Years after EA paid ridiculously for the rights to Star Wars‘s gaming universe, the game publisher has finally arrived with what fans wanted from it in the first place: a solid single-player adventure. Low as that bar might be, that’s the archetype that the most beloved ’80s and ’90s Star Wars fare delivered on, and it’s the kind of experience we haven’t seen for nearly a decade.
Really, 2010’s Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II is an appropriate reference point as we peel back the EA-ization of Star Wars games—from MMO-related bloat to cancellations to loot boxes—and dive into Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Respawn Entertainment’s new game, out now on PCs and consoles, pits you (and a suite of Force powers) against armies of AI-controlled foes. Sounds familiar, right? And is that a good thing?
After playing its 12-hour campaign, I can only muster a shoulder shrug as a response. I guess. Sure. If you want.
That’s not to say Fallen Order isn’t polished or, at times, quite impressive. But it’s also a painfully safe game, built to check a list of “hardcore gamer” boxes instead of forging particularly new paths for the Jedi power fantasy. Respawn was given the unenviable task of winning back some of the most opinionated fans in the world, and the developer charted a tried-and-true course of doing so: a third-person adventure that combines lightsaber waving and a healthy mix of Force superpowers. (You know, like Force Unleashed II.)
Because it hews to a safe archetype, Jedi: Fallen Order may not earn much patience from players for its issues and slip-ups. Every time the game’s dialogue turns hackneyed, that stands out in an otherwise fine-if-rote Star Wars adventure. Every time combat glitches on a bad hitbox or polygon collision, that stands out among otherwise been-there-slashed-that combat. And every time a level suffers from a back-and-forth retread or an unsatisfying puzzle, that stands out from a bunch of levels that borrow liberally from games we’ve played before: Uncharted, Metroid Prime, and Dark Souls.
Worst of all, Fallen Order‘s brief campaign doesn’t land in short-and-sweet territory. Just short.
Is that a lightsaber in your pocket, or…
We begin in the shoes of Cal Kestis, a young-and-plucky mechanic working on an ornate Empire outpost. We meet him after the events of the film series’ Episode III, and we hear banter about the great Jedi Purge while Cal jumps, scampers, and wall-climbs his way to fix a particularly broken machine at his workplace. It’s a tough job, he’s warned, but he makes quick-if-dramatic work of it.
Unfortunately, this sequence turns deadly, which forces Cal to reveal the secret he’s been harboring amongst the Empire’s faithful for years: he’s a Jedi, and a trained one at that. How was he not sniffed out all this time? How was he hiding a lightsaber in his pocket for so long? And how come a Resistance crew happens upon his location, there to save him, the moment his lightsaber is belatedly discovered by troopers? The abruptness of his identity’s reveal is a bit patchy in the logic department, and it sets a tone for too many wait-hold-on jumps in logic or abrupt fast-forwards in the plot’s timeline.
Cal’s rescue comes with a catch: the human soldier Cere wants to reboot the Jedi Order, and she has a few vague clues to uncovering other Jedi who survived and escaped the Purge. She needs a true Jedi’s help to unlock their meaning and move forward. Help her, Cal Kestis. You’re her only hope.
You do so by following the Force Unleashed series’ archetype of lightsaber combat and force tactics, as mashed up with the outdoor-world traversal of Uncharted, the get-powers-and-backtrack formula of Metroid, and some Dark Souls-inspired combat tweaks. It’s sometimes easy to ignore the failings of this game-inspiration mash-up, seeing as how each major landscape, tomb, catacomb, fortress, prison, and crash site looks so danged good.
Respawn was freed from the usual EA restriction of making 3D games out of the Frostbite Engine (developed primarily by EA subsidiary DICE), and its pivot to Unreal Engine 4 has paid off in terms of massive, architecturally rich, and foliage-filled environs. Volumetric light shafts cut through dramatically lit skies and bounce realistic, material-based lighting off every surface. Cal’s lightsaber glows impressively in dark chambers and caves, whether held at his side or aloft as a makeshift torch. And massive structures tower in the distance of every new planet, served on a platter of impressive draw distances as a preview of Cal’s next adventuring destination.
An Uncharted climb through charted territory
That visual bounty carries Jedi: Fallen Order‘s opening hours impressively. Once that sheen faded, however, my patience with the gameplay’s fumbles dwindled quickly—a fact that wasn’t helped when the visuals in later levels began to suffer from serious copy-and-paste syndrome. One forest moment, in particular, saw my character soar above a tree-filled world, but the vast view from above suffered from minimal geometry, badly baked geometry, and a derpy, super-sized companion that showed up in that moment.
