Since being acquired by Disney in 2012 there has been a lot said about who does or doesn’t understand Star Wars. In the interim seven years, audiences have been treated to four films, the conclusion of one animated show and the introduction of two more, a high-budget streaming series (with several more to come) and an endless supply of rich, dense novels.
How successfully any single one of these creations understood Star Wars is still being discussed at length among the franchise’s mammoth fanbase. No matter where you fall in this discussion, however, the indisputable fact is that Star Wars is growing.
Not just in franchise terms but spiritually and intellectually also. With the changing of the creative leads on the iconic space fantasy series so too has a new wave of ideas been poured into its expanding scope. A noted absence from this lineup, however, is video games. The year after the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm the rights to developing video games for the company were exclusively signed away to EA.
The industry’s own Empire depending on who you ask. It would be safe to say EA’s stewardship of the IP has been a little chaotic as projects and teams have collapsed under the weight of delivering games to satisfy eager fans and expectant executives. So far two new Battlefront titles have been the only ones to make it to market and were met with harshly mixed reactions.
This long, messy road now leads us to Respawn Entertainment’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. A game with expectations heaped so heavily upon it that you can practically feel it straining under the pressure at any given moment. In its attempt to appeal to as many players as possible it hurriedly adopts trends from the industry at large, as well as echoes of past Star Wars tales, and patches it all together in a game that simply can not hide the seams.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Review
In Fallen Order, things are at their grimmest for the galaxy. The game is set five years after the fall of the Republic, an event of catastrophic proportions even by Star Wars’ dramatic standards. As democracy and justice are being washed away by the rise of the newly formed Galactic Empire so too are the bastions of hope, the Jedi, being eradicated in the infamous Order 66.
Fallen Order casts you as one of the few surviving Jedi padawans, Cal Kestis (portrayed with admirable restraint by Gotham actor Cameron Monaghan).
Cal was just a child when Order 66 came through, demolishing his entire world in seconds and leaving him to fend for himself in a galaxy which now feared and loathed his kind. An unfortunate consequence of the game opening years after the fall of the Jedi Order is that Cal’s traumatic experiences are only ever referenced in conversation and barely explored to a satisfying degree.
After an incident which exposes Cal’s Jedi nature to the Empire, he is rescued by former Jedi Master Cere and quippy pilot Greez. Some mildly rushed exposition later and the gang sets out across the galaxy to rebuild the Jedi Order and restore a spark of hope to the fight against the Empire. Fallen Order has the bones of an interesting setup, especially given its potential to play with recurring themes within the grander Star Wars mythology and lore, but at almost every step of the way, this potential is only ever a glimmer on the horizon.
Instead, Fallen Order plays things so safe that it becomes a facsimile of mythology, appropriating the words and aesthetics of a grander idea but failing to explore or express, the deeper meaning behind it. This is most evident in its telling of Cal’s story but permeates the rest of the cast of characters without exception.
It also extends into the gameplay which adopts the trappings of several popular franchises and subsequently does none of them enough justice. You can hear the cogs turning in Fallen Order and although it doesn’t stumble so hard as to do anything badly, it also fails to do anything of substance either.
Cal’s Jedi nature lends itself almost too cleanly to an action game as the simple act of swinging a lightsaber is in and of itself a blast. Many games across the decades have attempted to replicate the power fantasy of the iconic laser sword but few have ever mastered it entirely (many would argue it peaked way back in 2003 with Jedi Academy). At times, Fallen Order sets a new benchmark for lightsaber combat but can’t quite maintain the high across its 30-ish hour campaign.
Anyone who has played an action title during this generation will feel right at home picking up Fallen Order, for better or worse. Cal’s base move set includes your standard light attack and defensive block but as he gains experience through combat and exploration a wider skill tree opens up. The tree is split into several pathways (Saber moves, Force abilities etc) which allows for a certain degree of customisation during the first half of the game, though eventually, you’ll earn enough points to practically obtain all skills.
Fallen Order also lifts the basic rhythm of Dark Souls with a baffling system of checkpoints that reset enemies and heal Cal. There’s no in-game explanation given for these Force bonfires and without the ability to fast travel between, or the need to grind in areas for experience, their inclusion is a little mystifying.
While Cal’s arsenal of powerful skills can all be performed with relative ease, navigating combat encounters can get very stressful, very quickly. Fallen Order’s combat lands somewhere between the precision of a Dark Souls and the loose slashing of Zelda, a middle-ground about as fraught as it sounds. The bulk of the game you’ll be swinging through fairly stock standard encounters with either humanoid combatants (Stormtroopers and the like) or a slightly wider variety of alien creatures.
