My review of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order opened with the loosely posed question of who understands Star Wars. It’s an imprecise exercise to ask this about any artwork but perhaps doubly so for something as monolithic and impactful as Star Wars. Yet, despite decades of films, books, television series and video games, and countless interpretations by fans across the globe (and generations), the core of Star Wars has remained relatively unchanged.
The ideological and emotional foundations for the series still being so firmly in place today comes down to stewardship. Creator George Lucas, who oversaw the franchise from inception until 2012, fundamentally knew what Star Wars was about. When he handed over the keys to the kingdom to producer powerhouse Kathleen Kennedy, it was done so with the knowledge that Kennedy too understood what Star Wars was about.
As a lifelong Star Wars fan, and radical advocate for the narrative potential of video games, I found Fallen Order’s inability to say anything impactful about the actual MEANING behind Star Wars to fall more on the “missed opportunities” side than outright failure. After all, translating any part of the series’ largely pacifist teachings into an action-focused game and pulling it off, even slightly, is in and of itself a triumph.
However, there remains a dissonance between subject matter and gameplay mechanics.
To remedy this divide would require a harsh, but not unachievable, recontextualising of the game’s mechanics and story focus. Fallen Order may fall short of being a truly meaningful Star Wars story but its goal is in sight.
There was almost the perfect Star Wars game made here.
(Spoilers for Fallen Order, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker below)
Height Of The Republic
In a time when new Star Wars content is seemingly as plentiful as hot takes about that new Star Wars content, it can be easy to slip into a capitalist ennui over the state of the long-running franchise. Fan lethargy aside, Disney didn’t fork out four billion dollars for the rights to George Lucas’ prolific baby to NOT pump out content year after year.
It can be overwhelming. Between the films, books, comics and video games; there has never been this much Star Wars. But even if you choose to only engage with the mainstream movie releases you’ll notice an almost slavish devotion to core themes running throughout.
For as much as I adore it, I could never argue that Star Wars is all that subtle. While I find critical voices decrying it as strictly for children to be too harsh, the truth of the series is that it IS for children AS WELL AS adults and every age demographic in between. It’s the universal story, it’s our modern mythology through which we impart values to new generations and as such, it usually swings pretty wide with its stories.
Chief among these recurring themes are Star Wars staples like redemption, the bonds between family both blood and chosen, and the all-encompassing power of love.
This is seen most predominately in the recently concluded Skywalker Saga films as, surprising no-one, the wayward son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, Ben Solo, found redemption like his grandfather before him. Sequel trilogy hero Rey finds a new home among her found family of friends in the Resistance and once again, a fascist empire crumbles around them.
Ex-stormtroopers are united, the Force is democratised even further and, ultimately, love wins out. It’s somewhat rote, of course, but a thematically consistent echo of concepts found throughout all of Star Wars.
It’s Like Poetry…
In most franchises, the repeated iteration of the same narrative structures would earn a raised eyebrow and doubts about its creative strength but Star Wars occupies a unique place in pop culture mythology. It continues to tell the same story at large to generations of fans and creators, a reflection of the eternal struggle between light and dark we face every day in reality. Over time, as our world has grown more nuanced and the morally grey areas emerged, so too did Star Wars begin reflecting this.
Not just the films either; Claudia Gray’s 2015 novel Lost Stars tracks the lives of two lovers splintered by ideologies as one rises within the ranks of the Empire and the other the Rebellion. It provides a fascinating, layered account of how someone could fall to the dark side and how empathy and love can heal the divide. Or the recent Disney+ streaming series The Mandalorian, which despite its tendency to rely too heavily on certain Western tropes, is making efforts to expand on traditional ideas of masculinity, fatherhood and identity.
This matters because Fallen Order had a plethora of stellar stories and themes to emulate and echo. As such, it’s not how liberally Fallen Order leans into the cyclical/poetic rhythm of the grander Star Wars myth, but rather what it fails to say about its place in the larger story.