In terms of failings, let’s start with the new game’s Uncharted inspirations. Do you like climbing on clearly marked walls of moss or girded metal? J:FO has these in spades, and on a rare occasion, these moments are delightful—like when you have to board an AT-AT and must climb the grassy patches on its legs and torso as it marches in formation through murky waters toward a combat zone. But most of the time, these moments feel like overlong padding, and they miss the point of Uncharted‘s climbing sections. In J:FO, there’s no dramatic pulling-back of the camera while climbing to set any cinematic scope of a new zone or tomb. You’re zoomed on Cal’s butt, following automatic climbing lines. Meh.
More critically, J:FO breaks up its combat sections with a few Uncharted-esque puzzle sections, which usually revolve around triggering or moving the right objects in the right order. The first significant puzzle requires moving giant orbs with your force powers and triggering gusts of wind to shoot them to the correct puzzle-solving locations. Its careful balance between tricky challenge and clear progress got my hopes up for more clever puzzle coolness to come.
But there really aren’t many of these puzzles here, and the others either play out too automatically or come with agonizingly unclear solutions. I lost nearly an hour to one puzzle because the game’s “clue” button kept dispensing advice that relied on terminology I’d never heard before and wasn’t in the game’s pause-screen glossary. I eventually came up with a solution that in no way resembled the spoken advice I was given. I’m still not sure whether I solved that puzzle as Respawn intended.
Combat has Souls, not soul
Then there’s combat, which only comes in two flavors: wimpy peons, or Dark Souls-caliber death traps. With the former, you can ignore most of your cool Force powers and mash the “quick slice” button to mow down waves of foes. Once you unlock the Force-push move, you’ll appreciate how often the game’s basic enemies stand near ledges; the modeling of their “AAHHHHhhhh…” yelps never gets old. But generally, you can ignore most of your useful Force powers in these cases—especially because the game is painfully stingy about letting you use them.
Every time you activate any Force-related power, you drain a huge percentage of Cal’s “Force meter.” Even the prototypical “strong attack” for your lightsaber requires the Force. Use one time-dilation, one Force-pull, and one strong attack, and… that’s it for at least 10 seconds. Your Force meter is toast. This issue persists throughout the campaign, even as you dump level-up stats into options like a Force meter upgrade. Battling the game’s wimpy peons could’ve been more fun if Respawn had been more generous with Force powers or the meter’s recharge. Instead, the constant nag of a “meter’s empty” notice aggravated me so much that I redirected my fanboy energy to just tapping the “quick attack” lightsaber button.
The tougher fights exacerbate this annoyance. Most of your coolest Force powers are worthless against big-league foes, who are identified by a different on-screen interface when they appear. They ignore your temporary time-freeze and your Force-push powers, and that means you’re reduced to a wimp, forced to study movement patterns and get into a dodge-and-react pattern. That’s fine on its face, but no other combat in the game emphasizes tactics, and the game never sits down with players to clarify that it will abruptly switch from kill-all-the-dummies simplicity to pause-and-study brutality. (Plus, you only get one weapon “upgrade” option in terms of strike timing, and it feels absolutely meager compared to the combat specialization that great Souls-like combat often revolves around.)
If you hand J:FO to a young gamer who’s only played LEGO Star Wars games, this aspect alone will be the most frustrating, as these fights are obnoxiously tough even at “normal” difficulty.
As if to support this Souls-ification of occasional harder combat, the game also comes with an “every enemy respawns when you pause to ‘meditate’ and heal” system. That’s much like the bonfires found in Dark Souls. But as I’ve already pointed out, this combat isn’t in the same realm as Dark Souls, not by a longshot. (All of this ignores some glaring issues with combat hitboxes, by the way; on too many occasions, the game’s toughest creatures either swiped through Cal without causing damage or knocked him down over a good foot away from contact. And that’s not even speaking of the polygon glitching through geometry I faced when a tough foe pinned me against a wall.)
Why did Respawn implement this when roughly 80% of J:FO‘s combat is through annoying waves of simple peons? Did the creators not sit and play Dark Souls games enough to understand what its bonfire risk-and-reward system was really about? The fact that J:FO bonfires exist, yet never mesh with the combat on offer, leads me to believe that something in the game’s production cycle got rushed or streamlined. Maybe Respawn had a clearer Souls-like vision once upon a time, but something got lost in a rush to meet a Q4 deadline and get “Souls-like” on the box.
