Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Review
Respawn's named-by-marketing Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a game that impresses and frustrates in almost equal measure. Here's an ambitious third-person action game that tells an engaging and at times moving story set five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith, when the Jedi Order was purged and the Republic gave way to the Empire. Rather than merely emulating the linear cinematic action of an Uncharted but with droids and lightsabers, Fallen Order makes an earnest effort to blend the usual ledge-climbing and flashy set pieces with simplified versions of the combat and progression from Dark Souls and the ability-based exploration of a Metroid. On paper, these elements add up to one of the most elaborate and original Star Wars games in a very long time, but poor performance, a multitude of minor bugs, and a pervasive sense that swaths of the game are just lacking in refinement all undermine what would otherwise be an easy game to recommend.
Unsurprisingly, Fallen Order assumes a familiarity with all six of the original Star Wars films and situates itself squarely between the two trilogies, drawing far more influence from the prequels than any of the movies produced under Disney's imprimatur so far. Cal Kestis was but a wee padawan when Order 66 directed the Republic's clone troopers to slaughter their Jedi commanders, and since that time he's grown into a young man while working as a lowly scrapper on a junk planet and doing his best to evade the Empire's attention. When a life-or-death accident forces him to use his latent Jedi powers, Cal invites the wrath of the Imperial inquisitors tasked with hunting down the remaining Jedi "traitors," and before long he finds himself on the run with Cere, a lapsed Jedi herself with a vague past and a burning desire to restore the vanquished order, and her pilot Greez, a gruff four-armed alien that comes off sort of like a neurotic New York cabbie. The spry little droid BD-1, who hitches a ride on Cal's shoulder and acts like a skeleton key for any technical obstacles you run into, also becomes a pretty endearing character in its own right.
The ensuing quest sends you in pursuit of a MacGuffin-ish object and involves stock video game tropes like a trio of ancient tombs and the lost knowledge of a vanished civilization, but that generic setup is merely a backdrop to the real story, which is largely about revealing and attempting to heal the lingering wounds inflicted on the game's characters by the devastation of the Clone Wars and the Republic's collapse. Cal and Cere get the bulk of the screentime here, but there's depth to nearly all the supporting characters, even the primary antagonist; the oppressive reign of the Empire has been cruel to all of them, and each is desperately searching for purpose, redemption, vengeance or power in a harsh and chaotic galaxy. The game has a good grasp of the larger-than-life, mythical themes that underpin Star Wars, and for my money touches on a couple of The Last Jedi's ideas in particular with more coherence and subtlety than that movie did. In particular, Fallen Order specializes in flashbacks and dream sequences, so often the tedious bane of good video game storytelling. Here, Respawn uses the game's technology to play around with shifting environments and a blend of past, present, and future in clever and evocative ways that feel unique and help sell the story's themes and personal drama. It's refreshing just to get a glimpse of this little-seen era of Star Wars in the first place, let alone with such great writing, acting, and narrative technique.
Fallen Order gives you command of Greez's humble ship the Mantis, which you use to navigate at will between roughly half a dozen planets as the story introduces them. While Cal's friends repeatedly signal in a slightly rote fashion that you're free to go wherever, whenever, there's really only ever one plot-relevant destination at a time, so you're better off simply following the objective indicator for the first few hours. The game's non-linear element comes into play once you start earning the standard Force powers like push and pull, which in addition to helping in combat will also give you access to new territory on the planets you've already visited. This is where the Metroid influence comes in, though it's as if Metroid slapped a big flashing neon sign on all of its hidden secrets. The game's elaborate 3D maps plaster glowing colored signposts on every point in the environment where exploration is or will become possible; if you see red, it means "Hey, you can't access this yet. Come back when it turns green." Even unexplored routes without any ability gating are marked with big flashing yellow indicators, so there's rarely any mystery about where you have or haven't been, although the larger multi-level maps are a little too busy to be easily parsed, and getting around the bigger locations before you've unlocked all the traversal abilities and with no fast travel can occasionally feel like a cumbersome chore.
In a game where I just wanted to move the story along and see what there is to see, I actually appreciated how blatant the map makes progression for the most part, though the value of the side content you're going back to find will largely be subjective, since the bulk of it consists of small areas containing minor collectibles like costume variations and snippets of lore. The game did make use of backtracking in a couple of more interesting ways that I encountered, though. In one case, I went back to explore an early planet on a lark and stumbled onto an extremely valuable combat upgrade-slash-piece of fan service with no real fanfare. Information from Respawn suggests all players will get that upgrade later on in the story in a different location, but finding it early and on my own initiative was frankly one of the more delightful moments I had playing the game. In another case, one seemingly minor pathway led to an entire crashed Star Destroyer that I spent an hour poking around in, solving puzzles and picking up little bits of contextual story and a couple of upgrades. The game tends to hide healing upgrades and Force and health meter extensions in these larger side areas, so there's at least some mechanical incentive to go back and look around. Fallen Order isn't a short game even if you blaze through the critical path, but poking around all these side areas was a big part of the appeal for me and led me to spend what felt like at least 30 hours with the game. All games should really start including hour counters though.