Intentional or not, the overarching plot and much of the character work of Fallen Order can be found in the latest trilogy of films, most significantly in the divisive Episode VIII, The Last Jedi. Fallen Order largely operates as a gender-flipped reworking of saga leads Rey and Kylo Ren’s contentious, Force infused dynamic.
A plucky young Jedi must learn the ways of the Force from a Master who has turned away from the light after their mistake resulted in a former pupil turning to the dark side and donning a Vader-esque suit and mask in an attempt to hide their trauma.
Fallen Order or The Last Jedi?
The answer is yes.
Which isn’t inherently an issue. The benefits of having a pop myth like Star Wars is that it can be told, again and again, each time giving new creative voices the chance to add layers to its rich complexity. But Fallen Order’s place within the cycle is hampered somewhat by game mechanics that undercut its thematic work (more on that later) and a failure to explore the potential of its additions to the mythology.
Across The Stars, Again
Much has already been said about Fallen Order’s lead Cal Kestis following the infamous assertation from the game’s director that they didn’t pursue a more diverse character because Star Wars already had a girl lead. Granted this is a much more meta-textual look at how Fallen Order fails to develop the mythology but it is symptomatic of a larger issue with Cal across the game as a whole; he feels designed to say nothing new.
Cal’s trauma, the loss of his master during the Order 66 Jedi purge fives years before the game begins, operates in a largely blank slate way, neatly relegated to exposition dumps between missions. The flashbacks to his training days as a child are almost exclusively used as tutorials for new Force powers, a solid idea in concept but in execution these moments are quite literally boxed off from the main narrative, offering no insight into Cal or his dynamic with his former master.
Despite having the luxury of dozens of hours with the character, Fallen Order never quite manages to tap into him as deeply as the films do with Rey’s abandonment and search for identity and place.
Untapped potential is a problem which permeates much of Fallen Order‘s character work as we move beyond Cal to the supporting women throughout the game. Cere Junda, the former Jedi Knight whose “mistakes” would cause the fall of her padawan Trilla to the Dark Side, ostensibly offers Star Wars the much-needed opportunity to explore feminity and motherhood through the Force.
Sisterhood Of The Travelling Lightsaber
Throughout the films and supporting materials, the Jedi Master and Padawan dynamic has been used to explore brotherhood and fatherhood, but rarely ever their feminine counterparts. This blind spot in the overarching Star Wars narrative, paired with Cere’s specific trauma over her role in the creation of Second Sister and how she must redeem herself for it, SHOULD have been…more. As it is, Fallen Order rarely prods deeper than the surface level of her journey.
This lacklustre approach to character work works doubly so for our antagonist, fallen Jedi turned Sith Inquisitor Trilla, or Second Sister if you’re feeling precocious. Operating as the game’s answer to Kylo Ren, Trilla was primed to explore internal darkness born from (figurative) parental abandonment and ideological disillusionment with the Jedi Order. Like Cal and Cere before her though, the potential depth of her character is ignored in favour of grand, but emotionally empty moments.
Sometime in the first act of the game, Cal and Trilla are locked into a duel before being separated by a literal barrier. Disengaging from him, Trilla removes her helmet and tells Cal of Cere’s role in her fall to the Dark Side.
Her master had given up her location to the Sith after extensive torture.
Unlike Luke’s role in the creation of Kylo Ren, in which we see a man actively choose the wrong path out of fear and desperation to protect what he loves, Cere’s is dulled at the edges, an entirely understandable and narratively safe reason for her mistake.
This exchange between Cere’s two pupils, though acted and imbued with dramatic tone, never manifests as relevant to the events of the game. Trilla warns Cal of Cere’s self-interests, her weakness, but the game neatly packages this away when Cal confronts Cere with the truth later. It was her gravest mistake, her biggest regret, and it won’t happen again. And so it doesn’t…another thread left in the wind by a game intent on pushing you on to the next action sequence.
