After spending a week in the shoes of Cal Kestis, Thomas Willoughby delivers his verdict on the latest story in the Star Wars galaxy.
The Star Wars video game space is a strange one today. After being treated to multiple titles a year for the best part of 15 years (2002 saw no less than seven new Star Wars video games released), the volume of titles has slowed to an infuriating hault.
For over a decade, Star Wars fans enjoyed a prosperity from developers worldwide. That was before the dark times, before the EA exclusivity deal.
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It’s fair to say that Star Wars under EA has been less than stellar. The Battlefront II campaign aside, the franchise has been marred by missed opportunities, and headlines made for all the wrong reasons.
2015’s Battlefront entry was a no thrills, bare bones affair, that offered the absolute minimum in terms of single player content, and only four maps on the multiplayer side. 2017’s Battlefront II offered a pretty compelling campaign, but was mired in controversy over its lootbox-centered progression system.
Studios have been closed, titles have been cancelled and pivoted into other projects. All the while, EA’s 10-year exclusivity deal ticks down, with little more than 2 pretty average shooters to show for it.
What EA needs is something to really make the fans happy. Enter Respawn Entertainment. The studio behind Titanfall, made up of ex-Infinity Ward employees, has been hard at work on the next Star Wars title. A single player-only, third person action adventure title, with no loot boxes, and no microtransactions. Can they deliver an experience to quash the tide of ill-will heading towards EA? Or is their time as the keeper of the franchise all but over?
A Long Time Ago…
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order tells the story of Cal Kestis; a former Jedi Padawan whom survived Order 66. Living as a scrapper on Bracca, Cal lives in secrecy, fearful of being hunted down by the Empire, and slaughtered for his connection to the Force. Following a near accident, Cal taps into his abilities to save a colleague, and is forced to escape the gaze of the Empire. Saved by the pair of Cere Junda and Greez Dritus, Cal is thrust into an adventure by which he hopes to restore the Jedi Order, and train the next generation of Jedi, and help overthrow the Empire.
Along the way, he meets BD-1, a curious and mischievous droid who will help Cal in any way he can, and travel to four main planets. Here, he learns more about the galaxy, the Clone Wars, and himself. Jedi: Fallen Order may not have the most surprising or compelling of set ups, but it delivers a story deserving of any fans time and effort.
If nothing else, the relationship between Cal and BD-1 is worth the price of entry alone. Star Wars has always been really good at creating companion droids (R2-D2 and BB-8, mainly), and BD-1 is no exception. The way in which BD expressing itself through bleeps, bloops, and trills is a constant and a consistent delight, and I want one. I’m a sucker for droids anyway, but I want one. What’s more, Cal’s humouring of BD-1, asking it for help, and generally checking up on it, is a joy.
Similarly, the interactions between the characters is very well played out. As we learn more of the backstories behind Cal, Cere, and the Second Sister in particular, it’s hard not to get caught up in the narrative, and, as it all comes to a head, feel incredibly invested in how these characters will play out. It’s really well worked, and you have to commend the story team at Respawn for setting up a tale that works this well.
There are some beats that don’t truly hit, however. A mid-story reveal is ham-handled following an earlier interaction that basically projects it, and the final half hour of the game goes places I wasn’t particularly pleased to see it go. I can see these moments being well received by some, just parts of it didn’t work for me. And that’s fine; it could have been handled a lot worse than it was.
An elegant weapon for a more civilized age
All this would be for nothing if the game played awfully, and I’m pleased to say that Jedi: Fallen Order handles really, really well. Taking cues from the outrageously popular Souls series by From Software, Jedi: Fallen Order opts for a combat system that focuses on timing and precision. If you were turned off by The Force Unleashed’s almost hack and slash approach to combat back in 2008, you’re likely to be pleased by what Respawn have put together here. Early skirmishes will find you somewhat overwhelmed by your lack of skill, but, as you progress and learn new force abilities and lightsaber techniques, fights start to feel fluid. Before long, groups that would have lead to your demise a few hours before are being dispatched with relative ease. It’s an “easy to learn, difficult to master” type set up.