Backtrack for a new… coat of paint?
You might think of Star Wars plus Metroid as the action-adventure mash-up of your dreams, where you unlock cool new Force powers, then return to previous worlds to expose new traversal and battling possibilities. To some extent, this plays out as advertised. You’ll find blocked entrances or weird-looking obstacles early in the game, and you’ll salivate the first time you get an upgrade like the Force push, which is clearly designed to tear through blocked doorways.
But once you go back to those doors and passages and rip their barriers open, you’re rewarded with garbage. Nearly every hidden, tricky, and Force-gated treasure chest in J:FO comes with one of three cosmetic items: a new color of cloak for Cal, a new paint job for your robo-companion BD-1, or a coat of paint for the ship that auto-flies from one level to the next. As a very rare exception, you’ll actually find hidden upgrades to your health or Force meters, but these are always marked as floating purple orbs, not treasure chests.
As a result, whenever I saw a treasure chest around a corner or through a blown-open doorway, I found myself loudly sighing. These things don’t add experience points (which I can use to unlock new Force powers), let alone the Force meter upgrades I so desperately want (which are still way too meager for the sake of fun, Force-juggling combat). You’ll also often find brief plot details in the game’s hidden corners, which at least dole out tiny experience-point boosts, but the stories attached are snoozers. None revolve around interesting new characters, let alone flesh out details about popular Star Wars locations or film-series events.
Back to that Metroid comparison: yes, you’re backtracking to previously visited planets to unlock new zones and complete new objectives, but the result is that the game is inherently reduced to roughly eight “levels” of content, and every new zone is clearly demarcated as a separate straight-line path. Respawn hasn’t arrived to reinvent the wheel of compelling criss-crossing zones or play fancifully with how old and new paths might intersect in interesting “oh, now I see what’s happening” ways. Worse, while each of the four planets include landing zones that sparkle with incredible and unique environs, each of their revealed-later paths suffers from that copy-paste syndrome I mentioned earlier.
Respawn at least makes sure to include 1-2 wholly new enemies with each zone, which is absolutely welcome. But the new heavies don’t spice combat up very much, and they certainly don’t make up for the newer zones’ blatant reuse of temple assets, similar-looking tunnels, or a gratuitous lean on repetitive wall-climbing and mud-sliding sequences.
My opinion was not Force-pushed in a good direction
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order has incredibly good elements, and they play out exceptionally well in its first three hours. Force-power diversity, combat animations, beautiful opening zones, clever puzzles, and Jedi-salvation stakes could lead anybody to believe they were in for a Star Wars single-player epic worth investing in.
The trouble is, the game begins to run on fumes after those three hours. The presentation declines. The combat suffers from a hamstrung approach to difficulty balance and Force-power generosity. The plot becomes a painfully telegraphed “morality tale,” burdened in particular by terribly sold “conflicts” between Cal and his accomplices. The incentives for so much backtracking get bungled.
Each of those issues would be easier to swallow if it appeared in isolation, surrounded otherwise by a game that turned out to be solid-but-redundant in its 12-hour romp. But as a combo platter, the whole package misses its “three great tastes taste great together” sales pitch. I left J:FO unmoved as both a Star Wars fan and an action-adventure gaming fan. Despite its polish and best ideas, I wish I’d just reinstalled both Force Unleashed games, and I encourage anybody eager for a fun, Force-filled, third-person Star Wars experience this year to do the same.
- The game’s opening hours combine a promising story, accessible combat, beautiful setpieces, and a lovable new droid in masterful fashion.
- 12-hour campaign would be easier to stomach if it didn’t run out of steam so quickly.
- Dark Souls-ification of combat feels more like a ticked-off box than a fitting system for this game’s combat.
- By the end of the game, the story feels rote and utterly disposable in the Star Wars universe, and it loses its logical train of thought along the way.
- Metroid-like backtracking system feels annoying thanks to mostly worthless, cosmetic loot.
- I hope Respawn issues a patch that increases players’ access to Force powers during encounters; in its current state, the game taunts Star Wars fans with such meager access to Jedi superpower juggling.
- Glitchy hitbox issues make the game’s tougher combat sequences harder to swallow.
Verdict: Since the paid Origin Access Basic subscription service didn’t make J:FO eligible for its usual 10-hour trial, I can only recommend renting or avoiding altogether (unless you already pay for Origin Access Premier on PC, which includes full J:FO access).
Listing image by EA / Respawn / Lucasfilm