Big spiders, big worms and big…goats?).
These aren’t particularly thrilling combatants but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a big grin on my face seeing which series favourites I’d be facing next.
Duel Of The Fates
One or two enemies are manageable, especially if you’ve improved your Force skills and feel like tossing some space oppressors around. Once Fallen Order starts throwing multiple combatants at you however, the combat buckles under the pressure as the balance between defensive and aggressive play is thrown off by unrelenting attacks.
This can be mitigated somewhat by the game’s fantastic use of difficulty settings, which can be changed at any time from the menu. Each tier of difficulty explicitly shows you with a chart exactly how much it will impact gameplay, such as parry times. It doesn’t fix what’s unbalanced but it does make things more accessible.
Where Fallen Order’s combat comes alive is in the few instances of one on one duels. Relegated mostly to boss fights (of which there are far less than you’d like), going toe to toe with another Force user is engaging and oftentimes brutally difficult. It’s here, when Fallen Order pulls its focus, that you experience the full potential of the combat system as parrying, stamina management and Force abilities become an elegant dance of mechanics.
There is some button mashing which veers a little too close to The Force Unleashed territory and the difficulty spikes during later fights are drastic but the game was never as engaging as it was during these duels.
Fallen Order’s other core focus is on exploration and mobility, a successful reappropriation of Titanfall’s smooth movement abilities and the level design of a Metroid Prime as viewed through an Uncharted lens. Cal will need to balance, slide and leap his way through labyrinthian maps which typically offer multiple routes to take and secrets to discover.
The level design is far more concerned with this exploration functionality than in-universe logic, which means that many planets you visit feel like cartoonish obstacle courses rather than an actual place but hey, ludonarrative gotta dissonance.
Sometimes this works in the game’s favour, especially in locations that are much less colonised like forests or catacombs, but by the hundredth time you see the same climbable wall texture on every planet, it can make the galaxy feel incredibly small. Fortunately navigating these levels is a tightly crafted experience thanks to the weighty purposefulness of Cal’s controls and the mostly organic ways the levels snake back into each other.
The only time exploration falters completely is in the infrequent sliding sections that drop Cal onto a slippery slope and have you navigate the descent. These moments feature the worst controls of the game and geometry clipping issues, resulting in countless attempts to get them right.
Push and Pull
Levels also feature a small but steady supply of opportunities for Cal to use his Force abilities to solve puzzles and maneuver through obstacles. These are seldom head-scratchers, typically either requiring Cal to slow down a moving obstacle or awkwardly Force push an object into place, but were a welcome change of pace regardless.
Much like the boss fights, I just wish there had been more done here as solving issues using the Force, and not combat, is intrinsically Jedi and would have been a more fitting thematic gameplay choice than the copious enemy encounters.
Much has also been said about Fallen Order’s supposed freedom of choice when it comes to planet exploration but in practice, the galaxy map feels largely tacked on and unnecessary. Early on in the game I boarded my ship and was informed by Greez that this was my mission and as such I could decide where I wanted to begin. Two planets had appeared on my map, one of which was Dathomir, a fan favourite from the animated series’. I was thrilled to check out an explorable rendition of the cursed red planet but upon arrival, I was greeted by an icon on my map informing me that I would need to fly somewhere else to pursue the story.
The map is accessed from your ship, the Mantis, which also serves as the central hub environment for the game. On the Mantis, you’ll find a tool bench used to customise your lightsaber, which can be tweaked to suit your style of metal, switch, sleeve and more.
It’s a degree of customisation that runs through the bulk of the game as Cal’s poncho, the paint job on your loyal (amazingly cute) droid BD-1, as well as the Mantis itself can all be given custom skins.
Where Fallen Order ultimately falls hardest is its uninspiring take on telling a Star Wars story. This is arguably the darkest period in the Star Wars timeline as the galaxy crumbled under oppression and light is slowly but surely being snuffed out. It’s a plight of literal galactic proportions and every character in Fallen Order has been touched by it in one way or another. It is ripe with opportunities for character studies, Jedi/Sith lore expansion and even exploration of PTSD and masculinity through a mythological lens.
