While Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight had some flaws, it also contained more than a few elements that made it endearing to me and a legion of other fans. It was the story of Kyle Katarn’s ascension from a freelance blaster-toting fighter to a member of either the Jedi Order or ruler of the Sith, depending on your choices. Traditional shooter gameplay gave way to using Jedi force powers and spectacular (at the time) lightsaber duels. Combine the enthralling gaming experience with the delightfully cheesy live-action story videos, and you have a game that’s better than the sum of its parts.
Imagine my delight when I saw that this game I loved was getting an expansion that not only dealt with the Sith, but featured Mara Jade as the lead character! A new game with Mara Jade, nemesis of Luke Skywalker turned ally, was a big deal. After all, this was 1998; the peak of the Expanded Universe for Star Wars fans. Considering Lucasarts’ track record, there didn’t seem to be any downside to having high expectations. Just look at this box art! Mara Jade! Purple Lightsaber! RANCOR!!!
Unfortunately, Mysteries of the Sith is the least fun I’ve ever had while playing a Star Wars video game.
That’s not saying that the game has aged badly, even though it has. It’s more a reflection of the lack of quality found in the game at the time it was released. In fact, the thing I remember most about my first attempt to play the game was encountering a progression-stopping bug that either forced me to restart it or wait for a patch to be released.
Both Jedi Knight and MotS have some shared quirks. There’s a unique feel to the movement and the action that’s only present in games built in the Sith engine. Because the games were developed in the early years of three-dimensional shooters, everything is big and blocky. And while Jedi Knight embraced this and gave players huge and expansive levels to explore, MotS traded these for medium-sized levels that are packed with more non-player characters and scripted sequences.
I could list off a laundry list of things I observed in my experience with the game, but ultimately I think it boils down to four distinct failures:
Failure #1 – Mysteries of the Sith starts off by giving the player control of Kyle Katarn.
By itself, this isn’t a bad thing. Players were familiar with Kyle, and starting a new game with a lightsaber and full suite of force powers is a good way to get straight to what made Jedi Knight shine. Unfortunately, the game’s introduction takes a long time; four of the fourteen levels belong to Kyle instead of Mara Jade. Though she’s present in between missions during the cutscenes, I started to wonder if I’d ever get to play the game’s marquee character.
Finally, after spending two hours repelling a generic Imperial attack on a nondescript base players are given a glimpse of what this game is all about:
At the end of the fourth mission, Kyle abruptly leaves the story to go and pursue rumors of a Sith temple on a faraway planet. This leaves the player to take control of Mara and not do anything related to mysteries or Sith.
Failure #2 – After immersing the player to fun, competent mechanics it strips all of them for a restart almost 1/3 of the way through the game.
You’re finally in control of Mara Jade on the fifth mission. Jedi student to Kyle, her force abilities are considerably weaker than his. Forget about the first two hours of the game that you spent wielding a lightsaber to block blaster bolts and force-pull enemy weapons out of their hands. You’re a padawan now! While it makes sense from a story perspective, it makes the game instantly less fun to play.
Mara is unable to reliably block enemy shots with her lightsaber, and her force powers are weak and seem to take ages to recharge. It’s much more effective to equip a blaster and shoot everything that moves. Forget about being a Jedi until you can level up your force powers.
Leveling up your force powers happens between missions. Completing mission objectives will usually give you a point or two to apply to a power of your choice. What’s stated in the manual but not in the game itself is that extra upgrade points are awarded for discovering secret areas. I missed a lot of secret areas, so by the time I got to the end of the game I felt like Mara was significantly under powered to face the uncertainty that was waiting for me. Speaking of the end of the game:
Failure #3 – The key selling point of the game, Mysteries of the Sith, isn’t embraced until the last three missions.
There are fourteen missions in MotS. Kyle makes a vague reference to a Sith temple at the end of mission four, but the player doesn’t actually do anything related to mysteries or Sith until mission 12. So what the heck happened in the middle seven missions? A lot, and nothing.
Mara is sent to secure supplies from a Hutt gangster, who sends her to steal something from one his rivals. In the process of doing this Mara is captured and sent to a dungeon. Eventually she faces off against a Rancor with nothing but her lightsaber and an array of weak force powers. It sounds a lot more fun than it actually was. Fighting a Rancor involved a lot of saving, dying, and reloading while I figured out how I was actually supposed to survive the sequence. There was so much potential for a fun game, but the way the game was executed really sucked the fun out of it.
By the time I got to Dromund Kaas, the location of the Sith temple, I was ready for the game to be over. The last few levels have a ton of creepy atmosphere, but there are a bunch of new elements thrown at the player for them to figure out.
No weapon except your lightsaber will function on the Sith planet. There are creepy statues that block your passage unless you use your power of force persuasion. Scattered about are a few tiny Ysalamiri that sapped my force powers. Oh, and there are some traps and hidden sinkholes that appear without warning and kill you in about three seconds.
And can we spend a minute to talk about the encounter with ‘Evil Mara’? In the first level on Dromund Kaas, Mara enters a foreboding structure to find a darker mirror of herself. She’s dressed in black and wielding an orange lightsaber like Kyle’s. This begins your first lightsaber duel in the game. It had the potential to be really cool, but wound up being nothing but a pile of frustration. My under-leveled force powers were a severe liability here as I tried to cope with Evil Mara’s frequent bursts of force lightning. While I died after about 3-5 hits with a lightsaber, Evil Mara took close to thirty before finally going down.
What wound up happening is a vicious cycle of save, hit, save, hit, die, reload, repeat.
Never mind the fact that I still don’t know exactly why I was fighting against an evil version of myself. My best guess is that it’s supposed to mirror’s experience in the cave on Dagobah during The Empire Strikes Back. In the movie, there are enough subtle and overt clues to let the audience know that this is a warning to him not to fall to the dark side. Mara’s experience in the game, however… I still don’t quite know how to interpret that.
I still have a lot of questions about the direction of the game and I think the answer to them is:
Failure #4 – The developers had ambitions for a game bigger than the one they wound up making
In short, I get the feeling that the developers had far more ambition than they had resources to realize their vision. 1998 was a legendary year for action games on PC, so I’d guess that MotS had to be released early in order not be competing with other big titles. Releasing a scant five months after Jedi Knight, it’s possible development was rushed to meet deadlines.
While I don’t know how exactly we got the game we did, I do know what it’s like to play now. And it’s not fun. Really. I don’t recommend anyone play this; it’s just not worth it.
It took me about eight hours to beat the entire game. I recorded all of it and cut out about three hours of frustration, wandering, and failing to give you my definitive play though experience. Most videos have some hopefully humorous annotation to give you a glimpse into my madness while playing:
Mysteries of the Sith has some good qualities and a lot of bad ones. There is a wealth of great concepts present here, and most of them were executed flawlessly in 2002’s sublime Jedi Outcast. But that’s a game for another post…