I had high hopes for Knights of the Fallen Empire, SWTOR’s episodic expansion. But it is off to a dodgy start. The first 9 chapters were excellent, they moved quickly, giving us good characters and action in equal measure. Chapters 1-9 did not mess around. Chapter 10, Anarchy in Paradise, which released on 11th February, did mess around. Never have I seen Bioware get so close to the mark and somehow miss it entirely.
The chapter takes you back to Zakuul, Emperor Valkorion’s perfect society, in search of a terrorist known as ‘Firebrand’ who, from the promotional artwork, is quite clearly Kaliyo Djanis from the Imperial Agent story. Zakuul’s society is built on robotic labour; the soldiers are (mostly) droids called Skytroopers, which you spend far too much time turning to scrap. It’s thrilling to turn a group of them to dust for the first few times, but when this is the main form of combat for about an hour of gameplay the fun turns into a chore.
The arbitrary nature of the combat is my major complaint about Anarchy In Paradise. Too often I find myself wondering why I need to fight the people I’m shooting at. This is not always the case, the Knights of Zakuul make for interesting opponents as their attacks are varied. Sadly, the game is too easy for them to really be a challenge, but if the game were harder I would be singing the Knights my praises. To make matters worse, most of the one hour adventure has you shooting Skytroopers over and over again. Skytroopers are not fun to fight (they have no variation at all), but they attack you in droves to slow you down. That makes some narrative sense, but if we are being cynical, it is clear that this exists to make the chapter artificially longer. There is about 20 minutes of actual story, the rest is shooting Skytroopers. It gets very boring very quickly.
That story also misses a major opportunity. Anarchy in Paradise is arguably just another recruitment mission, this time recruiting the not so mysterious Firebrand. However, from the Imperial Agent storyline we know that Kaliyo is an anarchist bent on disrupting the existing order. Throughout the chapter there is a subplot examining how a person like Kaliyo fits into a utopian society which should have taken center stage. Valkorion whispers in your ear, justifying her acts of borderline terrorism as adding ‘thrill’ to society, preventing paradise from growing stale or being taken for granted. Because droids are the only things harmed, and because the damage is normally fixed within hours, a few explosions subtract nothing from society but add excitement for Zakuul’s adrenaline junkies. Or so says Valkorion.
The chapter should have focused on the validity of Valkorion’s argument rather than forcing it to the side. Thing is, Kaliyo (being an anarchist) is not content to let the established order stand. She notices that your acts of violence, rather than making people excitable, makes them scared. In you she sees her opportunity to tear down the established order. Unfortunately, that turns her from being a public service to a clear-cut terrorist. She plans to blow up a tower full of innocent people, and the game barely acknowledges this. You can talk her out of it, or even go along with it if you really are a bastard. But you cannot put a gun to her head and order her to stop, or arrest her, or even refuse to take her along. Bioware have failed to account for the player who isn’t about to put up with a terrorist on their team. I’m one of them, and from a quick read of SWTOR’s forums it is clear that I am far from the only one.
But there are highlights. Anarchy in Paradise has very little to offer on its own steam, but it does a lot to set up the next few chapters. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the chapter shows that it will be difficult to keep the alliance you built in Chapter 9 from falling apart, for the first time in Knights of the Fallen Empire your choices have a serious impact on the trajectory of the story. Depending on your choices, shit can hit the fan. It also shows that not all is well in Zakuul contrary to appearances, setting the stage for a climactic confrontation in the near future. Valkorion’s children also get a little bit of much needed character development. I have to say, Vaylin is growing on me.
Anarchy in Paradise is a disappointment. It is repetitive, with a boring main story highlighted by the potentially excellent sideshows. Bioware need to stop forcing the best writing to the sidelines and give it the focus it deserves. I want to explore Zakuul’s society, not just blow it up. That said, Chapter 10 sets up intrigue very well and demonstrates that your actions will definitely matter, I just hope that Bioware uses this effectively in chapters to come. They need to.