I just finished the newest Star Wars game, JEDI Fallen Order and I have…thoughts.
This game absolutely blew me away. I had purposefully kept myself away from spoilers or watching any extended game play because I didn’t want to get over-invested or spoil it for myself due to performance issues upon release. That said, this is easily the best AAA game I have played in long long while that deserves wholehearted praise for the attention to detail and the integration of its many game systems into such a fully fleshed out product. Functionally, it performed great on my system, I know many many people had problems with frame drops and some bugs but I had very very few experiences with bugs and virtually no frame drops (I have a Ryzen 2700X and a 1070Ti), I know for many people the experience trying to play any game can play a huge part in what you take away from enjoying the game, but thankfully I had no issues.
From the beginning, you are greeted with the standard homage of a space ship floating across the screen (no yellow text crawl) and the music kicks off. Immediately I noticed the music was not what i expected, somewhat foreign and ritualistic, almost like it was daring you to continue watching. The cinematic sequence is short, but beautifully crafted and the voice acting, as well as the character modeling is translated realistically from screen to eye, in a way that very very few games actually care to do. Here, the studio seems to embrace the narrative direction and really focus on the actors’ and models’ closeup so you can see their reactions. We’re only 30 seconds in, my hesitation to really welcome this game is still holding but I think I already see why people liked it since release.
The world building put in by the narrative and story design really was something to marvel at. You are Cal Kestis, former padawan in hiding in an industrialized scrap yard on Bracca, In the first 20 minutes, you go from post-clone wars industrial worker to outlaw as an unplanned accident forces you to reveal your force using abilities to one of your coworkers named Prauf and you begin to plan your departure. Cut short, the empire’s arm of specialized Jedi hunters descends upon the planet and issues to you and the few around around you an ultimatum, reveal yourself or you all die. Prauf tries to rouse the group when he is killed right before your eyes forcing you to reveal yourself. A heavily scripted series of events leads to you tearing through a train car by car until you face off against your foil of the game, the Second Sister of the Inquisitors. This sect of the empire hunts down force users to either kill or indoctrinate. After successfully warding off the initial fight, you disembark on your journey through the galaxy to rediscover your Jedi abilities and restore the Jedi Order.
Gotta admit, I wasn’t fully into it yet. The writing seemed good, the acting was more sufficient to capture viewer’s attention, the tutorial was not that challenging for a newbie and you seemed powerful at the very start. The environment design seemed mostly on rails because you’re playing a heavily scripted sequence so I wasn’t sure if that was how the whole game would go. Shortly after escaping, you meet your companions, Cere and Greez. Cere reveals that she was a Jedi, past-tense, who now cannot use the force because she has cut herself off, much like Luke had in Last Jedi. Greez is captain of the ship Mantis. You were a young padawan when your Master Jaro Topal was killed during Order 66 and you’ve been in hiding ever since.
When you embark on your first exploration of the planet Bogano, the scenery dramatically changes from the first area you saw. Gone are the industrial pipes and trenches, landscapes of ships being scrapped and machinery around every corner. No, now you are in a plateaued wet green grassland, wide open for your adventure to unfold. You meet a droid called BD-1 who becomes your companion while on mission. All of this sounds neat, and perfectly Star Wars as experienced in other games of the franchise, KOTOR comes to mind the strongest, but I hadn’t let my guard down until leaving the planet. After the initial skirmishes with the wildlife, exploring nook and cranny I could, the discovery of various short stories told in 1-2 sentence snippets BD-1 scans or you feel through the force, you finally ready to leave with a new mission. A dead Jedi Master named Eno Cordova alienated himself from the order during the clone wars to explore far sacred places connected to the force, and he hid a Jedi holocron (basically a memory card for whatever you want) that contains a list of young force-users who have not been discovered by the Empire. You must go to these places and retrace his steps to uncover the mystery of how to access the holocron. As I boarded my ship I was thinking to myself, “Well, this seems interesting enough, I guess,” when I selected the next planet to go to and went to the cockpit of the ship. The companions are chit chatting about their history when the stars outside the ship start to form the iconic pulling lines right before a jump into hyperspace and I thought “Holy shit, they did it. This is Star Wars.”
At the end of that initial sequence, I
fucking cried. It has been so long since I felt invested in a Star Wars story that didn’t happen in theaters. I was an avid reader of the expanded universe before Disney bought the IP and I have not read since, feeling burned by investment I’d made only for all that time to be rendered pretty much useless since Disney axed any possibility of retaining those incredible stories for future use. I knew I was being taken in for a wild ride seeing how seriously and devoted the production design was.
