Jedi: Fallen Order — A New Hope for Star Wars Games?

4 Dec 2019

For many of us, the Jedi Order of videogames fell some ten or fifteen years ago when Kyle Katarn and Revan disappeared into the uncharted reaches along with the Republic Commando squad and any feasible hope for a Pandemic Battlefront II sequel. Let’s be real, the Star Wars IP was a highly saturated affair through the late-nineties and early-noughties and many titles deserved a dunk into the trash compactor (Masters of Terӓs Kӓsi, anyone?) — but there were some real, pure gems here that defined a golden age for Star Wars games across almost every conceivable genre. Shadows of the Empire; Rogue Squadron; Galactic Battlegrounds; Bounty Hunter; Galaxies; Jedi Outcast; Battlefront; Knights of The Old Republic (KoToR) — some of the era’s very best shooters, RPGs, flight sims, RTS, MMO, and action games formed the Star Wars Expanded Universe…and we took them for granted.

Cal Kestis has some pretty big boots to fill…

The last decade has been plagued with long silences and brief flashes of false hope. The Force Unleashed seemed as though it might have delivered a spiritual successor to the Jedi Knight series, only to arrive as a visually appealing but intensely average button-masher. Star Wars: The Old Republic a $200 million MMO sequel to the KoToR series — enjoyed a successful launch and proved an excellent RPG in its own right, but with the vast majority of the budget sunk into ostensibly single-player story content, the lack of MMO endgame could not sustain BioWare’s incredible expectations for the project. 1313 made a splash with a promising reveal at E3 2012, but shortly after came the Disney takeover and the game was flushed — along with the entirety of LucasArts, the game licensing and publishing arm of LucasFilm.

In 2015, EA published DICE’s relaunch of Battlefront, a series that had now spent a decade in dev-limbo with multiple scrapped attempts by Free Radical Design, Activision Blizzard, and Slant Six Games. DICE treated the subject matter with admirable fidelity and produced what was at its core a stunning and immersive Star Wars experience. Unfortunately, it arrived with zero story content and a number of controversial monetization practices pushed by EA. The 2017 sequel did little to mitigate these shortcomings, with a limited story mode and microtransactions that, at launch, attracted both critical and legal tension.

Finally we come to Jedi: Fallen Order — an auspicious title for a Star Wars game in 2019, developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by EA. We cautiously optimistic lifelong Jedi aspirants watched this one approach with little fanfare; my own expectations weren’t exactly soaring. When director Stig Asmussen started making the cliché “Souls-like” comparisons before launch, the collective scoff could probably have been heard from the Outer Rim. As a FromSoft diehard, I found it hard to believe that a mainstream IP like Star Wars could float a game in a genre that is, in its very essence, deliberately inaccessible to the average player.

On one hand, it was going to take some kind of miracle to force-push through the jaded skepticism of Respawn’s target audience. On the other, we’re so thirsty for the kind of lightsaber swashbuckling experience we’ve been craving since Jedi Academy that perhaps even a proverbial glass of soured blue milk would taste like fine Corellian ale.

So which is it?

Surviving the Purge

Fallen Order sits neatly into the new post-Clone Wars canon, taking place five years after the “Purge” began with Order 66 at the climax of Revenge of the Sith. The Empire is in the upswing of its galactic consolidation; the debris of the Clone Wars still strewn about and no effective centralized Rebellion has yet taken form — we’re about a decade from the first season of Rebels.

Our protagonist, Cal Kestis, was a Padawan survivor of the Purge trapped on a mid-rim junkheap, reforging his identity as a guild scrapper dismantling old Republic Cruisers in a constant and haunting reminder of his past, keeping his head as low as possible to avoid attention from the Jedi-hunting Imperial Inquisition. After outing himself by saving the life of a fellow scrapper with the force, Cal is hunted by the sinister Second and Ninth Sisters of the Inquisition and must reconnect with his limited Jedi training to survive.

Rescued by former Jedi Master Cere Junda and recovering gambler-pilot Greez Dritus, and soon accompanied by the unreasonably adorable companion droid BD-1, Cal reluctantly joins their transparently ill-conceived quest to restore the Jedi Order via uncovering a hidden holocron which holds a list of all known force-sensitive children cataloged shortly before the fall of the Jedi.

BD-1 is without a doubt the most endearing droid since R2-D2

The journey takes the unlikely crew back and forth across both new and familiar Star Wars locales like Dathomir, Kashyyyk, and Ilum, uncovering the secrets of an ancient race of long-extinct force wielders known as the Zeffo. The narrative is one of the stronger entries into the canon in recent years; the classic Star Wars cinematography and a rousing, on-brand OST is deeply gratifying for fans, as are the gratuitous handful of cameos. The story is delivered almost seamlessly with only a handful of cutscenes, zero loading screens, and some honestly stunning transitions.