In addition to the standard enemy types you come across, each planet has a more powerful version of a big enemy ready to fight. Halfway through the game, however, you’ll start to run into bounty hunters as you’re out and about. Imagine the Yiga Clan from Breath of the Wild, and you’ve got the right ideal. While it does make sense narratively, it does feel somewhat under-baked. You will always fight either a massive robot and a humanoid, or two humanoids, and they will always have pretty stupid names (like Clunk). It’s a really cool idea, given we’ve seen the Empire employ bounty hunters in the films, but, in practice, it just comes off as a pretty cheap way to waste your time.
When you’re not taking on hordes of Stormtroopers, you’re traversing and adventuring through four main planets: Bogano, Zeffo, Kashyyyk, and Dathomir. While Kashyyyk and Dathomir have the benefit of years of existing material to flesh out their history and cultures, the game really is at its best on the previously unexplored Bogano and Zeffo. It feels as if these planets are where the development started, and the games ideas were truly realised. Bogano is a pretty basic starting point, but Zeffo is where influences from the recent Tomb Raider titles, and even Assassin’s Creed, start to show. The title was described as a Metroidvania pre-release, and that’s certainly true, however, as I mentioned, 2013’s Tomb Raider is probably a better comparison for those interested in how it’s designed.
Speaking of exploration; aside from progressing the story, the game tempts you with more collectables than you can shake a stick at. Given how easy it would be to put lightsaber parts and character costumes behind a paywall, it’s refreshing to be able to customise the way your Cal, BD, Mantis, and lightsaber look as you find more bits and pieces. I felt compelled to find every last collectable in the game, and that’s not something I do often.
Again, things aren’t all perfect here. At times, exploring is a joy, at others, it’s a chore. The game isn’t particularly well signposted, and the map, while certainly detailed, is an absolute mess. Everything is over 3 or 4 levels, entrances and shortcuts aren’t particularly well detailed. The lack of an ability to place a way-point is pretty unforgivable. I understand the focus is on exploration, there, but exploration turns into aimless wandering all too often, and it becomes frustrating to say the least. The lack of some sort of fast travel system, in 2019, is unforgivable. As I mentioned, I found every collectable in the game, but came close to giving up multiple times. The inability to just go to the area you want to go is a baffling one, especially when you consider that basically every game it takes influence from has this ability.
One thing you can always rely on in Star Wars is the sound design, especially the musical score. Unfortunately, in Jedi: Fallen Order, this isn’t the case. While John Williams’ efforts will likely never be topped, the scores from Rogue One and Solo have offered at least some tracks and themes that can be considered memorable. With Jedi: Fallen Order, musically speaking, we’re given something that feels closer to a tribute act.
It’s understandable that Gordy Haab and Stephen Barton would want to shy away from leaning on established themes, but there are moments (especially one chase sequence on Kashyyyk) that feel like they should launch into tracks from the film scores. It’s a shame, really, to come away from a Star Wars experience without much more than the buzz of a lightsaber floating around your head.
What EA needed from Respawn was a game that would satisfy, and they’ve got it with Jedi: Fallen Order. The story is compelling enough to keep you engaged from start to finish, even if you do figure out where it’s headed along the way. It’s a really nice touch to have cosmetic items be unlockable and collectable across your adventure. As I understand it, the majority of lightsaber parts are actually available at Galaxy’s Edge, so I’m looking forward to rebooting the game to write down exactly what parts I need to build my in-game lightsaber.
Jedi: Fallen Order isn’t a perfect game, but it has far more right with it than wrong. My playtime topped out between 20-25 hours, and I’m delighted with how I spent those hours. With a few additional features (fast travel), and a few ideas properly fleshed out, it might have been one of the best games of 2019 full stop. Instead, we have a really good game, and a really really good Star Wars game. If this is the direction EA choose to go with the license, the future is bright.