Star Wars Jedi: Survivor Review
A force to be reckoned with
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was a calculated start for a new single player franchise. It introduced Cal Kestis as a force-sensitive protagonist and had him working alongside a plucky droid companion, named BD-1. With adequate third-person lightsaber combat, it was faithful to the Star Wars universe and featured visuals pulled straight from the movies. But while it looked the part, it never lived up to its potential. Frequent backtracking, contrived world traversal, and obstacle-course level design were among its biggest problems. The developers at Respawn had the chance to rectify these issues with the sequel. Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is an improvement across the board, offering more pleasant exploration and better world design, and its only major flaw is some disappointing technical performance.
Respawn take another stab at it with this improved sequel
It has been five years since the events of Fallen Order and things have changed for our hero. Sometime during the time skip, Cal’s old crew went their own way, leaving him in control of the Mantis spaceship. But he’s not alone at the start of Survivor. Cal is working with a different rebel team and their latest objective is to hijack a Senator’s cruiser on the city-planet of Coruscant. After introducing some basic action and platforming in a stunning opening, the team pull off the hijack successfully. But hostiles arrive and most of Cal’s new team is killed. Cal escapes, but his spaceship, Mantis, is in bad shape. Wanted by the Empire, his only hope is to visit an old friend on the remote planet of Koboh.
Koboh is the largest world in Survivor and a place that players will come to know well. The planet is crawling with Empire forces and bandits (who command an army of droids) that are all keen to kill a Jedi like Cal. As in the last game, meditation spots are scattered around to allow Cal to upgrade skills or rest to refill health stims, which respawns enemies like in Dark Souls. Fast travel is now possible between meditation points, eliminating most backtracking annoyances from the first game. The various platforming sections—wall running, rope swinging, ledge traversal etc—have been pushed further apart and are blended more naturally into the environment, which makes the world more believable and pleasant to navigate. Even many of the patrolling hostiles can be circumnavigated, allowing players to engage when they choose. Fortunately not everybody on Koboh is hostile; a central area has a settlement with traders, miners, and a special cantina.
Pyloon’s Saloon becomes a home away from home for Cal. The Mantis’s old pilot, Greez, owns and runs the weary watering hole. When Cal first arrives, the cantina’s interior is dark and dilapidated, with a serving droid and a few outcasts lingering in musty corners. This saloon will come to represent Cal’s progress. Characters he meets will return to it and bring it to life. Some will then provide valuable information, like the location of bounty hunters or underground puzzle chambers. This is a brilliant and natural way to foster exploration. A few characters just want to chat or play music, letting players take a breather. Once the second floor opens, a fun holotactics mini-game gives players another downtime activity. As Cal’s adventure progresses the saloon becomes more welcoming, so there is a great sense of achievement and it is one of the game’s highlights.
Stop by the saloon for information, music, or a fun game of holotactics
Eventually Cal will explore the tunnels under the saloon, where he stumbles across crumbling Jedi chambers and an antique droid. This old droid has vague information about a hidden planet, Tanalorr, that could be a safe haven. Similar chambers are spread across Koboh, providing a trail of Jedi-crumbs to follow. One such location has a Jedi frozen in time, suspended in a healing fluid that has kept him alive for hundreds of years. Cal frees this Jedi, named Dagan Gera, but he turns out to be hostile and they fight. Dagan hates the Jedi, believing they betrayed him, and is no longer party to their pacifist peculiarities. Dagan seeks Tanalorr for conquest and Cal must find it first to stop him.
Cal will travel to other planets and moons on his way to Tanalorr. As he ventures forth, he will reunite with his old crew, including Cere and Merrin, which is an enjoyable part of the narrative. These returning characters talk about their reasons for leaving during those five missing years and this brings out their personalities. Greez is still his typical comedic self, eventually rejoining the Mantis. Merrin is strong, defiant and caring. Cere is driven by a new goal to reconstruct the Jedi archive. Since Cal is a stoic Jedi, his emotional reactions are muted but there are enough hints to make him more nuanced than in the last game. A few new characters add depth, and the layered narrative shares good qualities with the original movie trilogy. Both old and new friends are keen to help locate the hidden planet.
