Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Review
Backtracking is a slippery proposition for a padawan
George Lucas began his Star Wars saga in the middle and worked backwards. First he told us about Luke Skywalker’s rise, and years later he went back and detailed Anakin Skywalker’s fall. Starting from the middle gave the universe depth and authenticity. But the prequels struggled. The magic seemed lost, and retreading ancient ground may have actually damaged the franchise. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order mirrors George Lucas’ approach to the series. Not by going back in time, but by covering old ground in a physical sense. While Fallen Order has some dominant lightsaber combat, it slips up by forcing backtracking through levels that contain contrivances and coincidences.
The Empire's Inquisitors are hunting down all Force users
Fallen Order is set around the time that Luke began his journey in Episode IV. It has been years since the Jedi Order was decimated, after Darth Sidious cunningly ordered the execution of many Jedis and young padawans. Cal Kestis was one of the padawans destined to perish, but he escaped and fled to a backwater planet to become a scrapper. And it is here that your journey starts, in one of the best openings in the franchise. As Cal, you foolishly use the Force to rescue a friend, drawing the ire of an Inquisitor known as the Second Sister. She establishes herself as a powerful threat, sent by the Empire to quash any remaining Force users. The Second Sister almost kills Cal in this electric opening, before he is saved by crew from an unknown starship.
Cal is rescued by two strangers, Cere and Greez, but they have an ulterior motive for their apparent altruism. Cere wants Cal to visit an ancient vault and unlock its secrets with his Jedi powers, and she has hired Greez (captain of the starship Mantis) to ferry her around the galaxy. Inside the vault is a holographic recording explaining that the names of force-sensitive children were locked away in a holocron device. The only way to access the information—and restore the Jedi Order—is to visit three tombs on three worlds. There is one further catch: Cal must take a small droid with him.
BD-1 is the special droid that will go with Cal when he travels to different planets. The little guy holds holographic recordings that will help to decipher the forgotten tombs. He is chicken sized and plucky, eclipsing the likes of BB-8 because of his integration and animated reactions. Although he does not speak, he shows plenty of emotion with beeps and head bobs. He spends most of the journey hanging off Cal’s shoulder and dropping down to open doors. The times when the two are separated provide strong feelings of inadequacy—a good indication of a valuable bond.
The crew of the Mantis is small yet reliable
The crew of the Mantis remains the same for most of the game’s seventeen-hour runtime. Only near the end does a new, and more interesting, member join the ranks. It is probably no coincidence that the last few hours, aside from the boss-battle backlog, are strong and more faithful than the rest. The story initially presents itself like Knights of the Old Republic (2003), but this is deceptive. Main crew members are given basic development. Cal is stoic and agreeable; Cere has a history to uncover but not a surprising one. And Greez is the grumpy comedic relief that does his best work when he continues to pour spice on food while the others argue. The story and characters are up to the task for what is classically a ‘hero’s journey’, but Fallen Order behaves like a prelude to something bigger.
After Cal travels to a planet on the Mantis, the game does most of its heavy lifting with lightsaber battles. Combat is not acrobatic like it was in Jedi Outcast (2002). It is more like Dark Souls, with clunky and counter-based swordplay. There are basic moves: block, parry, and dodge. Leveling up will grant additional abilities like a leap attack, saber throw, and a way to deflect blaster fire while sprinting. These additional abilities make combat more fun but it remains grounded. Action can be imprecise too; the scorching lightsaber might go straight through enemies and do zero damage because they were in a specific animation. The same is true for Cal, if he dodges. This inaccuracy evens out but creates undue unpredictability.
Enemies are suitably varied across the main planets. Indigenous animals are often hostile and protective of their corner of the universe. Strange flying bugs attack from range. Others bury themselves and emerge for a sneak attack. Stormtroopers are a regular threat. They guard tombs and appear when the Second Sister narrows down Cal’s location. The human opponents are trickier with their ranged blasters and flamethrowers, but many still get close with shock-baton equivalents. Usually stormtroopers appear in groups and behave like thugs in the Batman Arkham games. It can be funny when the final enemy conveys panic and it is nice to see them react to Cal’s abilities.
You'll get a kick out of combat
Cal’s Force powers improve his chances in battle. Push, Pull, and Slow come into play during combat, but they are not all available at the start. It is endlessly fun to shunt a bunch of enemies off ledges. Pulling down flying critters for a quick saber stab is a simple pleasure. Slow is a great way to get hits during the tedious and high-health boss encounters. But there are not many powers here—no mind trick, no lightning, and no heal. Fortunately, Cal can restore health by asking BD-1 to give him a stim pack. For most of the game there are only 3-5 partial heals available, depending on how much you explore the worlds.