I found myself, for the first few chapters, wishing deeply that I was playing as a rebooted Kyle Katarn (hero of the erstwhile Jedi Knight series), but Cameron Monaghan’s performance as Cal Kestis quickly grew on me. Kestis isn’t as charismatic as Katarn, but he’s endearing in a kind of dorky-yet-charming everyman way and easy for the player to project oneself onto.

Why the comparisons to Kyle Katarn, you ask? Well, Fallen Order feels very much to me the spiritual successor to Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy — something which I had never dared to hope. The Metroidvania and, more surprisingly, Soulsborne aspects promised by Asmussen are absolutely present, but force power-enabled platforming and lightsaber dueling hasn’t felt this good since it did with old mate Kyle. The saber doesn’t feel like a flashlight; there is weight and resistance to it, and the same is true of Cal. When movement and combat really works, it feels fluid, effortless, and so damn good. Once I started to master the controls, there were so many moments after performing a series of actions or dispatching a group of enemies where I had to take a moment just to sit and reflect on how badass it felt to be a Jedi.

That’s No Moon, it’s a Metroidborne-Soulsvania (or Whatever)

Let’s take a step back. Fallen Order doesn’t do anything new, innovative or groundbreaking. You’ll no doubt see some critics calling out Star Wars fans for giving Fallen Order unbelievable praise just because it’s the first good Star Wars action game in fifteen years, but can you blame us? 

Beneath the Star Wars veneer, it’s a Frankenstein’s Monster, stitched together from the platforming and storytelling of Uncharted and Tomb Raider, the level exploration/progression of Metroid and the combat and skill progression of Sekiro — but it mostly works. 

You’ll find yourself doing a lot of wall-running, slope-sliding, rope-swinging, and vine-climbing, assisted by a growing set of force powers to make it all progressively faster and easier. In fact, most of your deaths will be from platforming foul-ups whilst trying to be a little too fast or clever. Although it makes the stakes for this aspect of the game completely arbitrary, it will probably come as a relief that the punishment for platforming failure is a Zelda-style reset with a small HP-loss (even at Grandmaster difficulty), rather than a devastating Soulsborne gravity-death.

On the Metroidvania front, the handful of planets to explore boast sprawling and multi-layered maps with paths and sections blocked by locked doors or forcefields requiring upgrades to BD-1 only discoverable on other planets, or obstacles only surmountable with force powers obtained later in the story. You will be directed to retrace your steps to some of these paths, but most of them are entirely optional.

Fallen Order bets heavily on its level design. There is no way to teleport between meditation circles (checkpoints where you heal and spent skill points; essentially Dark Souls’ bonfires). The only way to travel between planets is to leg it back to your ship, select your destination in the nav computer, wait for the ship to take off and enter hyperspace, arrive, and land. That’s right — no fast travel whatsoever.

This would be a real problem, if the levels weren’t quite so satisfying to navigate and if the majority of backtracking wasn’t purely for the collectors and explorers. Aside from extra healing stims (limited-use healing items that only replenish at meditation circles or upon death), the upgrades are hard to miss. The rest of the chests contain purely cosmetic customizations for Cal’s poncho and paint designs for BD-1 and the Mantis, your ship. The remaining collectables are “echo” objects with which Cal can interact for little pieces of lore flavor, token exp points and, in rare cases, 1⁄3 pieces of a max HP or max force meter upgrade.

This soon left me wishing that the character customization was a little more in-depth, or that there were further upgrade systems which made these collectibles feel more meaningful or rewarding to pursue. The lack of rewards for exploration would have been deeply frustrating if the act of exploring wasn’t quite so satisfying in itself. At least for me, Respawn’s faith in their levels and platforming did pay off.

Fallen Order‘s myriad environments are mostly a joy to traverse

It doesn’t pay off quite so well for Cal’s enemies. This world is designed for him — to the Imperial forces and even local fauna, the layout of every planet is impenetrable and deeply hostile. To put it another way, AI pathing can get pretty bad. Most of the time, this doesn’t matter. Ranged enemies will stand in place and bully Cal, taking advantage of his lack of offensive ranged options and facilitating the player’s quick mastery of the timed deflect. Melee enemies are usually placed in relatively flat arenas or hallways; they’ll either mob you or try to bait you into a compromising position. Try to drag them away, however, and they’ll often having trouble pathfinding or just lose aggro, ignoring the player entirely while they leisurely stroll back to their default placement. Place any kind of platforming between you and they’ll most often be dumbfounded. I understand that Stormtroopers aren’t trained in parkour, but surely a small ledge or gap shouldn’t prove insurmountable?

The jankiness of standard enemy behavior honestly further reminded me of Jedi Outcast and the AI in action games of that era, but here the comparison isn’t such a favorable one. It was more endearing and amusing than frustrating, since I didn’t encounter any problems with the more critical encounters (like boss fights), but I’m probably being generous. I have heard of some more severe glitches on console, but through two complete playthroughs of the PC version, the worst I saw was this little gem…

Indeed the interaction between the disparate components of combat and level design — individually strong elements — are the cause of most of the game’s immersion-breaking wackiness. Melee combat is intricately animated and, when it interacts with the environment, some strange things can happen.