Some friends are willing to take it a step further and join Cal in battle. Merrin, the force-sensitive Nightsister that joined the crew near the end of the previous game, spends the most time with Cal. The pair travel across the desert planet of Jedha together, exploring caves and ancient temples. Since she can teleport, Cal does his platforming moves while she blinks between ledges and makes jokes. Her presence elevates the experience, like it did in the first game. Cal’s less frequent companion is a gun-slinging friend named Bode, who survived the opening attack on Coruscant. Bode has a jetpack that allows him to neatly float while players climb walls, so both companions are smartly implemented. And they’re both extremely useful in combat, stunning or interrupting opponents that would otherwise be tricky to manage alone. But Cal will still face most enemies solo, with only BD-1 as his wingman and a lightsaber as his weapon of choice.
Merrin is useful in more ways than one
Lightsaber combat revolves around five difference stances. The single and double-blade stances carry over from the previous game. Three new ones have been added: dual blade (one per hand), crossguard (slow but powerful), and blaster stance. Yes, Cal now has the ability to use a blaster pistol alongside his lightsaber. The blaster’s ammunition is recharged by performing lightsaber attacks, so it still requires swordplay. Nevertheless, it is awesome against ranged attackers. Crossguard’s slower attack speed is offset by its exceptional damage output, rewarding good timing. And finally, dual blade is fast and frantic, great for pesky animals that attack en masse. You can pick any two stances and swap between them during battle. Dedicated upgrade paths and tempered skill-point acquisition mean it is best to pick two and stick with them. Regardless of stances used, blocking and parrying are still important, and the latter will break opponent guards so subsequent attacks hit harder.
Force powers are also handy to deploy during battle. As before, push is extremely useful to shunt enemies off ledges (always fun) and pull will bring them onto your deadly blade. Slow is like an ultimate power, used when enough charge has been built up, although it is underwhelming until it gets supercharged near the finale. New to the sequel is the ability to mind-control enemies and briefly make them fight by your side, which helps redirect attention. All non-lightsaber powers can be upgraded, unlocking powerful pushes and a longer mind-control. As before, when low on health, BD-1 will provide a necessary health stim on command. The plucky companion will also unlock the ability to take control of hostile droids, turning them into allies until their demise.
With the new stances and various cool force abilities, the combat is immensely enjoyable and a step above the last game. Even though many patrols can be avoided, the option to engage is too tantalizing to resist, bringing back fond memories of Tomb Raider 2013. Part of this is because the action is nimble and also because the smaller skirmishes are quick to overcome. Humor also remains a key reason for why you might want to engage. The stormtroopers have funny little chats about the desert ghost (Merrin) when you come upon them unawares. The battle droids from the prequel trilogy take the jokes to another level, whether from their excessive hubris or saying, “Am I winning?” when they take a sliver of Cal’s health.
There are many different enemy types to dispatch, from droids with spinning shock-sticks to brutish indigenous animals that spit bile or roll about. An excellent tactical guide will keep track of them all. Bounty-hunters present a good infrequent challenge, and some ambush with a formidable posse. Boss types (like legendary creatures or story characters) usually take more time to defeat. One iconic Star Wars character offered the toughest challenge because it forced the use of a specific stance and limited the stim packs to four, and unfortunately it had annoying cutscenes that took seconds to skip. But the game does not have many difficulty spikes and seems more balanced than its predecessor overall.