Unfortunately, Fallen Order goes only so far as to pay lip service to these concepts, content to tell you it’s saying something without actually saying anything. Cal never feels like a fully realised protagonist as he is dragged along by a plot that barely threads the game’s disparate events together. I never got the impression Cal entirely understood why he was doing the things he was doing, another potential point of tension the game skims over in service of a story so cheesy and morally unambiguous you’ll probably predict the whole thing after the first hour of play.
The weakness of the script can be felt in all aspects of the game but perhaps none more evident than Cere (played by Debra Wilson who is trying her best with what she has). Star Wars, as both mythology and pop culture product, has a complicated relationship with motherhood, so when Fallen Order announced that Cal’s primary source of support would be an older woman, hopes were high that this would give audiences a unique and sorely needed dynamic.
In this regard, the kindest interpretation of events is that Fallen Order doesn’t realise quite how good it has it with Cal and Cere until it’s too late. Their relationship suffers from an awkwardly rushed start and some pseudo-morality woes in the second act before finally touching on the potential depth only in the last few hours of the game.
Sister Where Art Thou
Meanwhile, the heavily marketed Second Sister, a Sith Inquisitor (Vader’s elite soldiers who track down Force-sensitives), is…well, underutilised is about as much as I can say without diving into spoilers. The performance given by actress Elizabeth Grullon is utterly captivating though, ensuring Second Sister’s place in fandom for years to come.
There are echoes of an interesting dynamic between her and Cal present here, especially after their first proper clash, but her absence during much of the middle portion of the game is sorely felt. Worse still, there are moments in Fallen Order that replicate visual language and story beats from recent Star Wars films in a way that is neither satisfying as homage or adaptation. Reiteration of themes and dynamics across the franchise are common but typically done in such a way as to add new layers of meaning to each new interpretation. Fallen Order neatly recreates certain moments but rarely with any added complexity or commentary we haven’t’ seen before.
This isn’t to say there isn’t an earnest attempt at greatness here; it’s evident that the people behind Fallen Order have a huge deal of affection for Star Wars. There are fleeting glimpses at something truly special buried in there, moments that speak to the heart of Star Wars through the game’s mechanics in a way that, at least once, took my breath away.
One particular sequence on an iconic forest planet brought me to tears while another used the Force, and camera perspective shifts, so effectively I’m still chilled by it now. These moments, however fleeting, count for something but Fallen Order is always in such a rush to get back to “cool” things that it fumbles the well earned dramatic currency of its best moments.
Fallen Order’s issues with consistency can be seen in the game’s visuals too, as a jaw-dropping opening gives way to something far less polished. The first couple of hours in Fallen Order are genuinely awe-inspiring from a graphical standpoint. The game is firing on all cylinders here as animation and sound design interlock in such perfect ways you’d be forgiven for thinking this was an animated feature film. It’s a level of fidelity that Fallen Order is forever chasing afterwards though, occasionally catching it again only to have it slip away in a landslide of muddy textures and stiff character animations.
The game is much more successful when emulating the aesthetics of Star Wars. It’s the ultimate vibe check for any new entry into the canon; does it nail the glow of the lightsaber in a dark room? Do the Imperial klaxons reverberate in your chest? Does it feel sufficiently gritty enough while also indulging in the gleam of a fairy tale?
Fallen Order does all of this while expanding on high fantasy visual elements and architecture. Technical missteps aside, this game is a visual treat.
Of course, it wouldn’t mean much if composers Gordy Haab and Stephen Barton hadn’t delivered with the game’s incredible score. Their work feels like an organic extension of John Williams’ while also feeling uniquely new, no small achievement on their part. Fallen Order‘s score opens with sombre, existential tones and moves from strength to strength, often doing much of the heavy lifting during dramatic sequences.
For all of its flaws, the art direction and score for the game are solid as a slab of carbonite.
The Last Jedi
With the noteworthy exception of its aesthetics, no single element of Fallen Order feels fully realised. Combat rests too often on bland, unbalanced encounters while ignoring the potential depths of its duels, and exploration feels good but the worlds themselves emerge underdeveloped and disjointed. Both of which are issues I could easily overlook in service of a good Star Wars story but Fallen Order fails to deliver anything we haven’t seen before, only now slightly worse thanks to an unfocused script.
There are pockets of joy and engagement in Fallen Order, but ultimately it feels like a game developed a long time ago, before Star Wars moved on to brighter galaxies far, far away from this.
Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order was reviewed on PS4 using a digital code provided by EA.
Game Title: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Game Description: Dive into a galaxy far, far away as Cal Kestis, one of the few remaining Jedi who sets out to restore hope to the galaxy and revive the fallen Jedi Order.