The problem with reviewing Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is that a chunk of my experience feels less relevant now. I was cautious on progressing because I was warned that a major pre-release update could break my saves. It didn’t, but the eventual patch did make Survivor a better game…but one I haven’t had much of a chance to play. It’s a weird feeling, where the game I played (and enjoyed) had serious caveats that might no longer exist. Poof! In fact, what I can say with confidence is the review process for Survivor is sadly archetypical of modern games and the compromises they force on critics, and then by extension, you.
But we’ll get to that later. For now, you probably want something like a review before the industry navel-gazing begins. So, here goes:
Cal Kestis is back, baby! [pauses for applause] Cal…who? Maybe ol’ Cal Kestis, despite the fiery red hair, wasn’t the most memorable Jedi the galaxy far, far away has ever known, but the combination of Dark Souls, Dark Forces, and Metroid proved a favorably potent combination in 2019’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. It felt extremely good to smack the block button and send blaster fire back at waves of stormtroopers, and parry the attacks of enemies who dared strike you. It was more than a gimmick—it was good. So would you be shocked to learn a bigger, deeper version of that same formula, now called Jedi: Survivor, is also good?
At least what I’ve played so far, which amounts to 10 hours and escaping its grandiose first planet, Koboh, an area defined by gorgeous mountain terrain, pesky raiders picking on the very much not-Jedi residents nearby, and tiny bird-like animals called the Rawka that the game defines as an enemy, forcing me to kill dozens of them to continue. I’m sorry, poor Rawka, but if you charge at me with an unblockable attack, I will toss your cute ass off a cliff. I could have easily spent another few hours poking at Koboh, before realizing the last few hours beyond that wouldn’t even be accessible until I came back later with more powers.
Which, you know, is how it usually goes in these games, for better and sometimes worse.
Survivor is defined by its peeling layers, whether it’s the intertwined landscapes in front of you and the goofily arbitrary gatekeeping defined by upgrades you don’t yet have, or access to a slew of welcomed combat nuances, including stance options that change your saber moveset. I’ve settled, for example, on dual wielding a lightsaber broken in two that specializes in breaking stamina for one-on-one fights, and a double-bladed lightsaber for crowd control. It’s sick. And that’s without talking about slotting perks, which provide some further customizability for your playstyle, the absolutely endless fashion options for Cal and your lightsaber. (You can give him—Cal, not the saber!—a mullet. But the red hair stays.)
It’s been fun. I’ve had a good time. It’s also been a time marred by gnarly performances issues on my PlayStation 5 copy of the game, resulting in…well, that’s where this whole review conceit falls apart. See, I could give you two paragraphs of the frame rate issues that partially defined my 10 hours, but those issues seem to have largely disappeared when a last-minute patch for the game dropped. Frame rate hiccups bother me less than other people I know, but still, they did notably impact my ability to play the game, and those experiences affected my impressions of Jedi Survivor. But it all happened in a version you’ll never play?
Part of the reason I capped myself at 10 hours was because I was told the patch might break my save. That’s admittedly unusual for the review process—usually patches during the review period don’t post any danger to your progress. But I was faced with the choice between sprinting through the whole game before the patch came out, or possibly replaying a ton of the game after losing my saves, or I could just wait and see what this patched version was going to be like. I tried to split the difference, and I’m not sure who it helped.
None of these is an ideal scenario for the reviewer, the developers who worked on the game, criticism as a form, or interested players wondering how it all turned out. And it’s not even really anyone’s fault? The folks who offered me the game early were frank, honest, straightforward. There was no deception. The system has just sorta arrived at this place that puts everyone in a weird spot for a game clearly coming in hot and the developers trying to make it sing better at closing time. (They seem to have done it, even if you should wait for Digital Foundry to give a real analysis.)
And frankly…look. I also only played 10 hours because I’m human, and it seemed ludicrous to whip through a game that one colleague told me took them 52 hours to finish (they did a lot of side quests). I’d be racing through a version of the game that nobody but reviewers would ever play. Marathons don’t cultivate enjoyment, let alone being able to develop meaningful feelings about what I’m experiencing. It’s not how many people play games.