Platforming is much quicker and smoother too, because Cal starts with a wide array of abilities carried over from the previous game. But, in true metroidvania fashion, there is still more to learn. Inaccessible areas appear early, yet these are not obnoxious because they’re usually off the beaten path and indicated clearly on the great 3D map that is easier to read because levels are broader. As the story progresses, Cal's repertoire will grow with a mid-air dash and a trinket that allows him to zip through forcefields. Better yet is the ability to tame animals so they can be ridden. When you climb somewhere high, chances are there will be a winged creature nearby to hang-glide to a lower area. One animal even ascends those slippery slopes, laughing in the face of Fallen Order’s overuse of these as a means of traversal.
Exploration is enticing with the slicker platforming and because of the many diverse rewards. The special nodes that grant skill points, health boosts, and additional force power can be found all over, usually through an obscure side route. Force tears are rare challenge arenas for platforming or combat. Underground Jedi chambers are the dedicated puzzle rooms, varying in size with mechanics involving powering bridges or painting ignitable matter on walls; these puzzle rooms could be more polished, though. Collectibles can be traded for gameplay advantages, like perks, an extra health stim, or blaster improvements. And there are loads of cosmetics, including, BD-1 skins, hair styles, and clothing. Even the force echoes are far more interesting; most are succinct snapshots of the past that are relevant or provide good lore. Later in the game, every collectible can be marked on the map to make exploring even more appetizing.
Glide around the landscape to fall into the lava pool of your choice
And the game is put together extremely well structurally. Placement of meditation points is often perfect when it comes to progression. Shortcuts are plentiful, and they are usually available just before tough battles to ensure that death rarely means traveling too far. Even the most constrained areas in Survivor are more enjoyable to navigate than the most open ones in Fallen Order. Koboh in particular is full of so many regions to explore that every return trip to the planet is like unlocking a new world. It is worth playing the game after the credits too, because there is more narrative content from the surviving characters, and the new-game-plus mode is tempting given the other lightsaber stances. Combine that with the helpful companions, smoother platforming, interesting narrative, and there is almost nothing that has not improved over the original.
Sadly, like a few other games this year, the technical performance is the weakest link. The good news is that it is generally stable, without many bugs or crashes. There are some clipping issues and the AI did get stuck, but neither happens often enough to matter. Low framerate is a regular deterrent. The biggest planet, Koboh, is also the biggest culprit. While some areas run at a decent 50-70 frames-per-second on a PC near the recommended specs, other spots cleave the frames in half. Even using the lowest possible settings makes little difference and just makes everything look blurry. If that wasn’t bad enough, the abrupt changes in framerate when traversing are annoying. It’s rarely unplayable and many places run smoothly; Jedha, for example, runs consistently amazing, so that could indicate that Koboh is doing too much and needs a redesign.
As it stands now though, the game looks stunning. The planets are all detailed, with some great texture work and complex world geometry. Koboh is varied, from its deep mines containing phosphorescent plants to its foggy expanses littered with twisted dead trees. Cutscenes are well animated and carefully directed, with great character voices and expert lighting. Enemy troopers and battle droids look and sound like their movie inspirations. Intricate details inside the saloon contrast with expansive vistas of Jedi structures built into desert mountains. The sounds of blaster fire are complemented by the hum of Cal’s lightsaber, and even the musical score is a match for the movies. Like its predecessor, the presentation is extremely faithful and a true joy to experience.
Can Cal bring balance to the force?
Respawn have navigated well beyond the muddy slopes of Fallen Order to lovingly craft a sequel that improves it in almost every way. Survivor’s main narrative is engaging, thanks to an exceptional saloon and a reuniting of old friends. Combat is deep with many satisfying lightsaber stances, and remains enjoyable against varied enemy types. World traversal and navigation flow well, due to fast-travel, slick initial movement, optional encounters, and a good platforming distribution. Even exploration is more appealing, with many gameplay and cosmetic benefits found in hidden corners. Fallen Order had some miscalculations that led to an uneven experience. Star Wars Jedi: Survivor recalibrates to achieve balance, and it will only lead to great things should Cal’s journey continue.