The planets are structured like the modern Tomb Raider games. Meditation spots are scattered like fireplaces from Lara’s adventures; they serve as save points and allow skill upgrades. To resupply healing packs, you must rest, which respawns all enemies. Areas are connected by narrow channels and there is considerable vertical overlap with underground caves and cliffside paths. The 3D map helps orientation, but it is still confounding to plot the optimum route from the Mantis to the heart of a tomb. Once you complete a major objective, its back to the ship the old fashioned way. There are a few shortcuts—ropes, one-way doors, and elevators—but these are not always transparent. With no fast-travel, the twisted levels are clunky and backtracking becomes tiresome when returning to the same planet.
Fallen Order takes a standard metroidvania approach where you acquire tools and open new routes over time. This means returning with a double-jump to leap over a deadly chasm, or there might be a basic puzzle to solve with Force powers. BD-1 gets plenty of extra functionality, like splicing access panels or ascending up a zip-line. Cal can use Push to create bridges and explore underwater zones with a rebreather. Many tools are given to the player haphazardly. Workbenches are encountered fortuitously for necessary BD-1 upgrades and Cal falls into a deep pit on the planet Dathomir to stumble upon some climbing gloves. Too many devices are introduced coincidentally.
The level design and backtracking is also hindered by artificial navigation. Ropes hang for Cal to summon, but only once he gets the Pull power via a chance encounter. Movement linked to wall-running and sliding are the two biggest contributors to the gamey level design. Wall-running channels stick out like a sore thumb. It’s not possible to run along any vertical surface—only specific places with red lighting or obvious grooves. The huge downward slopes, made from mud or ice, which take Cal from somewhere high to somewhere low, look worse and are overused. On the planet Kashyyyk, there is a ludicrous sequence of continuous sliding across several muddy tree branches. Unlike similar games, the world is pieced together unnaturally.
World traversal might drive you up the wall
Optional side areas can be accessed, and these detours are placed to entice brief diversions. Unfortunately they get less interesting with time. The countless random chests contain hideous ponchos and bland paint jobs for the Mantis—nothing for gameplay. Echoes are hidden in hard-to-reach places and these are typically unimportant stories that might explain how a stormtrooper was clobbered by rocks. There are a few side bosses to uncover, which are usually just stronger versions of the animals endemic to the planet. Aside from some rare stim packs, the optional exploration is drastically dull.
So the levels in Fallen Order are unnecessarily twisted and gated for what is predominantly an action game. They are also too rigid and claustrophobic for a more ambitious title. It settles into a peculiar metroidvania middle ground that falls well short of something like Darksiders. Perhaps the game started development as a linear experience and branched out, or had plans of a deeper adventure that was cut down. Cal says at one point that he needs to take a stealthy approach into hostile territory, only to leap from a ledge and cut down foes seconds later. There is no stealth, which feels like a missing component given Cal is being pursued. In any case, Fallen Order would have fared better as either a focused, linear adventure or a more complex RPG with expansive worlds.
At least the game performs well on PC. There are a few stutters when entering some new areas, but these only last seconds. The third-person camera does get caught up in enclosed spaces, although most combat occurs in the open. A few bugs were encountered. Two lesser bosses killed themselves; one spider drowned and an AT-ST shot itself in the foot. A couple of the regular enemies also died from unknown causes—probably afraid of more backtracking. Most of the presentation aspects are of good quality. In particular, the panoramic views of planets are stunning. Motion capture in the cutscenes is excellent, and character designs are refined and paired with clear voice work. Animations during the game are not quite as fluid, with Cal’s running gait looking preposterous when strafing. A controller is recommended but action and platforming worked fine with the keyboard and mouse after a few binding adjustments.
Cal has walked far, but a bigger journey awaits
As a teaser for something grander, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is perfectly adequate. Its imprecise combat does not hinder the action to a great extent. Using Force abilities to shove and slice through stormtroopers remains satisfying. Even the story fits well into the series and conjures some good foes to battle. It is the game’s level design that compromises the overall integrity. Artificial navigation channels and arbitrary gadgets are unconvincing methods of traversal and progression. The levels are further tortured with spurts of backtracking and horrendous loot. It is a straightforward action game, squeezed into a metroidvania template for no gain. George Lucas and Fallen Order both illuminate a fact within the same universe: covering old ground is a slippery slope.