This piece has, admittedly, gone off the rails, but if this had been a straightforward review, and at the end, I put an italicized section that said “based on 10 hours,” what would you say? If I’d finished the game but confessed at the end that the patched version was importantly different from the one I’d spent my time with, what then? Which review is worth more?
I can’t tell you if, over my 10 hours, Survivor will end up sticking the landing on its story. Right now it’s barely gotten airborne. The opening hour is rough, featuring a bait-and-switch cast of potentially interesting characters, before the game aimlessly wanders towards a strange plot involving elements of the High Republic era. The gameplay has firmly grabbed me, but the story, at least so far, feels like fancy window dressing for the cool gameplay that surrounds it, while I patiently wait for Fallen Order’s charming gang to get back together and rock. That might change 40 hours later, but it doesn’t change where I’m at 10 hours in, and man, 10 hours is a pretty long time!
The deputy editor at Edge, Chris Schilling, tweeted this earlier in the week. I’m not sure if he was referring to Survivor or not, but it’s irrelevant, because it’s about the broader point here:
My response, now with the ability to fix an embarrassing typo: “TV reviewers drop reviews of shows without having seen the entire season. Feels like we need to move games in the same direction. It’s not fair to play games that fast, nor judge them played at that pace.”
Last December, HBO sent me an email out of the blue with a link that made me very excited: “hey, if you want to watch basically every episode of the The Last of Us TV show right now, you can.” But the link came with a pretty important caveat that gave me pause: the show wasn’t done yet. Important elements of the visual and sound effects, unarguably key to a spectacle show about a zombie-like apocalypse, might look unfinished or missing altogether.
I gambled that the pilot, at least, was mostly done, and watched it with my wife. We enjoyed the heck out of it, but made the mutual decision to wait until the episodes were properly airing, when the creators had done as much work as possible before the episode had to air.
I’m glad I made that choice, but I’m also not a TV critic!
Reviews for The Last of Us that dropped at the start of the season were written with these caveats. Nearly across the board, TV critics, like Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall, praised it.
(Side note: Watching screeners for movies and TV ahead of time is an aesthetic nightmare. With some The Last of Us episodes, for example, my name and e-mail address was plastered on the screen the entire time. It was so distracting that I couldn’t engage with it.)
Survivor also seems great. But the version I played wasn’t fully cooked, and it sometimes made the combat and platforming, key to what makes this game work, feel worse. A better version showed up at the last second, but I’ve spent less than an hour inside that world.
Games are not movies, and the technical performance of games—for playability reasons, for accessibility reasons, because it’s cooler—is important. But it also feels weird to handwave away issues, and squint at what’s possible. Importantly, I don’t have an answer to all of this.
For the past few weeks, my lunchtime has been spent watching episodes of the spectacular documentary series Psych Odyssey, which chronicles the development of Double Fine’s Psychonauts 2 in great and excruciating detail. The series is both inspiring and dispiriting, revealing how challenging the game development process is, the unintended ripple effects of decisions made months (or years) before their consequences are truly felt, and how painfully easy it is to have an idea balloon into something bigger, more daunting, and possibly wrong.
It’s almost too much information.
More than any interview I’ve ever conducted, more than any feature I’ve ever written, it is the most honest depiction of game development I’ve experienced, and helps underscore the basic tenet you’ve heard a million times before about how miraculous it is that any game ever ships. It’s wild, heartbreaking, and the tenet will probably always be true. And sheesh, I could not get it out of my head while playing through this rickety early version of Survivor, knowing a better version of Survivor was around the corner, and weighing my obligations.
Of course, it’s all made easier by the fact that, even if I had to sometimes squint the way TV critics had to squint at their screeners, that Survivor is/seems/feels very good. I liked this formula in 2019, and I like this more complicated version of the same formula in 2023.
I like how funny the writing is, especially for the battle droids, who are filled with seemingly endless one-liners mulling over their cursed existence. I like how naturalistic the platforming is, as the game makes a genuine attempt to hide its exploration tells in the environment, rather than spilling yellow paint everywhere. And I always like parrying an enemy four times in a row, breaking their stamina, and going to town with a goddamn glowing energy sword.
And so, after 10 hours, I like Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. I’m pretty sure. That sounds wishy-washy. Maybe some mathematical precision will help.
Pretty sure / 10. I think that’s an 8.
There we go. That’s where I’m at. Is that a review?
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