This is a Dark Souls-like game, and for the record it is the first in my experience. For anyone unfamiliar, Dark Souls created a series of games heavily focused on challenging combat meant to test player’s reaction times and planning. I genuinely loved the combat loop, almost any enemy can take you from 100 to 0 health if you misplay the encounter. Within this reaction based combat is a dodge and block-parry system. Your dodge is not perfect, you can still be damaged and you give the enemy an opening to attack when you come out of your dodge animation. You can also block basic attacks, but your block will be broken if you block too many hits and lose your poise. The enemies also have strong attacks which cannot be blocked at all so you either dodge or lose a chunk of your health. If you block any enemy during their basic attack as it connects with your lightsaber, you earn a brief opening to attack. Likewise, they can block your basic attacks, and you can wear down their poise meter. It is a very balanced system between player and enemy, and I really appreciated this.
Another thing that makes it Dark Souls-like is the consequence for dying. When you die in combat you lose a significant amount of experience which you would bank for skill points to level up Cal’s abilities or add new combos to your roster. The only way to get that experience back is to hit the enemy you died to.
Some things frustrate me about the combat. The biggest gripe is that it is hard to feel like your abilities you invested in actually pay off because when you try to combo, either the enemy dies before you can complete it or you get repeatedly interrupted because they parried something, dodged something, or just decided to use a power attack while you were on the offensive and completely mess you up for thinking your weak ass combo could ever finish. Another thing is that as you progress through the game and encounter dozens of different enemies, you learn their strengths and weaknesses in a tactical data menu BD-1 accumulates, but you hardly ever get to exploit these weaknesses because of how aggressive the enemies can be. This is a double sided note because it is extremely rewarding when you nail it, and bittersweet when you win through sheer attrition because you never got the chance. I also loved the finisher animations, but I wish there was more variations and a clearer way to activate these.
Usually I play games with the music volume very low, or sometimes off because I find it annoying or overpowering other narration or scene dialogue, but here I found myself wanting more music to fill some of the spaces I was traveling through. All of the mixes are new takes on the instrumentals dreamed up by John Williams and elucidate themes that fit with the environments you’re in, peace and tranquility in Bogano, wonder and mystery on Kashyyk, danger and foreboding on Dathomir. I was surprised to find the soundtrack cannot be found online in Spotify because it is one of the few game soundtracks I would like to hear again while not playing the game. Unfortunately, the tracks don’t quite loop so if you play in a particular space too long, looking around or replaying fights over and over the music just stops and you’re listening to the ambient and scripted sound effects of the game. The ambient noise isn’t bad either, as each space feels “lived in” in some way, by birds chirping or creepers crawling or people talking or structures creaking. You always feel like you are a guest in the world you’re visiting, as opposed to a chore the creators have to keep entertained.
Perhaps the most impressive thing to me was the pacing of the story as it intertwines with your own personal skill set growth. The bigger game changing skills such as force pull or push, breathing underwater and a double bladed lightsaber are earned as you progress through the game on your personal journey, relayed to you through flashbacks so you can remember the padawan you once were. The aspect of acquiring new traversal skills is one that has been played out since before the days of Mario on Super Nintendo but today is referred to as Metroidvania and while their use becomes more intermixed as the game tests you with different puzzles, ultimately I felt a little disappointed in the limited number of skills at my disposal in the open world. For instance, you acquire lightsaber throw pretty late in the game, but this skill is not utilized once to unlock shortcuts or secrets, where you almost always wall run or push/pull an object to progress. For me, these challenges weren’t complex or requiring of enough effort to really feel like being a Jedi made much of a difference. You don’t even run very fast (your running animation looks very silly and slow for no explained reason) which makes going from one side of the map to the other a very cumbersome feat.
Back to the story, there was some tropes among your crew, Greez is revealed to be an indebted gambler (sound like anyone we know?) and Cere is a compromised Jedi that has cut herself off the from the force because she touched the dark side (anyone?). One of the more interesting characters joins your crew far later on to the point that you get barely any time with them but they would probably be the most complex character to learn about if you had more time with them. BD-1’s relationship to his previous master Eno Cordova is revealed through hologram journals that BD reveals when you come to notable areas and at times they get pretty emotional as you listen to this ostracized Jedi recount his/your adventure and his conclusions of what will happen to the Order. Since the sequels and prequels came out, I have been pretty disillusioned with the way droids have been used in Star Wars since the originals, but I think they absolutely nailed BD-1’s personality in its interactions with Cal and Eno, reminds me a lot of R2-D2 in the original trilogy and BB-8 in the sequels.
