If my previous reviews of Knights of the Old Republic and Jedi Academy have told you anything, it’s that I love a good Star Wars game. However, the thing that those games have in common is that they’re part of the old Star Wars canon known as the Expanded Universe. That’s the Star Wars I grew up with, and I have a long-lasting love of it, and it’s a love that I’ve barely ever felt ever since Disney took over the series and replaced all that good stuff with incredibly bland movies that have neither original ideas nor any real point to tell. Jedi: Fallen Order however has been recommended to me as part of a wave of new (well, new-ish) Star Wars products which might actually stir a shred of good feeling in me, so I thought I’d better give it a go.
Jedi: Fallen Order (PC, PS4 [reviewed], PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Released Nov 2019 | Developed: Respawn | Published: EA
Genre: Action-Adventure, Hack-and-Slash, Metroidvania | HLTB: 17 hours
Jedi: Fallen Order picks up the Star Wars story around 5 years after the end of the Clone Wars and Order 66, during which the entire Republic army turned on the Jedi Order and slaughtered them. We play as Cal Kestis, a young scrapper on the planet Bracca, who ekes out a living by tearing old, downed Republic ships apart so the parts can be repurposed by the Galactic Empire. However, he hides a deadly secret: he is a Jedi – or rather, a Padawan, a Jedi-in-training, who went into hiding after his master was killed in the last days of the War and has avoided the murderous gaze of the Imperial Inquisitors thus far as they scour the galaxy in search of the few remaining Jedi. Unfortunately for Cal they are an inexorable force and so his life is ripped apart when he is found by these Jedi hunters. He is rescued by the crew of a ship called the Mantis who recognize him for what he is and, as it would happen, they need a Jedi for a quest of their own. They’re seeking down a stored data log of Force-sensitive children across the galaxy in order to prevent it from falling into the Empire’s hands and Cal, seeing an opportunity to be the Jedi he dreamed of as a child, jumps at the call.
The plot isn’t exactly stellar. Sure, Star Wars is a science-fantasy and it’s ok for it not to set the stars alight, but it does still need to be told well. Unfortunately Jedi: Fallen Order suffers a little here from predictability and awkward contrivances. I know the Force works in mysterious ways, but here it seems it’s a little too insistent on the galaxy being a woefully small place; small coincidences and utterly banal narrative developments mount up, which turns what could have joined the ranks of the great Star Wars stories into a safe, harmless plot without challenge or real meaning. It’s not a bad plot but it’s recognizable as Disney-era Star Wars: neutral, a little weak, and missing the sparks of joy, intellect, or drama which characterized the best of the original Expanded Universe.
I hope you like tragic backstories because it sure seems like everyone has one in Fallen Order! Cal we know lost his master as a youngster, but also keep an eye out for the main villain, his crewmate Cere, and yes, even Cal’s adorable droid companion BD-1, none of whom get out without a bit of tragedy – and that’s not to mention the myriad minor characters who all have their tales of woe to tell. I’m not saying living under the Empire would have been rosy, of course, but a tiny bit of restraint on the part of the writing staff wouldn’t have gone amiss. Essentially, having a tragic backstory is used in place of actual character development, which leads to most of the cast winding up as plain, dull, or utterly unlikeable. Perhaps the only exceptions are our aforementioned droid friend BD-1, who is definitely the stand-out character, easily and immediately joining R2-D2, BB-8, and T3-M4 as droids who communicate entirely in beeps and whistles but convey such character through their actions. In BD’s case, he’s bouncy and curious, and almost childlike in his wonder at the locales Cal takes him through but also brave, giving him an endearing quality. I also have a soft spot for Greez, the four-armed alien pilot of the Mantis; he’s very tropey (we’ve all seen the gruff jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold thing before) but he’s played well enough and easily stands out from the cardboard cutout cast around him.
It’s funny, but for a game named after them, Jedi: Fallen Order doesn’t do a great job with presenting the Jedi in its cast. I know the white knight “heroes of the galaxy” image is no longer the dominant one we see, but Fallen Order takes that and runs with it in the opposite direction. In the prequels, part of the point is to show that the Order was as bloated and ineffective as the Republic it served, but although they were weighed down by blindness and bloated bureaucratic traditions, they still had heroes like Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon. Every other Jedi we see here however is a straight-up dick. This is especially the case with older characters and ones we see in flashbacks, like Cal’s master Jaro and the weird loner archaeologist Eno Cordova, as both come across as either abusive arseholes or weirdly misanthropic. There is something genuinely compelling buried in here; the idea of presenting the Jedi as something other than heroes is a great one, and Fallen Order tries to explore what effect that had on the young people they raised – notably that it screwed them right up. It’s a classic postmodern angle; indeed, one of my favourite pieces of poetry, This Be the Verse by Philip Larkin sums it up in the opening lines of “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do,” and it’s this notion which seems to underpin Jedi: Fallen Order’s depiction of the Jedi. The important point here is that despite that thought-provoking core, Fallen Order misses the mark by engaging in widespread and petty cynicism. That has its place, certainly, but when not well-managed it comes across as insincere and pessimistic purely for the sake of being so.
