The pressure applied to anybody working on the Star Wars franchise is surely enough to form a solid diamond. Not only are there five decades worth of passionate fans to please, but also the monolithic Disney, Lucasfilm and for video games; Electronic Arts.
Many gamers, including myself, grew up playing masterpieces like Knights of the Old Republic and the classic Star Wars Battlefront, but since their release over ten years ago, there has been arguably no superior Star Wars game. In 2019, given the amount of pressure, I wonder if it’s actually possible to make a game which doesn’t play it safe, which takes huge strides forwards and one that harkens back to the halcyon days of great games set in a galaxy far, far away.
Well, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a great game, arguably one of the best released this year. But of course, it is. Like with The Force Awakens, it uses a proven, rock-solid formula and gives us little new. Gameplay mechanics are ripped straight from the heart of Dark Souls, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Uncharted, Tomb Raider (and others), and transplanted straight into Fallen Order. At times the copying is so jarring that it feels like you’re playing a greatest hits compilation of the past ten years. And as we all know, when something is copied, the things that make it special are lost somewhere along the way.
“I was also in awe of the beautiful presentation and use of clever filmic techniques.”
The story of Fallen Order is an intriguing one. Set roughly twenty years after the Jedi purge in Episode III, we take control of Cal Kestis, a Jedi Padawan in hiding.
After an impressive opening level, which felt like an injection of Star Wars nostalgia straight to the eyeball (clone trooper armour, broken federation droids, Sarlacc pit), you find yourself saved from the brink of death by the crew of the Mantis spaceship. Once onboard, you race across the galaxy in search of an ancient artifact hidden away in derelict Jedi temples and mystical tombs (which you raid). Contained within are the locations of force-sensitive younglings which could trigger the creation of a new wave of Jedi’s and rebuild the once prominent Jedi Order.
Over my roughly twenty hours with the game, I was consistently interested in the narrative due to its frequent themes of loss, acceptance and ultimately what it means to be human. Cal is forced to embrace the pain caused by the death of his Jedi Master, while another key character, Cere, must bear the loss of someone close to her and face her own anger within. These moments force us to consider flawed human emotions like self-loathing, guilt and even sadness in an incredibly graceful way. While many of the themes and character arcs are subtle, there is still strong emotional story telling weaved throughout.
I was also in awe of the beautiful presentation and use of clever filmic techniques. There are dynamic camera angles, a film grain texture and crisp clear direction in the many excellent cut-scenes.
“Your lightsaber feels weak, which makes any tension tepidly low.”
Outside of cut-scenes the narrative truly shines with interactive flashbacks, dream sequences and presenting events from different perspectives. Whether you’re taking control of youngling Cal in training or navigating adult Cal through painful memories, experiencing these events first-hand creates a deep sense of empathy towards our main protagonist. There are also a handful of big ‘wow’ moments across the campaign, like crafting your own lightsaber, gliding through the skies of Kashyyyk and one at the end which blew everything before it out of the water. It’s clear that a huge amount of time, care and effort was given to these moments from Respawn and Lucasfilm, which results in one of the best Star Wars experiences released this decade.
As soon as you swing your lightsaber and hear the iconic ‘swooshing’ sound it feels incredibly satisfying; like you’re a kid again pretending to be one with the force. The inclusion of combo moves and force powers also ticks this box. I was always excited when browsing Cal’s upgrades at Meditation pads (the games bonfires from Dark Souls) as my imagination ran wild with potential strategies for each new unlock. Sometimes these strategies are simple, such as using force push to propel enemies off a cliff edge like bowling pins, but other times you’re left to freestyle. One move, in particular, throws the double lightsaber around you like Cappy in Super Mario Odyssey and another deflects blaster bolts as you spin your double lightsaber like an Arcstrider in Destiny 2.
“Force powers become overpowered after a few upgrades.”
There are some issues, though. Your lightsaber feels weak, which makes any tension tepidly low. Enemies can easily block your lightsaber instantly absorbing all impact. It’s frustrating, especially as the block triggers a slow-motion animation where combat briefly stops. The feeling of the lightsaber being underpowered is most noticeable when human enemies remain intact after taking a huge lightsaber hit to the midriff (I’m assuming this is to keep the rating down and wasn’t Respawns decision). In comparison to Sekiro, each encounter feels tense as sparks fly and a metallic clang rings out when Katana steel meets steel. There, it feels as if you’re one hit away from a razor-sharp end. I can’t say the same about Fallen Order.
