If you ask a bunch of folks which Star Wars video game is the best, more often than not you'll be told Knights of the Old Republic. The first one, not the second, of course. I disagree.
The first Knights of the Old Republic, developed by the acclaimed BioWare studio and released in 2003, feels like a rollicking blast of a Star Wars adventure. That's because it really is prototypical Star Wars.
Obsidian's Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords, on the other hand, is the evil twin from an alternate universe. It's not light or rollicking. It's ponderous and moody. KOTOR 2 is a deconstruction of Star Wars, rather than an attempt to emulate its most popular traits.
Star Wars is escapism. It's a space fantasy, rather than science fiction, and more often than not it attempts to paint a picture of a world that is easy to understand and feel comfortable with. That black-and-white portrait is a demonstration of how we wished our world would be, with good and evil and a clear dividing line between them. KOTOR 2 collapses that construct, humanizing evil and obscuring that dividing line. Whereas KOTOR 1 provides surface-level enjoyment, KOTOR 2 goes deep enough to be intellectually stimulating
The difference between the two games is apparent in their basic premises. KOTOR 1 is about a galactic war you're trying to end, and KOTOR 2 doesn't even have a war. In KOTOR 1 you're running around the galaxy as a Jedi and representative of the Republic, and in KOTOR 2 nobody knows you nor cares about what you're doing. KOTOR 1 is fun and simple and earnest, and KOTOR 2 is heady and heavy and noir-ish.
Unfortunately, KOTOR 2 is the obscured younger sibling of the series. It's not necessarily hated so much as disregarded, a side effect of being far less digestible than the original. The fact that it launched with some severe content cuts doesn't help. Released only a year and a few months after the original, KOTOR 2 had a number of new technical issues and parts were missing. Its development studio, Obsidian, created a lot of content that was cut from the game due to the game's tight development cycle. The game was rough. It ended so abruptly that fans were put off.
For years, though, some intrepid modders have been working on a mod for KOTOR 2 on PC called the Restored Content Mod that is attempting to include all that stuff Obsidian made but had to cut. It's been out for a few years, but the work continues; this editorial is making its judgments based on KOTOR 2 running with that mod.
Both KOTOR games take place about 4000 years before the Star Wars films. The backstory for both involves the warmongering society known as the Mandalorians, who invaded the Galactic Republic essentially just to see if they could win. In order to ensure the full might of the Republic would come out to meet them, the Mandalorians committed all sorts of atrocities, including the genocide of all members of the Cathar race on that society's homeworld.
Jedi leadership was hesitant to get involved, but a pair called Revan and Malak lead a group to war anyway, and the Republic eventually put them in charge of all of its military forces. The Republic won, and then Revan disappeared into the Unknown Regions of the galaxy with a sizable portion of the Republic fleet. A year later they returned with an even larger force and invaded the Republic themselves, with Revan and Malak declaring themselves Sith. This was the Jedi Civil War.
Warning: Massive KOTOR 1 spoiler coming up. Skip the next paragraph if you don't want to know!
In KOTOR you play as Revan after he's been captured and memory wiped by the Jedi. He and his merry band are tasked with essentially retracing his steps in order to find out where the Sith's seemingly endless resources are coming from. You do that, either by taking the path of the Jedi or Sith, but regardless, once it's all over, Revan disappears back into the Unknown Regions in an attempt to reconstruct more of his memories and figure out what exactly happened out there.
KOTOR is just another of the Star Wars, but KOTOR 2 is a meditation on that war, five years later. The Jedi Civil War was devastating for the Jedi themselves—100 or so were left alive once it was over, and most of them were picked off over the next few years by powerful leftover Sith, now operating in secret. The Jedi Civil War was given its name at this point by virtue of the regular folks of the galaxy not knowing the difference between Jedi and Sith; to normies they're all just dangerous, strange magic-wielders, and so few citizens of the galaxy are batting an eye at the lack of any of them wandering the streets these days.
Enter the Jedi Exile, and the beginning of KOTOR 2. The Exile was the only one of Revan's Jedi to return to the fold after the war with the Mandalorians instead of running off with Revan and his mutineer forces, but she was immediately cast out by the Jedi Council. And so the Exile wandered through the parts of the galaxy where the happenings of the Republic don't matter, and returns to civilization by chance (or is it?) at the crisis point.
In contrast to the opening of KOTOR, in which you must fight through a boarding party during a space battle gone bad, KOTOR 2 begins very quietly—the tutorial has you take control of Revan's old droid pal, T3, who must repair a badly damaged Ebon Hawk while the other passengers, including the Exile, lie unconscious. From there it stays quiet. The Ebon Hawk limps to an asteroid mining station called Peragus. When the Exile awakens there's no one around except a strange old woman who had apparently been the one to put you onto the Ebon Hawk in the first place.
You spend hours wandering the station, fighting off some malfunctioning droids and trying to figure out what happened so you can get out. And that's all it is. You're not trying to get out so you can go do something important; you're simply trying to survive and deal with your own shit. Like who is this old lady following me around? Why is there an assassin droid hunting me? Why does a conglomeration of gangsters have a bounty on Jedi? Who is that gross-looking Sith guy who showed up at Peragus?
