Star Wars isn’t quite in a golden age — increasingly, it seems to be in anything but that — but we’ve still gotten a couple of gems out of it. Almost none of them, however, have been video games.
This isn’t the time or the place to litigate feelings about the new movies or the new television shows that have come out or are coming out except to simply note that for those forms of media, projects were announced and then subsequently produced. Yes, Disney’s braintrust has gone a bit hogwild with the announcing part of things — currently in limbo there’s a Knights of the Old Republic film project, a Rian Johnson trilogy of some sort, a television show from the Game of Thrones “co-creators” that has already been quietly abandoned as the star of those two men continues to fall — but their studios can point to five movies and one television series (with many more to come) to chart their success. Even being as uncharitable as possible, Star Wars fans writ large liked at least one of those movies a whole lot (which one depends on their personal predilections) and adored the television show. What are we looking at when we look at Star Wars video games since the Disney purchase?
Well, putting aside stuff like the LEGO games which commonly play fast and loose with the franchise to begin with, there’s Star Wars Battlefront, Star Wars Battlefront 2, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and Star Wars: Squadrons. This may look like four games! It’s closer to something like two and a half. Battlefront 2 is obviously a second pass on an incredibly clumsy, antiseptic, and at points significantly boring Battlefront, while Squadrons is a break-out of the uninspired arcade starfighter vehicle play in the Battlefront titles into its own 5v5 multiplayer title. To its credit, Squadrons does significantly improve on the formula in the Battlefront games, and both the second Battlefront installment and Squadrons at least attempt to hammer the multiplayer content into a vestigial single-player experience (the first Battlefront didn’t even attempt that), but you’re still looking at three separate, not-all-too-distinct variations on arena multiplayer combat after the Battlefield model whose main focus has nothing to do with the Star Wars license except as a vehicle to sell lootboxes to players for cosmetics of characters and actors they recognize. As you may recall, Battlefront 2 got in trouble when despite EA’s protestations to the contrary, Belgium banned lootboxes for being what they obviously are: Gambling instruments. This is the only lasting impact any of those three games had on much of anyone.
Which leaves us with the fourth, Jedi: Fallen Order. This is a game of a much different type from the other EA offerings, but it is not a particularly new kind of game for the Star Wars license. Back when LucasArts was running the show, character action games where you played with a lightsaber rose along with the general fortunes of that genre in the aughts — games like Jedi Knight, Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, Force Unleashed, and Force Unleashed 2 all let you play around as extended universe force users rampaging through action setpieces, to various degrees of success. While the mechanical legacies of Jedi: Fallen Order come from much different and more varied sources than those titles (which is good, because they were mediocre at best to play), there’s a very long lineage of wrecking stuff with lightsabers and force powers, as there absolutely should be; uncontrollable power fantasy protagonists are where the license shines for video game use and, judging by Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker’s recent appearances in Disney Star Wars materials, what the fanbase craves from these larger-than-life space opera warriors in the first place, no matter how silly the context.
Cal Keskis, the main character of Jedi: Fallen Order portrayed ably by actor Cameron Monaghan (known for far less power-fantasy type roles such as Ian on the Showtime dramedy Shameless and, ah, the freakin’ Joker on the television series Gotham), is a pretty stock-standard one of these guys, though a bit more restrained than Kyle Katarn from the Jedi Knight games or Starkiller from The Force Unleashed. Cal isn’t a corny swashbuckler running into a who’s-who of the original trilogy Star Wars universe like Kyle or holding his lightsaber backhand-style while doing increasingly ridiculous dark side atrocities like Starkiller (née Garen Malek); he’s a Jedi padawan who escaped Order 66 as a tween and has been hiding his past while just trying to get by in the years since the rise of the Empire; if he sounds a lot like a remix of Ezra Bridger and Kanan Jerrus from Star Wars Rebels, well, it’s a pretty common lineage for heroes with lightsabers during the inter-trilogy period. After being forced out of hiding and joining up with a mysterious older Jedi mentor of his own, Cal’s goal is to find a list of Force-sensitive children that the Jedi hid away and start to rebuild the Jedi order. As far as plots go, it’s clean, basic, evocative, and the material it directly lifts a bunch from Dave Filoni and company’s Rebels and Clone Wars cartoons (which is all over the game if you know what you’re looking for; the Jedi list itself featured in an early season Clone Wars plot) is done well enough that it’s a value add instead of being disappointingly derivative.
