The star systems lined up as Star Wars fans have been flooded with a lot of quality content lately. With the big dog Rise of Skywalker hitting next month, Disney+ primed us with The Mandalorian and gave the gamers some with Jedi Fallen Order dropping a few days later. Make no mistake, Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order is a super polished AAA game with good to great voice acting, super impressive visuals and a style befitting some of the best Star Wars content. But similar to the first episode of The Mandalorian, it doesn’t do much of anything new on it’s own.
A New Apprentice
This may start the bar and the conversation low, but let’s acknowledge that it’s nice to get a very good Star Wars game without a controversy or immediate negative momentum heading into a release. For all the promise that was Star Wars Battlefront II had, it all landed as a smoking fire amidst the loot boxes, the lackluster multiplayer and the general distrust of EA behind the project. This time, focused on a single-player campaign and none of the extra profit-driven anchors that defined the Battlefront games, Fallen Order set out to make good on the licensing they’ve kept a stranglehold on for so long now. And they did. Fallen Order is a fun and challenging game with big lush worlds to explore, great level design, mostly satisfying combat and big stage action that create memorable moments. At the end of my fifteen hour play-through, I genuinely felt like I had experienced a new and compelling Star Wars movie, the likes of a standalone film that could fit in the fissures between the first and second trilogy. It’s a well put together game but the key word there is put together. Many, if not all of the elements at play were grown somewhere else.
While this is an enjoyable and extremely polished game, it certainly doesn’t get there on it’s own. Just about every aspect of the gameplay is pulled from another more successful franchise. The platforming definitely gives its first rights to the Uncharted series. From light puzzle solving while hanging from a wall, to large, camera pulled back set pieces where you are meant to feel that you’re in the middle of an over the top action scene. There are modifications, sure. Nathan Drake can’t wall run (though this aspect is super Ninja Gaiden of course). And I did laugh to myself where a late game revelation and connection to the force allowed me to double jump.
There’s the Metroid aspect, where you visit a world, but you can only go so far. You visit another world and learn a new power. Now you can go back to that one world and progress past your previous stopping point or you can reach secrets you couldn’t before. That may be one of the most enjoyable aspects, allowing you to see more of a world you thought you had seen all of what it offered previously.
The most polarizing of elements that Fallen Order borrows is going to be the combat. Designed as a Dark Souls-lite type of combat means that you can’t just go mashing the X (on an XBOX controller at least) button and expect to find success. While not at the level of difficulty (there are two levels of difficulty above the default however) as Dark Souls, there is large consequence for not subscribing to the Block, Parry, Strike style. Just because they gave your ass a lightsaber doesn’t mean it’s a hack and slash game. It’s quite the opposite. I hesitate to call the combat difficult, especially for veterans of the Bloodborne / Dark Souls games, but it is punishing none the less. This is a good approach.
You can feel like a bad-ass Jedi, not because the story makes you one, but because you earn it. An enemy may take you ten to fifteen strikes to wear down their stamina while you juggle protecting yourself from their strikes. But you may be able to almost insta-kill them with a perfect parry. Of course, you may not be able to always line up a perfect parry when three Stormtroopers are swinging at you as your priority may be blocking all their attacks now so you so can live long enough to strike later. That’s a balance I can appreciate. What makes it difficult is that if your combat is going to be that brutal and consequential, then it damn well better be consistent. Fallen Order doesn’t always succeed there.
Whether it’s hit box detection, unblockable attacks that you know you’re evading but still take damage from or how enclosed areas make the camera an extreme hindrance, it can be a frustrating affair. While the die and repeat model is fine, the checkpoint system doesn’t always align with your journey, making death not only consequential, but sometimes soul crushing. The game uses meditations as checkpoints and places to refill your health stems (there is no regenerating health or pickups between these meditations). It also has the feature of refilling your health and stems at the cost of respawning all the enemies on the map. This makes getting through a difficult section and then going back to a meditation a hard choice. Did you just have a bad run and want to get through the area while taking less hits? Or were you fortunate enough to get through and are willing to roll the dice on making it to a new mediation spot without dying. Again, those are mostly good balances for a challenge.