Fallen Order, for all it’s potential and new layers to the grander mythology of Star Wars goes so far as to walk up to the mic, open its mouth, but never utter more than a polite whisper.
The Jedi Way
Where Fallen Order wall runs headlong into its biggest issue is in the awkward moulding of grander Star Wars ideas to its core gameplay loop. There is evidently an attempt at cohesion present in the game; several extended sequences utilise non-violent gameplay to both physically and metaphorically explore the world of Star Wars in fun, often stunning ways. What plagues Fallen Order is its use of the “SoulsBorne” formula through which repetitive, violent combat becomes the core loop of the experience and undermines much of the game’s more subtle work.
Which is a shame because when Fallen Order locks into thematic resonances with its mechanics it becomes the best Star Wars game ever made. Take for example the playable Force Vision sequences in which you need to navigate Cal through a dream-like realm in which the Force is trying to show him some deeper truths. There aren’t many of these in the game but they bridge the gap between player and ethereal sci-fi/fantasy concepts; a hands-on tour of a Jedi’s mystical connection to the beyond.
Or for players looking for something a little more involved, Fallen Order’s exploration mechanics serve as fertile ground for beautiful, pacifist adventures through the galaxy. Cal will run and climb his way through ancient tombs and cursed caves throughout the game but the peak of this exploration comes on his second visit to the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk. Cal is tasked with climbing the Origin Tree, a gargantuan piece of mystical plant life that the Wookies hold in high spiritual regard. The climb up the tree is filled with platforming puzzles, alternate pathways to explore and a genuine sense of wonder.
Hate Leads To Suffering
But Fallen Order’s action game design ethos is near-constantly running interference on the game’s quiet moments. Despite the spiritual significance of the Origin Tree and the naturalistic nature of the Wookies, Cal will still spend much of the climb endlessly slicing through native lifeforms, lest the player forgets how badass it is to wield a Lightsaber.
It’s entirely at odds with not just the game’s narrative but also the overarching ideology of the Jedi. “A Jedi uses the force for knowledge and defence never for attack” is a lesson Fallen Order skips entirely.
It’s not the first, or last, time in the game Cal will mow through swaths of native animal life either. Fallen Order’s violence is pervasive and recklessly applied to every scenario with one notable exception being the final confrontation with Darth Vader; though even then the lesson is not to be passive, but to run if you can’t hit harder than your opponent.
I can’t help but wonder what kind of game we could have gotten if the inspiration for the game’s action sequences was taken from something more focused like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice rather than a SoulsBorne?
Hellblade is not remotely shy about its violence but its use throughout the game is pointed and almost always reinforces the narrative. Combat is deliberate and methodical but not without fun and engagement of the player’s skills, highlighting the intensity of one on one duels with equally matched opponents.
I noted in my review of Fallen Order that its combat is at its best when Cal is forced into focused duels with other sabre-wielding enemies and in this regard, there is a direct line between what the two games achieve through combat. If Fallen Order had instead opted for violence only through specific instances instead of constant, mindless killing, then maybe its combat could have achieved the same thematic synchronicity as its exploration.
Luminous Games Are We
It’s important to note I make these criticisms from a purely artistic point of view; it isn’t entirely fair to lay this at the feet of a game that needed to perform financially the way this one did. EA’s handling of the Star Wars license had backed it into a corner where the only logical way out was to craft an experience which would appeal to as many fans as possible, a guaranteed success after the dismal reception of Battlefront II and cancellation of the hugely anticipated Amy Hennig project.
Nothing sells like action and bombast (not a judgement call here, I adore both of those things) and so a cinematic, combat-heavy riff on the equally popular Dark Souls style game was an organic choice.
It has clearly paid off too, as the game reaches phenomenal sales numbers and has been largely received quite well among critics and fans alike. Respawn deserves the praise it has received; for all my faults with the game, I can’t say I entirely hated my time with it.
But I can’t help but mourn for what could have been, the depths that Fallen Order could have mined, had it just been more focused on what it was saying and how it said it.