to be great.
But it’s not. Judging by what we got this week with Chapter X, they were right to be worried.
When the main story of Knights of the Fallen Empire left off in November players’ characters had established a resistance of sorts against the Eternal Empire that is made up on veterans from both the Sith Empire and Republic. In the interval we recruited new allies in the form of old companion characters from the various class stories. We took down some “Star Fortresses” that were subjugating a number of worlds.
Chapter X, awkwardly, is just another recruitment mission. This time we’re going after Kaliyo Djannis, a companion for the Imperial Agent class who had been operating as a violent anarchist on Zakuul, seat of the Eternal Empire, and...that’s the whole plot. Fly to Zakuul, meet up with Kaliyo, help her with a thing she’s trying to do, go home. It’s not a bad story being told here, but it’s also not a good package all together.
For the bulk of the chapter you’ll walk around the capital undercity clicking on a bunch of identical power junctions that are scattered around (standard MMO busywork quest), fighting lots of enemies that the game forces you to deal with, rinse, repeat. Unlike the previous chapters, Kaliyo doesn’t talk to you as you’re walking around, a silence that is strongly felt as you grind through the world map.
It’s just a shockingly dull and insubstantial way to spend 90 minutes. It’s not until the end that anything eventful happens. You are offered a moral choice that weirdly echoes and improves upon a choice from Chapter III. It is a choice that delivers on Bioware’s promise of your decisions having significant consequences, at least, but that doesn’t make up for the 80 minutes of monotony that came before or the inescapable feeling that not nearly enough happened to move the story forward.
I couldn’t tell you conclusively if this chunk of the KOTFE story has more gameplay padding, more obligatory fights with trash enemies, than the portions of the story released last year or the rest of SWTOR in general. It is true that the previous KOTFE chapters did involve a lot of very linear dungeon crawling, just as Chapter X does.
It’s normal for video games to feature a lot of gameplay padding. Economy of storytelling is not exactly a strength of the medium. In a normal story-focused game, where the whole thing is released at once, we take that for granted, because we’re always moving forward. In the moment, we look past it. When we reflect back on the experience at the end we focus more on where we went rather than how we got there. When you look back over a 10- or 20-hour experience you’ll probably only remember the important stuff. When you look back on a 90-minute experience, you remember most of it.
And in this case, most of it is not very interesting. It’s a very thin 90 minutes, with a story that could easily has been told in under half the time. We waited three months for this story to continue, and we have to wait a month for the next episode. It’s extremely difficult not to look back on this chapter and think, “that’s it?”
Aside from the new chapter, we also got one new recruitment mission that is, thankfully, more creative and entertaining than the previous ones. In addition subscribers who qualified for the revival of the recently deceased HK-55 will get a hilarious vignette with him after he’s fixed up by Dr. Oggurobb the Hutt. It’s a shame they locked that behind subscriber reward nonsense, because it’s so good—and HK is so beloved—that it might salvage some goodwill from disgruntled players. A lot of folks are going to miss out because of finicky business practices from EA.
After playing Chapter X, it’s difficult to see sufficient value in taking Knights of the Fallen Empire piece by piece. I imagine as part of the whole Knights of the Fallen Empire experience, Chapter X would be much improved. But by itself, it doesn’t work. It’s akin to starting up Mass Effect 2, getting to the point where you start recruiting team members, and then only being allowed to play one per month. If we were talking about a TV show, Chapter X would be an example of what we refer to as “wheel spinning”, where the overall arc grinds to a stop as the focus temporarily moves to something uneventful that isn’t worth the time devoted to it.
The future does promise more stuff with future episodes, at least. In March, we get Chapter XI: Disavowed, which, tantalizingly, will bring the return of the Republic’s Havoc squad from the Trooper class storyline in the base game. Producer Ben Irving talked about Chapter XI a bit on Thursday in this month’s producer livestream on Twitch and pretty convincingly made it sound a lot more appealing than Chapter X:
“The premise of the chapter is you venture deep into enemy territory and you can change the course of the war on the Eternal Throne,” Irving said. “Toward the end of this chapter you will discover something that absolutely changes how you fight the Eternal Throne and really sets up the remaining chapters of the season.”
That description sounds much better than Chapter X, and almost makes it seem worse for not, you know, being the chapter that “really sets up the remaining chapters.” The way he describes Chapter XI is the way we should be describing Chapter X. On the other hand, Chapter X being what it is makes me worry that Chapter XI won’t quite live up to that description. That said, this one episode being lackluster is hardly a pattern.
But at least we do know at least the next couple chapters will have more stuff, in the form of additional recruitment missions and a PvE arena called the Eternal Championship with Chapter Xi and a new PvP warzone with Chapter XII in April. It’s hard to know right now if having those extras will provide a meaningful boost, though almost certainly both PvE and PvP players will be irritated that resources are being devoted toward types of content they don’t care about. But that can’t be helped.
I’m not gonna sit here and claim I have faith that episodic storytelling in SWTOR is somehow going to turn out to be a good idea given the evidence at hand. Right now it feels like Bioware and EA took the wrong path. They’ve got a lot of work to do to prove me and an increasingly restless fanbase wrong.
Phil Owen is a Los Angeles-based freelance entertainment journalist and critic, and author of WTF Is Wrong With Video Games. You can tweet at him at @philrowen.