Star Wars has been having a bit of a hard time of it lately, and that’s a damned shame because for me I actually think it might be my favourite fictional universe. To try and make that clear, I’ve had a 3000-word essay on my thoughts on Star Wars sitting on my hard drive since the catastrophic release of The Last Jedi, a lot of which is, shall we say “critical” (read: autistic screeching). The films are worth a whole rant by themselves, but on top of that we’ve had the rather dismal DICE Battlefront games neither of which were particularly well-received (feeling of pride and accomplishment anyone?).
To make matters worse, it’s not like Star Wars exactly had a glut of incredible games even before the Disney takeover. Despite oh-so many possibilities it felt like more recent showings (like the Force Unleashed or SWTOR) never quite lived up to the promise, so people still return to really old favourites like KOTOR. With this in mind it is perhaps not surprising that Jedi: Fallen Order was hailed as one of the best Star Wars games in years (even one of the best ever by some outlets). A game which allows you to travel the Star Wars Universe, wield a lightsaber, allows you to have the fantasy of being a Jedi and then is actually a single-player, with an actual story and a complete absence of loot boxes?
Good lord how our standards have dropped these days…
In the same way that for a while we were seeing a lot of Arkham-style combat games, then father-figure-protects-child games, another of the current trends is the so-called Souls-likes and Fallen Order is snuggled ever-so comfortably into that niche. This means 3rd-person dodge/block combat, metroidvania exploration and checkpoints for restoring health and making enemies respawn.
In short, it’s doing the standard triple-A thing of taking inspiration from a lot of popular things to try and make it broadly accessible. The same is true for the story as well, which hits a lot of very familiar notes. It’s about a lone hero, raised from squalor and obscurity by a tortured mentor and a rogueish pilot with a heart of gold. There’s even a brand new droid companion, because I guess they need more cuddly droid toys? You play as Cal “Lower Jaw” Kestis who is an ex-Jedi Padawan who has escaped Order 66 and is hidden from the Empire but now is beginning his new mission to find a list of force sensitive children and create a new Jedi order.
Incidentally at this point it’s actually becoming a little silly just how many Jedi and force-sensitives did escape Order 66. At first in the films it was literally limited to Obi-Wan, Yoda and the twins. But because every single piece of Star Wars media needs to have a Jedi (and I say this unironically because frankly 90% of the reason I love Star Wars is the lightsabers) that means every new show, game or film set between Episodes 3 and 4 now introduces a NEW Jedi who conveniently escaped Order 66… Or even multiple ones! But of course they were hidden from the Empire and definitely couldn’t have helped the Rebellion at any point…
Not to mention that the Sith “rule of two” thing has been so severely strained by this point that it’s probably more a “suggestion of two” given that your main enemies, the Inquisition, are a bunch of Kylo Ren wannabes (who is himself a Darth Vader wannabe).
But, on the flip side, the other choice would have been a complete absence of lightsabers and that’s just unacceptable.
Now, I am, by my own admission, absolutely garbage at Souls games. I’ve dipped my toes into Dark Souls and Bloodborne in the same way a middle-aged woman dips her toes into the sea, very briefly and with immediate, vocal shock. However, even that has given me enough insight to say that Fallen Order does not compare in terms of difficulty (again, likely to make it more accessible). This is not to say the game is not challenging, especially playing on the second hardest difficulty, but it’s also pretty possible to play through large chunks with no deaths without even needing to be all that cautious. So, it CAN be a challenge, but of the sort one can mostly overcome in one or two tries without being punished repeatedly.
Except for the last boss. I died perhaps a few dozen times throughout the game and 2/3 of those times were in the last boss fight. Whoever designed her needs a swift kick in the baws for creating a boss that just randomly and without warning switches between various unblockable and nearly unavoidable attacks which are all very difficult predict and distinguish. Yes, I am intending to be salty about that fight for a good long time…
Having said all this, the combat is generally very good fun. It’s immensely satisfying to fight through stormtroopers of various classes and the odd giant monster as well, plus there is a nice variety of enemy types which means you have to stay on your toes and respond appropriately. There is also a skill system (which admittedly feels extremely token given that you can get just about every skill in a single playthrough) which allows for expansion of a few cool and fun abilities. And you know what, I really appreciate that they give you the option of switching between a single lightsaber and a double-bladed one, that’s just fucking neato. The downside here I would say is that while the actual combat itself can be fun, cutting your way through a dozen stormtroopers can be exciting and cathartic (although it’s bloody stupid that it’s all PG-13 and you always end up killing them all in a very specific, set way), the boss fights in the game are extremely unmemorable. There are a few monsters which are just bigger tankier versions of the creatures you fight while exploring, and are VERY unexciting, and the actual amount of lightsaber to lightsaber combat is really limited, which is just all a bit of a shame given that’s a big reason why we’re all here!
I’ve mentioned already that the plot ties into a lot of tried and true tropes, not really hitting any new beats but it also has a bit of an issue with rushing development. It actually reminds me a fair bit of Innocence: A Plague Tale because of the way that the writers seemed to be skipping over actually developing relationships between characters and just saying that the relationships had developed. There were sections where your mentor would say that she was aware you didn’t trust her any more following a particularly gruelling session of fighting monsters and shooting around on ziplines, making me ask my screen “I don’t? Why don’t I?”.