In contrast, force powers alleviate tension in the opposite direction as they become overpowered after a few upgrades. For example, the slow ability makes encounters a cakewalk as you essentially freeze a group of enemies opening them up for a big combo attack. It constantly feels like the game is battling between two polarising design pillars; a Jedi power fantasy and a difficult FromSoftware game. You’ll constantly go from hurling groups of enemies to their death to getting trounced by a difficult boss with a huge health bar (on the second hardest difficulty). I wish the game decided what it wanted to be rather than trying to be everything at once.
“Each level has several secrets hidden away.”
When your lightsaber is stowed away there’s ample time to explore four huge planets and equally huge reasons to do so. There’s customisable skins for Cal, your companion droid, BD-1, and the Mantis, as well as parts for your fully customisable lightsaber and even seeds to plant in the Mantis’, very Zen, Terrarium. I actually found collecting seeds created the most enjoyment as I loved seeing each plant grow. Not only did they have interesting, otherworldly designs, but it was a clever way of signifying how much time had passed since starting your adventure.
Each level also has several secrets hidden away. But be warned if you venture off the beaten path be prepared for a dangerous mini-boss, complexing puzzles and in the end a permanent upgrade to your health, force meter or stim canisters (health packs/estus flasks). Unfortunately though, after being bombarded with customisable unlocks, exploration grows tiresome and skins lose their appeal. Again this unintentionally highlights the greatness of other games like Sekiro (which has an in-game economy adding more rewarding exploration).
“A fast travel between meditation pads would really have helped here.”
Echoes of the past and scannable objects are executed to a much higher standard. Cal uses his force sensitivity to interact with echoes, while BD-1 jumps off your back and scurries towards a potential scan which was always adorable. Even though this type of mechanic is present in other games, here it is executed extremely well. For example, on Zeffo, I found a fallen rebel soldier and re-lived his last moments. Then later, on Kashyyyk, I found his wife, who was concerned about her missing husband. Another time a scan revealed I was exploring an ancient burial ground, piquing my curiosity. But the highlight was exploring a crashed Star Destroyer on Zeffo. This was completely optional but well worth a trip into its gargantuan cathedral-esque architecture. Everything combines to produce a universe that feels not only realistic but also fully alive and breathing.
Platforming in Fallen Order makes up a large portion of the game. It showcases Titanfall wall-running, Tomb Raider rope swinging and a couple of Uncharted-esque blockbuster set pieces. Unfortunately, it all feels clunky as Cal often doesn’t lock on and falls, quite comically with no emotion, into the abyss below. When the platforming does work it mostly involves pressing A to time jumps and shows no evolution as you progress. It’s all pretty mundane and even more so upon death when you’re forced to re-traverse the section you’ve literally just been through. Fast travel between meditation pads would really have helped here.
“The whole experience is atrociously optimised.”
When swimming, the experience couldn’t be more different. It feels liberating with a rapid dash manoeuvre underwater. It’s perfect, but again these mechanics are almost a one to one copy of the swimming in Sekiro. At times, I had to stop and remind myself I wasn’t playing as a Shinobi warrior, but in fact, I was trying to save the galaxy from the ever-looming threat of the Galactic Empire. The similarities in certain mechanics are far too similar for me, personally.
Even a month after launch the game is still incredibly buggy on Xbox One. I had persistent framerate drops which were so bad the screen almost froze. There was the constant popping of the environment, enemies, and a couple of times I fell through the map. Even in cut-scenes, the frame rate tanked which was distracting and again, frustrating.
The whole experience is atrociously optimised on Xbox with a ludicrous forty-five-second wait when you respawn. As you will die multiple times on high difficulties, there’s a lot of waiting around, sat staring blankly at the screen. At times it felt like I was fast travelling in Skyrim on my old Xbox 360, except I couldn’t even rotate a character model while I waited. It adds unnecessary frustration to the overall experience and I cannot believe this made it into the full release. I hope this gets patched soon.
“Although I loved the story moments, the gameplay felt muddled with systems that never quite mingle in harmony.”
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is an outstanding Star Wars experience. It’s emotive, mature and poignant as we examine the nature of grief, self-loathing and sadness across its many flawed human characters. The frequent implementation of big ‘wow’ moments created one of the best experiences this franchise has offered in years. Being engaged throughout was effortless due to the outstanding presentation and interactive story-telling.
Although I loved the story moments, the gameplay felt muddled with systems that never quite mingle in harmony. Using Dark Souls bonfires with easy platform sections was frustrating when retraversing levels. The exploration rewards weren’t deep enough, and the combat felt unpowerful as enemies remain intact when they really shouldn’t. Considering how talented the developers at Respawn are, I wished they carved their own path, rather than using a failsafe formula executed better elsewhere.