It’s tough to make a Star Wars game.
All eyes are on you, whether it’s the general 50-ish-year fandom or newcomers, to really deliver. It’s one of the most unforgiving licenses known to man, especially after LucasArts gave us hit after hit to tee up later generations.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order feels like one of those hits for the first time in a long time.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: November 15, 2019
Hit as it may be, it’s prone to flaws, but Respawn has given us a hell of a reason to be excited for its action-future. As I noted in my initial assessment, Jedi: Fallen Order‘s story is secondary at first and slowly creeps up, offloading a ton of exposition and character growth near the end. The rest is basically on autopilot in favor of getting you to new maps to explore, then it abruptly ends in a clear bid for a potential sequel. There’s very little I can talk about without venturing into spoiler territory, just know that this is not an expansive universe-building trek: it mostly just takes existing bits of themes and lore. That philosophy permeates through Fallen Order‘s entire being, which yields Uncharted and Tomb Raider platforming, with Arkham and From Software design thrown in.
What we get in the end is a good amalgam of all of those ideas, and one of the best-looking games to date that’s a wonderful encapsulation of the joy of the Star Wars galaxy. The Jedi fantasy is alive and well, through an almost puzzle-like combat system that rewards fast and frenetic reaction times. Frequently as our Jedi hero Cal, I would be assessing multiple threats in my head, wondering what to do with each individual enemy type. Quickly force pushing a threat away is a resplendent strategy, but knowing how each unit is weighted (some are just flicked, some are thrown) is important or you’ve just wasted precious force energy (mana).
Deciding whether or not to deflect incoming fire back at Stormtroopers or run up and take them out first is yet another decision, which is often tough if another big melee unit is guarding them. AI can sometimes fight other AI (true to form for the often hostile planets of the Star Wars canon), and they’ll actually damage or kill one another. There’s also plenty of lovely moments of chaos like throwing a Stormtrooper’s own grenades into a group; happy accidents, if you will. Once you really get the parry system down (for precise melee and bullet deflections) it all clicks. Bosses are similarly puzzled out, though I wish there were more down and dirty lightsaber battles.
Jedi: Fallen Order also takes a good approach to difficulty that should please everyone. The lowest setting is easier for sure, but still offers a formidable set of enemies that actually do things. Action vets will want to jack it up (to hard or very hard, both of which are offered at the start without unlocks, bless), which provides razor-thin parry timing and even more aggressive AI. Normal feels just that: occasional tough moments without being too oppressive.
While much of Jedi: Fallen Order is a known entity, its unpredictability is born out of the exploration aspect (that takes up much of the 20- to 30-hour runtime), which provides you with several locales to haunt, Metroid style. You can just walk into an optional mini boss and get wrecked, or unlock shortcuts with a congratulatory message on-screen. It’s gamey in that way, and a few portions even feel like clear riffs on Zelda or Darksiders puzzle dungeons. When Jedi: Fallen Order is at its best, you’re fighting what feels like a small army on-screen, venturing into the unknown and finding new beasts or hazards. When it’s at its worst, it plops you onto Mario 64-like slope sections (of which there are many) designed to funnel you into new areas or prevent return trips. One of those portions even feels straight out of Donkey Kong Country in a goofy, tone-clashing way.
The main draw for exploration is secret items (like force energy or life upgrade enhancements), though I wasn’t really compelled to explore the more rote areas unless I specifically saw something in the distance. No fast travel? Some problem. Thankfully if you plummet to your death it instantly restarts you where you were (at the cost of some life), but if you fall and live you need to go back to where you were manually, which can be exhausting. Backtracking can also feel like work, in spite of that tantalizing “percent explored” marker on the map. That said, it is extremely satisfying to go back to old areas with new skills and own them. Then there’s the lightsaber customization collectibles (the bulk of them), which is a fanservice dream. The same goes for the subtle and not-so-subtle film and Clone Wars references.
It’s all good-tempered fun, but not when the engine isn’t cooperating. Despite the sheer beauty of the art and world itself, Fallen Order falls behind on a technical level on consoles, and if you’re on anything less than an Xbox One X or PS4 Pro, buyer beware. Even on a PS4 Pro I encountered moments of stuttering and model pop-in on performance mode — an extra option meant to favor framerate. The “open” sandboxes can also require multiple instances of loading within minutes of each other, especially for the larger planets like Kashyyyk. In a sense it feels like a next-gen game on current-gen hardware.
You’re going to occasionally roll your eyes at a cheesy moment or groan at a technical issue, but Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order stands alone as an action game devoid of its Star Wars influence. If you grin at the mere mention of the phrase “kyber crystals,” you’ll get even more out of it.
[This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.]