JEDI: FALLEN ORDER is about one quarter of a really great game.
The premise is terrific: It’s five years after the end of the Clone Wars and the purge of the Jedi Order. Most Jedi have been killed, and the rest have gone into exile across the galaxy. The Empire reigns with an iron fist. Deadly inquisitors and their leader, The Second Sister, roam the far reaches of occupied space hunting down remaining Force-sensitive people. On a junker planet, young Cal Kestis, a former Padawan who survived the purge, makes a living tearing down the remains of the Clone Wars for precious metals and spare parts. As always, The Force intervenes, and Cal is soon put on a path to rebuild the Jedi Order with the help of a gambling addicted pilot called Greeze, and a mysterious figure known as Cere, who has renounced the ways of the Jedi.
The beginning has promise of everything that a STAR WARS adventure should have. New planets, more expansive lore about The Force, a ragtag group of underdogs fighting the odds. All of it just works, and it’s been so long since we had a good game in this universe that it feels like a taste of cool, fresh water after a particularly long drought. Even the nagging feeling at the back of your head – that Cal is essentially just another bland white male protagonist in an endless series of them – is easily silenced simply because it’s so fun to play a STAR WARS game again.
It helps that all of this looks and sounds the part. Ben Burtt, a STAR WARS veteran since the very beginning, is on board to create the wonderful soundscape for the game. Everything from the snap of the blasters to the humm of the lightsabers is just right. BD-1, the droid companion who joins you on the journey, is a charming invention entirely at home with the likes of R2-D2 and BB-8. The soundtrack is a mix of riffs on John Williams’ classic scores, and for the most part works just fine. It never really stands out as its own thing, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Where everything does start to fall down is gameplay. After the initial rush of being back in the STAR WARS universe, the realization starts to sink in; this isn’t fun to play at all. The design sits somewhere between DARK SOULS and SEKIRO, both expertly made games, but seems to be wholly unaware of what made those two work. Most of the combat is built around dodging, parrying, and blocking. Going into any scenario offensively is almost always an easy way to get yourself killed. Even a normal stormtrooper (apparently expert marksman in this version of the story) takes a few hits to die in the beginning. It’s such a buzzkill to go into battle expecting the kind of visceral thrill of the Prequel Trilogy swordplay, and be blocked and pummeled by a random guard with an electric prod.
There’s a fleeting moment where you truly feel like you’re playing a Jedi during the initial tutorial, where the game lets you take out generic stormtroopers at will, but this is quickly replaced with arduous grinding as enemies suddenly all have bigger health bars than you do. Not to mention that most of the planets you explore are littered with unimaginative bugs and insects to fight. Each enemy takes multiple hits to die, and by the end your lightsaber feels less like a weapon for a more civilized era, and more like a boffer stick you made in a garage for the upcoming LARP next weekend.
Then there are the boss battles, which there are mercifully only a few. Both DARK SOULS and SEKIRO also placed a heavy emphasis on these, and it’s clear that JEDI: FALLEN ORDER tries to emulate the experience as much as possible. The problem is that those two games had perfected their combat through years of trial and error, and their indicators for blocking, dodging, and attacking set the gold standard for everyone else. FALLEN ORDER tries having it both ways, by implying that Cal, the player, is hugely powerful and the one true hope of the galaxy, but is also a clumsy and slow beginner who is easily overwhelmed by the most common of stormtroopers.
Exploration plays a large part of the experience, but as with many other aspects of the game, it feels underdeveloped. Mainly because the maps of the levels are difficult to read and, because of their size and design, usually a slog to get through. Because the game has been designed so that your health doesn’t regenerate, and you can’t find health packs in the wild, you’re stuck with a variant of the Estus Flask system from Dark Souls. Essentially a single container that is refilled up to a certain amount of times (three at the start, and upgraded when you find secret containers throughout the world). If you use it up, you’ll have to go to a save point to meditate and refill. Only problem is that at this point all enemies respawn as well, putting you right back where you started.
This worked for Dark Souls, because the game allowed you to create your own character to suit different play styles, and the game for the most part was hugely linear. JEDI: FALLEN ORDER clearly intends to be similar to METROID and CASTLEVANIA, in that it contains a multitude of areas to explore and re-explore later as your powers grow, but the prize for exploration is rarely worth the slog. You’ll find different outfits and colors for your ship, but that’s about it. Even the modification of your lightsaber does very little to actually make a difference. The model is so small that, apart from the color of your blade, you won’t see what it looks like unless you go to a workshop to take a closer peek. When games that are now almost two decades old (JEDI ACADEMY in particular) already allowed characters to have multiple styles of weapons that each affected combat, FALLEN ORDER just feels downright anemic in comparison.
Exploration is also hindered by poor environmental indicators showing where to go. Items that can be pulled and pushed glow lightly blue, but only up close and at a certain angle. Everything else needs to be double checked from the map whether or not you’re allowed to progress that way. This makes exploring planets way more of trial and error, rather than revelation and inspiration. A certain climbing puzzle near the end of the game was so poorly explained and indicated that it took me way longer than it needed to complete.
As mentioned, the premise for the game is great, but it amounts to a whole lot of nothing. Lucasfilm has said that the final story is part of the STAR WARS canon (or accepted lore), but for some reason it’s played so safe that it might as well not exist. Nothing of importance occurs in the story, and none of the characters make an impression to warrant a return. The most interesting parts in the story are reserved for the female characters. Cere, Merrin, and The Second Sister are all wonderfully complex, broken, and intriguing additions to the lore – and they’re all in the game to serve the unbearably bland Cal Kestis. Especially The Second Sister, who could have been an all time great antagonist for the franchise, is an essentially worthless villain of the week because the story fears to commit to her story arc in any way. She appears and reappears periodically at the start, and is then promptly forgotten for most of the game until the end. Merrin, a member of a cult called The Nightsisters, essentially walks the line between light and dark, questioning the necessity for a patriarchal organization such as the Jedi. Again, a wonderful character with new ideas and a point of view that the masterful LAST JEDI film began to explore in 2017. Her part in the game is to provide jokes about how she doesn’t fit in.
Their waste wouldn’t feel like such a big problem if STAR WARS wasn’t constantly avoiding the inclusion of new voices into the franchise. When a vocal minority in the fan base is constantly spreading toxic attitudes online, crying out for the return of the White Savior, it feels like a major loss that the game doesn’t have the courage to commit to an all female cast when it clearly has all the material ready for it.
These are all problems that many first games experience. I love the UNCHARTED series, but even there I’ll be the first to admit that the formula wasn’t perfected until the second game. The first one was rough on every level, and mostly carried by winning performances and great writing. But since JEDI: FALLEN ORDER can’t boast on that front either, the big picture feels even worse than it actually might be.
As it stands, JEDI: FALLEN ORDER is an admirable failure. It’s the first halfway decent STAR WARS game in years, and that alone allows for way more leeway than it probably deserves. Just the fact that this is more playable, coherent, and reasonably fun in short bursts than anything we’ve seen done with the license for so long, makes it worthwhile to at least try.
It’s just a shame that the bar has to be that low in the first place.