Or, even later, when your pilot also talks about how you’ve won him over, wormed your way into his heart and helped him choose a good path for his future, and that might be the second time the two characters spoke one-on-one. A final particular highlight of this is when you spend a few hours off adventuring culminating in a particularly huge boss battle which causes a fair amount of destruction and has you near death at several moments, then you come back to the ship and sit down for dinner as if you’ve been for a stroll, none of the danger ever mentioned. It’s ridiculously jarring and makes it seem like huge chunks of interaction and conversation are missing.
It feels like the intention was initially to have much more radio banter between Cal and his crewmates (as there is occasional chatter between them) but perhaps this was cut due to interfering with pacing or just because it was out of place in the lonesome adventuring spirit. Either way, it seems like there are only the big moments of the relationships between each character (I.e. the loss of trust and then the reconciliation, or the eventually thawing of an icy heart) without ever earning any of it. It’s all just the end-product and none of the development.
Also, now how’s this for an odd complaint for you: there wasn’t enough fan-service in the game. It feels like it is very much supposed to be a story that stands on its own two feet in the Star Wars Universe, without relying on the presence of a big-name villain or mentor. So the biggest names in terms of existing characters are Saw Gerrera and Tarfuul (I know, right? Who?). The cynic in me suspects that this was done to avoid the same accusations that have hounded the films: that it’s all just rehashed, the same ground re-trod. At the same point though, it feels like it barely ties into the Universe, and the lack of any bigger names is a bit of a missed trick.
There is one moment, right at the very end, which did have a something of a fan-service feeling to it, and this was actually a really cool moment but this is just one brief aside in what is otherwise a mostly original visitation to Star Wars.
Speaking of “missed tricks”, what the fuck is up with the music? We’re talking about some of the most recognisable, awesome and emotive soundtracks in media period, and yet the music from the films BARELY features. There is one point where Imperial March might be just about detectable and another where it seems to drift into the main theme, but for rest of the time it’s all an “original” soundtrack. The music still has a distinctly Star Wars feel to it, but there were moments where it was just crying out for Imperial March to be blaring or Duel of the Fates or even Binary Sunset, and it never did. And without that music I personally feel it lacked a lot of the impact. And for the life of me I cannot think why they wouldn’t include more of the original music… It feels like a no-brainer! Perhaps another attempt at distancing itself from the existing IP and to stand on its own two legs, but if there was ever an area where Star Wars has not failed to live up to expectations, it is with its music.
The game also has a few issues with its exploring. You can climb and jump around in an Uncharted/Prince of Persia sort of style (rather than an Assassin’s Creed style) but there are regular occasions where areas that look possible to pass through simply aren’t. So, there will be times where it looks like Cal ought to be able to hang off an object, or even jump up onto it and you will just get “computer says no” as you plummet to your death.
Outside of that particular frustration, the game’s exploration functions in a metroidvania style. That said, the best examples of metroidvania are where there are different routes which are blocked off at first but they cross and intertwine with the early paths of the game. In Fallen Order you travel to different planets and then basically encounter a few different gates which all lead to completely separate areas of the map and each need different abilities to reach, which is just that bit less exciting.
On the bright side, the game is a real joy to explore and is genuinely surprisingly easy to navigate, in a good way. You are provided a 3D map which actually is pretty easy to read and has a very clear way of indicating where you have yet to explore (or even where you can’t). The maps are all unique and interesting and generally pretty good looking. In fact it’s worth saying that the exploration tends to feel worthwhile simply for the exploration alone, which is a good thing, because the rewards are generally fairly lacklustre. While you might occasionally find a story-related “echo” or even a small character buff, 90% of all the game’s exploration rewards come in the form of cosmetics for your space ship, lightsaber or poncho. Things which, respectively, are barely ever on screen, always on screen but too small to see, or always on screen but always looks absolutely drab and dismal because a poncho is to character design what a lava castle is to a boss level. It’s just a designer making “etcetera etcetera” noises when asked what things will look like.
While the character-design might be boring as hell, the actual animation of characters is absolutely mind-blowing. I suspect extensive mocap was used but facial expressions and the individual movements all seem so utterly genuine and realistic. It’s actually almost a tad odd because the characters actually seem to be animated at just a bit of a higher standard than the surroundings.
Despite my quibbles in terms of the music, and the application of the game to the broadest possible audience (which actually makes the game very hard to critique I think) I think the single biggest detractor to Fallen Order is probably the disconnect of the jumpy exploring, lightsaber-swinging adventure game and the story that is going on in the background. Despite some genuinely great performances in terms of voice acting, I just never felt attached to any of the characters and feel like so much of the character and plot development was rushed or brushed over, which can really take away from what was otherwise an actually very fun and enjoyable experience.
|· Combat is fun and manages to hit that balance of being challenging to keep you on your toes but not so challenging as to really punish you
· It is very enjoyable to explore the various planets and it plays very intuitively
· Feels like a perfect evolution for Star Wars and exactly like the sort of game they should be continuing to make
· Story hits familiar notes but is solid and enjoyable with a few nice twists and turns to keep you entertained
|· Character development is never earned, and the writers seem to prefer to simply say that it happened rather than show it happening
· Primary reward for exploration are cosmetics, none of which are remotely exciting or worthwhile going out of your way to earn
· An admirable attempt to remain discrete from the original IP means that opportunities for fan service seem to have been deliberately avoided, which I personally think is a mistake