Jedi Knight III: Jedi Academy

Given I am a massive nerd, it should come as no surprise that I am a sucker for a Star Wars game. George Lucas’ space-opera was one of the defining loves of my childhood, and so I eagerly consumed any vaguely Star Wars-themed media I could get my hands on. Games were of course no exception, and no era was better for Star Wars games than the early 2000s. Knights of the Old Republic stilled my thirst for RPGs, and Jedi Knight was where I turned to for action.

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Jedi Knight III: Jedi Academy (PC, Xbox [reviewed])

Released Sep 2003 | Developed: Raven | Published: LucasArts / Activision

For those not in the know, the Jedi Knight series is a venerable selection of games set in the (now defunct) Star Wars Expanded Universe. Set during the Rebellion and later in the aftermath of the Original Trilogy, Jedi Knight follows the adventures of Kyle Katarn, a mercenary who discovers he is Force Sensitive and goes on to become a Jedi in Luke Skywalker’s New Jedi Order. Much of the series’ strength lies in its handling of Kyle as a character; a kind of Han Solo-esque archetype but by way of Luke and with shades of other fan favourites mixed in, he’s an incredibly well-rounded character and for that reason has stayed as a well-remembered, well-loved member of the Expanded Universe cast.

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Jedi Academy is a bit of a wild card then, in that it eschews the conventions of the earlier games and instead gives us a new main character: Jaden Korr. A young student in the New Jedi Order, Jaden is apprenticed to Kyle. Katarn seems almost ill at ease with being a Jedi Master, and is clearly a big believer of training on the job, but there’s definitely something fatherly hidden underneath it all as he guides both Jaden and his other pupil, Rosh, through missions. Kyle beats himself up when things go wrong, but is happy to stand aside and let his students get the praise when their assignments succeed, with or without his help.

It’s a shame that Jaden is far blander. The story chiefly concerns a cult of Dark Jedi and the Imperial Remnant co-operating to find places of significant power with the Force throughout the Galaxy, and the New Jedi Order’s efforts to investigate and stop them. It’s a competent if unchallenging narrative but that’s fine for a Star Wars game; this is science-fantasy after all, and what is Star Wars built on if not a solid basis of Good Guys fight Bad Guys, Light is Good and Dark is Evil, etc etc. At the centre of it all are Jaden and Rosh, who tackle the same usual package of choosing between standing up for what is good or giving in to the Dark Side as practically all Star Wars protagonists do; when one character in the story falls to the Dark Side it’s treated with very little ceremony, and at least one character can swing back and forth, finally settling on being good, which robs the moment of some of its gravitas to say the least.

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As is standard in these situations, Jedi Academy comes replete with a moral choice binary, though it’s less developed than some of its contemporaries – Knights of the Old Republic II this isn’t. In-between levels you get upgrade points to pump into Force powers, which are split between 3 branches – one branch has Light Side powers, such as healing and a shield, one path has Dark Side powers, such as Force Lightning, and the third path has neutral powers, such as a speed boost. You can upgrade whichever powers you want – the game doesn’t seem to care if you pick Dark Side powers but want to play as a Jedi. This is great for roleplaying, but unfortunately it does mean instead that it’s one of those games where being Light or Dark Side hinges entirely on a single choice players make partway through the game, which is rubbish design.

To make up for that, there is a decent bit of customisation available for players to feel like they have at least a bit of agency. At the beginning of the game players choose Jaden’s gender and their species, allowing players to play as some of the franchise’s more esoteric races, such as a Twi’lek (the slinky aliens with big tails coming out their noggin), a Kel Dor (eternally locked to a face mask and represented by precisely one minor prequel character who is yet remembered very fondly including by yours truly but I couldn’t tell you why), or even a Zabrak (Darth Maul). Beyond that, the aforementioned Force Powers allow for a decent amount of choice – I always end up going for the two-fer of Speed and Lightning though; if zapping my enemies like Palpatine doesn’t work, I can then zoom around the map slashing wildly like a coked-up death tornado.

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We should probably talk about the combat. The lightsaber combat is ridiculously good in Jedi Academy – it might be among the best in a Star Wars game in my personal opinion. You start the game with a single lightsaber and by the end of the very short opening stage you’re already thrown into a life-or-death battle with a Dark Jedi, and even making a small mistake here can cost you your life. The sabers lock and clash with brilliant flashes of light and grind up against each other as you try and brute force your way into having the advantage, full-force swings rebound with a satisfying weight, and suddenly you find an opening and your saber is through and your enemy’s arm or leg or rest-of-their-everything is collapsing in piles around you. The first time you realise the Jedi Academy sabers genuinely work like they do in the movies you feel so damn powerful, though the moment you watch your own severed hand flop to the ground is a rueful reminder that it does work against you as well. For an added challenge, going into the menu and raising the saber damage (or doing it with good old-fashioned cheat codes) breathes new life into the game after you’ve beaten it once – there’s nothing quite as exhilarating as playing it with super-realistic sabers, where one touch spells death for friend, foe, and player alike.

Technically, Jedi Academy is also an FPS – whenever you select a gun the game jumps from third-person to first but other than the odd level that takes away your saber and forces you to engage with the guns, you aren’t likely to bother with them I think. It’s almost a shame because the guns are honestly quite good fun to use. This is still an FPS of the old-school after all; no poxy gun limits here! Instead Jaden is a walking armory, bristling with the kind of weaponry that would could comfortably outfit a full squad, let alone a single Jedi.

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There’s some pretty sweet visuals on offer as well, especially for the time. Certain famous locations are recreated rather well, such as Hoth and Tatooine, but I admit to being most impressed with things like how oppressive the Imperial facilities feel, or just how tiny you feel against the vast cityscape of Coruscant. Few games really capture the sheer verticality of Star Wars’s galactic capital but Jedi Academy does a grand job. It’s obviously aged a little – this game is over 15 years old at the time of writing after all – but all told I think it’s a great rendition of some of the Expanded Universe’s more iconic settings.

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While a narrative let-down compared to previous entries, Jedi Academy is definitely a great game and more than worth hunting down – it’s available on Xbox One and PC so it’s very much playable in the modern day. The saber combat is superb and a massive reason to recommend it; as a patient gamer I couldn’t speak for more modern attempts at it like Fallen Order, but if you’re willing to go for an older release, then you can do much worse than Jedi Knight III: Jedi Academy.

5/7 – GREAT. Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.

 

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