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Game of Thrones review: Bowed, bent, broken

Xav de Matos, @Xav

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Translating the tome that is author George R.R. Martin's masterwork A Song of Ice and Fire is a task that must be both daunting and erratic. In its second season on HBO, the television adaptation of the series has been lovingly crafted into a marvelous weekly hour of television. In the video game world, developer Cyanide Studio has stumbled in its task thus far, releasing an abysmal strategy game that seemed to be created less in devotion to the source material and more in reaction to the franchise's new mainstream spotlight. With the studio's second effort at the series, the French developer has brought the Seven Kingdoms to life in a new, role-playing adventure.

Unlike the strategy title A Game of Thrones: Genesis, the RPG Game of Thrones feels like it was cobbled together by people who have genuine affection for the series. But Cyanide's ideas themselves seem more grand than the company is capable of delivering, showing stitches of the small studio's limitations throughout. It's the intention of the HBO series – with the budget of a SyFy original movie.

Gallery: Game of Thrones (4/25/12) | 29 Photos

Though the world of Game of Thrones isn't a pretty one on paper, Cyanide's adaptation is ugly for a host of other reasons. Characters and environments are grisly for a current release on an engine – Unreal Engine 3 – that has proven itself to be extraordinarily flexible. Animations are horrid, a realization that rears its head again and again during conversations in which character models overreact to the dialogue like actors forced to convey peaks of emotion in silent films. These problems are especially disappointing as you delve deeper into the experience, where Cyanide's vision for Game of Thrones becomes illuminated and you realize the studio has some fantastic ideas.

Combat in Game of Thrones, though repetitive in strategy and execution, shows remarkable promise. Like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, battles are round-based; multiple actions are assigned to a character (and any allies along for the ride) from a radial menu that slows time when opened. But there's a slightly deeper layer at play, in that many actions offer bonus damage if utilized in certain situations. For example, an attack's damage may be multiplied significantly if performed on an adversary that is stunned or knocked down. The idea falters, however, as Game of Thrones doles out abilities at an alarmingly dawdling pace. Strategies are quickly transformed into routines as you discover the very few available combinations as you progress.

Character development is smartly designed, asking players to select positive and negative attributes to ensure balance. The "Gifted" trait, for example, awards extra skill points at every level, though it requires players also choose an additional weakness – susceptibility to poison, etc. While most role-playing games use choices to alter the course of a narrative thread, choices in Game of Thrones can impact your stats as well. Using diplomacy to solve a dispute, for example, will not only affect the story, it may also reward your character with a permanent boost to critical damage (just like real diplomacy).

Under the supervision of author George R.R. Martin, Cyanide developed a wholly new locale: the waterside town of Riverspring, which acts as the home for Alester Sarwyck – one of Game of Thrones' two primary playable characters. Alester returns to his dilapidated estate after a fifteen year absence, only to find his sister about to marry their own half-brother to maintain the family's name and land, leaving Alester to seek out the Queen and put a stop to the marriage. The other primary character is Mors, a Night's Watch brother who, along with his truly, truly ugly dog, patrols the Wall – a gigantic wall of ice that keeps the "wildlings" from invading – until the Hand of the King sends him to protect a woman in hiding.

A Song of Ice and Fire fans will adore Cyanide's nods to the series' detailed fiction. Moreover, the narrative web spun in Game of Thrones is very well crafted, steeped in the appropriate level of political intrigue and drama the novels are known for. There are plenty of legitimate twists, with a detailed plot revolving around multiple characters. Game of Thrones offers a fantastic conversation system, which is presented as a character's thought process rather than a summary of the upcoming dialogue, but, and here's where things fall apart, the voice acting is mostly miserable.

Cyanide's vision for Game of Thrones is ambitious, but the studio's end product has buckled under the weight of its intricate design document. Despite some ideas I've fallen in love with, it's a buggy and ugly mess of a video game. Even for its story and brushes with the franchise's fiction, it's difficult to recommend to either series vets or role-playing fans.

This review is based on review code of the Xbox 360 version of Game of Thrones, provided by Atlus.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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