While in theory this could be game could have been called Star Wars Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith expansion, fortunately it was just called Star Wars Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith and is easily abbreviated as MotS. It was released in early 1998, a mere four months after the release of a game still marked as one of the best first-person shooters of all time, and despite getting lower reviews than that game it remains a fan favorite and a standout release for an expansion pack. Yes, and since it was released more than ten years ago, and recently re-released as a digital download through Steam, I have taken another run through the game and looked back at MotS for the next entry in my Retrospective series.
Mysteries of the Sith takes place five years after the events of the original Jedi Knight, and we see Kyle Katarn as an older and more experienced Jedi training his new apprentice – Mara Jade. When the initial scene ends, a crisis has presented itself and you take over as Kyle and the game begins in earnest. Immediately noticeable is that the FMV (full motion video) cutscenes have been replaced with scenes rendered using the in-game engine with voice-overs. The trade-off drew some criticism from fans and reviewers alike, but is really a mixed bag in retrospect: while the movies were great, they clashed with the now archaic graphics, making the in-game scenes feel much more natural. However, since they were rendered and recorded using the game engine rather than being rendered real-time, they are unable to scale with the rest of the game on modern computers, so while they matched up pretty well with the game experience when released, they are now rather ugly even on a netbook.
The flow of the game differs from the original in that there is no longer the level-level-boss structure. Instead, there are fourteen levels divided into two sections according to which character you are playing. As I mentioned, you start as Kyle Katarn with a lightsaber and a decent set of Force powers and play as him for four levels. Then for the remaining ten levels you play as Mara Jade, starting essentially from scratch again. You have a lightsaber and a few force powers at first level to start, and advance them using power ’stars’ obtained at the completion of each level.
Mara Jade is a character introduced in 1991 by Timothy Zahn in the first book of the Thrawn trilogy, “Heir to the Empire”. She was the protege of smuggler Talon Karrde, but as the books in that series revealed her character it became clear that she was no ordinary smuggler. She had been an elite assassin known as the ‘Emperor’s Hand’ before the fall of Palpatine, and has become one of the most beloved characters in the Star Wars EU (Expanded Universe). She and Luke eventually get married and have two children before she is killed by Han and Leia’s son Jacen in the aptly named ‘Sacrifice’ book of the ‘Legacy of the Force’ series in 2007.
Having both Mara and Katarn as playable characters is a nice touch that adds quite a bit to the experience. At first it feels like it might be fragmented much in the way that Red Faction 2 feels like two very short games stuck together, but it actually works well here. You get to start out with a variety of abilities and increase them a bit, learning what they do and where you might want to spend your Force points later on. A third of the way through the game you switch from Kyle to Mara – and it is done in a way that makes perfect sense within the story.
Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” also introduced the force-repelling Ysalamiri creatures that are featured in their own multiplayer mode in MotS, a sort of ‘tag’ game called ”Kill the Fool with the Ysalamiri”. These creatures also appear in MotS and cause you considerable grief as they like to sit on ledges and impair your ability to use Force powers. This is a great example of the entire Star Wars community coming together to extend one tradition with another and make it more fun for all along the way.
Technically, what I said about Jedi Knight remains true: even at full resolution the game looks fairly primitive by today’s standards. MotS introduced colored lighting and some other effects, but the graphics engine didn’t age nearly as well as the Unreal or Quake engine games. Interestingly, the characters look better than those blockheads in Unreal, SiN, Quake 2, or Half-Life. This is not just aesthetically pleasing, but when you are duelling the statues on Dromund Kaas it really adds something to the experience that the characters look quite detailed for a decade-old game. MotS lost more than the FMV cutscenes, though: high-resolution sounds were also gone, making the game sound much more like an old game with lousy sound. In that regard MotS doesn’t stand out – most games from that period sound dated, it is the rare game like Jedi Knight that stands out from the crowd due to excellent sound.
If you have read any of my other Retrospectives, you know what is coming by now: my Good, Bad and Ugly list!
Good: In-game cutscenes. As I mentioned, using the game engine makes the transition from game to cutscenes much less jarring. And I have had a couple of PC’s over the years that had problems properly playing the FMV’s in Jedi Knight, but never an issue with the in-game scenes. Also, I’m sure it helped them get the game out in four months and keep the budget reasonable.
Bad: In-game cutscenes. You cannot help but contrast the fully realized characters created by Jason Court and Angela Harry with just hearing their voices. And the comparison isn’t favorable. Kyle and Jan in Jedi Knight had great rapport that was obvious from the smirking and eye-rolling. In Mysteries of the Sith they are just blocky characters rendered by the game engine.
Ugly: In-game cutscenes. I’m sure that in 1998 when the game was run at 640 x 480 most people thought that the cutscenes looked great. But even on my HP2133 Mini-Note, running at 1280 x 800, they look terrible. I was reminded of the launch of Knights of the Old Republic for the PC, which had identical cutscenes to the XBOX game, despite the engine for the game itself looking great scaled to much higher resolutions. I found myself watching the cutscenes thinking … ‘wow, there was a time that these were *good* graphics’ rather than paying attention!
