Star Wars Dark Forces Key Art
Image via Nightdive

Review: Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster

Kell dragon vs. fists

Star Wars has always been big news, but now it’s just one of the many blobs that are trying to slather themselves over every inch of the media landscape and suck the time right out of us. A long time ago, it used to feel like it belonged to the fans.

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Before the prequel trilogy started production, it seemed like no one was really sure what to do with the license. There were novels, comic books, and video games; things that the mainstream largely ignored. It became something more for nerds (like myself) who would delve into the lore. New entries felt as though they were made for that audience. It was very disciplined and gentle, as Star Wars was such a precious thing. Though, it was still very messy at times.

1995’s Star Wars: Dark Forces is slightly more blunt with its handling, but it’s nowhere near the demolition that was just on the horizon. It has a quaint charm that a lot of people from that time connected with, so it’s not much of a surprise that the remaster professionals at Nightdive would want to touch it up.

Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster killing some officers
Screenshot by Destructoid

Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster (PC [reviewed], PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox SeriesX|S, Switch)
Developer: LucasArts, Nightdive Studios
Publisher: Nightdive Studios

Released: February 28, 2024
MSRP: $29.99

In 1995, the first-person shooter was just beginning to establish itself. In 1992, Wolfenstein 3D built the formula, and 1993’s Doom lit the fuse. Immediately, people looked at this newfound perspective and thought, “This would be awesome if it was Star Wars.” In fact, Star Wars: Dark Forces’ project leader Daron Stinnett, even said that the game was partially inspired by a Doom mod that take place in the Death Star.

At the time, 1993’s Star Wars: Rebel Assault and Star Wars: X-Wing were dabbling in creating new storylines around the movies for players to muck around in, so Star Wars: Dark Forces did the same, creating the character Kyle Katarn, a sarcastic mercenary who used to work with the Empire. He’s the guy who stole the Death Star plans! I think that story has been told three or four times with different people responsible in each one. But according to LucasArts, in 1993, it was Kyle Katarn.

After making that minor contribution to Star Wars history, Katarn is then assigned by Mon Mothma to look into the Empire’s new super-weapon, the Dark Trooper. That sounds like a foe that my friends and I would have made up on the schoolyard, and it’s exactly what you’d expect. They’re big evil dudes with big guns and indestructible armor that can wipe out entire Rebel bases, but they can’t beat Kyle Katarn.

One thing that I do respect about this story, however, is that there aren’t any Jedi. Nary a lightsaber to be glimpsed. Just good old inelegant blasters and blaster-adjacent weapons.

Star Wars: Dark Forces isn’t much of a diversion from other “Doom clones” at the time. The biggest difference between it and the FPS that came before is objectives. The best levels in the game have Katarn infiltrate an Imperial installation, do whatever he’s there for, and then escape with the help of his pilot, Jan Ors. The less impressive levels have you get to whatever you’re looking for, then it just tells you, “Open Main menu to end mission.” That’s okay. I guess I have an imagination and can just assume that Kyle Katarn walks back the way he came.

Actually, regardless of whether or not Jan descends to pick you up, you still have to open the menu and click “next mission” to advance, which is not a method of transition that has been widely adopted since.

Another addition that Dark Forces makes to the formula is cutscenes. Every so often, you get to see glimpses of the characters going over the mission. They’re mostly dialogue, but it’s a step better than the text scrolls in Doom. There are also location transitions, so you can see your ship fly toward a planet or something. It’s worthwhile dressing.

Nightdive touched up the cutscenes, which feels a bit unnecessary but are nice anyway. They essentially just made everything smoother, both in motion and in pixelation. The cutscenes still kind of look pretty retro, but if you’re familiar with the original look, the difference is obvious. In fact, the option to turn off the enhanced cutscenes is available, so you can compare if you feel like it.

Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster Jabba cutscene
Screenshot by Destructoid

In general, Nightdive’s remaster is as solid as usual. As with previous projects, the game has been transferred to the Kex Engine. The sprites and textures have been upscaled and touched up to be higher resolution than the originals. They look a lot better at higher resolutions, but they still have a bit of a pixelated look. According to Nightdive artist Albert Marin Garau, the original assets were upscaled 400%, then “handpainted and touched up.”

