This article originally appeared on VICE US.
I am a spinning ball of light and death in the bowels of the Empire. Surrounded by Stormtroopers wielding stun batons, I single out the group's leader and use the Force to bring him to me. The momentum of his journey drives his body on to the end of my lightsaber. I discard the corpse and fling my lightsaber behind my back, catching a stun baton just before it hits my back. I spin the blade around me, cutting down the remaining forces. A door opens and more Stormtroopers fill the hallway, firing blasters. I run toward them, parrying their fire as I close the distance, picking them off with their own blasts. They’re dead by the time I reach them.
For the first time in years, I'm playing a great new Star Wars video game, something I'd lost hope of seeing. EA's track record with the license has been bad-to-disastrous since getting an exclusivity deal in the wake of Disney's acquisition of the franchise from George Lucas. The franchise's video game glory days of the 90s and 2000s have at times felt as lost and irrecoverable as the Jedi themselves.
That theme of a new beginning in the wake of catastrophic failure is at the heart of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Fallen Order. This is the story of padawan Cal Kestis struggling to survive after Order 66 in Revenge of the Sith decimated the Jedi Order. Still a youngling when the attack came, Cal fled and ended up on a scrap planet breaking down ships and other detritus from the Clone Wars. The Empire is in charge now, and Cal is just trying to keep his head down. When an accident on the job causes him to use the Force to save a co-worker, Cal brings the Empire down on his head. He meets up with another survivor of Order 66 and journeys across the galaxy in search of information that could help him reform the Jedi Order.
Story and style are two of Fallen Order’s strengths. The cast includes characters actors Cameron Monaghan as Cal, Forest Whitaker reprising his role as morally compromised freedom fighter Saw Gerrera, and Tony Amendola as Jedi Eno Cordova. The London Symphony Orchestra performs the music and every story beat and musical cue hits just right. The story itself is more than just a revenge fantasy. It’s a meditation on trauma, loss, and what survivors owe the past.
Cal and his friends are survivors of both war and torture. These are characters defined by the pain of their past and Fallen Order explores those themes without flinching. The writing is superb and the story beats all land. This is a game, explicitly, about trauma and failure. The Jedi are destroyed. The Empire won. So what do the Jedi do now? Without the Order and its traditions, is Cal even really a Jedi?
Cal certainly wields a lightsaber like a Jedi and it’s a joy to swing one Fallen Order. That means blocking, parrying, and pushing my blade through stormtroopers. Every combat encounter is a small dual. Both Cal and the enemy have stamina meters. Blocking reduces the stamina meter, and a well timed parry will eliminate it, opening an enemy up to be killed in one hit.
On the surface, Fallen Order seems like a Dark Souls game. I focused on parrying opponents and dodged to create opening where my lightsaber would fit neatly into the back of a screaming Stormtrooper. I pushed up on the d-pad to deliver estus flask-like healing potions which I’d recover by meditating at bonfire-like save points. Meditating at these save points also returned all of the defeated enemies in an area to life, just like in Dark Souls, Bloodborne, or Sekirio.
But Fallen Order is not a Dark Souls game. FromSoftware’s games inspired Fallen Order’s combat, but anyone looking for a hardcore combat experience will be dissapointed. Fallen Order’s bosses are few, and they don’t ask the same level of dedication, instinct, and memorization that FromSoftware bosses require. I also felt detached from Cal and his actions in a way I don’t feel in a FormSoftware game. In Dark Souls or Sekiro, I always felt directly in control of my character. In Fallen Order, I felt like I was controlling a puppet. It’s not bad, just different.
Fallen Order also comes with smart difficulty settings, something FromSoftware has avoided. For a lot of games, upping the difficulty means turning the enemies into bullet sponges that deal massive damage to the player. In Jedi, the enemy health and damage Cal’s lightsaber does remain constant across its four difficulties. What changes are the enemies aggression, the damage they deal, and the parry window. In story mode, the lowest difficulty, the parry window is huge and Cal won’t take much damage. In Jedi Grandmaster, the parry window is a small Sekiro-like blink of an eye, and the damage is intense. I played on the second to highest difficulty and felt it struck a good balance between difficulty and frustration.