Good: Level design. Across the fourteen levels there are at least five that are absolute gems, and that many again that are merely excellent. There isn’t a stinker in the bunch. Whether you’re on a base, a ship, a swamp or wherever, the level designers put loads of thought into the sorts of structures and hidden details that would be appropriate and fun.
Bad: Level torture. The level called ‘Destruct and Escape’, the last Kyle level, is really excellent except for two minor details: ‘die and retry’ and the time limit. ‘Die and Retry’ refers to the fact that once you have entered the water tunnel where you need to destroy the cooling controls at four points and then open a hatch using two synchronized switches and then make it to a platform where you need to hit four time-synchronized switches … well, suffice to say you won’t get there your first try.
Good: the evolving story. By the time you hit the swamps of Dromund Kaas you are knee-deep in a wonderful story and totally engaged in the characters of Kyle and Mara. You have to do some work to get there, and a couple of earlier areas start to feel like a grind at times, but all of a sudden your realize how engrossed you are – even though you might be able to suspect where it is all going.
Good: You WILL use the lightsaber. When you do get to the temple on Dromund Kaas, you are a powerful Jedi, and have hopefully been honing your Force and lightsaber skills … because suddenly you will find yourself unable to use any other weapon. The developers set up the enemies and areas to work with that limitation and make it more fun than frustrating – the saber battles against the various animated stone enemies are amazingly fun and challenging to this day!
Bad: You MUST use the lightsaber. There was a reason why you would rely on non-saber weapons right up until the end of the original Jedi Knight: the game wasn’t balanced to make you and your saber uber-powerful on either offence or defence. It makes everything a struggle, especially the first time through. On subsequent playthroughs you will tend to make use of the saber and your Force powers from the start. Looking back through the lens of having played Jedi Knight II and Jedi Academy makes this difficulty even more stark. And to be clear, it isn’t the saber to saber combat that makes it hard, it is dealing with flying creatures in particular that is a real pain.
Good: This is a HUGE expansion. Just think for a second – a mere four months after the release of the landmark Jedi Knight, an expansion is released. The original game would take the average player at least 25 hours to finish, and the expansion takes ~15 hours. That is a whole heck of a lot of gaming within six months! And while not every level is a gem to the extent they are in the original Jedi Knight, the quality of levels and areas in Mysteries of the Sith is quite solid and remains fun and challenging to this day.
I meet a lot of younger gamers whose Jedi experience began with Jedi Outcast. Many look at games from 1998 as being ‘too old and ugly’ to bother playing. My quest through these retrospectives is not only to get to enjoy games again, but to recall great games that many younger players have never touched. Jedi Knight and Mysteries of the Sith are an amazing pair of games that are playable on pretty much any computer you can find from the last several years without problem. The graphics are rudimentary compared to current games, but the story, characters, level design and gameplay are every bit as compelling today as they were a decade ago, and reveal in all-too stark contrast how advances in graphics rendering technology have not nearly been matched by what has happened in other areas of game-making.
RetroGamer Perspective: I assume that if you are interested in reading a “RetroGamer Perspective” you have some tolerance to dated graphics.
Netbook Gamer Perspective:
– Digital Download / CD version? – The CD version of Mysteries of the Sith left retail before the original Jedi Knight – I still saw that game in a $9.99 jewel case rack at Walmart as recently as two or three years ago. Some folks have found it in spotty availability, but never for long. Recently LucasArts switched Presidents and the new guy seems to have realized that PC’s are still pretty good things to play games on … and they have released a bunch of games. The whole ‘Kyle Katarn Series’ from Dark Forces through Jedi Academy was released on Steam, and other digital download sites also have some or all of the games.
– Installation Notes: CD-installation requires that you not only have Jedi Knight installed, but actually insert the CD before the game will start for the first time.
– Disk Space Requirements: full-install is only ~365MB
– CD Required to Play? There is a CD check for the normal version that sadly wasn’t addressed as the one in Jedi Knight was.
– Control Considerations? The default controls feature an inverted mouse look, similar to Jedi Knight. There are also several minor changes you will likely want to make if you are used to standard WASD shooters.
– Will it run on a VIA C7? Yes!
– Will it run with 1GB RAM? Yes!
– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP? The game launcher for the CD version doesn’t work, you’ll need to create a direct link to the executable to run it. The digital download version has no issues.
– Does it work with Vista? Yes, with the same comments as Windows XP.
– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? No, sadly no version was made, and my experience with these in Crossover Games on the Mac wasn’t very good.
– Notes on the Digital Version: The general consensus is that you are better off running the CD version if you can, because there are some minor issues and glitches in the digital versions that don’t exist in the original release.
Conclusion: I have often stated that I consider Mysteries of the Sith as perhaps the best expansion pack of all time. I stand by that assertion, with very few other expansions coming close (Civ IV: Beyond the Sword is one!). The digital release adds nothing, but takes away the CD-check and makes the game available again – and for very cheap ($2.99 at Steam!). So while it might take a bit of tweaking, it is definitely worth the effort to play as two of the most famous Star Wars Expanded Universe characters in one of the all-time best game expansions!
Added Bonus: Another one of the cool things about Mysteries of the Sith is despite the short development time, LucasArts managed to hide a secret bonus level! This site details how to access the secret Bespin level where you play as Luke Skywalker and traverse the familiar settings of the Cloud City.