Once all is said and done, KOTOR 2 is definitely another grand quest to save the galaxy, but it just never really feels that way. In reality, it's an epic grudge match between the Exile and this secretive group of Sith, who you learn became what they are because of the Exile's actions at the close of the Mandalorian Wars. It's personal enough a skirmish to feel like an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger with one of Walker's personal nemeses as the villain. It's just played out in the Star Wars universe on the grandest scale. It's an almost mundane, personal mystery that concludes with brutal fisticuffs.
The Walker comparison only goes so far, though, because the other, shocking appeal of KOTOR 2 is its moral ambiguity. Players see this in a number of ways, mostly through things the previously-mentioned old woman, Kreia, tells you but the game truly is awash in grey areas.
This is crystallized as soon as you arrive on Nar Shaddaa for the first time. As you step off your ship and enter the city proper, you'll encounter a panhandler. You can give him some credits or tell him to go to hell, and in either case Kreia will give you a speech about how you're doing it wrong. Becoming a crutch for a beggar, she says, won't help him in the long run and might actually hurt in the short. Cruelty will only beget more cruelty, which also won't help him.
At other points when some helpless stranger asks for your aid, she also loudly espouses the philosophy that mortal struggles serve as a cocoon for the beings who are experiencing them. Only if they force their way out of the cocoon themselves will they be fit to deal with their futures. It's not an unusual metaphor in literature and other storytelling media, but it's a concept that flies in the face of most of the Jedi teachings that proliferate Star Wars lore.
Sometimes we have had Jedi espouse a "help people help themselves" policy, but Kreia's stance is simply to just stay out of regular folks' business. You might say it's just a trick—Kreia, we learn, is a former Jedi instructor known for controversial teachings. She later became Sith before losing her connection to the Force—but listen to this from her:
"A culture's teachings, and most importantly, the nature of its people, achieve definition in conflict. They find themselves… or find themselves lacking. Too long did the Republic remain unchallenged. It is a stagnant beast that labors for breath… and has for centuries. The Jedi Order was the heart that sustained its sickness—now the Jedi are lost, we shall see how long the Republic can survive."
Her words make sense to me, even if they do sound like something that might be written in an editorial about those damn millennials in some print publication. Regardless, it's an appealing philosophy in Star Wars because it sounds like Real Talk. It's a practical philosophy, one that can be supported by our reality. Jedi and Sith never talk like real people, because they traditionally deal in moral extremes relating to whatever is happening in this exact moment. Kreia is talking about the long term, and not in black-and-white terms. That's nice!
Beyond Kreia, you have a group of grey companions as well, folks you can sway to good or evil should you get to know them well. The first of these is Atton Rand, a Han Solo type who we learn was a Jedi hunter under Revan's Sith Empire. Atton tells the Exile why the Republic military followed Revan even after he turned around and attacked the government he had sworn to protect: "We were loyal to Revan. That was enough. He saved us." There are always reasons people follow evil leaders beyond those people themselves being evil; Atton puts a sympathetic face on those enemy hordes.
Atton also serves as a contrast to Carth Onasi, the first companion you meet in KOTOR 1 after the prologue. Carth is an earnest soldier, always sincere, and sincerely good. In Carth's mind, the ideals of the Republic are everything, and he's got that "we're better than them and we have to act like it even if we have to suffer for it" thing going in spades. He is secure in his convictions. He's a square. Atton, being a wayward soul full of conflict, is simply more interesting to talk to.
Atton is also the companion who explains how little the distinction between Jedi and Sith means to the average person, and it's through an ingenious conversation with him that you see how the events of the first game affect KOTOR 2 (there's no good alternate, Mass Effect-style way to do this, since there is no way to import a KOTOR saved game into its sequel). Essentially, the Exile and Atton argue about rumors and hearsay, and regardless of what is decided the message is clear: for regular people, whoever won doesn't matter. The galaxy in which Star Wars takes place has always seemed so small; this conversation with Atton is a rare reminder that it really isn't.
The irony is that KOTOR 2 does matter to the people in its universe.
The Exile is facing down Sith who are not so interested in domination as they are committed to sheer destruction. Darth Nihilus "feeds" on Force energy, which involves mass murder—he wiped a planet clean of life using only the Force, and his endgame is to consume all the people of the galaxy before continuing to feed elsewhere. Darth Sion is a more conventional Sith in terms of his approach—he kills like Darth Vader does—but his body, crushed by war and featuring hundreds of bone breaks, is held together entirely by his anger and desire to destroy. These Sith are just out to kill, and that's something that might actually end up mattering to everyone if the Exile doesn't succeed in holding them back.
After playing KOTOR 2, the pure vanilla flavoring of BioWare's original is quite stark. That's not a flaw in KOTOR 1; BioWare created exactly the experience it wanted to, an emulation of the Star Wars movie experience. Just as the appeal of The Lord of the Rings films probably isn't going to be ruined after you enjoy the crass nastiness of Game of Thrones, you can enjoy both KOTOR games without irony.
But KOTOR 1 is a fun, sweeping, unchallenging epic, and KOTOR 2 is the sort of adventure that manages to haunt long after it's done—the text of this game is likely Obsidian's greatest achievement in its long history.
It's a rare Star Wars story for the thinking human, and KOTOR 1 with all its mass appeal can never match it.
Phil Owen is a freelance critic and journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @philrowen, and send hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.