Some fuss has been made prior to release about Fallen Order's resemblance to Dark Souls, though the comparison turns out to be somewhat superficial. The loop upon arriving on a new planet is straightforward: explore the ancient tombs or jungle or Imperial dig site along a mostly linear path, unlock a few shortcuts that will let you skip a lot of that traversal the second time around, and press on to the next story beat. The game's bonfire stand-in is the meditation point, where you rest to cash in experience points on lightsaber moves, Force powers, and survivability, and also have the option of restoring your health and stim packs (the Estus flask equivalent) while respawning all the enemies you've killed. Reappearing enemies make contextual sense in Dark Souls and Bloodborne, which take place in lonely, dead worlds that exist somewhat out of time, where fighting the same fights over and over lends itself to the purgatorial feeling those games try to evoke. I found it a little odd to run into the same combat encounters over and over in a more traditional linear, narrative-driven game like Fallen Order, and the game itself seems to agree to an extent, since it plays fast and loose with which enemies do respawn and which ones don't as dictated by the events of the story. Still, Respawn deserves credit for drawing on multiple influences in this game and coming up with a welcome change of pace from the typical by-the-numbers licensed action game.
Fallen Order's combat is also a sort of Dark Souls-lite thing where you can lock onto enemies by clicking the right stick, and you and most melee enemies each have a block meter that needs to be whittled down with repeated strikes or well timed counters before you can get in and do some actual damage. Then the block meter refills on the stronger enemies and you do the whole thing once or twice more. (Any attempt at making your lightsaber as instantly deadly as it appears in the films goes right out the window in an attempt to provide the player an actual challenge.) There are plenty of Stormtroopers shooting straight up guns at you as well, though they're much more easily dealt with since the game is generous about letting you reflect projectiles right back at whoever shot them. Fallen Order certainly doesn't rise to a FromSoftware-like level of challenge, but it's tough enough that you'll need to get at least a basic grasp on dodging, parrying, and using Force powers to control groups of enemies, many of whom are protected by block meters and also have unblockable attacks themselves (which are thankfully signaled well in advance). The combat is usually at least serviceable and often even satisfying, though it doesn't have quite the elegant feel of a Souls game, where controls and character animations and visual feedback all harmonize to give you a sublime, instinctual connection to the challenge you're facing. The combat here also tends to collapse under its own weight and become a little annoying to manage when it throws you into encounters of six or eight enemies up close with even more shooting at you from off to the side.
There are of course climbing sequences and sliding sequences and scripted boss fights and the other sort of fluff you expect in a game with cinematic inspirations, and Fallen Order also provides the occasional reasonably clever puzzle-solving in some of the more dungeon spelunking-style areas. While none of these component parts quite rise to the level of the more focused games that inspire them, they mix well enough to be fun and engaging for the entirety of the lengthy run time, especially while propelled by the impressive quality of the storytelling. Where Fallen Order tragically falters is in that classically nebulous category, polish. Perhaps most glaringly, all versions of the game have a form of fairly severe stuttering that seems to happen when you move from area to area--presumably when the game is trying to load in new level assets--that causes the performance to slow to a crawl for a few seconds every time you run more than a couple of minutes in any direction. In a few places it also suffers badly, worse than I've seen in a while, from the Unreal Engine tendency to load in scenery and textures too slowly to keep up with the camera, and I actually saw textures unload and then load back in briefly in one scene.
Moreover, I ran into a multitude of minor bugs and unrefined elements too numerous to list here, but among them were a particular enemy type that I repeatedly caught in what looked like the quadrupedal-alien version of a T-pose, enemies disengaging and running away from me in the middle of a fight or "seeing" me and activating through a closed door (including, in the latter case, the game's last boss), a few unreliable interactions between Cal and traversal elements like zip lines and balance beams, a glitchy camera angle on respawn in the middle of a hectic action sequence, a number of erratic animations and some missing environmental sound effects, and a glaring bug where I was unable to wall run on the very first wall in the wall running tutorial. That last one happened on both PS4 and Xbox. To be clear, any one or two or even half a dozen of these quibbles wouldn't even be worth mentioning here, but they were pervasive enough to start chipping away at the experience I was having with what's otherwise a really enjoyable game, and they're particularly hard to ignore coming from companies as big as EA and Disney, and in a franchise as hallowed as Star Wars. As neither a game developer nor a member of Respawn I certainly can't pretend to know what led to the game shipping in this state, though the impending release of The Rise of Skywalker and the peak of the holiday shopping season are hard to ignore. My layman's impression is simply that the game would have benefited from a few more months in production. These problems can't be a surprise to anyone who made and tested this game, but of course time is what's required to actually fix them.
That's what frustrates me about Jedi: Fallen Order: It's good enough that its host of technical problems feels like an affront to what the game could have been, and to the hard work and talent--and there's a considerable amount of talent here--of the people who made it. Actually, looking back at the long history of Star Wars video games, the last time someone attempted a character-driven game in this franchise was The Force Unleashed II, and that was almost a decade ago. And I can't find another Star Wars game in the decades before that which brings together so many different elements and tells a unique story with as much gravity as this one. Now it's up to EA to give Respawn the chance to hammer out as many of these annoying imperfections as it can via post-release updates, and allow Jedi: Fallen Order to take its rightful place in the pantheon of all-time great Star Wars games.