When the game was released there were complaints that it didn’t allow you to build your own hero, and instead stuck you with another one of the many attractive white men in Hollywood champing at the bit to play Star Wars protagonists. The complaints are understandable, but it’s also understandable why Respawn chose to go in the bespoke protagonist direction for the character. Not only do you spend a not-completely-insignificant time as child Cal, which would have been a fun thing for the game to algorithmically try to figure out on the fly, but Monaghan’s performance is fully face- and motion-captured (as is every other major human character’s), which allows for a much greater range of acting in the final product. There are times, however, when this weirdly falls short; when Monaghan makes a face that’s intended to have more subtlety than the game actually conveys, but the game isn’t quite able to get the corners of his eyes or lips all the way correct. There is no similar issue with his line readings, however; it’s good work.
Cal will find his plot mcguffin by exploring a series of intricate world maps accessed by a hub-and-spoke model and progress-gated by various traversal mechanics, of course. This game got comparisons to the Uncharted franchise when it came out thanks to the cinematic nature of some of the clambering and jumping about during setpieces, but in normal gameplay it’s much more comparable to your Prince of Persia or even later God of War entries, with very linear and defined platforming sections that are a test of how you string together various presses of the Climb and Jump buttons, broken up by fights with stormtroopers. The idea is to visit each planet at least twice, and so Cal regains force powers and installs new features on his cute droid sidekick/pet cat stand-in BD-1 at intervals roughly titrated so that every hour or two at most you can go back and navigate to new side content in areas you’d previously unlocked, or as the plot demands, gain access to an entirely new area on one of the planets.
The comparisons to the Souls franchise are far more fair; this is straight-forwardly a Souls game mechanically when it comes to combat, with all the features you’d expect: a robust parry and dodge system you will have to engage with to have any success; combat that emphasizes positioning and treats every fight as a challenge if you don’t respect where you’re standing or try to mash through to victory; limited-use healing and no health regeneration; and constant marker locations that exist to save your progress, allow you to level up, refill your healing items, and respawn all enemies on the map. To the extent that the game is easier than a Souls title — and it is — it is easier because Jedi get access to abilities that medieval swordsmen simply don’t have, and they can deploy them faster and easier than medieval spellcasters are able to. You’ll fight enemies with such powers as well, but they’re without exception boss characters; as usual with these kinds of Star Wars game, Jedi: Fallen Order contrives to invent a sort of middle-class of Imperial soldier (here the “purgetroopers”) who are able to hold their own against the Jedi protagonist in martial combat but are destined to fall because they don’t have access to any of the wide array of Force-based combat tricks the Jedi possess. Don’t worry: they can incredibly kill you if you slip up for just a moment — but you always have the upper hand in any one-on-one fight. Like with all Souls games, it’s the attrition that kills you. A quite handy feature: when you choose your combat difficulty at the start of the game, it breaks down visually how each setting affects things such as your parry timing window, enemy health, and enemy damage. My recommendation for a player familiar with Souls titles is the Jedi Master setting, which is the second from the hardest. If you’re just coming off of beating Sekiro, however, just throw it on Jedi Grandmaster; after a short adjustment period, nothing here will really stop you.
The biggest question coming back to Jedi: Fallen Order now, a year since its release, is one of performance. Upon launch the game was notoriously buggy, slow, and prone to crashing. I’m playing on the same machine on which I beat the game the first time, and I have to say…I’ve only noticed slight differences. For instance, I haven’t had any crashes to desktop yet, which were occasional but aggravating in a checkpoint-based game the first time, but it still stutters a bit too much on medium settings — in fact, I don’t really get a performance difference between medium and high settings so I just keep it on high because if it’s going to run at 27-30 FPS with occasional frame chunking during important moments that mess up my timing, it might as well look its best while it’s doing it (and it is a very pretty game). You can certainly beat the game — it’s far from unenjoyable, let alone unplayable — but getting it to cooperate at high-load moments on systems that merely meet recommended settings instead of exceeding them is still an issue.
That said, it’s good that EA was able to make at least one of these games, and except for performance issues, make it a good one — given the cancellations on Star Wars titles that have come out of that publisher and its c-suite’s open and obviously antipathy to any product that doesn’t have a revenue tail that either incentivizes gambling or draws rents, it wasn’t obvious even one of these would get made. We’ve extensively covered the problems with single-player development going on over at Respawn’s sister studio BioWare, after all. But here’s hoping Fallen Order’s success at least keeps the window open for good single-player Star Wars experiences in the future. If the Battlefront titles are any indication, we’re going to need them to balance out the rest of this mess.
The big question coming back to this game was whether the performance issues had been fixed; the answer for me, at least, is no — but with the new generation of graphics cards and processors coming down the pipe, they might be able to brute force it. Similarly, I expect it’ll run better on, say, a PlayStation 5 or XBox Series X than it did on the predecessor machines. If that’s the case, and once I get around to getting one of those machines, we’ll append an update to the verdict. As it is, this game is in the tier of releases that go on sale from time to time but still sell at full retail — you should be able to get it for $24 through January 5th on Steam, if “Star Wars Dark Souls” isn’t something you vibe with enough to get it at the full $60.
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