The problem comes in where the meditations aren’t always spaced consistently. There were times where I reached a meditation, went through 2-3 rooms, then found another one. But there were also times where I would go really long stretches between them, sometimes with big boss style enemies in-between with no quick refuge for defeating it. Fallen Order tries to balance this (again in a very Dark Souls way) by allowing you to regain experience and refill your health when you land a successful strike on the enemy that killed you last. This is always useful and almost neglibile when fighting a boss. EXCEPT when the space between your meditation and boss fight have several enemies between them. This felt like an unnecessary barrier of getting to the boss while not at your peak health. It didn’t necessarily serve as a negative for the boss fight itself since you could regain your health and XP for a successful strike on them (if they were the one that killed you). But I definitely didn’t feel like dying to a boss meant that I had to fight half a dozen aggressive adds first each time I died, just to get back to the boss. This doesn’t happen every time, but it happens enough to be frustrating.
All that being said, when the combat works, it really works. Especially deeper into the game when you have unlocked enough abilities to make a real spectacle in battle. Again, you can’t button mash you way through (your force powers have a slowly filling meter too), but parrying one enemy, force pushing another off a platform and then deflecting a blaster beam back at a third enemy is endlessly satisfying. You’ll be chasing those moments the majority of the game and it makes you heartily commit to not just getting through the fights but getting very good at them.
A Story, Within a Thousand Stories
I said this about The Mandalorian and it holds true here as well; the best thing about Fallen Order is that its more quality Star Wars. The world is weird and alien. The animals that roam the planets can be both huge and harmless to aggressive and brutal. All the halmarks are there: the droid noises, the lightsaber ignition, the stock, vented voices of the storm troopers and of course, high drama. You are Cal Kestis, a padawan in hiding that escaped Order 66 given in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Since your escape, you’ve been hiding your powers and working as a scrapper until the Empire pays your planet a visit and you’re forced to run for your life. Voicing Cal is Cameron Monaghan, of Shameless (on Showtime fame). Or Gotham…but we don’t really talk about that. Monaghan is…fine. His voice acting doesn’t drag the story down at all, but the supporting cast is often so good, the performance gap can be noticeable.
Debra Wilson, voicing Cere Junda, Cal’s new mentor with a super dark past (seriously, its very good) steals the show here. She holds the emotional weight of the story and is evidence of just how brutal the Empire can be. There are other great performances like Elizabeth Grullon as your main antagonist and Daniel Roebuck as Grizz, the captain of your ship. BD-1 is the next a long line of lovable droids that tags along for your adventure. Upgrades and assistance from BD-1 is vital to the story and gameplay feel, but falls closer to the Ellie in Last of Us than Atreus in God of War as far as companion functionality. Remember, we stay borrowing here.
They make the first part of the game more digestible as the plot takes a while to get going, especially compared to the backstory you are given. I felt for a bit that I was playing through the less interesting part of these character’s stories until about that halfway point where the stakes and mission are made a bit clearer. Still, I need to say that if they were already borrowing so many aspects for this game, they could’ve went ahead and pulled in some Mass Effect with a character creator. Making my own Jedi in this story would’ve been an amazing feat and I’m not sure I can overstate what a possible missed opportunity that is.
I was discussing Death Stranding with a friend recently and kind of bemoaning that games are now reaching a point where so many use the likeness of the actors for their game models, not just the voice. I’m sure that is great for the performers. But I think it does limit the storytelling, especially when they are more than the supporting characters and the actual characters you are responsible for navigating. I know the servers are still on for The Old Republic where you can make a Jedi in your image, but in this particular game, it could’ve been marvelous. Alas.
Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order is a good game, a very good game. But it comes with some caveats and compromises. The planet hopping and consequential combat is welcome, but it also borrows from so many other games, games that do what it does slightly or a lot better. If you’re not tired of a Dark Souls or Uncharted game, you’ll have no problem with that. If you are very much used to what those games offer as the pinnacle of those styles, you might find Fallen Order lacking. What isn’t lacking is the embrace of the Star Wars universe and it’s use of lore and story. There are plenty of surprises, guest appearances that aren’t contrived but actually serve the story and atmosphere that I feel rewarded in expanding just a bit more of the universe I adore. Fallen Order is best Star Wars game we’ve gotten in a really long time, even if it took a lot of help to get there.