The Dark Souls of the Force – Star Wars: Jedi: Fallen Order

Something is missing from the opening of Fallen Order.  As with the films, Star Wars games always begin with the that fairy tale-esque maxim “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” before the fanfare of the theme kicks in and the screen is filled with the title and yellow scrolling text.  Fallen Order’s absence of this, much like with the film Rogue One, feels like a statement is being made.  It feels like a brave choice that is going to set us up for some new directions that this game will take the franchise in.

It is perhaps a shame then, that what follows is anything but unconventional for the series, at least in terms of its storytelling.  Cal is our laser sword wizard on this occasion.  A Jedi that managed to escape the massacre of his fellow members of the Jedi Order that we witness during the overly broody Revenge of the Sith.  Cal was only a child during the issuing of Order 66 that called for the extermination of all Jedi and only just made it out alive, something his master was not so fortunate to achieve.  Now in hiding in a giant scrap yard filled with wreckages from the wars, Cal is living a low-profile life as a nobody, keeping his use of the force at bay.  For the sake of there being a game for us to play, it doesn’t take long before he must use his powers to save a life and draws the attention of the Empire’s forces, including many stormtroopers and some nasty force wielding Inquisitors, hunters of what remains of the Jedi Order.  Fortunately, he also draws the attention of Cere Junda and Greez Dritus, one a former Jedi and the latter an owner of a ship.  Before long, Cal and his new found family are off on a mission to track down information on the location of force sensitive children, whilst also trying to keep this information away from a pursing Empire.

Everything follows a fairly traditional structure from there on.  The characters and their backstories would not feel out of place in any other piece of Star Wars fiction, with the character that feels like they let their master down, the character that lost a padawan to the dark side and suffered their own temptations, and the another that has been mixed up in mercenaries and bounty hunters.  The game could actually be applauded for how well it manages to capture the Star Wars feel throughout, with any of these backstories not feeling out of places if they appeared in at the very least a Star Wars side film or TV series.  In fact, where the game most excels is in regularly capturing that feel of playing about in the Star Wars universe, from the music and sound effects used to the texture and lighting down a corridor in an Imperial outpost.  There is really no mistaking this for a Star Wars game, even if you aren’t waggling your lightsaber around.

And what good waggling it is too.  Combat borrows quite liberally from the work of From Software.  So much so in fact that I have a suspicion they were a bit peeved when they played Sekiro.  The parry mechanic of that game, in which your defence feels as attacking as offence, carries over to here in a similar manner, albeit with much more generous parry windows (at least, on the third difficulty setting that I used).  Get the timing right on your block and the enemy will be slightly staggered, as well as lose some of their stamina bar.  Do that enough times and they will be staggered much more and be open for a flurry of attacks.  There is even a posture bar included for you too, which drains with each successive block, requiring you to keep an eye on it to make sure you do not get staggered.  It doesn’t come into play too much (again, on the third difficulty), but it is something that you need to mindful of, particularly during boss battles.  Unlike Sekiro though, the game gives you a greater number of opportunities to get strikes in outside of when the enemy is staggered.  There will normally be a combo of attacks that will ultimately leave the enemy exposed for a few strikes.  This, as well as the larger parry windows, make the game somewhat more forgiving than anything in Sekiro, although I would say it is on the harder side of games, particularly franchises with such mass appeal.

Although borrowing such gameplay mechanics from giants such as From Software, has led to this game offering some excellent gameplay moments, it also exposes the failings to a greater extent.  Although the combat is regularly very good, it highlights that this is not as easy to do as From Software make it look.  The animations, which clue the player into the attacks to expect from enemies, are not as fluid as the ones you would see from a Dark Souls, Bloodbourne or Sekiro.  The enemies are also prone to glitching on some jutting geometry or an uneven floor.  There was also many a time when the enemy lock on would fail to switch enemies, despite being quite forceful with the right stick.  This was particularly the case during the final boss battle, in which having to repeatedly flick the stick to try to get it to switch target cost me multiple attempts.  Perhaps due to the time period of the films that the game is set, it also requires you to spend much of the game fighting against non-humanoid enemies.  The indigenous wild life of the planets you visit are an interesting bunch, both those that want to snack on you and those that are there to look cute, but they can’t compare to the more interesting human shaped foes you can slice through (or not – the game only features dismemberment for animals).  In particular, the enemies that carry melee weapons pose the most interesting battles.  These are not as common as I would have liked them to be.  Lightsaber fights are even fewer, which is a great shame.  A few more force powered and lightsaber armed Inquisitor characters to battle would have been greatly welcomed.  Even the series favourite punching bag, the stormtrooper, is quite disappointing, with a simple moderately well-timed tap of the block button sending their laser bolts straight back at them and finishing them in a single hit.  Making the timing on those much, much harder would have probably encouraged you to close the gap a little more and allowed them to actually pose some kind of a threat.  The variants of the stormtroopers, which include a rocket launcher wielding one, and one carrying a fast firing laser rifle and shield, are more interesting to fight if combined with melee enemies, but it is a shame that the humble stormtrooper feels like barely a speed bump in your quest hyperspacing around the galaxy.