There’s also optional bloom and “true” 3D perspective (like most games that use raycasting for 3D, the perspective in Dark Forces would warp when you look up and down). All of this is optional. In fact, with a press of a button, you can shift the game into software rendering, making it appear exactly as it did in 1995. Or at least a reasonable facsimile. I never felt this was necessary, but it’s always nice to have the option.

The fact that Star Wars: Dark Forces can easily run on modern platforms and consoles makes the remaster worthwhile. I always had difficulty getting it to run reliably with DOSBox, so the best bet was to find a source port, which always took a bit of tweaking. A fan recently created “The Force Engine,” which is a pretty good option. The author of that port worked with Nightdive on Dark Forces remastered. However, I feel like an “out-of-box” experience is always preferable.

Beyond that, Nightdive has included some behind-the-scenes content. While this provides some interesting background, the most interesting inclusion is a cut level called “The Avenger.” It takes place in a Star Destroyer and was apparently used as the demo for CES.

Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster throwing a thermal detonator
Screenshot by Destructoid

The problem is, like with some of Nightdive’s previous projects, such as Turok 3 and PowerSlave, Star Wars: Dark Forces just isn’t all that great, which I’m sure Stephen Kick would disagree with.

The level design is just butt. From a technical standpoint, they use a lot of great trickery to emulate room-over-room 3D, and they often look pretty decent. However, they contain a lot of awkward world geometry, strange dead-ends, pointless rooms, and unclear paths to your objectives.

Limitations of raycasting engines of the era made it really difficult to create realistic environments. Most of the time, they instead went in a more abstract direction. That’s not really the problem here. The problem is that Dark Forces likes to hide its paths to its objectives. There were times that I thought I was finding a secret room, and it turned out to be the intended path.

Also, whoever decided it would be fun to hide landmines under clusters of items was wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t really like when I get funneled through an area. I think exploration was one of the biggest strengths of ‘90s shooters that was lost when they began following the more linear Half-Life formula. However, a feeling of constant progression is an important part of level design, and too much of that is lost walking in circles while trying to figure out how to advance.

The first time I played Star Wars: Dark Forces was a very long time ago, but what sticks in my mind is dropping the game because I got stuck on the sewer level and couldn’t find where I was supposed to go. I didn’t have the problem this time around, nor did I hit a barrier I couldn’t overcome, but I was very aware of the moments where I lost the trail.

Amusingly, the cut level is better than most that made it into the game. While it, too, gets a little unclear in terms of where you need to go and has rooms with no purpose, the fact that it’s designed in a way that feels more like a real place and, as a result, is more interesting to explore.

Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster shooting a stormtrooper in the face
Screenshot by Destructoid

Beyond that, much of Dark Forces takes place in narrow corridors, and of its arsenal, I only made consistent use of two weapons. They were a blaster and another type of blaster. This is kind of the downside to the gentle care that Star Wars was handled with that I alluded to at the beginning of this review. People making stories in the universe would rarely invent new devices, and there wasn’t a whole lot of variety needed for the movies.

The result is that, among the stormtroopers that you fight, there are enemies that don’t really make much sense. Probe droids were used a lot in older games, but the movies kind of presented them like disposable reconnaissance units. The one Han fights in The Empire Strikes Back even self-destructs when attacked. Alongside this are interrogation droids and one of those little hovering ball things that Luke Skywalker uses to train with in exactly one scene. Even if you accept their presence, they really just shoot at you like almost everything else does.

So, the result is a decent remaster of an okay game. Not bad, better than middling, but not good. Given that it has the Star Wars license, Dark Forces was no doubt successful in 1995 and will most likely be successful now. And it should be. Because even mediocre games can be worthwhile, and they often have a story to tell. I’ll always be grateful when Nightdive and other studios go to the effort to revive them, and I will always be here asking for more.

Speaking of which, when can we have Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2?

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

7
Good
Solid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
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Zoey Handley
Staff Writer - Zoey is a gaming gadabout. She got her start blogging with the community in 2018 and hit the front page soon after. Normally found exploring indie experiments and retro libraries, she does her best to remain chronically uncool.