George R. R. Martin’s ongoing A Song of Ice and Fire book series, adapted as Game of Thrones by HBO, seldom gives fans cheerful terminuses. Instead, the perpetually clashing Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are populated by morally bewildered narcissuses and cunning backstabbers. Developer Cyanide Studios understands this is a primary feature of Martin’s fictional world and crafts an intriguing, interrelated through line with its role-playing adventure Game of Thrones. Primarily known for its sports-management simulations, Cyanide ventured into the fantasy genre with 2004’s tolerable real-time strategy experiment Chaos League and 2008’s utterly dreadful RTS/RPG hybrid A Game of Thrones: Genesis. The Parisian developer’s Montreal sister studio held the reins for this particular adaptation of Martin’s world, but Genesis’s technical and game-design gaffes threaten to devastate this new game’s rather gratifying narrative experience.
Instead of a thorough adaptation of the books or TV show, Cyanide spent its seven-year production cycle crafting a semi-prequel narrative with Martin that centers on two very different men. (Martin’s involvement seems to only be conceptual in nature since the dialogue during individual cutscenes is wooden and tedious.) The two main characters’ pasts and futures are as entangled as the thousand swords hammered onto Aegon I Targaryen’s legendary Iron Throne.
You’re first introduced to Mors Westford. He’s a grizzled old steward of the Night’s Watch, an ancient order of avowed brothers (“Crows”) tasked with shielding the kingdom from the Wildlings and White Walkers from beyond the frozen Wall in the north. Mors is a skinchanger or “warg,” which means he can transfer his consciousness to the body of his pitbull and control it. That would be a tremendous gameplay mechanic, but it’s sorely underused or misused during the course of the game.
The second hero is Riverspring’s Ser Alester Sarwyck, a former noble who fled to another continent after the troubling events of King Robert Baratheon’s rebellion a decade and a half earlier. Alester became a fire-wielding red priest for the Lord of Light, R’hllor, during his emotional and physical sojourn. Sarwyck’s fire abilities prove to be a great boon: You can torch opponents by striking them with your flaming blade or have R’hollor light the path toward secrets in each level in between fights. Alester returns to Riverspring upon learning of the death of his father, only to find that Cersei Lannister in King’s Landing has ordered his sister to marry their bastard half-brother so he can rule the Sarwyck house. (These kinds of situations happen all the time in Westeros.)
Discernibly, Cyanide’s narrative is a meticulous one that merits attention. Existing fans will enjoy the many plot twists and knowing quotes from various books. This is not just vaulted fan fiction, but a love letter to Martin’s conspiratorial paradise. The two protagonists can choose their paths and, just like the books, the four possible endings range from cautiously melancholic to grim and destructive. Dialogue choices you make along the way shift the narrative ever so slightly based on a Mass Effect-esque paragon/renegade continuum.
The absence of every major character from books (except Jeor Mormont, Cersei, Chataya, and Lord Varys) isn’t a hefty distress, bearing in mind the well-crafted tale and fleshed-out focal characters. Unfortunately, trudging through Game of Thrones requires the same amount of fortitude as waiting for the latest entry in Martin’s much-delayed series of novels. Throughout your Westeros adventure, you are beset on all sides by muddy, last-generation textures, characters that phase through doors, marionette facial animations, elongated loading times, archaic RPG menus, and a slapdash battle system.
The latter aspect is particularly egregious. The real-time melee system is a less refined version of the one from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Combat is as swift as a Dothraki warrior, but the constant need to pause and input bleeding, stunning, and takedown attacks into a three-slot radial menu makes for a shuddering experience. Once you’ve earned enough experience to level up, you can apportion points to your heroes’ skills, fighting stances, attributes, and strengths and weaknesses. There are three stances for Alester and Mors and you unlock three more at level seven.
Aside from those stances, the enticements for winning a hard-fought battle are few and far between and the world of Westeros is shamefully linear. (Some optional side quests become accessible later in the 30-hour-long game.) Buying new armor and weapons is a pain since your characters’ purses seem to always have moths flying out of them. Also, each purchased item adds an undetectable, percentage bonus. On top of those menu problems, some labyrinthine dungeons are also hard to plot a course through because of an obtuse map system.
Despite those blunders, character development is adroitly designed; the game solicits players to select positive and negative attributes to achieve balance. The “Gifted” trait, for example, awards extra skill points at every level, though it necessitates players also select a supplementary weakness: vulnerability to fire, poison, etc.
Cyanide’s middling adventure RPG may whet the appetites of courageous souls that want to steep a tad longer in the world of Game of Thrones. Less ardent fans should move along and be thankful that HBO already bested the perils of adapting and expanding on such rich source material. As we’ve learned from the devious Seven Kingdoms, good intentions can lead to disconcerting results.