The villains aren’t up to much either. Main baddie The Second Sister fits right in with the main cast with her (say it with me) tragic backstory; also she’s a Darth Vader knock-off because the Empire is devoid of ideas I guess. The Ninth Sister is a returnee from some different piece of Star Wars media but if like me you’ve never read it you’ll find her a largely pointless inclusion given all her character writing is in a different source. This inclusion of characters from other bits of media is apparent in plenty of Star Wars products, particularly as Disney seek to establish a new Expanded Universe of their own, so also keep your eyes peeled for other cameos, such as new canon mainstay Saw Gerrera (once again played by Forest Whitaker) and also Tarfful, who you’ll only know if you’re really into liner notes for Revenge of the Sith, probably. Griping aside, one nod I genuinely love is the inclusion of Imperial droids from the same line as Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO from Rogue One, right down the fighting animations recreated from his movements in that film. I guess these kind of cross-media appearances are very de jour as the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues its unstoppable warping of the geek landscape, but there is a risk of alienation attached to it, and you might feel a bit lost if you’re not up to speed with every single referenced piece of media.
Does the plot really matter though, if the game is good? Well, yes, but to its credit Jedi: Fallen Order is that pleasant beast, a game where the actual gameplay really does save it. Fallen Order is basically a Souls-like so you probably know what to expect. Combat is focused on one-on-one throwdowns or small groups which converge upon Cal, and our hero can do most of the usual Souls stuff: it’s all about locking onto a target, slowly strafing around, and methodically waiting for your opening to strike, all the while balancing dodging and parrying so you don’t get ganked in turn. One blessed excision from the Souls format is the stamina bar; Cal can swing his saber with impunity, though if he blocks too much and attempts to turtle the game punishes you by breaking his guard. This is good; it encourages agile combat and quick resolutions, teaching you to aggressively parry enemies rather than go in shields up. I’d have liked a little more variety in enemies mind; stormtroopers don’t come in too many flavours in this game, and so once you’ve learned to deal with only two or three main variants you’re basically set and although each planet you visit has its own variety of local creatures to fight, they’re more or less all of a type.
Both the Force powers Cal learns and the saber combat feel great. Frankly I was flabbergasted by it; I’m too used to Star Wars games falling flat somewhere in the gameplay that I suppose I expected very little, but to its credit Fallen Order more or less nails it! The way lightsabers are supposed to function, i.e. cutting through everything, is a recurring problem for video games to solve as it makes a player character a bit too overpowered, but anything less than that risks reducing Star Wars’s most iconic weapon to nothing more than a glowing wiffle bat. Fallen Order manages to avoid that problem – mostly. Disney’s executive meddling apparently meant that Respawn couldn’t have limbs of humanoids flying everywhere but animals and scenery are fair game for the lightsaber’s customary power and you really do feel massive as you tear through both. Higher difficulties present a problem as you end up slapping away at enemies that have no right to survive repeated saber hits to the dome and in my opinion it makes Jedi: Fallen Order a fantastic advert for just dialing the difficulty down and reveling in the power fantasy, especially as there’s nothing but bragging rights on offer.
The worlds we get to explore are another Souls-like facet to Fallen Order. Traversing them borrows that franchise’s loose Metroidvania formula, dropping you into a large and semi-nonlinear area. There’s a bit more direction to Fallen Order though, which makes sense given it’s got a more mainstream audience in mind. You get pointed roughly towards objectives and you have a more obvious purpose when you visit planets, though the game is content to let you explore a little, and as Cal learns more powers and broadens his equipment you can freely return to places and find new places to reach. A majority of the places you go to are a part of the narrative though, with very little exploration needed to fully uncover each planet’s map. Part of that is because the main reason to explore is to find hidden chests in the world and to find objects which Cal can interact with to absorb a memory of whoever lived there before. The latter functions only to give you a little more storytelling, and the former only ever contain cosmetic items; because the chests only contain cosmetics, there’s no pressure to go out of your way unless you’re really desperate to collect all of Cal’s ponchos. Even better (and in a stunning rarity for EA) there aren’t even any microtransactions; amazingly it’s a complete package, a great rarity in the modern AAA gaming world.
The bottom line I drew from my time was that Jedi: Fallen Order is definitely a cool game. I think I wasn’t expecting anything so grand as what we got, to be honest; while there are some excellent Star Wars games out there, I can’t say I thought a modern AAA EA release would ever be among them. Yet more surprising is that a watered-down Dark Souls type game captured my attention; I’m reminded of Darksiders III, which too was a less complete Souls-like and yet I also enjoyed playing it. Beyond just being a perfectly fine game, it’s a very solid Star Wars experience and that elevates far beyond just being a good game. I couldn’t comment on how enjoyable it is for a non-fan, but I’d personally thoroughly recommend it.
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.