This shouldn’t be taken as too much of a downer on the combat though.  On the whole it is well executed and feels satisfying when you pull off a series of moves correctly.  Trying to dance around three or four stun baton-wielding foes, force pushing one of the each, as you block another swing at you from an Inquisitor and dodging to the side as a rocket comes flying in is something that is great to play, requires your focus and, perhaps most importantly, feels so much like being a Jedi.

What is perhaps less expected from a Star Wars game featuring a Jedi is the amount of navigating around the worlds you have to do.  Besides inspiration from From Software, the other bigger ideas come from the ever popular Medroidvania catalogue of gameplay mechanics.  The game features multiple planets to visit, mostly unlocking in a linear fashion, although occasionally with some element of choice to them.  As you explore each one, you will unlock additional powers that will allow you to travel back to a previous world and explore a new section.  One of the things that really struck me almost immediately following the very linear opening section, was just how open to exploring each world is.  Although far from being an open world game and there being very much a relatively fixed path that you should take, a glance at the map will show that there are almost always options for you.  Flashing green will be the paths that you have yet to explore and there will almost always be multiple of these available to you.  Also, adding a nice touch to something that is often frustrating in these games, currently inaccessible paths are in red, meaning you don’t have to spend any time wondering whether the jump you are trying to make is actually inaccessible to you at the moment or if you just aren’t trying hard enough.

Helping you along the way with your exploration is another character that I’m yet to mention, but you have no doubt noticed on all of the marketing material for the game.  A small bipedal droid that has clearly been designed with the sole purpose of getting your cuteness juices running grips onto your back as you leap and wallrun across the landscape.  Named BD-1, they will occasional clamber down from your shoulders to scurry off to some computer console it is able to hack to clear your path or to indicate that there is something they can scan that will provide you with some additional information about the location you are exploring.  Far more significantly though, BD1 is Cal’s travelling companion and confidant, serving as a close friend as Cal embarks on his mission across the galaxy.  Respawn once again prove what experts they are at crafting characters from these walking slabs of metal and circuit boards, having already done this once with BT-7274 in Titanfall 2.  Although BD-1 might be miniscule compared to the Titan that accompanied you in that game, they make up for their diminutive chassis with big personality, captured through every tiny animation, be it their little jig when being upgraded or excitement to find a new object to scan in the environment.  It is hard not to be won over by the little bugger and he is the heart of the plot.  The simple story may not elicit much from you, but BD-1 manages to get as close as the game can to giving you a tug on the heart strings.

Jedi: Fallen Order manages to achieve exactly what you would want from the game.  It is Star Wars through and through, hyperspacing you straight into the middle of that galaxy far, far away with its environments, characters and action.  And yet, I just can’t stop thinking about that lack of the traditional Star Wars opening right at the beginning of the game, like some kind of forgotten mission statement.  There might be an injection of other successful franchises into the gameplay, ones that you may not necessarily initially jump to when thinking about the design of a Star Wars game, but the game still ultimately falls back on traditional Star Wars fare.  It even can’t resist dropping a surprise visit from a classic character towards the end, in a moment that is slightly pointless (although I would be lying if I didn’t think it f’ing cool).  Much like the current crop of films in the series, we are offered tantalising hooks of brand-new possibilities, only for it to settle with some of the old tropes.  When those old tropes remain so comforting though, I suppose you can’t blame them.

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