No Disintegrations

Let’s dive into the combat. It is, I was surprised to find, incredibly derivative of Soulsborne games, particularly Sekiro. Like Sekiro, combat in Fallen Order is built around the concept of parrying and deflecting. You have a guard meter that dictates how long you can block and every hit absorbed will chip away at this meter until your guard is broken and you are rendered momentarily vulnerable. The same is true for melee enemies: hit their guard enough times and they will stagger. A block that is timed immediately upon the impact of an incoming attack will constitute a deflect or parry — against melee assailants this will greatly damage their own guard meter or stagger them outright. A string of parries will allow an instant execution against many foes. Against ranged attackers, a perfect parry will deflect the projectile back at them; a one-hit kill against Stormtrooper grunts. 

I was delighted to find that I could upgrade my lightsaber into a dual-bladed saberstaff, and at late-game you can also unlock a limited dual-wield power attack. Rather than committing to one or the other, the saberstaff constitutes a crowd-control and defensive stance — you can deflect multiple blaster bolts back at the attacker/s following a single successful parry and effectively engage a tight group of melee enemies at once for the tradeoff of single-target damage. The expectation is to switch back and forth between the single and staff stances as the situation dictates. I would strongly advise travelling to Dathomir as soon as it becomes accessible and tracking down the saberstaff if you want this option early on.

Unlike in Sekiro, you can’t spam-parry. If you find yourself facing a flurry of attacks and mistime the initial parry, you will have to commit to a standard block for all the incoming hits. If you try to drop and re-up your guard between split-second blaster bolts or electrostaff attacks, you’ll end up eating them all. When you lower your guard, you face a cooldown of about half a second before you can parry or block again. Basically, if you mistime the first hit, you’re committed. As a Sekiro veteran, this took some getting used to.

This seems to be the main reason why some people have described the combat in Fallen Order as relatively loose, i.e. less tight than Bloodborne or Sekiro. Between the parry timing and the showy animations that force you to pay close attention to enemy movesets, parrying is more difficult and risky to master here than in either of those games.

That is not to say that Fallen Order is more difficult per se. Dodging does not require stamina (there is no stamina bar at all) and does offer invincibility frames (“i-frames”). Some attacks (indicated by an enemy glowing red) will be impossible to block and require a dodge instead. I-frame abuse is more effective than parrying in many situations, particularly late game, although not half as satisfying to pull off.

Furthermore, force powers can quickly trivialize most non-boss encounters. Force is a finite resource that will not passively replete without meditating (causing enemies to respawn), but it will regenerate by hitting enemies and parrying attacks (also by dodging, via a late-game skill) and be on-hand for most encounters. A consequence of the level design is that most enemies will be within pushing or pulling range of a tantalizing, precarious drop. For many others, a force pull can chain into an easy execute. 

Some of the executions are pretty visceral but, no, you can’t dismember humanoids. Monsters? Droids? No problem — take their arms off, cut them clean in half…but people remain intact. This is no doubt a ratings issue, but apparently some bloodthirsty fans have felt shortchanged. One humanoid baddie loses a hand, but it’s a mechanical one so I guess it doesn’t count.

Using the force and the environment to quickly shred through bucketheads is deeply satisfying, but you might find yourself wishing there were more than a handful of force-resistant adversaries; the more difficult encounters and particularly the boss fights are where the game really shines. At its most challenging moments on Grandmaster (the maximum) difficulty, Fallen Order will deliver a Souls-like experience in execution and difficulty, but I wish that these moments weren’t quite so sparse.

In the zone VS the Ninth Sister on Grandmaster difficulty

Do It.

Fallen Order circumvents the problem of the Soulsborne genre’s approachability by offering four difficulty modes ranging from an interactive-narrative faceroll to the aforementioned “Grandmaster” mode, where most attacks will one or two-shot Cal and the parry timing window is excruciatingly short. In easier difficulties the narrative, platforming, and Jedi power-fantasy spectacle of the gameplay are probably more than enough to deliver a compelling experience for more casual players. The absence of NG+ or any other endgame is conspicuous and the journey rather short (you could feasibly platinum this one within 30 hours), so the replayability lies in your willingness to attempt climbing up the difficulty curve. You’ll probably want an excuse to replay it at some point though, trust me.

After a second playthrough, I want more. Without spoilers, the story definitely leaves room for a sequel and there is plenty here for Respawn to build on and improve. Fallen Order is a new hope for Star Wars games; it is the droids we’re looking for. The force is strong with this one. It is the senate. I’ve been trying to hold back on the Star Wars clichés and stay on target, but I’m just a simple man trying to make my way in the universe.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars, Soulsborne games, or ARPGs, take a crack at Jedi: Fallen Order. Respawn Entertainment has developed the kind of Star Wars game that fans deserve, the kind that might just represent the beginning of a galactic renaissance.