The roster of enemies you face is as interesting as the world the creators built. The Inquisitors and the Second Sister are more bureaucratic and tormented than you’re initially led to think and the night sister Merrin of Dathomir who blames the Jedi for massacring her people turns from tortured soul to loyal friend as you and she share stories of survival as children. The Haxion Brood is a clan of bounty hunters that pit their quarries against exotic creatures and will constantly appear in levels at random points to give you an added challenge. One of the characters I wish I got to spend more time with was Taron Malicus (isn’t that name the most evil thing you’ve ever heard?) who survives order 66 only to turn to the dark side completely separate from the empire, I would have liked to see him meet the empire or face one of the Inquisitors, that would have been dope. You also run across Saw Gerrera (played by Forest Whitaker in Rogue One) as he leads a rescue mission on Kashyyk. Cal’s master, Jaro Topal reappears many times in your flashbacks but he’s definitely not what you expect from a Jedi in that he looks and behaves completely like a war machine and not so much as the kind sentimental oldie that most Jedi’s have been depicted to be in the series, it kind of annoyed me his attitude toward Cal as a student, but that doesn’t mean it was bad, it just wasn’t explored enough actually. The Second Sister also has a partner called the Ninth Sister that appears briefly for one fight and some other cinematics but you don’t learn too much about her before she’s dispatched, we honestly didn’t need two of the same kind of character.
Level design was incredible. As I mentioned before, you unlock different abilities which can unlock different playable parts of the map. These maps are gigantic, you think you’ve completed the course and surely it can’t get bigger but it does, every time. In many areas, the creators devised ways to short cut through some of the expanse they created, but not enough to quickly go from place to place in any kind of fast travel. If you complete your main objective on one side of the level, and you head back to your ship, but then want to grab some collectable later back on that side of the map, too bad. You have to fight through all the stuff and run through all the obstacles you’ve done already to get back there, and then do it all again on your way back to leave. So that part was not that fun. Visually, each area is eye-grabbing and I found myself stopping to pause and just tilt the camera in different directions to take in the environments around me. Some of the vistas you come across are just some of the finest artistry in any video game made all the more exciting because its Star Wars and then even more exciting because something catches your eye and you realize “Holy shit, I can go there!”
In the last few years, it feels like every game launches with some DLC content sold around the time of release, then those games become packed with micro transaction cosmetics or god forbid loot box mechanics that encourage gambling or spending actual money on game money to buy items, but here there is nothing like that…and it honestly kind of sucks. No, I don’t want any kind of loot box mechanic but the customization options in this game were surprisingly limited, and really questionable. You can customize your outfit, your poncho (what?), your BD-1 droid paint job, and your ship’s paint job and your lightsaber, which of the five has the most extensive options but still feels lacking in the colors department. I don’t know why we didn’t get more interesting costumes for you, or your non-binary companions at all, but it feels weird to have 28 ponchos and only 5 under outfits which just change the shade of your clothes, not the clothing style. It’s good that this part of the game doesn’t take away from one’s enjoyment of playing it, but by the time you finish collecting everything and realize your options are still so limited, it feels kind of bad to know you did all that work hunting all those down for very little pay off.
The thing that really put this game over the top for me was the attention to detail. I read a lot of those expanded universe books, and seeing events appear on screen finally that had been written long before Disney even bought Star Wars was absolutely a gift to experience. Doing away with some aspects of Star Wars lore, such as the idea that Darth Maul had the only double sided lightsaber in existence, makes the universe more interesting again because you never know when these things are going to pop up, and we may see new variations in the future. I could tell that the people invested in the world building actually cared about the work that came before in the space and were trying to pay homage to some of that incredible work and that’s what ultimately opened me up to play this game for 40 hours in less than 5 days.
So I wanted to say, at the end of this whole essay on why the game is great, thank you to everyone involved in this game’s development. From the writers, to the artists, to the musicians, to the production, to the publisher, to the directors and actors, and everyone else not captured in the above, from the bottom of my heart: Thank you, for making this game with love.