Fallen Order is more Metroid than Dark Souls. Combat is fun, but so is exploration. As I moved through Kashyyyk and Dathomir, I encountered jumps I couldn’t make, walls I couldn’t scale, and unreachable chests. Hours later, I’d get a new Force power or piece of equipment that’d let me return to those moments and conquer. The extra exploring rewarded me with cosmetic upgrades and bits of story that filled in the details of the setting and Cal’s quest. It was, mostly, fun.
But Fallen Order has a lot of rough edges too. It’s a good game with a great story, but technical issues plagued my time playing it on the PlayStation 4 Pro. Over my more than twenty hours playing, I experienced two hard crashes, freezes while the game loaded, and texture pop-in so bad that I once wandered through empty space waiting for an ice cavern’s environments to load for a full thirty seconds. These were frustrating, but they were nothing compared to the annoying and finicky nature of Fallen Order’s platforming.
Fallen Order has a lot of environmental puzzles and platforming. Cal has to navigate the high trees of the Wookiee homeworld and slide across narrow ledges on alien worlds. He jumps, he runs along walls, and uses vines to swing through the air. This doesn’t always work. I repeatedly missed jumps that seemed simple ony to plummet to my death. This happened most often during portions of the game where Cal slides down steep cliffs.
A dozen times, Cal has to slide down steep inclines and leap across platforms. I slid down muddy inclines only to leap and wall run along trees then grab a vine. I surfed icy slopes through cold caverns, jumping from one icy slide to the next. Every single platform slide sucked. The controls loosen when I slid, making it hard to take turns. I’d often get tossed off the side of a ledge, the camera becoming unusable as I tried to hug a corner. I’d die and respawn, only to go off the ledge again.
Not every jump was easy to make, not because I missed the jump but because, it seems, the proper jumping animation wouldn’t trigger. When Cal jumps at the end of a slide, it propels him forward and he lands on the next bit of the environment. If I didn’t time the jump properly, I wouldn’t perform this forward jump but would rather do my normal, pitiful, leap into the air. Without that forward momentum, I’d plummet to my death and have to do the whole thing over again. This happened a lot.
Despite these rough edges, Fallen Order is still a fun game. It’s the best Star Wars game I’ve played in a decade, but it's a shame that a game like Fallen Order feels unique and surprising. We used to play small, weird ass Star Wars games, big-budget games with strange ideas that played with the canon, and heavily modded PC RTS games.
Growing up, I didn’t watch the Star Wars movies much, but I played a lot of video games. The LucasArts developed games of the 1990s and 2000s was an embarrassment of Star Wars riches. In TIE Fighter, I soared through the galaxy while uncovering a plot against the Empire. In Dark Forces and Jedi Knight, I learned the ways of the force alongside Kyle Katarn. The third act twist of Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic still gives me chills.
That’s all done now and what we’re left with is EA. After Disney purchased Star Wars from George Lucas in 2012 and signed an exclusivity deal with EA in 2013, LucasArts shut down and turned the keys of the Star Wars video game kingdom over to EA and its focus on FIFA-scale monetization. Which gave us Battlefront I and II, and in-game purchases so sleazy that lawmakers and the mainstream press took notice.
It’s only in this context that Fallen Order, a slightly janky Metroid-inspired action game, feels so fresh and exciting. Traveling the universe and mowing through Imperial forces with a lightsaber feels wonderful, but it also feels like the bare minimum we should expect from a Star Wars game.
It’s fun, and I liked it, but it’s disappointing to see Star Wars shrink its video game horizons as its film and television series widens the franchise’s scope. Fallen Order feels great in the context of what Star Wars games have become. Enjoying it feels like settling. For me, Star Wars was always about the video games. The movies were something my parents enjoyed, the books and comics something my friends told me about. The games were my place to retreat into a galaxy far far away. And more than that, because they were working in a new medium, the early games felt like they could expand into strange places that films wouldn’t go. Now, with The Mandalorian and The Last Jedi, it feels like Disney is pushing boundaries while EA looks to the past.